Party Games/Personal Characters

So, a few things have been bothering me. I was going to write more about the new Blighted Worlds mini-setting – I just created the starting settlement – but instead I wanted to cover a few issues that have been frustrating me with my gaming experiences. Here’s an overview of my thinking.

1. How can you make it a priority for characters to have good backgrounds?
2. How can you make it a priority for the group to have cohesion? (I’ll explain this more later.)
3. How can you convince players to make this an organic process on their own without heavy-handed GM interference?

The frustrations spurring this post are always somewhere in the back of my mind, but jumped to the forefront recently in an odd way. I’ve been reading a lot of the OSR (Old School Renaissance) blogs, particularly those playing with Original D&D and 1st Edition AD&D. This reading led me to pull out my old D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and I found a quote that just really set all this in motion.

“Ask your players what their characters’ goals are. If the players can’t say, then the players need to do more thinking about their characters’ personalities and histories before they enter play” (RC, 256). The italics for emphasis are in the original text. This is an old book. This is early nineties, built on late-eighties, the-last-good-days-of-TSR timeframe. And it’s old D&D, where being an elf was your class and your race. And you have a game designer telling DMs to make players think about their histories and personalities before they are allowed to play the character.

This made a huge impression on me when I reread it. I realized that I really haven’t seen PCs with genuine goals in a long time. And I think that some of the fault lies with me as the game master. I have, well, kind of given up on actually asking players to have goals or intricate histories. At one point I was spoiled with players who wanted a lot of depth in their character stories, but I don’t seem surrounded by these people anymore.*

(* I know some of my friends are saying, “What!?! I always do this!” And some of you do, sometimes, but it’s the exception and not the rule.)

And this goes beyond just goals, though I think goal-setting could be an interesting method to get hooks into your background. Ask what the character wants and then figure out what made them want that?

“You want to be the richest man in the Verdant Coast. Cool. Why?” Asking “Why” may be important too.

And that’s a nice outline of the first issue that keeps appearing for me. The second issue is what I like to call The Vacuum Effect. This is easily defined as, each player creates their character in a vacuum from all the others. When the PCs get to the table they have no connections to bind them. I’ve seen tons of game mastering advice directed toward this problem. Unfortunately all of the advice concentrates on this problem from the angle of, “Here’s how to get a group of people with absolutely no connection to go on an adventure together.” This advice is really only helpful for the first adventure. After all, assume the PCs are asked to help clean up the town’s well problem. The well is filling up with blood instead of water.

Great, the adventurers meet when they are hired by the town mayor to attend to this problem. They figure it out, off the baddies, etc. Now what? Unless they did some crazy awesome bonding when they were in that well, what stops them from going their separate ways as soon as the adventure is over? Backgrounds or no, these people presumably have lives outside of the “well-fixing” adventure. So, now you have 5 individuals, paid for a job well done, with a magic item or two, and no reason not to split up and do their own thing. Because they came into the game doing their own thing, and now they have no reason to be part of the other PCs lives.

One of my goals in any game I play in is to try and start with a connection to another PC. I don’t mean, “we met once at a conference.” I mean, “we are cousins who have been watching each others’ backs in the dangerous politics of the Courts of Chaos.” I don’t have to be connected to every player at the table, but I want to be tight with at least one. And then the bonds sort of accrue as other PCs do the same thing. I know that some game systems are better at this than others, and some take some very odd mechanical stabs at this issue, especially recently, but these gestures always seem forced, in one way or another.

Star Wars is a game that is a great example of the type of game that has built-in groupings to aid party creation. It is very for a game master to start a game based on, “you are all members of Rebel Intelligence,” or, “Welcome to the Jedi Order, Padawans.” This starts the game with the PCs having a reason to be connected, though it also is a backhanded type of railroading. You are, as the game master, narrowing the range of PC character options to achieve an enforced cohesion.

And even with this narrowing in place, it often fails because I see two results of this over and over again. One, you have the player who just flat our refuses to conform to the campaign structure and you accommodate this player because you can’t afford to alienate anyone. Two, you have the players look at each other and do some variation of:

Johnny: So, let’s see, Bobby wants play the Demo specialist, Suzie wants to be the face-type, Tommy wants to be the heavy-weapons guy and I’ll be the officer?

Suzie, Tommy and Bobby: Yep!

(At this point they all put their heads down over their books and character sheets and just start making their characters, with no more conversation needed.)

