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Hi, I’m Magesto. Let’s go kill some kobolds!

Posted By Scott Martin On April 15, 2009 @ 6:28 am In GMing Advice | 19 Comments

Raistlin50201 has a good question:

How do you get your player to meet the first time?

I have been in a few dozen campaigns myself and am GMing one. In most that I played, I was in military situations so we were just ordered together as a unit. I also often hear of the classic “You meet in a tavern and decide to travel together” stuff. For my campaign I tried to instead get everyone caught up in a mystery. Once it was solved, they were together and were familiar with each other and decided to stick as a group.

Do you have any suggestions on what hooks/actions to use to bring together the players realistically? I would prefer to let the players come together on their own than just say, you are a group.

Thanks for any help or suggestions.

I have tried a number of solutions, some quite successful, some much less so. I’ll lay out some of techniques I’ve tried below and we can figure out what works and why.

GM Led Party Formation

In Media Res

In one successful D&D game, we created characters but didn’t create a backstory for the characters. Instead, we started on the scene of the adventure, leaving town to solve a problem. Bandits had been ambushing caravans, and kobold raiders were lairing nearby.

This works by deferring the problem. In this case you skip past the “meeting each other” scene and start off assuming the PCs have accepted the job and are on their way to tackle it. This can be very helpful in avoiding some traps that some players build themselves into– like creating characters that never join the group. This also lets you start with something exciting– like combat. It also preserves the character introductions for later, after the players are used to their PCs. (Dragons of Autumn Twilight uses this idea to good effect.)

You can always run a “flashback” scene later, and play out the characters meeting each other for the first time after character concepts and relations are finalized. Much like in a TV show, this has the advantage of skipping past a talky scene with weakly developed characters and coming back to it when everyone has a better grasp of their character.

Group Membership

As you suggested in your question, mandating that the characters are a part of an organization is a great way to logically explain why they hang out. This can work well in any setting; PCs can all be childe of one vampire, members of an elite group of government investigators, police working the same beat. Similarly, in a fantasy game, players can all be members of a secret order, guards of the city, champions of the church, or even members of an “adventuring guild”. If you’re playing in the future, they can be the crew of the one Battlestar left in the universe, part of a group resisting the Empire, members of the same swoop gang, or whatever organization makes sense. (I’m a big fan of Morgan Teams.)

If you run with this style of game, everyone has a good reason for working together– they joined the group for a reason, after all. Some character concepts can be squished a bit trying to fit into the mold. Keep an eye out for player discomfort with the organization and allow exceptions if the player proposes an equally strong bond in its place. (Perhaps the character works for Internal Affairs and is on long term assignment to the branch to root out corruption. Or the PC is the mayor’s liaison to the police. I’m sure many similar ideas come to mind.)

Family is a great kind of group tie, as the Amber book series demonstrates.

Group Geas

A group Geas is a way to bind very different characters together. This is a close variation of being a member of the same group– instead, you have wildly different members bound together by a magic or technology. This usually presupposes an overall organization, but you can come up with other explanations. The PCs might be bound by crippled cyberware (cortex bombs for everyone!), an addiction to a drug with only one source, magic, GPS bracelets, etc. This type of game is particularly liable to fall apart once the underlying geas is solved, so have a backup plan in mind if they do solve the issue that binds them.

A group quest, like heading to a volcano and tossing in a ring, is very similar. If destiny requires everyone survive to save the world, you can probably put up with them even when you’re biting your tongue and wishing for different companions.

Restricted Setting

If you’re playing a prison drama, the characters are going to interact directly and indirectly. You probably won’t get “party play”, but with a setup like this you’re probably not looking for it. This setup ensures frequent interaction– and even when the characters are separate, their situation probably impacts or reflects on the other characters. This is like “unrelated characters” below, with constraints to ensure they interact. (A murder mystery in a remote area, aboard a train, or on an airship, is another good restricted setting.)

On the GM’s shoulders

While this isn’t a good technique, I have used it to mixed effect. Basically, the players create their characters in isolation, then play through a prologue where the GM forces them together. This can be great for maximizing the flexibility and preserving the individuality of the characters, but it can break down. The players should agree to “bend” their characters toward working as a group.

