6 Tips On How To Bring Disparate Characters Together — RPT#156
By Jonathan Hicks
Games and campaigns revolve around a core group of player characters all working together to either complete their own agendas or a larger quest. Usually, when the players are creating their group, they share out careers, abilities, and skills to make a balanced bunch of PCs who can handle almost every eventuality thrown at them by the GM. However, this may not always be the case.
While players can work as a team and design their characters that way, they have almost total control over the creation of their PCs as far as personality, trade, and background is concerned. In some cases, GMs may ask the players to create whatever they like and then bring the PCs together in the first game. This gives the players free rein as to how they want their PCs to be, but can create a problem as to how these PCs come together.
So, let’s say the players have designed a group of PCs who comprise of a baker-turned-mercenary, a nurse, a noble from a high-born family, and a horse thief. What do these PCs have in common? At first, nothing. So, how on earth do you bring them all together?
Because They Were Ordered To
There’s nothing more decisive than the Queen/Emperor/Ruling Faction pointing a long bony finger at the PCs and saying, for example, ‘I command you to walk to the Ring of Fire and defeat this evil!’ Already the PCs have been given a good reason as to why they should adventure together ? they’ve been given their orders!Of course, you have to ask the question, in some respects, as to why a certain PC should agree to such a thing. Let’s take the example group:
- The mercenary might go because that’s his job.
- The nurse might go because the group might need aid on a perilous journey.
- The noble might go because, as a relation to the ruling body, it might be a requirement, a proving of the ability to defend the family/realm.
- The horse thief might have to go to pay for a crime. ‘You will prove your loyalty or you will hang, horse thief!’
The group has been given their orders by their ruler and will do all they can to win through, even though they are a mismatched group of PCs from very different backgrounds. It makes for excellent role-playing. It’s also an excellent way to bring the PCs together and keep them together.
Because They Are Friends
Even though PCs may come from different backgrounds, it is still possible they might be friends. Although there might be a class system in effect in your game world, it is still possible that certain people might go against the grain and mix with whomever they wish and not with their social class or kind.
The noble in our example group might be a man who likes to ‘slum it’, a PC of great esteem who dresses down and walks the lower streets of the city, mixing with what he would usually see as undesirables. In this group he finds new friends: a mercenary, a nurse from the local physician’s guild, and (unknown to him) a horse thief.
Alternatively, the mercenary could have gotten a job as a guard at the noble’s castle, the nurse could work as a surgeon there, and the horse thief could ‘work’ in the stables. As the three mix on a daily basis they get to know each other.
So, when disaster does strike or one or more of the PCs are drawn into a quest, the others are motivated or bound by loyalty to help. Something might happen to them all when the whole group is together and this gives them impetus, as a group, to set out on their quest.
Let’s say the PCs are all together in the Great Hall when an attempt is made on the life of the Queen. They might become the only witnesses who saw the assassin so they are sent as a group to track down the enemy.
Because They Are Involved For Different Reasons
The PCs might come together because they are all after the same thing but for a different reason. They may be searching for a murderer, an enemy who has affected their lives in some way, or an item that has the ability to solve their particular problem. Each PC has their own agenda and reason as to why they are on the quest and they come together to benefit each other.
This might be tricky. Of course, if they are all after the same thing, then when they do finally achieve it they will all have their own claim to it, especially if it involves an NPC. Unlike an object, which may be shared between the PCs, they will all want their own revenge or justice against the enemy ? and there is only one of them to go around.
This could make for a fantastically charged role-playing opportunity at the end of a long campaign, but it may be best to split enemies up and have them all part of a greater threat so that each PC has their own closure at the end of the game.
So, for example, the mercenary may be after a man who killed his father, the nurse might be after the same man because he stole her family heirloom, a Pendant of Healing, the noble might be after him to stop him from threatening his borders, the horse thief might be after him because he has been hired to. Each PC has a different reason to go on the quest but, ultimately, they are after the same thing.