As to games with odd mechanical attempts to fix this, one example is the recent Warhammer Fantasy 3rd edition from Fantasy Flight. Now, I’ve written before how much I dislike this game. The one thing that got me in the door, convinced me to buy that ridiculous $100 box, was the promise of party mechanics. The problem is, those party mechanics consist of choosing a “party sheet” that is a really bare-bones description of the party personality, like, “Justice-seekers” or “We’re just bad, bad I tell you.” These sheets give parties the ability to swap out some of their action cards and pool fate points. Whoopity Do.

D&D4e also promised a party-based mechanic. The idea was to have nicely defined roles to help guide mechanical party creation. But these roles were supposed to create complementary skill sets reflected in play needing to be accomplished by a good, mixed party. But you can go right to their forums and see how well that exercise worked. The second forum category (after administrative stuff) is “Character Optimization.” The CO board is almost single-handedly responsible for destroying my joy playing 3.5 and every time I make the mistake of going over and checking it out in 4e, the pain just starts again. But 4e is not a party game, no matter what they say. The mechanical shift since Players Handbook 2 has been catering to the optimizer, to the individual character.

So, here I am, I’ve been running games for a long time and I still can’t figure out how to get players to “buy-in” to this idea of making a party. I’ll close with one more example, just to wrap up a long post with a few more thoughts.

Shadowrun. I love Shadowrun. It’s newest edition, from poor, embattled Catalyst, has rapidly become my favorite edition of the game and I’ve played and run the game quite a bit. In Shadowrun, most of the time, you are playing a character who is part of a team of ‘runners who live on the wrong side of the law and basically live in a constant danger of being killed horribly by magic/big guns/crazy powerful monsters. When you are a Shadowrunner, it’s important to have people to watch your back. Look at the Shadowrun Core Book or Runner’s Companion and they’ll reference the team constantly. But in every Shadowrun game I’ve been in we’ve barely had any notion of team. We aren’t a team, we’re a collection of individuals who keeps getting thrown together by Fixers and Johnsons with the same people no matter what the job is… because we’re the people sitting around the game table. There’s no trust, no relying on one another and more secrets than a season of Gossip Girl. We never know anything about each other, or each other’s histories, or hell, even where most of our team members live. But we’re supposed to assume that they’ve got our backs when we’re in it against Yaks, Mobsters, Ghouls and Corps? And why aren’t we taking other jobs, or turning some down? Why do we keep working with that Hacker girl we just want to *&$#$#$!! stab? Just because we’re the ones sitting around the table.

For me that’s not good enough. And I don’t know how to fix. I’ve tried some solutions, various incentives and even punishments. But I can explain those another time. For now, I’m interested in hearing if you have any new ideas. I’m fresh out.


16 responses

  1. I think what helps is having a deeper overarching plot. The short-term problem is solved, but there is some bigger problem that is discovered by the PCs in which they need to stick together.

    The 4th Ed DMG has that little mini-adventure where it suggests how the PCs discover a deeper more sinister plot in a series of letters that they find. In the scenario you described, there may be more to the well – a deeper and more sinister plot.

    For fantasy, it is about “the quest” more than solving small problems. The small problems can allude to the quest in which the PCs have a sense that they may need each other in the future.

    The same goes with something like Shadowrun where they have a bigger baddie to worry about, like a Corporation that is after them after they complete a job and hence they have to stick together, or discovering a more sinister plot.

    It’s more than just “the next job”, it’s feeling like there is a “quest.”

    1. Hey Paolo, nice to hear from you.

      The problem with this response though is that it is still Game Master driven. If the issue is driven by the GM putting plot in front of the PCs, then, say, some of the PCs aren’t interested in the new plot, why won’t they just go their own way if no tie exists to bind the party together?

      That’s the issue I’m sorta driving at, making it the players’ responsibility and not the GM.

      1. It is kind of funny, but it really has to do with the kinds of players you have and that group’s synergy.

        Right now, Dave and I are playing in a group and my character asks, “So… Why are you an adventurer?”

        And the other character says, “To kill stuff and make money.” I kid you not. My character asked each of the characters in turn who were a Cleric, a Monk, and a Paladin. All of them had the same shoulder shrug and half-hearted response.

        The GM wants to draw out the roleplaying, but the other 4 players are just in it for the war-gaming and not really the role-playing. So there isn’t much he, Dave or I can do with the others.

        So in the end, it comes down to forming the perfect elite group of players.