This approach is often damaged by players “playing their characters uncompromisingly”. GMs need to be particularly careful about making sure that the PCs won’t conflict (the old Paladin/Assassin problem) and that no character is a loner who will wander away as soon as the first adventure is over. The GM should be clear that it is the player’s responsibility to accept the group, or you’ll spend half your time getting them to go on the adventure! Make sure that they leave you and themselves an out when they say, “But that’s what my character would do,” if they are doing something that will make the game less fun for you and everyone at the table.

Player Led Party Formation

Interlinked Backgrounds

One of my favorite campaigns seemed to fall into place naturally, with just a little extra effort during character generation. During character creation, I had each character create two links to other PCs. So the characters knew each other in different degrees, but when the story began (with the murder of an NPC a couple of them knew), their independent investigations got them in trouble and they reached out for support. The group came together organically, in response to a chain of “calling for help” and responses dragging the PCs into hot water together.

Group Character Creation

Set up a whole session to discuss character concepts and backgrounds. Everyone comes out of the session with a good idea as to what each character is going to be like, and you can work together– without stats to distract you– to come up with common histories. You can also make sure that your characters will work together in the game rules, and won’t step on each other’s toes.

Look out for independent clusters of PCs that only share one or two PCs in common. Murphy’s Law means that the character holding the group together is the one who will die first and the remaining characters will want to break into two independent groups. If you see characters whose interest in the group hinges on only one character, make sure the player has a reason to keep them involved if something happens to the link character.

Character Stables

In Dark Sun, players each create a stable of characters– several apiece, often of different levels. Make them members of a common organization, and each week you pick the most appropriate characters and play the week’s quest. If one player’s missing this week, shift to another set of characters in another city. This works well if the expanation for the stable is flexible and large– say, the military of a country, or most of the ideas listed under Group Assignment above.

Similarly, your stable of characters could just be the adventuring inhabitants of an area. This is a great backdrop for a West Marches style game.

Unrelated Characters

Several games are made to work with characters that rarely share the same scene, but still keep everyone involved. This is typically done by aligning the story so they’re all struggling with the same foe or issue, even if they never join together. This works best if the players all enjoy OOC knowledge and exploring an issue from different sides. You can generate a lot of “aha” moments that the players as audience will appreciate, even though their characters aren’t interacting.

Your Group Formation

That’s a lot of ways you can get characters together, but I bet you have even better ideas. Please share them with Raistlin and me in comments!

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Hi, I’m Magesto. Let’s go kill some kobolds!"

#1 Comment By Rafe On April 15, 2009 @ 8:59 am

‘In media res’ works quite well. I used that for my short-lived D&D 4e game. Everyone had to have a tie to a particular region, for whatever reason. The game started with them all heading south with the villagers of that region — they were all refugees looking for greener pastures and the party members were either in the refugee train or helping to escort it. It came together nicely. The first game, we only had a single fight. The rest of the 5-hour game was all roleplaying:

Human warlord who was the son of that region’s lord (in cognito) but, as a teen, had been known to the eladrin ranger. (who rolled a natural 20 on perception to recognize the disguised lord he hadn’t seen in 10 years) A human rogue was part of the refugees and no one liked her due to her father’s reputation, so she tended to hang out with the ranger and the warlord, who were themselves outcasts of a sort. Etc.

That said, the separate characters forced together scenario tends to feel pretty contrived unless the players really have fun with it. Knowing one another prior to the game’s start is usually best, though I like to have less “all together” connections; ex: Player A knows Player B, and Player B knows Player C who is good friends with Player D. Some great connections there but it isn’t “we’re a gang of equally-good friends.” There can still be some suspicion and/or lots of potential to build trust and have fun with furthering or developing camaraderie.

#2 Comment By Lord Inar On April 15, 2009 @ 9:21 am

For Group Membership, Shaintar (for Savage Worlds) does a nice job of it by having the characters start out as “Grayson’s Gray Rangers” who are known as protectors in the land. It also helps “grease the wheels” so every village is not an exercise in pastoral paranoia.

As to interlinked backgrounds I usually only need one, because I help direct it. Once I know all of the characters, I can usually see one or two easy links (i.e.”You two are brothers/cousins”, “She rescued you from being sold at auction”, “Both of your villages were raided by Orcs of the Blue Spear”). Players often then jump in with their own suggestions, which I can modify based on the world.

The nice thing is that I can create hooks that I’ll probably use later as well as provide some in-world continuity. If someone doesn’t like the suggestion, they can always veto it, be we don’t start that first session until we know how everyone is connected. It could have the problem of the “breaking linchpin effect” but since the I’m directing it, I can somewhat prevent clustering.