Because They Are Involved For The Same Reason
A simpler way to get the PCs together is to have them all go on a quest for exactly the same reason. They can then work together and share any rewards reaped at the end.This can be anything from ‘stop the bad guy’ to ‘find the treasure’. They all believe in the same thing and that shared belief brings them together.
It could be a loyalty to a religion or figure of importance, or they know that there is a lot of gold to be made and it serves them all to work together and split the booty. A shared goal, especially when each player is aware that there is more chance of success in greater numbers, is a fine reason for them all to come together.
For example, the PCs hear in a tavern that there is gold in them thar hills and they all share a common need for more gold. The mercenary is up for a quest because he knows his sword may be needed and wishes to make sure his skills are justifiably rewarded. The nurse might want money for her hospice and joins the quest to help finance it. The noble might join to increase the wealth of his family’s and his personal coffers, and the horse thief might join because, hey ? it’s money, and it sure beats stealing horses.
Because They Have Been Thrown Together By Fate
Wouldn’t you believe it? The PCs are all in the same place when bang! something terrible occurs and they are all forced to work together to solve the problem. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?Starting a game this way gives the PCs something to focus on straight away and also provides an excellent reason as to why they are required to work together.
Each player has their own reasons and agenda, that much is sure, but when events transpire against them and they must rely on those around them then they will still have their illusion of free will but know they have to team up to survive or overcome the immediate problem. Once that problem is solved or avoided, then the PCs with their knowledge of the threat or problem can continue to work together.
For example, they could be arrested together as scapegoats on a drummed-up charge, or be in the same village when it is attacked, or be in the same castle when it is besieged.
Or, let’s say the PCs are all journeying across an ocean on a huge passenger ship when suddenly they’re attacked by the forward ships of an invasion fleet. The PCs, close together in a confined area, had to fight side-by-side to defeat the threat. The mercenary will fight because that is what he does. The nurse will fight to defend the wounded.
The noble will fight because it might be his ship the raiders are attacking, and the horse thief might fight because where there are bodies, there’s looting. Saving each other’s lives or aiding in battle will introduce the PCs to one another and strengthen their new relationship.
Common Problems With Running Disparate Groups
Although complete player control over the creation of a PC might be great for the dynamics of the character, it may present some problems the GM may have to overcome.
The Player Runs The PC By The Letter
As the game progresses, a player might decide to run their new PC as designed. Therefore, when certain things happen, the PC might not get involved because ‘it is not in their nature to do so’.
Playing so closely to the letter can slow a game and create a huge problem for the GM. To combat this, ask the player two questions:
- What can you do as a GM to get the player involved a little more?
- What they are playing the game for?
It is a game of fun and adventure, after all, unless the group has something else in mind. If the player is going to refuse every road, avoid every danger, and otherwise do the opposite of what is required to complete the quest, then there’s not much point in that PC being present.
The Group Does Not Get Along In Part Or As A Whole
Bringing such different PCs together may present the players with some great role-playing opportunities. However, certain PCs from certain backgrounds might not get along for one reason or another. This may be fun but may also slow the game as PCs bicker and argue.
To combat this, throw in a scene where two or more of the arguing PCs rely on each other to complete a task or save each other’s lives. This will change the attitude somewhat and make for a great story.
As campaigns come and go and new PCs are created the reasons as to why disparate PCs should come together might grow thin. Be careful not to repeat yourself or go over old ground. On the flip side, it may not be important to the plot ? the players might just say ‘yes, we’re all different, but we’re mates so let’s get on with the game’, which would be nice!
Don’t try to be too clever when designing the plot threads as to how the PCs are part of the bigger picture. Complicated reasons will slow the game as each PC will want time spent on their own dilemma independent of the group. This depends on the size of the group, of course, but it’s best to try and keep it as simple as you can when first trying out this method of PC introduction.
The problem with concentrating on new PCs, especially when they are so different as to warrant special attention, is that time will have to be spent building up their role. This can be done in two ways.
