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.