Design The Party, Not The Characters

From Mark Moncrieff

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0503

Design The Party, Not The Characters

When a new player joins my group and we are beginning a campaign I’ll say, “Okay, let’s start designing the party.” I can see the new guy looking at the other players as if I’m mad.

Much of what I’m about to write will seem like heresy. But it works and has enhanced every campaign I’ve run since I started using this.

In most campaigns, the players design their characters and the GM must find a way to fit the party together. Sometimes, the characters are so different it just doesn’t work. Here is my answer to that problem.

Design the party, then design the characters.

Example Campaign

For the process to work the GM must do what he’s famous for – prep work. What type of campaign does he have planned? Not just what world or genre, but what type of adventures can the players expect to play in. Hack n’ Slash, investigative, swashbuckling, espionage?

The best example I can give is my current campaign. It is set in Middle Earth during the Kin-Strife, about 1500 years before The Lord of the Rings story takes place, using the Decipher system. I told the players that most of their adventures will be diplomatic and espionage, so focus on social and knowledge skills – but who can tell when things will turn violent, so be prepared.

I also gave them a rundown of the first adventure. They were to be a nobleman and his retinue who were the chaperones of a senior noble who was one of many suitors for a princess’s hand. However, their real mission was to steal incriminating documents and get them to safety.

The GM doesn’t need to have anything except the first adventure worked out, because no one can predict the future, especially in a roleplaying game.

So what information do I make sure I supply the players with?

  • The Setting (Middle Earth)
  • The Location (Gondor during the Kin-Strife)
  • The System (Decipher)
  • The Type of Adventures (Diplomatic/Espionage)
  • The First Adventure (Complicated but not absurd)
  • The Party

Here’s where the GM gets to sit back and let the players take the lead. The GM should only lead if the players are stuck. The group should decide two things:

  1. On this mission what would be the best character types to have in the party?
  2. What type of specialty, if any, will these characters need?

We are not dealing with the personality of the characters at this point, just their important skills.

I had four players, but I was looking for new gamers, so I asked my players to design a six member party. I also needed the party to include a nobleman and his retinue. I wouldn’t normally be that precise, but as a group we had decided on the setting, and it’s my job to work out most of the rest.

They decided their six-member party would consist of:

  • A Nobleman with status and mostly social and leadership skills
  • A Knight of Belfalas with status and mostly leadership and combat skills
  • A Loremaster (Scholar) with knowledge skills and contacts
  • A Herald with a whole different set of knowledge skills as well as contacts
  • A Burglar, I mean Servant, with skills in, well both those things and again more contacts
  • A Soldier with combat and intimidation skills

The Loremaster could optionally know magic, but the group decided they wanted more knowledge skills, so this party has no magic user. So far in the campaign, that’s been a good choice. Because of the information I gave them at the start, they had confidence they could make that decision.


It is important that everyone agree on, or at least accept, the characters within the party. If one player insisted on a Lion Tamer but others think it’s a bad character for the party, they might be right. It is now up to that player to justify why a Lion Tamer would be a good fit for both the campaign and the party.

It doesn’t matter if the party is designed two or three times, because in the end you will come up with a party the group wants, not just the group they accepted. If that happens, it won’t work.

Allow players to disagree with each other, but always remember they should be disagreeing about the characters, not each other. In my group majority rules; it’s a good rule.

Players can get stuck on titles. “So it’s a ranger campaign. Well, everyone can be rangers!” In theory that will work. So will, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.” The problem is it’s also dull.

A way around this is to think of different ways of saying the same thing, in this case, ranger. For example, forester, backwoodsmen, hunter, trapper, mountaineer, guide.

The great thing here is, because the players are the ones who design the party, they have already started to think and act like a party without even trying.

Pick Characters

The players should now have a very good idea of the campaign, the type of adventures and the first mission. They should also now know what type of characters will be in the party.

Until the entire party has been decided on, no character should be assigned to any particular player. That stops anyone from insisting, “But I always play a Lion Tamer!”

Once the party is formed, allow players to pick the character they want. If there is any dispute, you can discuss with the whole group who would fit the character better. If that doesn’t work you can use a dice duel. Each player gets a die and whoever rolls higher gets the character.

Final Overview

The campaign briefing, party design and character design normally takes about two sessions for my group. It’s the GM’s job to keep things on track and make the final decision.

If players give you a party of a Fighter, Lion Tamer and Burlesque Dancer for your Hack n’ Slash dungeon crawl, don’t be scared to just say no. The same goes for any other combination you think will not fit into your campaign.

