Creating a Cohesive Party

Copyright Peter Mork © 2009

Edited by Nicholas Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"It has been my observation that the more work that goes into party creation, the more smoothly the game runs, the less work is required of the GM to hold things together when intra-party conflicts arise, and the more fun the players have."

Do me a favor: go grab your favorite role-playing game off the shelf. I'll wait.

Okay, now find the section on how to create a character. Didn't take you very long to find that section, did it? Now find the section on how to create an adventure or campaign. This might have taken a little longer, but there's usually some such section. (In fact, RMSS devoted an entire book, Gamemaster Law, to the subject!) Finally, find the section on how to create a party. Chances are you had trouble finding that section—it usually doesn't exist (although I should acknowledge the importance of coven creation in Ars Magica).

The purpose of this article is to explore party creation in greater detail. Over the years, it's been my observation that the more work that goes into party creation, the more smoothly the game runs, the less work is required of the GM to hold things together when intra-party conflicts arise, and the more fun the players have.

In the next few sections, I'll look at some techniques that I have found to help with party creation. The first technique is for the GM to choose, before any characters are ever made, what features all of the characters will have in common. The second technique is for the players to determine, as they are coming up with their character concepts, what the relationships will be among their characters. The final technique is to begin the game with an adventure, either before character creation starts, or while the characters are being made.

GM-Mandated Cohesion

Even back in the good old days, the GM would exert some control over party creation by establishing a trait common across the characters. For example, all of the characters will happen to be in the same bar, at the same time. Or, the characters have agreed to band together for gold and glory. This technique works fine for players who know each other well, and can be relied on not to have their characters (overly) antagonize one another. However, nearly all of the role-playing games I've seen die a horrible death have basically fit this mold.

Even though character creation is usually described (in the rules) long before campaign creation, in practice the GM usually has some over-arching story in mind. This story-line should influence the sorts of characters that can be made. I usually choose one or two commonalities that will constrain character creation. Choosing two commonalities is actually nice, because then you can afford to make an exception (or two) for players with a very specific character concept in mind. In these cases, I usually require a) buy-in from the other players and b) an understanding from the player that his character will not play a central role in the story.

Here are some concrete examples of commonalities that have worked well for me in the past:

  • You are all Urbanmen (mixed or pure) from the same country. As the seventh child in your family, due to an obscure tradition, you all work for the Department of Internal Defense. I actually chose to mention this example first, because the high degree of cohesion allowed us, as players, to explore the darker side of espionage. In other words, good party creation is not simply a prohibition against "evil" characters. By the end of the game, virtually any one of the characters could serve as the villain in another game who was simply doing what he thought was necessary to protect the country.
  • You are all members of the same church (worshipping the goddess of trade). This left the party with a lot of flexibility, but as I describe below, we used a pre-game adventure to help improve party cohesion. In this particular situation, we allowed one character to be a cleric who worshipped the goddess of luck, with the understanding that his church would not provide the party with any real support in their struggles. This character was a free spirit who figured that business involved a lot of luck (so the deviation from the prescribed commonality was still small).
  • You are all research assistants at the same college of magic (i.e., all of the characters had to take the same training packager). The party actually included a non spell-user; she just had to spend more DP to learn the training package. This choice meant that all of the characters had the skills needed to investigate why so many mages were going insane (in this campaign, I decided that casting Arcane spells caused a mage to accumulate insanity points—PCs were not allowed to play Arcane users although they could learn Arcane lists).

The point of these examples is to illustrate that when the GM has a very specific story-arc in mind, he can use those ideas to help engender party cohesion from day one. The main weaknesses of this approach are two-fold. First, the players have less influence on the overall story-line because their choice of characters is limited by the story. Second, this approach doesn't do well to guard against a player who is willing to abide by the restrictions put in place, but still manages to create a character that is antagonistic to the goals of the party.

Player-Generated Cohesion

The previous approach relies heavily on the GM and his campaign plan to drive party cohesion. Another alternative is to shift this responsibility to the players. This approach has the added benefit that the players will (probably) have more influence on the overall story-arc.

The basic idea is that the players need to determine why their characters have come together to form a party. The simplest tradition is (perhaps obviously) to seek fame and fortune. However, this does little to guarantee party cohesion. Instead, the players should describe, in as much detail as possible, their shared history and experiences. The goal is to ensure that the characters know as much as possible about each other, as they are making their characters. (For some groups an added benefit is that the party will be "well-rounded," an important aspect of D&D 4.0. Personally, I'm perfectly happy to have a party of six rogue-like characters, which will certainly influence how the campaign unfolds.)