The main caveat is that I need to know the world a little bit better than I might normally otherwise need to on that first session, but since world-building is one of my favorite parts, it isn’t a problem.

Also, I think this would be nice to have distributed through the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter: http://www.roleplayingtips.com

#3 Comment By decadence On April 15, 2009 @ 10:21 am

For the campaign that I am about to begin, my players have varying degrees of interest in creating backstories for their characters (some have basically NO interest).

What I did was create several plot hooks that ultimately lead them to the same destination. They all start off the adventure traveling to the same place, but with different intentions/quests. I intend to have them all meet on the battlefield, as one of the PCs will be ambushed on his journey, just as the other two are approaching the scene from their respective paths.

This sets up a situation where they can all get started off with a bang (combat), while possibly developing a relationship with each other in battle or after the battle’s completion.

Since they are all heading to the same place, it seems natural that they would travel together. At that point it’s up to the PCs (and the townsfolk) to decide which minor quest to pursue first, or at all.

Any feedback on this approach would be greatly appreciated, as this is my first time ever playing or DMing. It seems like it would work well, with the only potential drawback being if the characters do not want to work together to pursue their individual quests (although I do intend to have their individual quests somewhat overlap with each other’s to give them more incentive to complete each quest).

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On April 15, 2009 @ 10:52 am

@Rafe – Yeah, In Media Res is a great way to get to the action and fill in later. You got to the discussion quickly, but it sounds like it really worked for your group.

I agree that the “strangers forced together” is a little cliche… but I’m awfully tolerant of cliche.

@Lord Inar – GGG sounds like a good group membership… and loose enough that you could even run a whole stable of characters under that banner, if that’s the play style you were looking for.

Your interlinked backgrounds sound neat and organic. I’m glad to hear that you haven’t had any problems with splintering.

@decadence – The only drawback I forsee you’re already contemplating. During character generation, you’ll have to make sure that the PCs can all stand each other (so you don’t have a Paladin and an Assassin wondering why they’re traveling together). You should also tell the players directly that they should “bend” their characters towards working together– loners aren’t a good fit for this game. Otherwise you risk one PC shadowing the others, or wandering off alone, because “that’s what they’d do”.

#5 Comment By Rafe On April 15, 2009 @ 11:33 am

@decadence – As Scott said, it’s fine to have some meta-game discussion about the fact they ought to be working together. That’s a social contract matter and is pretty important. However, some of that needs to filter down to the character level. Make sure the “bang” is actually enough to get them working together. It needs to make sense for both the players (easily done) as well as the characters. I would suggest an enemy or opposition that is common to all of them, or a skill challenge that emerges very soon after they encounter one another: A rope bridge is down, they need to work together to find a way across; a cliff needs to be scaled and only a few have climbing gear — anything that allows for “the more, the merrier” kind of encouragement and allows them to demonstrate various complementary skills.

I would also suggest pairing them up: PCs A and C know one another and/or are traveling companions for this particular venture. PCs B and D… the same. If there’s a fifth, let him or her be solo. This eliminates the chances of A getting along well with B, C and D… but not E.

Regardless, make sure there’s a good solid “bang” for the party to come together around/against.

#6 Comment By Sarlax On April 15, 2009 @ 11:46 am

I’m running a Ghouls game now (the 4 PCs are ghouls enthralled to vampire masters in 1983 Atlanta) and the group was built with a mix of methods.

We sat down for group character creation and everyone tossed ideas around. From that night, only one character went through a major change; the rest held fairly true to their initial concepts. Two PCs are partnered detectives, one of those detectives plays poker in a club owned by the other, and the final PC had light contact with all three others in the past.

Interlinked backgrounds is obviously the hook for the detectives, but attaching the other two happened mostly prelude via GM’s Shoulders. I ran it round-robin style, with each PC (the detectives were always paired) usually getting their own scene before we switched, but many of those scenes brought in the others. The cops had to talk to the club owner, etc/

The nice thing about Ghouls is that it completely justifies the “Group Geas” concept. You’re all slaves to vampire masters, and those vampires are working together, so you all work together. The players aren’t artificially bonded to each other, so there’s plenty of room for inter-party dynamics, but they are bound to a common (if unknown) purpose.