The same applies to characters. Look them over, and if something doesn’t fit ask the player to change it, or in extreme cases, ask them to redesign the character.

In the end, you will have a more detailed campaign and the players will have contributed to that by designing the party, instead of just designing individual characters. Your players have helped build a part of the campaign, something they normally never get the chance to do.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s best to do the maintenance on your car before you start on your 1000km road trip. It’s much more likely to get you home again if you treat it right at the start.

Additional Resources

Here are some related links and resources you might consider checking out:

Story Sparks Part I: New Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together — RPT#227

Story Sparks Part II: More Ways To Begin An Adventure & Bring The PCs Together — RPT#229

6 Tips On How To Bring Disparate Characters Together — RPT#156

5 More Tips For GMing A ‘Local’ Campaign — RPT#238

Tips For Planning & Running The First Session Of A Campaign

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The Art of Delegating

From Anita Letendre aka (Blond Goth Girl) or (Blond Gamer Girl).

When game mastering for large groups, several articles online suggest delegating jobs to the players to make it easier on the GM and increase player involvement. Here are some jobs that I created.


Someone who keeps detailed notes on the session and posts them electronically within one week of the game. Separately, they email the GM a Word copy of it. A typical session is about two pages’ worth of notes. This would be worth 1 xp per session per 500 words. A typical session runs 1000 words.

[Comment from Johnn: we’ve been experimenting with Google Docs as a collaborative way to record session notes. It has been working great.

Each session someone creates a new doc and invites the other group members. A couple of players have laptops, and I use a laptop while GMing.

Google Docs allow multiple people to edit a document at the same time. You can see what others are writing, in real time.

With two or more people taking session notes, they tend to be detailed and complete. I know I tend to forget noting things while GMing because I am busy with other things. This method helps capture stuff I miss.]


The person who tracks equipment, including the stats of the equipment the team owns and what those stats mean. Individuals will still be required to track their personal equipment, but the Quartermaster can help them if they need it.

This is one point per session attended since the need will fluctuate from great to nil at times. Whoever gets Quartermaster can’t have the Scribe position.

Contact Manager

This person tracks all the NPC contacts the team meets to include the person on the team that has the primary relationship with that NPC. They will detail the specialties and skills this person has, their loyalty rating, location and other pertinent information.

This is worth 1 xp per session attended. This position does not rotate.


This person tracks the team’s money and the other players. It may sound like more work than it really is, but this has to be done in a spreadsheet.

This is worth 1 xp per session attended. This position does not rotate.


This should be rotating. This position involves coordinating snacks, and if necessary, instruct folks on what to bring. The concierge will be responsible for coordinating clean-up and ensuring the gaming area gets back to its original state. They don’t have to do all the clean-up, just direct it. The position can combine with others.

1 xp per session.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail [email protected] – thanks!

One-On-One Games

In RPT#483 James S. asks readers for tips on running a few encounters with each player solo as pre campaign setups.

Here’s how you responded:

From Chris ‘Frogg’ B.

I find most of my one-on-one adventures are best done improvised. Also, if something in the character’s past had happen recently, have it happen in the prologue.

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From BertráM

Go read Dogs in the Vineyard. Character creation directly incorporates a “level 0” encounter that somehow shaped the character. It also has a snazzy mechanic where words use the same resolution mechanic as bullets.

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From mrmike65

Create and run an NPC for the character to adventure with. Then use this NPC in the main campaign. This will help create a power base (ally with history) for the character. You could even use the same NPC in a few (or all!) of the one-on-one adventures.

Use the one-on-one adventures as seeds for the campaign.

Run the one-on-one adventures as an interactive story between you and the player. Take turns telling parts of the story. This could net you some new ideas to use in the campaign, and the player then has a vested interest in the upcoming campaign. Also, it will be rewarding to the players when they see you have used their ideas in the campaign they are playing in. “Hey! I know that tavern! My character was in there just last month and he ran into _______, who still owes me 50 credits!”

For building the one-on-one adventures, you can use the formula: character background + campaign NPC + campaign location/event.

If you use the interactive story method, you can safely put away the dice since you and the player will be working together to create the story. Bonus: you won’t have to spend a lot of time writing the one-on one adventures for the same reason.

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From Cyrus

Give them a setup and stimulus. Let them describe what they are doing, tell them the feedback. Think of it as cooperative storytelling via email. This is easier to work into any schedule than face to face time.