        Right now, I have about 5-6 other players I try to get together with like every 3-4 months because we live from here in Richmond all the way up to NoVA. It works out pretty well when we do get together and we have a blast, but it isn’t constant, nor consistent in our meeting times. But that is how I maintain my role-playing sanity when I’m tired of war-gaming.

  2. First of all: (as you know) one of my absolute favorite things to do for a character is to flesh it out completely (maybe too much… need to concentrate on more flexibility, but that’s a discussion for another time) and I have a lot of time understanding why someone would not want to have a character who is as rounded as your favorite book or video game character. I mean… that’s why we game around a table right? As opposed to playing in a video game or of the like? SO WE CAN BE/MAKE CHARACTERS IN A STORY ALL ON THEIR OWN WHERE THERE’S ACTUAL RISK?

    Anyway… hmmm. FRESH ideas…

    A more punitive idea that sounds alright at the time but may fail you: For those people who actually turn in stories and backgrounds and characters, make sure that they get a lot more adventures that have to do with their characters, that their goals come to fruition, that they get to be “Kind of a big deal.” Most likely, they’ll be the ones who like to interact and get involved in the story right away anyway. There’s a big bad that knows them personally, etc. Maybe this will encourage people to turn in backgrounds in the hopes of having a THEM centered story. But it could also discourage players and make them think that you are showing favoritism.

    If we had unlimited funds, you could give out actual prizes, like miniatures or dice! (This is stupid.)

    Extra points to spend on ones character is always popular, and, at least, makes people do the bare minimum.

    As for making a group, the above idea still works to encourage those people who know each other and have a tight background together, but has the same problems.

    To put on the training wheels, you could do something like set a premise for the game, like in the 4ed DnD game you ran where we were all apprentices together. That was relatively effective.

    I’m not sure… I’ll think on this more, and let you know!



  3. The problem is partially that the PCs don’t care enough, but the bulk of the problem (in my experience) lies with the amount of time the characters spend together, and what they do with that time.

    Think about real life. How do we “make friends?” We spend time with someone, usually in an informal setting, and decide that this person is interest/entertaining/has common interests or something along those lines. Then we consciously choose to interact more with this person, and engage in some form of recreation (and “recreation” means different things to different people, but it should be something you both enjoy)

    In a paper-and-dice game, the PCs only interact with each other when something of at least a little importance is happening. They are focused on the mission, not each other. Between events, the down time just “happens.”

    Player A: “I go to the bar for a drink.”

    Player B: “Oh, yeah. I go along.”

    GM: “Alright, you two do that. The ale is kinda crappy tonight, but the bartender likes you two, so no charge.”

    Player B: “Awesome. After a few hours of that, I go home and pass out.

    In the real world, Player A and B’s characters would have talked about something. They might have personal exposition (or whatever the Communication Studies term is for “This one time when I was a kid…”). They might look back on that evening at the bar later with a quip like “At least you didn’t knock it all over the barmaid this time. *chuckle*” They would form some personal bond in an informal setting, like normal people.

    You could try to run this, but it is a huge waste of time from the POV of “getting something done” and will bore people who care little about RP to tears.

    The only time I have seen this work is online RPGs. The server was always running, so our characters actually had lives aside from killing things for loot. We did go to the bar, and talk about crap, and flirt with the barmaid (if a DM was around to run her), and get drunk and reveal things that were otherwise hidden. Since our characters actually had those informal, personal interactions, they knew about eachother’s quirks and secrets. They actually had a decent bond, unlike every pen-and-paper game I’ve run or played in.

    This summer, I’m running a game that will use Google Wave heavily, so if the PCs ever want to play out “We go to the bar,” the avenue will be open away from the actual table. I hope this will fix some of the forced nature of the party being together, but we’ll see.