#7 Comment By Timon On April 15, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

I “hard coded” a solution to this one, because I GM a game for my 10 year old son’s peers. I started them off on D&D 3.5 with pre-written backgrounds in which each of them was endebted to one of the others – the cleric had helped the wizard out when he was jumped by a wolf on the the road, the rogue had helped the fighter escape from the machinations of his baronial employer etc. Now we have converted to 4.0 I am getting them to create their own backgrounds and had them converge on two quest goals that end up in the same area. I added on a late-joining wizard by having her discovered half-stunned at the back of the kobold cave the party had just cleared.

#8 Comment By LesInk On April 15, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

Here are a couple of campaign starters for thought:

In one campaign, all the players were prisoners given the opportunity to get out and work for the Lord, but they would be given a magical tattoo that could be used to track them down if they ran. After they repaid their debt, they were to be then freed. The Lord then picked players he thought that would make a good tactical group to deal with another neighbor.

In another (evil) campaign, I experimented with the idea that 2 of the players would be high level characters given control with the rest of the party who were low level characters. The high level characters were given instructions to train the lower level characters and create a powerful team. Very interesting, but the inevitable happened (interparty fight when some of the low level characters saw an opportunity). That basically ended the campaign.

#9 Comment By LesInk On April 15, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

Come to think about it, the above two examples are ‘Group Membership’ examples, although forced.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 15, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

There are any number of reasons that very disparate individuals will band together. I would suggest letting the group find a reason or reasons that they are comfortable with, with possible guidance or input from the GM.

Some reasons will lead to a lasting bond, while others may be short lived (and possibly replaced by the bonding that a shared intense event can engender).

For instance:
You all grew up together, went to college together, served in the military together, worked together, attend the same church, volunteer at the same charity, etc.

You’re caught up in some kind of intrigue or mystery.

You share some common (overt or covert) aspect, secret, history, background, genetic material, etc.

You share a common value, like the willingness to stand between your lands and the BBEG, or a hatred of a common enemy.

Nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the call for heroes came, you were all that showed up.

You each represent a larger organization or region who have common interests.

FWIW, my next campaign will ask for background if it’s available, but the group will find themselves bound by something external (namely iron chains).

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On April 15, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

@Sarlax – You’re right, that’s a great example of a group geas. And they’re not even all bound to the same person, though they are a member of the same conspiracy.

@Timon – If you’re willing (or forced) to do the work of making the PC backgrounds, there are a lot of great things you can work in. I like your links– in a con game, putting characters at odds, in rivalries, in romances, and the like, all add depth to “party” play.

@LesInk – Did the first group make it to earning their freedom? If so, did they splinter when the tattoos were deactivated, or did it work out right and they had enough bond to stick with each other afterwards?

Your evil campaign’s collapse is the thing I’d try hardest to prevent. In retrospect, was there anything you could have done to keep the evil vibe and not have them swarm like sharks at the first sign of weakness?

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I prefer to have the players work out bonds, especially creative bonds like your examples, themselves. Group character creation can be a great time to develop that unifying cause.

Have you had any problem keeping PCs together if they were just brought together by chance– like when they solve the immediate thrust of “wrong place, wrong time”? Or is it pretty easy to sustain their relationships even after the intrigue or mystery is accomplished?

#12 Comment By Wordman On April 15, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

On the “Group Character Creation” vein, some games provide ways of intertwining the group as part of character generation. The best I’ve seen is the one used by Spirit of the Century, which uses certain steps for developing a character using the idea of a (non-existent) novel in which the character “stars” in one step and the other characters “guest star” in subsequent steps. With all the characters showing up in each other’s backstory, there is quite a bit to work with before the game even starts. (I’m not sure if this link will work, but this idea is spelled out in more detail on the FATE 3.0 SRD.)

For other games, as a player you can do things that help quite a bit in making the game better. An example (using one of the most “organic” group creations I’ve ever been in): our game started in a city. All PCs had worked out details of why were there individually prior to the game, and we all had a pretty clear idea of who our own character was (that’s tip one: know your character). What brought the group together was the performance of a “miracle” that many of us witnessed first hand. This, however, only formed a very cursory connection, essentially providing a reason for us to talk. What sealed it is how the players were true to their characters. On player, a priest, reacted with religious passion, wanting to make sure everyone knew what a miracle had just transpired and so on. He said something to the effect of “I should find a stone carver to make a plaque to commemorate this event.” As it happened, my character actually was a stone carver (although the other player did not know this), and this instantly provided a “second level” reason for us to connect, beyond the common event. So, tip two: it often pays to give your characters skills that would be practical in the game world, even if they are not practical in the game. Tip three: as a player in this kind of situation, look for that “second level” connection with the other players, especially if you are a gaming veteran and they are not. It can make a very long-reaching difference to the tone of the campaign.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 15, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

@Scott Martin – The “I’ve trusted these folks with my life” aspect seems to be enough to keep a party together after the initial mystery/adventure. After all, there’s a metagame reason to keep the party together.

