Sample from Chapter 2: The Group Contract

The question of what makes an adventuring party work is a difficult one to answer. It’s safe to say that some parties work well together and others don’t, even with the same group of players behind them.

Sometimes it’s an issue of players clashing for one reason or another. Two characters with similar abilities, fighting over who gets to do what. Two thieves, for example, can’t both pick the same lock, just as two techs can’t both hack the same computer system. It can result from players having conflicting goals, conflicting strategies, or just roleplaying their characters to the hilt, even unto death. I’ve seen absolutely wonderful characters who were excellently played, but simply did not fit in with the group because of incompatible methods, goals, or abilities.

It can also be an issue of a single player whose character simply does not fit into the campaign on either a technical or narrative level and the conflict that results from that. A salient example would be a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective I once witnessed in a Werewolf game. The other PCs were powerful enough that they could bully or fight their way through any problem faster than the detective could detect. He was a great character that had nothing to offer the group with which he was paired.

While it’s impossible to guarantee that any given group is going to work well together, there are steps you can take to help things along. Let’s start out by taking a look at a stereotypical example of party construction and then see how we can improve on things. Most players will probably have had more than one experience like this:

The GM announces he will run a Dungeons & Dragons game. He intends for the major antagonists to be the Drow, and accordingly much of the action will take place in the Underdark. But he does not mention this to the rest of the players. It’s a surprise!

Each player goes off by themself and creates their character.

We cut to the first session. The group assembles, and they share their characters. First up we have the guy who watched Pirates of the Caribbean last night and has accordingly rolled up a pirate captain.

The next player has made a ninja, because there’s always a ninja. The ninja has an insanely high stealth skill, and the kind of cavalier attitude towards dispatching those who cross him that just screams Chaotic Neutral.

Last we have the paladin, wearing full platemail. He is equipped with a warhorse, squire, squire’s donkey, a wagon, 3 servants, a cook, 11 men-at-arms, and a jester.

The pirate captain, the ninja, and the paladin meet in a bar. They have adventures.

Here we have three characters from three different genres. The paladin and his entourage basically ruin the ninja’s ability to be stealthy, negating his major skill. Because this game will be taking place entirely in the narrow passageways of the Underdark, the pirate can’t use his sailing. The party will never get anywhere near the ocean. Neither can the paladin ride his horse through most of the winding corridors.

These three yahoos probably shouldn’t even be in the same story, let alone traveling together. A group like this will be crippled before the game even starts, mostly by a few poor—but easily correctable—choices during character creation. The good news is, none of these characters are bad by themselves. There are plenty of really cool stories involving pirates, ninjas, and knights out there (although typically not all three at once), and there’s no reason why your game can’t be one of them. With a little bit of tweaking to your group’s creation process, you can produce characters that are both interesting to the players and mechanically suited to work well with each other and the campaign as a whole.

Before we talk about character creation, however, let’s take a little sideroad and talk about creation conception.

The Protagonist Versus the Ensemble

In order for a group of PCs to work well together they need to be mutually dependent on each other. If one player is held above the others as “the main character”, with the rest of the party filling the role of supporting cast, it will only breed anger, frustration, and resentment within the group. A good party is one that only succeeds when everyone works cooperatively to complete goals.

In stories with a single main protagonist, that character frequently has abilities or resources that are objectively better than the other characters. They often go it alone against insurmountable odds, are masters of multiple disciplines, and generally find themselves the center of attention everywhere they go. In a story with many protagonists, the characters typically work together as a group to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, and no one is more critical to the story than another.

The difference is subtle, but critical. Contrast, for example, the Harry Potter series with something like A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin. While the various other characters in Harry Potter play a significant role in the series, and do things Harry himself cannot, they are ultimately supporting cast. Only Harry can defeat the primary antagonist, and the story justifiably centers around him. He is the protagonist.

In A Song of Ice and Fire there is no one main protagonist. The focus of the story jumps from character to character, giving each of them equal narrative weight. It is, in many ways, the very definition of an ensemble cast. A character—any character—could die for any reason and on any page, and the story would continue. Each one is a protagonist.

In most narratives, the audience collectively shares the perspective of the protagonists. Reading Harry Potter, we identify with Harry when the story follows Harry. When the narrative switches to Ron Weasley, we identify with Ron. No matter how many people read that book, the entire audience always shares the same perspective.

