One of the perennial challenges of any role playing game comes up in the first few minutes or hours of a game: how do the PCs know one another? What binds them together? A strong link between the characters can do wonders to give a ‘reason’ for the PCs to work with one another in the face of great adversity. Absent a strong link the party risks fracturing when thrust into dire situations. While such fragmenting might be ‘realistic’ it can significantly take away from the fun of all the people playing.
Tropes like ‘you all meet in a bar’ or that begin with the party already formed are entirely appropriate for some game types such as organized play or one shot adventures. But longer campaigns can definitely benefit from a much stronger set of bonds at the adventure’s inception. So what can be done to establish such bonds from the get go?
If the game is going to last more than two or three session, I think there is real value in having a common character creation session. In addition to being a time where the players work to create a viable adventuring party (they create a balanced party or, at least, intentionally create a party missing certain skills instead of showing up and being surprised at the lack of those skills) it can be a time to work with one another in developing back stories. So when one player mentions they’d like to be linked to a past great hero, the other players can note that their PCs are familiar with the past heroics. They can also develop stronger or weaker bonds between one another; perhaps they are already drinking buddies, or have similar scholarly interests, or worship at the same temples, and so forth.
But what if the players need some suggestions on why they know one another or are willing to collaborate to complete adventures and shared heroics? In such situations it helps to have a running list of possibilities for players to pick up on and work with the DM to flesh out.
On the one hand, PCs might be united by a common or shared experience. They might have all been involved in a major battle that sets the stage for the campaign or, alternately, be used as a trope to underscore a major mood, emphasize a point of campaign politics, or otherwise familiarize the players with an undertone for the campaign. The combat could either be described in the course of character creation – that is, have the players craft the ‘what happened and why’ with DM participation – or even narrated in a series of moments. There isn’t any need to run the combat using the game rules. Instead you could just have a group-based narrated combat to describe the actions and events associated with the battle. As an added benefit, such narration can help warm players to a more immersive way of describing combat scenarios.
Shared Members of a Secret Society or Cult
There’s nothing that brings people together like a shared secret, and secret societies and cults are a great way to ensure that the characters have this kind of common bond. Moreover, you can work with the players to figure out some of the motives of their organization; depending on the role the organization might play, and the levels or backgrounds of the characters, they might be low level members or leaders of the society or cult and be attempting to save the world or convert ‘non-believers’.
Linked by Friends and Family
One of the most successful games that I ran involved all of the PCs being related through marriage, birth, or other family bonds. Done well, you can get some terrific role playing during character generation and the campaign more generally. Since all players have experiences with their own families they have lots of personal stories that they can mine, as well as those from fiction and non-fiction, when developing interesting and shared back stories.
PCs will typically find a common enemy over the course of the adventure. This might be the main antagonist of a specific quest or the party responsible for many of the difficulties experienced over the full course of a campaign. While the common enemy might be one of these types of antagonists, I actually prefer more local or personal enemies for whom ‘death’ is an inappropriate resolution strategy when it comes to creating common bonds at the character generation stage. The ‘enemy’ needn’t be a physical threat: it could include a tax authority that routinely investigates the PCs’ finances because of a suspicion that the PCs are holding monies from their local lord. It could be a knight who intentionally makes their lives challenging by talking down the PCs’ exploits to the peasantry and lords alike. Or it could be someone the PCs generally gave a hard time to and now, as a roaming bard or storyteller, spreads malicious rumours or false truths about the PCs. In all of these cases a roleplaying solution, as opposed to a fireball and sword solution, is likely the best way to ‘defeat’ the enemy over as many sessions as you expect the campaign to last. Who knows: maybe the campaign concludes with a moderately endearing ballad about the party’s exploits from the tongue of that aforementioned bard!
Who trained the PCs? And, if the characters are from the same or neighbouring locales, how do their masters/trainers/mentors know one another? Have they served with one another? Do they revel and study and adventure with one another? Do the PCs know one another because they did the scut jobs their master-mentors required of them, and have a long history of joining one another for dinner or drinks or wilderness outings to complain about their teachers? This kind of hook has the advantage of ensuring that you have lots of roleplaying grist to work with, and the players can invent all sorts of amusing back stories that flesh out the character histories without serious game-affecting consequences. So long as what they’re describing is used to explain current skills, or explain relationships with people in the region that match with their character professions, then it only makes your job easier and deepens the players’ immersion.
Four Adventurers and a Funeral
Another way of bringing together otherwise unconnected characters is for them all to be motivated to avenge someone’s death. For some, the dead person might be a family member, in others a fellow cultist, in yet others a mentor or even an enemy (“I wanted to kill him!”). The adventure could even begin at the funeral itself so that all the characters are playing through their reactions to the the death and then deciding to work together to the death-dealer’s end.
Each of the aforementioned party-formation back stories can give your players a deeper sense of immersion because they will understand why, exactly, they’re continuing to work and cooperate with one another. And all of the aforementioned bonds are helpful when you are dealing with a regularly changing cast of players and PCs: just have the new players, and their characters, ‘in’ on the common bond from the get go. In effect, these common bonds don’t just help at the campaign’s inception but on an ongoing basis as new people join the table.
The PCs will, of course, develop bonds through gameplay over the months and years of a campaign. But all of the aforementioned rationales for working together might make the initial five or ten sessions more enjoyable to role play while simultaneously providing the glue that initially holds the party together in the face of adversity until they develop even more substantial, adventure-based, bonds with one another.