#14 Comment By LesInk On April 15, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

@Scott Martin – Unfortunately, the campaign ended much sooner than expected due to real life problems (a few members moved out of state and other changed jobs with conflicting schedules).

As for the evil campaign collapse, the weaker players surprised me on the ‘when’ and took action before they were strong enough. Everything was going fine when one of the weaker players decided to take the high moral road out of the blue. Plus, once the Pandora Box was opened, trust could not be regained and everyone knew it. Because of the unexpected timing and the personalities of the characters, I don’t think anything could be done. (There was also a bad issue of the GM hitting burn out at the same time).

#15 Comment By Barvo Delancy On April 16, 2009 @ 3:09 am

The greatest trick I ever saw a DM use was he gave us the setting, and required extensive backgrounds – the only caveat being that our goal be some kind of revenge against his villain. The villain in his case was Sir Shaun, a con artist who masqueraded as a paladin that would grift entire towns of their fortunes. It worked brilliantly, characters who had no business getting along put aside all personal differences just for a chance at the bastard.

Personally, I tend to use “on GM’s shoulders” thoguh a little less crude. I wait until the PCs write their backgrounds and THEN write the plot for my game. This way everyone gets to feel loved and involved, rather than an audience for my story.Involves a hell of a lot of work though, especially when there’s a big split in terms of morals in the party. When it does work, it works well.

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On April 16, 2009 @ 10:29 am

@Wordman – I’m a big fan of Spirit of the Century (it’s the game I intend to run next), and you’re right, it’s a great method of structured group generation.

Developing a second level of ties goes a long way to making a group stick. I do prefer to hash that out– or at least bring it up– in advance, but it sounds like you’ve had success arranging it on the fly.

@Barvo Delancy – Sounds like your DM had a great trick. Did you ever get a chance at Sir Shaun, or did he avoid that because Sir Shaun was the only glue holding you together?

I applaud your work twining your group together– I know that I’ve had a few bad experiences, but the extra freedom in character can be heady!

#17 Comment By BryanB On April 16, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

This is a good article filled with solid advice.

Let me add that you should NEVER start a game where two PC’s are undercover and two PCs are not. Just DO NOT do this, unless circumstances will allow for the covers to be abandoned fairly early in the campaign.

It may sound cool and fun, and it was, but trying to manage the need to maintain cover identities can pose a real problem for game development over the long-term, particularly when the two who aren’t undercover are part of a well-known organization that usually operates in the open.

#18 Comment By Ada On April 16, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

For my next campaign, I plan to use a sort of combination of In Media Res and Group Geas. I’ll be running a campaign that hops between different fictional universes, a la Heinlein’s Number of the Beast. I’ll let each player roll up a character, and then during the first play session, BAM! I’ll drop them into S. M. Stirling’s Emberverse, shortly after the Change, and have a budding warlord mug them. If the warlord succeeds, they will probably band together to try to get their stuff back. And then we will play in that universe until it gets old, then they will zap to another one.

#19 Comment By GribbletheMunchkin On April 24, 2009 @ 7:15 am

I’ve got a campaign due to start and i’ve got a plan to put the group together.

Essentially their dnd-esque world is being conquored by a BBEG of unchallengable might who is killing off all living sentients and raising them for his undead army.

The players will all be magic users (mages, paladins, priests and druids) from orders that essentially run society.

The BBEG leads his armies against the last free city in the world where the PCs are defenders. At the last moment and as the walls begin to fall, the cities archmages throw the PCs and about 1000 civilians through the planes to a new world. BBEG then finishes conquering the city.

Hence the PCs are now in charge of what is left of civilization. The civilians look to them to lead them in founding a new society, exploring their new world etc. Given that all four orders are pretty much dedicated to serving the people (in one form or another) they all have motivation to work together.

Should be fun seeing how it turns out.


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