Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Getting (and keeping) the party together

When starting a new D&D campaign, the first adventure usually brings a little extra baggage with it.  Namely, introducing the party members to one another.  While it is usually not difficult to come up with a reason for characters to band together for a fight, finding plausible reasons for characters with wildly different backgrounds and personalities to stay together can be difficult.

In fact, many DM's will gloss over this initial meeting, either by saying something like "you have been adventuring together for awhile", or the time honored "you are all in a bar when a wizard walks in the door".  Both of these solutions are somewhat unsatisfying.  The former leads to a party that should know each other well but doesn’t.  The latter is such a clich√© that it is difficult to maintain suspension of disbelief once it has been used. 

Of course there are a number of tricks to bring the party together and to keep them together.  My favorite two methods for bringing a party together in a hurry are what I call the Dragonlance Method and Pick Two Friends Method.

The Dragonlance Method is named for the technique Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman used in Dragons of Autumn Twilight .  At the start of the novel, the Companions are returning to the Inn of the Last Home after an extended time apart.  When they last parted company, they had vowed to meet back at the inn five years later.  Many of them make good on their vow, only to find much has changed in the intervening years.

In some ways this is similar to "you have been adventuring together for awhile", but it has several advantages.  The primary one is that while it gives the party members a strong reason to interact and assumes they have some basic knowledge of one another, the passage of time helps explain the gaps in their knowledge.  Five years can be a long time, and it might help explain why two party member who described themselves as “best friends” in their character background seem to be unable to stand each other once the game starts.

While we have lifted the Dragonlance Method directly in at least one recent campaign, you don’t need to be so obvious.  Maybe the characters fought together in a recent war, especially if they were on the losing side (ala Firefly ).  Maybe they all grew up in the same village, even if they haven’t seen each other since they were children.  Any common event to tie the character backgrounds can be used.

A variant of this is what I call the Pick Two Friends Method, which I first came across in West End’s Star Wars RPG.  This is similar to the method above with one major exception.  Instead of having a single common background element shared by all members of the party, each player chooses two characters to share some element of their character’s background with.  If done well, this can create a group with strong ties to each other, without seeming forced.

For example, imagine the following six-member party:  Dern (Dwarven Fighter), Tomas (Human Infernal Warlock), Bran Brightbelly (Halfling Bard), Ceriel (Deva Paladin), Shen Swiftfoot (Shifter Druid), and Brother Roland (Half-Elf Cleric).  This seems like a pretty diverse group.  However, the DM asked them to pick two other party members and incorporate them into their background.

After spending a bit of time talking with one another, the players come up with the following ties:

  1. Dern (Dwarven Fighter): Brother Roland Saved His life when he was wounded during a tour as a caravan guard.  Spent time exploring the reaches with Shen Swiftfoot.
  2. Tomas (Human Infernal Warlock): Used to run two man cons with Bran Brightbelly. Loved the same woman as Ceriel.
  3. Bran Brightbelly (Halfling Bard): Used to run two man cons with Tomas.  Was converted to worship of Erathis by Ceriel.
  4. Ceriel (Deva Paladin): Converted Bran Brightbelly to worship of Erathis.  Loved the same woman as Tomas.
  5. Shen Swiftfoot (Shifter Druid):  Spent time exploring the reaches with Dern. Grew up in the same village as Brother Roland. 
  6. Brother Roland (Half-Elf Cleric): Grew up in the same village as Shen Swiftfoot.  Saved Dern’s life when he was wounded during a tour as a caravan guard.

This not only binds the party together, but also establishes roleplaying hooks for the characters.  Not shabby for a process that often takes only 15 minutes chatting around the game table!


GeekBob said...

For mine, I went with slavery and a mutual need to escape. The campaign opened up with them having been on the run for a month after escaping from their captor.

Scafloc said...

Ah, the good old Dark Sun scenario. While there are countless examples of this, I think that the Star Wars version has always worked best for me. That said, in my current game, all the characters arrived in town for the first adventure to join a posse (darn bandits). That worked quite well until, sadly, enough characters have retired (or died) that few remain from the initial crew. That is generally where I have issues personally... the introduction of new characters into an existing crew. Any thoughts on that count?