Run a single game for each player independently to come to grips with the PC’s role and position. This takes up a lot of time and might be difficult to make sure every player ends in a position where they will serve the plot or even meet up with the rest of the group. This is the trickiest of the two and contains the most work for the GM.
Spend a game or two actually introducing their characters and getting them entwined with the others before the big picture actually starts. This is easier and establishes a sense of group dynamic before the game starts proper.
At the end of the day, the players are all at the table for the same reason: to take part in an adventure and have a good time. Considering the social aspect of the role-playing hobby, they’ll probably want to just get involved and game together. However, adding reasons as to why the PCs have come together can help enhance the atmosphere and can also give you a backup in case the PCs don’t mesh as well as you’d like.
Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Encouraging Role-playing vs. Roll-playing
As much as I hate to do it (I prefer to operate subtley within the game), sometimes you just have to come out and say “Okay, you guys don’t seem to realize it, but if you do X and Y, you’re probably going to get killed, and your characters would have figured that out by now.”
That approach can seem kind of harsh, but it does make them think a little bit more about “What would my *character* do?” I think that simply suggesting to them that they try other means to win (and sometimes avoid) their battles will go a long way. Just as in real life, there are some fights you fight, and some you run away from.
I hope that helps.[Comment from Johnn: great advice Jinx. GMs, you might consider rating each player on a Subtle Scale of 1 to 10. 1 = the smallest hint will be picked up on, 10 = you have to take them outside the room and explain it in black & white. Use this scale as a tool to help properly guide your players. For example, you’ll know to steer your subtle players through omens, dreams, sense of foreboding, flashbacks, etc. But if you try to steer subtle players with an OOC chat, you’ll probably offend them.
Conversely, hit your non-subtle players over the head with plain advice and leave the subtle stuff to players who’ll appreciate it.]
5 Room Model Good For Castles Too
From: Alan C.
Everything you wrote about the five room dungeon is something I’ve felt about gaming for some time. I never understood the giant dungeon where it all came down to the thief in the party rolling an endless succession of dice for traps, moving silently, listening, etc., while the rest of the party trudged behind waiting to whack whatever shows up.
I’ve used a similar model [to the 5 room model] in my own gaming although I use it for almost everything where a limited space would work better than a huge open one, such as castles, cities, etc.
Why have a party running around a huge castle in countless rooms? Let’s say they’re chasing a thief. He slips into a secret passage that connects to five or six rooms. Or, for a good roleplay opportunity, let’s say the King has been assassinated. Most of the castle has been locked off and secured so the killer is among the guests/nobles/ servants/guards within these five or six rooms. I think it was the Prince in the library with the candlestick.
Dungeon Time Limits
From: Knud G.
I’m going to launch an adventure upon my players where they will have one character slain by a vampire. In order to have any chance of reviving the PC back to life, they will have to do so before next nightfall because once she has risen as a vampire, she will be lost forever.[Comment from Johnn: good tip Knud. GMs, go through your equipment, alien, spell, magic, hi-tech, and monster resources and look for any effect which has a decent time limit, and use this to base your adventure conflict around. Not only will this effect create a great, tension-increasing time limit for your games, but it will negate the need for a McGuffin and tighten your story up a notch.]
An Easy Solution For Player Stalling
From: Calinda Lucas
PROBLEM: My player thinks too long about what to do on his initiative. Slows everyone else down. He’ll sit for minutes just considering what is the best, most advantageous, and most risk-free strategy, when in reality a round (3rd edition D&D) is only 6 seconds. (10 rounds/minute.) This slows down the dynamics of combat and is unrealistic.
It is usually the most munchkin or rules-lawyer player in the group that does this, but it can also be just someone who is insecure and hesitant. You really need to fix both of those problems with some motivation to act more decisively.
SOLUTION: While you can’t expect your players to say what they are doing in a mere six seconds, you can expect them to be timely about it and think of their moves while everyone else’s initiative is going on. Even if the person just in front of them on initiative does something that changes their move option completely (for instance, kills an enemy they were planning to attack), they shouldn’t take so much time that it bogs down combat and removes the tension and action of the game.