In a roleplaying game, however, each person at the table takes two roles: audience and actor. Each person observes the narrative from a different perspective: that of their specific character. Only one person can play Harry, and thus only one person can identify with Harry. The other players must identify with their own character, be it Ron, Hermione, or whomever; and they are stuck in that perspective for the entire game.

Therefore, an RPG with multiple players must be a narrative with an ensemble cast, not one with a single main character and supporting cast. Each player needs to design their character to be a protagonist, rather than the protagonist.

Drawing Inspiration from Popular Fiction

Players often look to popular fiction for inspiration when making a character, and the distinction between a main character and an ensemble is often missed. This can be a major source of conflict among players.

On the one hand, allowing one PC to be better than the others isn’t fair to the rest of the group. It also begs the question, “if this character can do pretty much anything they want without help, why are they traveling with this group of dweebs?”

On the other hand, it’s also frustrating for a player when their character fails to live up to what they imagine in their head. If the player is drawing the idea for their character from the Lone Unstoppable Badass model, you enter a no-win situation: Either that PC is better than the rest, or they will consistently underperform compared to “what they are supposed to be able to do.” Either that player is pissed off, or the rest of the group is.

Put simply, it’s important that players draw the inspiration for their characters from the right kind of archetypes. In many cases, it may be better to extract the elements of a character a player likes, rather than trying to adapt the whole character into a PC. I’ll go into this further in the next chapter, but for now tuck into the back of your head that certain characters work better as inspiration for PCs than others.

Defining Goals

The first step in creating a great adventuring party is to define what your real goals are in the character creation process. From the player’s perspective, the goal of character creation is simply to generate a character with an identity and game stats. Easy enough. From the GM’s perspective, however, there are several other objectives that need to be met before we can consider the character creation process to be successful.

We don’t want characters that just feel dropped into the game. We want characters that appear as part of a cohesive narrative, and who are capable and effective at confronting and overcoming the challenges they face. Many players have been in a situation at one time or another where they realize their character has nothing to do with the game, their powers are useless, and they are constantly fighting with the other PCs. It just plain stinks.

In order to avoid that situation arising, you want to make sure all of the characters the players are creating meet certain objectives. In general, we can break these down into four major points. They are:

  • The characters should fit the game.
  • The characters should fit the setting.
  • The characters should fit the campaign.
  • The characters should fit the group.

Let’s look at each of these points individually:

Fitting the Game

The first major goal is for each character to be mechanically suited to the campaign. As a general rule, most RPGs reward specialization with power. The more specific your special abilities are, the more powerful they can be. Many characters have powers which give them bonuses when they use a certain weapon or item, like the Ace Pilot, or the Spiked-Chain Fighter. Others may receive bonuses in certain areas, such as forests or gladiatorial arenas. Often characters will become very effective in certain types of situations at the expense of others, such as martial combat, magic, or social situations.

In the above example of the Paladin, the Pirate, and the Ninja, each of the characters was unsuitable for the game in some way. The pirate captain would not have either crew or ship to command, nor could the paladin use his horse in the primary setting of the game. Meanwhile, the ninja could not use his stealth abilities and remain with his cohorts.

The GM must take steps to make the players aware of what kinds of threats they will be encountering over the course of the campaign, and warn players away from characters whose powers will be of no use. No pirate captains in the mountains, no lance specialist knights on the open sea. A cat burglar will not have much to do if the primary method of entry for the party is kicking the door in, just as a barbarian would be ill at ease in a campaign of courtly politics and intrigue.

It is also possible in certain cases to make a character which is simply bad. Perhaps a player spread their character points too thin, or they didn’t spend enough points in a necessary ability. It’s not uncommon for players to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of certain key abilities, particularly when they are new to a system. Nor for an experienced GM to have at least one story about accidentally killing the entire party because no one realized that the Dodge skill was a necessity, not an option.

Fitting the Setting

The second goal is for each character to conform to the trappings of the setting, as well as its themes. On one level, this is fairly simple and straightforward: medieval European fantasy characters in medieval European fantasy, science fiction characters in science fiction, wuxia characters in wuxia, and so forth.

A player can make very long and entirely rational explanations about just how their particular ninja made it all the way from medieval Japan to France (or their generic fantasy world equivalents), but that does not change the fact that from a narrative perspective a ninja does not belong, any more than if someone decided they wanted to play a modern day superhero in a D&D game.

However, just because there were no ninjas does not mean fantasy Europe was bereft of stealthy assassins, nor does the lack of samurai necessitate the absence of knights. Settings are usually designed to be as inclusive as possible, and there is a high likelihood that—regardless of the game—you will be able to find an equivalent character type that fits the setting and fulfills the spirit of the character the player wants to create.