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Spicing Up Competitions

From: Sonja Johnson


One option to make obstacle courses more fun is to require everyone to be unarmored – or if you wanted to go ancient Greek style, contestants must compete naked or nearly naked.

While this eliminates armor check penalties, making it easier for the fighter to make the Climb checks, it also removes any ability bonus gear like Gloves of Dexterity.

This also offers a roleplaying opportunity. After all, being next thing to naked in front of a crowd of hollering and hooting spectators might be no sweat for the bard in the party, but what about the cleric? Or perhaps the fighter discovers she has terrible stage fright, or feels incredibly nervous without her gear? Not all adventurers are built around an ego as resilient as steel!

Having the obstacle course combine with a maze is another great idea – and I’ll do you one better. Add in transformations. The idea being that two contestants run the course at the same time – and as the course progresses, they find themselves predator and prey.

This is obviously going to be a magical effect, but since any contestant is a willing participant, simple transformation spells shouldn’t be too tricky to set up. Just say “you pass the zone marker and you’re transformed.”

At this point, whoever is in the lead at that first marker becomes a prey animal – let’s go with flying animals for an example. So, Flynn the Swift is now a chimney swift – and Allara the Quick, who got a bad start and was just a bit behind him, is now a hawk.

The idea here is to either pass your competition up, gaining in the race, or tag him. So now the contestants can choose a strategy based around the transformations (into random animals) or the transformation points.

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How Do You Use Dice in Ways Beyond System Rules?

From cra2

1. I’ve got weather dice I roll at the beginning of every in-game day to remind me to set the scene and describe the sights, sounds, smells (and weather) the PCs experience. I even roll a d8 directional die at the same time so I can say what direction the wind’s blowing.

2. I have a set of mood dice that show a smiley face, sad face, surprised face, etc. I LOVE to use these to help me improve what random mood the NPC might be in when the PCs walk in.

What the PCs say and do will alter that mood, but having a handful of mood dice helps me instantly create a visual atmosphere. “As you enter, the Mayor seems to be chastising one of his underlings who appears ashamed. Nearby, the sheriff looks scared – an emotion you thought he didn’t possess, until now. What do you guys do?”

3. I use dice as mooks in combat. If the party is surrounded by minions with 8 hit points each, I’ll put out a swarm of d8s with “8” showing. As the minions take damage, I just flip the die to show the remaining hit points. Instant, visual, paperless tracking the whole table benefits from.

4. I use a variety of dice for in-character gambling games. I always have dice games (of chance) going on in the back of the tavern. And even in the middle of a dungeon, if a couple of players are separated from the party and have to wait while a scene resolves, they might pick up some dice and gamble coppers with each other to kill time.

5. Believe it or not, often I use dice instead of my dry- erase markers on the battle mat. Most combat environments just need a general indication of where the boundaries are. So, if the PCs enter a large, rectangular room, I’ll just put four d6’s (of the same color) about where the corners of the room are.

Then I’ll put a different colored d6 wherever the exit(s) are, and maybe even a third color indicating where the pillars are.

90% of the time, that’s all the scene requires and it’s 90% faster than drawing/erasing every wall and door on the mat. Even in an irregular environment, like a circular grassy clearing, I just throw some d6’s out to indicate the general borders of the clearing and let the players’ minds fill in the lines between.

6. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t keep a couple of d20’s set aside as turn counters for spell duration and such. Will the bomb go off in 14 rounds? Set a d20 out in view with the 14 showing. Every turn, flip the die over to the appropriate number. A visual countdown makes things tense for the players.

7. I use some d6’s as height indicators for most indoors (and some outdoors) situations. For example, if a PC climbs 20′ up the wall, I’ll put a large d6 under the miniature, with the ‘2’ facing up. When the PC climbs another 10′, we turn the d6 so the 3 is facing up.

My friend has dice that stack well, and he just puts a number of d6’s under the mini equal to the height of the PC (divided by 10). So if you’re 40′ up the wall, he puts you atop four d6’s.

[Comment from Johnn: great list, cra2! Readers, do you have other uses for dice at your table? If so, drop me a note. [email protected] ]
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Instilling Common Sense into Players

From Justin Tyree


When should a party run away and when should they stand ground? We look at heroic fantasy games like D&D and frequently retain the romantic notion that the hero always prevails.