  4. One thing I’ve seen done, and that I’ve considered using myself, is a survey/questionnaire for the players to fill out about their characters. It forces you to flesh out in your own head some things about your character that you might not have otherwise, such as “What was their worst memory? Their best?” and also gives the GM some tools to work with if he wants to personalize any parts of the game. I’ve seen games where backgrounds were a bit uneven – the most RP oriented players or the players who spent the most time doing in-character stuff out of session tended to have deeper backgrounds and lots of associates. It happened on more than a few occasions in these games that the party would encounter an NPC who knew those characters from the past, or would wind up in a place or around a culture that those characters were familiar with. Because only one or two players had that level of detail, though, the customization was pretty unbalanced. After all, how do you center an adventure around the party’s fighter when all you know about the fighter is that he prefers swords to axes? So you instead use the questionnaire, which lets the GM use that level of customization with everyone. And things on that questionnaire might seem completely irrelevant, but can be very useful to a GM. Take, for example, a sexy, seductive villian. It’s all well and good for the GM to tell the players, or even just one or two players, that they’re very attracted to her, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll go for it – especially if they suspect that the NPC actually is a villain. But thanks to the questionnaire, you know that the party rogue not only has a thing for brunettes, but your villain conveniently bears a striking resemblance to his first love…

    Really, though, this all depends on the group that you’re playing with. Some people aren’t going to be into the RP aspect of the game enough to care about their character’s background, and there’s nothing at all you can do about it. You can’t force it. Take Paul’s bar scenario. I played for many years with a group where if we went to the bar in-game and had a conversation, we WOULD play that out…possibly spending half the night doing so if enough of the party was involved. If only a couple of characters were involved, we might shelve the conversation for later, but there would probably be some out-of-game interaction so that those characters COULD have the conversation…because for that group, the interactions between characters were as important (if not more important) as the the interactions between enemies and our swords. But you couldn’t expect any player to come into that group and fit in…we had some that tried, and bowed out because it just wasn’t their thing. At the opposite end of the spectrum from that group are the ones who are just there to kill things and collect shinies. And if your group’s needle swings closer to the kill/shiny end of the meter and further away from the all night conversation end, the answer to your questions is: You can’t. You can’t make backgrounds a priority, and you can’t force cohesion. You can’t make it organic. You can only do with those characters what their players are willing to have done, and if you want it different way, you have to find different players.

    1. To personally address one thing you mentioned, I’ve never really been a fan of the “character quiz.” Amber DRPG uses the character quiz as a way of fleshing out background and I used it for a long time, adapting it to other games as well, but I discovered that the results were equally uneven to just asking for a background.

      You get 5 players and ask them for a background, you get 2 great ones, 2 people who just wrote down where they were born and that their parents are dead, and one guy who doesn’t bring you one even when you’re 10 sessions in.

      I had the same results with quizzes. Some will actually work on them, some will answer the question, “What do you find attractive in someone?” with “boobs.” That last guy who can’t be motivated to turn in a background? He won’t turn in his quiz either.

      On a related note, I’ve discovered that I get a lot of groaning about quizzes too. No matter how much I hype them, they feel like homework. Even if it’s only four or five questions.

      1. All I can really respond with is to point to the last couple of sentences of my response – it is all dependent on group. In an ideal world you would be able to gather up any five players you want and put together a game that is going to meet your needs as a GM and everyone one of their needs as a player. In the real world, I don’t even need to tell you how stupid that expectation would be. You’re always going to have to make sacrifices, whether they be sacrificing the chance to have Billy in your group because you know that he’s not going to motivated in the same way that the other players are, or sacrificing the ability to have the game focus on backgrounds and other character-related issues because you know you’re not going to get that level of participation from everyone you’ve chosen for the game.

        I had a few games fall apart because new players that I invited in just weren’t on the same wavelength as everyone else, and I didn’t have the balls to boot them for the sake of the game. But what it boils down to is that no matter what kind of detail you put into your setting, your rules, your adventures, the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign are always always [i]ALWAYS[/i] going to depend on the group you’ve put together. In the end, the answers to the “how do I do this” question are always going to include your group, and you’ve got to find your balance between inclusive and elitist before you can truly have the ability to form your game into what you’re looking for.

  5. Well, I was going to respond to Paul, but Kodak said pretty much what I was going to respond with. That you can have that conversation at a tabletop game and, if the group is going to be that type, you will.

    Many of my best gaming memories are sessions that involved nothing but in-character conversation, with other PCs and with NPCs. And these scenes don’t have to just be, we sit in the bar and drink, they can be tense negotiations, deep soul-searching, and difficult revelations. Hell, I’ve set up more than one disastrous event in a character’s life with an off-hand comment the session before.

    Unfortunately, I’ve reached the same conclusion. That if your group swings to the “kill/shiny” end of the spectrum, the only thing you can do is find a new group. The downside to that is, if you don’t have any other players to choose from, that means you don’t game.