It is also important to address a second aspect of the setting: the themes. For example, one of the common themes of zombie horror is that the protagonists are ordinary people cast into a world where gruesome death lies waiting at every turn, forced to survive by any means necessary. While it is possible to create a character whose core concept is that he is a zombie fiction fanatic who has memorized zombie survival tactics, stockpiled anti-zombie weaponry, and generally turned himself into a one-man zombie slaying machine, this is not in keeping with the traditional themes of zombie horror.

Another example would be the perennially popular “Gray Jedi” archetype. One of the central conceits of Star Wars is the good/evil dualism between the Jedi and the Sith, in keeping with the general pulp fiction qualities of the setting as a whole. Despite this, many players (and unfortunately many authors of Expanded Universe novels) attempt to craft a “Gray Jedi” path which enjoys the benefits of both good and evil powers with none of the associated flaws of Jedi or Sith. Accusations of munchkinism[2] aside, a neutral Jedi does not fit within the themes of the Star Wars universe as established in the films.

Fitting the Campaign

It’s often the case that the PCs find themselves carried along the plot through no proactive action of their own, and with nothing to prevent them from simply walking away from an adventure except they have nothing else to do. The third goal is therefore for each character to have some sort of personal attachment to the major plot of the campaign. Something important enough that they can’t simply walk away.

The most immediate form of connection is to have a direct personal investment in the main plot. Let’s say, for example, you are running a campaign whose main antagonist is an evil wizard who is planning to summon a demon to conquer the world. Wanting to stop the wizard and save the world is the most immediate connection to the plot that a PC could have, but it’s not the only one.

Perhaps the wife of a PC is ill with a mysterious sickness, and the wizard’s chief lieutenant is the only person who knows the secret cure. While not directly connected to the main plot of the game, that PC’s goals coincide with those of the other characters enough for them to be interested in the main plot, while having their own personal sub-focus on a particular minor villain.

Another possibility is that the PC’s personal goals may be actively aided or hindered by the plot of the campaign. Perhaps they are out for revenge against the wizard entirely aside from the demon-summoning, or they want to steal some valuable magical artifact from him for their own purposes. Maybe they’ve heard the wizard has a vast fortune they wish to plunder. Whatever reason a player might devise, there should be something which binds that character to the over- arching campaign.

Along with having a connection to the events of the campaign, the character should fit in with the mood and tone of the campaign, just as they should fit in with the themes of the setting as a whole. If, for example, one of the driving themes of the campaign is the fallibility of mankind, along with the possibility for redemption, each of the characters should be in some sense fallible and have mistakes in their past they feel the need to atone for. If one of the themes of the campaign is that the world is ultimately indifferent to our own ideas of justice, and all ideals will ultimately be compromised, a character whose concept involves the triumph of ideals in the face of insurmountable odds is inappropriate.

Fitting the Group

The final goal is for the PCs to fit with each other. In order to fit the group, each of the characters should fulfill a couple of criteria. First, they should not be inherently incompatible with any of the other characters, whether for mechanical or story reasons. The ninja and the paladin, for example, or a demon-hunter and a demon-summoning wizard. Stealthy characters often run into problems here, as it’s fairly common for there to be relatively few sneaky PCs in the group, and a party is only as quiet as the lowest stealth check. However, it is possible to make a character that benefits from being sneaky (or whatever their particular focus ability may be) without being entirely reliant on using it to its maximum benefit every time.

Second, you often end up with groups which are united only by the fact that they are all in the group together. The old “We just met five minutes ago, and I have no reason to trust you, but let’s be best friends” dodge is simply lazy roleplaying. Each of the characters should have some sort of tie to the rest of the group on a story level, in the same way they are tied to the campaign as a whole. These ties can take many forms, from old friendships to common goals to an enmity for a common foe, but it is important that they be present in some way.

Assembling the Pieces

When you put together all of these elements, you should have a group of PCs that fit the tone of the campaign, are intimately connected to both the plot and each other, are mechanically suited to the system both individually and as a group, and make sense within the context of the world at large. And you haven’t even started playing yet!

It’s not hard to imagine that characters which meet all four of these goals are going to inherently be more fun to play than ones that don’t, and the players will find these characters to be more rewarding over the course of the campaign. So now that we’ve established what our goals are, we can start to talk about how you accomplish them in terms of your specific campaign.

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