Before romantic literature from the Middle Ages, the Greeks provided us with tragic tales wherein the hero doesn’t always prevail. In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we follow Odysseus and his exploits during and after the war against Troy. Throughout the Odyssey, Odysseus is ravaged by obstacles and basically whines about his poor, hopeless fortune, and how the gods and everything else in the world is working against him.

Odysseus did not become heroic until the end of the epic. Although Odysseus did prevail over every force that attempted to see to his failure or demise, he did so at great loss, both by loss of companions or in some cases sanity.

Heroic success comes at a price, and usually that price is the loss of friends and family. Keeping to the theme of death, we also have religious stories from every faith depicting stories of martyrs.

It’s important for a party of PCs to recognize its limits, and death is the perfect way to remind players of those limits. Heroes die all the time. Just because you didn’t succeed in slaying the dragon doesn’t mean you didn’t die a hero’s death. As a GM of 15 years, I’ve come to realize the threat of death is required in every game for it to remain adventurous. Adventure is meaningless if it’s easy or if just anyone can do it and survive.

It’s difficult but possible for GMs to instill the fear of death to their players without actually killing them. Ways to do such include:

  • Wearing a party down with a difficult encounter so everyone escapes with little life left
  • Throw players up against a foe impossible to defeat by conventional means (hacking/slashing), requiring them to think outside the box as a group
  • Invoke climate or terrain dynamics that can cause death, such as a tilting platform that if a certain skill check isn’t made means plummeting into a lava pit, or avoiding the collapse of nearby building.

These courses of action are limited in the number of times employed within a given campaign or group of players, because eventually they will catch on and figure they cannot die, even if they get close. In such cases it’s a good idea for a GM to bite the bullet and kill a player. Not on purpose, of course. It’s never good protocol for a GM to purposely kill any player; however, it never hurts to not pull punches during an encounter to keep the party in check. Sometimes even an accidental death is enough.

There’s a fine line. If the players always fear death the game becomes more stressful than entertaining. If the party has no fear of death it becomes redundant and boring. So where is the middle ground? The death of the party should never be prominent in a campaign (unless you’re playing a game like Cthulhu, where it’s part of the game structure). Each player should consider their character’s mortality, thus making death at least a possibility, even if within the deepest recess of a player’s mind. This keeps the game exciting.

I believe to create adventure you need risk, and just losing items isn’t enough. A fear of death should always exist within every player’s mind so they keep in touch with the adventure. But sometimes death isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

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City Tips

From Loz Newman

How do you know when you’ve entered into a new neighborhood?

Each neighborhood of the city has its own feel. There are signs for all the senses that distinguish it from other neighborhoods.


  • Sights: dress codes, architectural quirks, body language, color choices.
  • Sounds: artisan activity, an accent, animals (pets, riding animals, etc.), children playing.
  • Smells: local cooking, artisans at work, bodily odors or perfumes, the general level of cleanliness of the neighborhood.

These signs are created by a shared quality (be it positive or negative!) of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, and they often band together to cultivate its unique aspects. This defines their territory, with all the implications:

  • Boundaries
  • Us against the outsiders
  • Implied mutual assurance of support in times of difficulty

It might also allow them to spot outsiders (or potential marks). Almost certainly there is an unspoken code of conduct to followed, known only to those who have spent time living there.

Smart NPCs try to blend or go for the “I’m so outstanding that I’m your superior” look. Every neighborhood will have movers and shakers who are the arbiters of this code, and who spread word about egregious violations that need to punished (usually by shunning / denying service, but sometimes by subtle harassment or outright denunciation to the local law enforcement).

Minor violations might be tolerated, until too many are accumulated. Then social penalties start accruing. See my article Face Off – How To Get Your Group Emotionally Involved.

Almost certainly, each quarter is based around a specific population group.


  • A class based on professional activity (e.g. local makers of some category of item, or the spouses of the local garrison).
  • A cultural grouping (e.g. immigrants from the same country, or some social class such as the local lowest class).
  • A religious group.
  • A service industry (e.g. the Foreigners Quarter, with its hostels, dives and market places). This population will most certainly try to adapt the neighborhood to something they feel comfortable with, especially immigrant groups.

This is what drives the feel of a neighborhood. A dysfunctional neighborhood (e.g. dominated by an uncaring criminal group, or lacking a fundamental resource such as time or money or good will), will show signs of neglect for any and all of the above aspects.

By including a few of the aspects and sensory cues above in his initial description, a GM can rapidly set the scene with a few verbal brush strokes. A pithy description will stay longer the players’ minds, and allow the GM to later build up the shared mental image even further in ways specific to the neighborhood.