Again, here are a couple of examples that have worked in the past:

  • The players chose a specific player to be the "focal-character" in that he would choose the party's first mission and every other character had to have a good relationship with the focal-character. In this case, the focal-character was a scholar interested in collecting the arcane items found in Rolemaster Companion III. About half of the characters were fellow scholars at his university. The other characters were old friends from childhood with combat experience. (Actually, one character was a Houri who had been given to the focal-character as a birthday present, but the players had a personal relationship that made that work.)
  • Each of the players was required to write a paragraph or two describing their characters' backgrounds. These summaries were distributed to the other players who then responded with a short description of their favorite memory of each character from childhood. As a result, the characters all shared common bonds from childhood.
  • As a twist on the preceding idea, each player can also choose a secret that they know about one other player (e.g., "We shared an awkward first kiss under the old oak in the cemetery"). To avoid any potential difficulties, both the GM and the recipient of the secret need to have veto power. This twist is probably only a good idea for players that trust each other already.

In general, the player-based approach helps to prevent the wayward character that just doesn't fit in with the party. It does require, though, that the GM surrender some control over what brings the characters together, and how the campaign will unfold.

Adventure-Driven Cohesion

A third option is to include a mini-adventure as a component of the party-creation process. When the mini-adventure is run before characters are even started, the players can learn something about how the rule-system works (i.e., this approach is useful for players new to a particular set of game mechanics). Moreover, the players learn which attributes and skills they are going to find most useful (e.g., a player that determines he likes getting into places he doesn't belong should emphasize Agility and Stalk, or Presence and Duping, depending on how he pulls off the maneuver). Finally, this approach works especially well for games like D&D 4.0 in which even 1st level characters can accomplish amazing feats (the mini-adventure gives these players a taste of being a magic-user back in the day!).

To run an adventure before characters have been made, the GM will need to make certain allowances. First, there is no good way to determine how likely a character is to succeed at a particular task (i.e., you can't ask the character to attempt a Tumbling maneuver). Instead, the GM should generally assume that the character is successful in whatever he attempts to do. Also, the players won't know anything about their character's physical attributes. So, the adventure has to be constructed such that race, culture and language are irrelevant.

Alternatively, the mini-adventure can be run in the middle of character creation. This is my favorite approach. In RMSS, it makes sense to take a break after making all of the level 0 decisions (race, stats, hobbies, and background options), but before making any level 1 decisions (training packages and skills). Characters will have meager skill bonuses, so the GM should still adjust accordingly, although in this case it might make sense to call for an Alertness maneuver (since everybody starts with a rank or two of Alertness). Even so, in many cases, the GM should still assume that a character will succeed at something he attempts, provided the player agrees to have the character learn the appropriate skill when he finishes making the character.

There are several benefits to the mini-adventure. First, it establishes a shared history for the characters. It's much more difficult for a player to introduce an inappropriate character; such a character can be removed early before the player has expended too much effort building the character. Second, the players learn something about the sorts of challenges they might expect their characters to face, which makes it easier to choose skills. Finally, the GM learns something about how the players tend to approach problems, and he can adjust accordingly.

Some examples I've used in the past include the following:

  • As youngsters being raised worshipping the goddess of trade, they were allowed to travel to the capital to observe the ascension of an important NPC to godhood. While in the capital, they children saw another child (actually a Halfling), steal a minor holy relic. While recovering the item, as a GM I learned that the characters were generally willing a) to solve their problems without resorting to killing NPCs and b) to involve the authorities (they let the city guard know what was going on). As a GM, I had the opportunity to introduce an NPC who would later be driven insane. However, during the mini-adventure, the characters become very fond of this NPC. As a result, once the NPC went crazy (and became a serious liability), the players didn't resent having her around; instead they felt protective of her. In this example, the mini-adventure was actually part of the overall campaign story-arc.
  • Another mini-adventure example I'll be trying soon is a festival in which the characters (as children) will be competing against other children. In this mini-adventure, there will be a number of different types of challenges (some involving mock-combat, some involving puzzles, etc.). The point of this mini-adventure is for the players (many of whom are relatively new to the rule system) to learn how certain actions are resolved. At the same time, I plan to learn what kind of challenges the players enjoy. Would they rather face their opponents head-on, or find some other way around them? Thus, this example intends to encourage player-derived party cohesion. After all, it's hard to keep a character secret (e.g., my character is an Illusionist, not a Magician) from the other characters if they've grown up together!

As noted in the examples, adventure-based techniques can be used in conjunction with GM- or player-derived techniques. I think that a mini-adventure has many attractive qualities, but it places the largest burden on the GM: He has to design a mini-adventure that is suitable for children, and he has to be willing to "tweak" the shared history (or the rules) if, for example, one of the players chooses a training package that makes his character much older than the other characters.

Conclusion

The goal of this article was to suggest that party creation is an important process that improves party cohesion and links character creation to campaign creation. The various techniques presented can be used individually, or in tandem. In particular, I hope you've at least considered the possibility of running an adventure before characters have been fully designed.