The Unification Event — How To Get The Party Together

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1136

Character backgrounds are key tools in your GM Toolbox. Mine them for plots, NPCs, and character motivation.

However, it’s a struggle to get useful and game-full backgrounds from players.

Often, you just get a couple paragraphs explaining how the PC became an orphan.

Or, you might get the inverse. Pages of narcissistic background explaining why the character’s a victim and doesn’t want to do anything. Great stuff for a novel, but not so much for campaigns.

You might even get nothing. When I play, I don’t want much of a background at all. I want to figure my character out as I go. If you have players like me, then you get zilch to help prep.

You can’t blame players. They’re trying to figure out who their character is and what they’re about in a way they’re comfortable with. Their focus is how to roleplay this new person.

But we GMs want story integration ideas, party cohesiveness, and clear motivations to plot around.

The Solution

If we don’t ask players for what we want, we aren’t going to get it.

So let’s help players make the kind of character backgrounds we can use for campaign building.

The good news?

It comes down to four simple bullet points.

Bullets make it fast for players to write — especially at the game table.

They also cut to exactly what you want as a game master for campaign planning.

And they save you combing through pages of angst and self-loathing from a broken character.

A couple of bullet points developed during the first session are all we need to kick-off our campaign while giving players the roleplaying and personality cues they seek.

That’s what we’ll talk about today.

Let Gameplay Be Your Character History

Before digging into those bullets, here’s a quote I read last week that describes well my character background philosophy:

“Backstory is what happens in the first 3 levels.”

This works best for campaigns starting with novice characters where you get to play out the early adventuring days of the party.

Why develop a background during gameplay instead of writing one up front?

A story told together bonds players together.

What’s better:

a) A party of PCs who travel with and trust each other because of something written on a character sheet.

b) A band of characters who’ve earned each other’s trust and loyalty by slugging it out together through the gloomy mud, the dark holes, and the terrifying monsters.

My vote is B. Trial by fire gets the game going fast, sets up a fantastic campaign start, and helps players figure themselves and each other out through fun gameplay.

In addition, villains encountered via play create a united player front and stronger emotions than any enemy mentioned in a backstory.

Cue villains early in your campaign to earn those effects.

Meager backgrounds proffered by most players carry insufficient detail to understand the characters.

If a fellow player tells me their background, I still don’t know who their character is. I need to roleplay with my party members to experience the real nature of my companions.

What Do We Want From PC Backgrounds?

If we let early gameplay show (not tell) us who the characters are, then why do we need background details at all?

The answer lies in great story structure. The best stories begin with a character’s problem. Or, the party’s problem.

First though, we need to set ourselves up for success.

Imagine we’re playing Tetris and a circle drops down. And then a hex. And then a piece shaped like a wyvern.

There’s no way those pieces will fit to complete our rows.

Likewise, if Sandy says Roghan is an orphan who escaped orc slavers, Terry shares that Krug’s dream quest is to find their spirit monster, and Tracy announces Sir Valiance seeks to eradicate all evil and injustice in the world, we’re going to have a tricky time getting those pieces to fit.

What we want is a unification event.

Let’s Get The Party Started

Sure, let each character have their own strange tale of wonder and woe (or have no tale at all).

No problem.

We can mine those tales later for gameplay opportunities.

However, right now, we want to create an initial unification event that gets your PCs joined together as a party with the same focus and pointed in the same direction. Dire cats herded successfully!

We want to insert the blue box and red box into our usual campaign start recipe.

Example Unification Events:

  • PCs are a military unit cut-off and on the run from powerful enemies
    As part of a magic school, the PCs are sent off to acquire something for a senior magus
    PCs are fellow villagers when the orc slavers strike
    PCs are members of a cult and the summoning actually works, causing terror and chaos
    PCs are
  • As part of a magic school, the PCs are sent off to acquire something for a senior magus
  • PCs are fellow villagers when the orc slavers strike
  • PCs are members of a cult and the summoning actually works, causing terror and chaos
  • PCs are city denizens when the comet strikes and floods bury the city under water

These events do not enforce strict roles on the characters. This gives players freedom to work their tales into gameplay.

What this Unification Event does for us is give players their freedom while offering us a clear, singular point with which to launch our story.

Much easier to plan. Instant party cohesion. And player freedom to write pages of history or none.

Group Activity

During our first session, regardless of how much or how little character background we get from each player, we run a quick little activity to get the party together.

In this activity, we ask one question for each of the four bullet points.

This will be a group activity. Players collaborate, get ideas from each other, discuss best options, and agree upon an answer for each.

Background Bullet #1: Identity

  • What faction or group do the PCs belong to?

While you can try to make an athletics check to squeeze your tossed salad bowl of characters into some kind of party cohesion story, it’s easier to assume the PCs are already united.