In my opinion, 60 seconds (10 times the round length) is adequate time to formulate a plan and get the attack rolls going or the spell damage rolled. With that in mind, egg timers are an inexpensive investment.
Buy two 60-second egg-timers. The kind with sand cost about $2-$3 each. They are available at most game stores because people use them for chess and other games, as well as RPGs. When you call a person’s initiative, you flip a timer down next to them. They have until the sand runs out to declare their action, move their piece, and make their first roll. (Or, if it doesn’t require a roll, detail their action for the round and move.)
Usually, people can finish their action in the 1 minute, but if they are high-level, they may have more than a few attacks or have many dice to roll and add for spell damage, so realistically, you only need to make sure they have declared their action and have started resolving it before their minute is up.
If a person does not declare their action and start resolving it at the end of the minute, you tell them they stalled too long and their character hesitated in indecision and you move on to the next person’s initiative. After this happens a time or two, even the most hesitant player will pick up the pace.
Usually, after you use the egg timers for a few games, people get in the rhythm of thinking their moves out in advance and you can dispense with the timers unless the problem persists. It’s usually not a “permanent” necessity.
The reason you need two egg timers is that while one person is taking their initiative with one egg timer, the other can be “resetting” from having been used. If you only buy one, you have to wait for all the sand to run down before starting a new initiative, which causes a delay in and of itself. More problem than solution there.
$4-$6 for a couple of timers is really inexpensive to add the urgency and tension of combat back into a game that is getting bogged down. Hope that helps someone!
10 Category World Design Checklist
From: John C. Feltz
Some of this is fantasy-RPG-specific, but most should be applicable to any type of game.
- Geography and climate: gravity, atmosphere, land masses, vegetation, bodies of water, weather patterns
- Demographics: distribution of various races (or species), commonality, traits and features, natural racial enmities, racial roles in society, languages, typical background of adventurers.
- Religion and mythology: creation myths, pantheons and gods, church organizations and hierarchies, prevalence of belief, temples, shrines, and other structures, holy days, religious rites and rituals, impact of religious organizations on government and everyday life, do clerics go adventuring?
- Economics: general level of economic and technological development, employment patterns of the masses (individual farming vs. serfdom vs. manufacturing, etc.), what do people eat, level of education & literacy, currencies, inflation, scarce commodities, surplus wealth, cultural symbols of wealth.
- Government: government systems, NPC stats for key government figures, current and historical relations between various nations, role of the government in everyday life, unusual laws and practices, particular laws that affect adventurers.
- Society and culture: what do people do for fun, sports and games, expressions and oaths, family structure, etiquette, ethics and morals (alignment), music and arts, architectural styles, fashion and styles of dress, pets.
- Magic and technology: general availability and familiarity to the masses, interplay between the two, availability of high-power magic and technology to adventurers.
- Non-governmental organizations (NGOs): mage academies, thieves’ guilds, secret societies, professional and scientific societies, fraternal organizations (Freemasons, Elks, Rotary, college fraternities), private clubs, universities, corporations, charities.
- History and myth: ancient general history, regional history, specific local history, news, and rumors.
- Adventurer-specific: role of adventurers in society, typical adventure opportunities/sites.
Dungeon Tip: Add Something Players Would Never Expect
From: Christian T.
A good way to keep dungeons interesting is to put something there the players would never, ever expect.
- An unholy temple? Try a font of holiness locked away in a secret room that is holding a devil from breaking through.
- A prison? What if one of the prisoners is a polymorphed dragon, but is currently stripped of its magical abilities?
- An ancient library? What if the library was the key to a volcanic eruption that occurs when a certain person (PC) reads a book?
- A dungeon with magical beasts? How about an antimagic field covering the whole dungeon, so the monsters are magically powerless, CRs reduced accordingly. (But do the PCs know that?)
- A beautiful, helpless maiden is not a sacrifice to a dark god but the high priestess.
The possibilities are many…[Johnn: Can any readers think of any similar dungeon twists? It might be cool to build a list and post it in a future issue.]