    1. I posted before reading all responses. I R dumbass, and my long response was pretty much what you’ve said here.

  6. As many of the previous posters mentioned, there is really nothing you can do to change your players’ attitudes.

    I will say from the perspective of a new player, I was very hesitant to role-play – I didn’t know anyone and really didn’t know what to expect. Also, I have not played in any groups that I feel comfortable role-playing (I mean REALLY role-playing) or that I want to create connections with. Perhaps it’s partially because I was only casual friends with the people we played with, but many of them were not interested in role-playing.

    I have also found that I am hesitant to role-play in situations where my actions will affect the other players. Example: I would probably not ask to be another player’s cousin/sister/bard/etc. I almost feel like that would be imposing myself upon their character – and as I’ve said above, I’ve never been in a group where I’ve been comfortable enough to do that. Perhaps some of your players feel the same way – they do not wish to impede other players’ character designs.

    That is another problem that the GM cannot solve – I would need to play with people who I would be comfortable doing that with. You’ve said that you don’t like surveys, and I suspect you do not want to ‘force’ your players to have connections, but it might be a conceit of your game that you give the players an ultimatum: go around the table and come up with a CLOSE connection with a character in the group.

    Also, mandate backgrounds – yes, there will people who say “I’m a fighter. I like swords. They are pointy.”, but even from that you might be able to get that character interested in a quest to find “teh awesome super pointy sword +3”. And if the people with more elaborate backgrounds get more story opportunities, the super-pointy fighter has no one to blame than himself.

    I don’t have many more suggestions. My one game crashed and burned for many reasons, and coming up with contrived reasons to keep the party together was probably a contributing factor – so I can definitely feel you with this issue.

    1. I only half-heartedly agree with your perspective on changing a player’s attitudes. I think that the GM needs to give a player the opportunity.

      I’m willing to bite the bullet on this and give this a shot with a random group of strangers with 4E.

      1. I’m kind of considering doing the same thing. I’m thinking about running a game over the summer, and if it gets off the ground it will be 4-6 players…and ONE of them will have gamed before. I hope that I’m good enough to provide these guys with a good basis for excellent play later on, rather than just giving them a complicated board game to play.

    2. Example: I would probably not ask to be another player’s cousin/sister/bard/etc. I almost feel like that would be imposing myself upon their character – and as I’ve said above, I’ve never been in a group where I’ve been comfortable enough to do that.

      Many years ago I was in a game where my character fell in love with an NPC that he rescued. There were some pretty good roleplaying moments there, and watching the romance unfold was a lot of fun. Then one night I showed up to play and there was a new player at the table – a friend of mine, someone I knew and was comfortable playing with. But the GM informed us that she was joining the game, and that she would be playing the girl that I was building that romance with. All of a sudden I was no longer interacting with an NPC whose story was dependent on me, but with another player…one I had not had that level of interaction with before, and one who now brought her own goals and purposes to the character. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but it got awkward. I think that a pre-existing relationship between PCs can work, but it needs to be one that is established and agreed upon by both players and by the GM – forcing it on someone just doesn’t work well. In another game I had a character who began dating and eventually married another PC. That one worked because we were both involved in that storyline from the beginning, rather than being told “you’re in this relationship…go!” In that case we weren’t imposing on each other, but working together.

  7. @Kodak

    Yeah, I’ve played other characters’ brothers, cousins, twins, and best friends many times. But those relationships were already built in from the beginning as player to player decisions. If I had been in the situation you described above, with an NPC relationship that I’d been building up over play and then was told that a player was taking over that character, I think I would have lobbied for that not to happen. It changes every aspect of the relationship, especially, as you said, because that NPC is no longer a part of your character’s story, but a PC who wants to have story of their own.

    I love being connected, but I don’t want to have the rules changed on me in the middle of play.

  8. The free RPG “The Dead” has a really interesting idea for this ( Basically when you spend time with your fellow PCs you (if both agree) can ‘Relationship’ points/dice. 1 = Friend, 2 = Close Friend/Love, 3 = Family. You can use these dice to help yourself if you’re helping your friend, or give them to your friend (once per session). If your friend dies, you gain a ‘social’ negative equal to the relationship number until you ‘stop grieving’.

    It’s not as good as a conversation at a bar, but it can mechanically ‘take the place’ of bonding and give fellow players a “reason” to want to be ‘freind’s’ with each other (hero points!).

    It’s rough, but it’s as good an idea as I’ve ever seen that doesn’t require “forcing” the players and DOES require the PCs staying together to enforce the bond.

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