A parent organization, patron, or group solves our problem instantly.

For example, in Night’s Black Agents you might have a sniper, a computer genius, an explosives expert, a leader, and a driver/pilot.

“You all meet in a bar. A stranger in the corner beckons you over and drops a roll of bills on the sticky table. ‘Got a mission for ya,’ he says.”

If you can swallow the idea of such a diverse group of specialists being randos in a bar who take on a mysterious stranger’s quest together at the drop of a hat, go for it.

However, if the characters are already members of an elite unit of vampire killers who drew the assignment to check out a known criminal’s claim of valuable intel, we’ve got cohesion, purpose, and plot without any stretch of belief.

Ask your players what group they belong to.

If you worry about a wrong pick, then give them three choices that mesh well with your campaign plans and have them pick one.

Allow them to tweak their choice a bit to match character concepts, with your approval.

Our first bullet goal is for players to give us an organization all their characters have a strong connection to, whether it’s a community, an employer, or a faction of circumstance.

Background Bullet #2: Inciting Incident

  • What just happened that turned your characters’ world upside down?

Great stories start with problems.

One day it’s sun and roses. The next, it’s thunder and lightning.

When you give players something to fix you hook them right away.

A perfect setup for a new group tentative about their PCs and perhaps each other.

And an instant kickstart to the game, adventure, and campaign.

Our second bullet goal is for players to give us an event that gets us a problem all characters share.

Background Bullet #3: Imminent Danger

  • What will happen to your character if the party cannot solve the problem?

We set the stakes up front. Everyone now knows the cost of failure.

By having your players come up with personal stakes (“What will happen to your character”) we get immediate buy-in to the adventure.

It’s also a fantastic prompt to surface a background detail.

It’s a difficult question to answer just with a character sheet.

“My strength will go down.”

“My equipment will break.”

“My spells will be lost.”

You’ll rarely get basic answers like this. If you do, prompt for something background related.

The goal of bullet three is to find out what’s in it for each character to solve the party’s problem.

Background Bullet #4: Risk

  • What will your character gain by solving the problem?

Another personal question.

This time, we ask players to provide the incentive for action.

If the party does nothing, the Danger comes about.

If the party fails, the Danger comes about.

And if the party succeeds, they earn something they really want.

It’s ok if players choose short-term goals.

“I want a magic sword.”

“I want to find my parents.”

“I want to get more spells.”

We’re not setting up campaign goals here.

Instead, we’re motivating action and applying pressure to make good choices so everyone takes things seriously.

The goal of bullet four is to ensure players have a strong desire to solve the problem.

In this way, the party has strong motivation to stick together and focus on one thing.

The perfect campaign start.


For example, Sandy, Terry, and Tracy have characters with no common backgrounds. One’s an orphan, one’s on a spirit quest, and one seeks justice.

We ask our players the first bullet: What faction or group do you belong to?

After a few minutes of discussion, the group says, We need money so we all hired on as caravan guards.

Perfect. Cliche, yes. But the important thing is we’ve now brought the disparate characters together in a way the players want and approve.

Bullet two: What just happened that turned your characters’ world upside down?

Players: The caravan was attacked by orc slavers. Roghan is mad, and Sir Valiance wants justice!

Fantastic. Standard fare, but we’ve got two characters who’ve tied themselves into this unification event, and we’re building momentum.

Bullet three: What will happen to your character if the party cannot save the caravan and rescue prisoners taken by orcs?

Sandy: Not going to happen. Roghan hates orcs! He’ll fight to the death against the beasts!

Not a clear answer there, but we’ve confirmed Sandy is invested.

Terry: I’ll be out of a job and broke again. Plus, the caravan people might give Krug a bonus or reward for rescuing them.

Tracy: Sir valiance would fail his quest before the campaign even got started! He might lose his paladinhood.

Perfect. Everyone cares about the problem and outcome now.

Bullet four: What will your character gain by solving the problem?

Sandy: Death to orcs! And, maybe, directions to the orc lair… For more death to orcs!

Terry: Gold. A better sword from the caravan or orcs or something. And maybe more loot from the orc lair to buy some new armour.

Tracy: Perhaps a small divine sign or blessing?

Fantastic job.

We started with characters who had nothing in common.

We ended up with a strong campaign start, good player engagement, and most importantly, a unified party with shared purpose.

All done in your first session in few minutes.

Next campaign or adventure your start with a fresh party of PCs, use a unification event and these four bullets to get the party together:

  • What faction or group do you belong to?
  • What just happened that turned your characters’ world upside down?
  • What will happen to your character if the party cannot save the caravan and rescue prisoners taken by orcs?
  • What will your character gain by solving the problem?