Create a Coherent Party
First published 12/6/2000; last edited 12/23/2004
Many game masters (GMs) put together a roleplaying game (RPG) and find out too late that the player characters just don't fit together well. The player characters (PCs) run off alone, ignore each others' plots, and so on. Players are left frustrated and/or bored. Or the characters work well enough together, but what the GM actually wanted was that "spark" when a group just really gels. So we'll provide you with a number of suggestions for creating, encouraging, and maintaining a coherent party. Not all of them will suit your group of players or your GMing style; mix and match as you please and keep the ideas that work well for you.
NOTE: Having a coherent party does not necessarily mean that you have a party without conflict. It's entirely possible to have a party that works together and that keeps everyone entertained, while still having conflict and disharmony between characters. Party coherence is the issue of making sure that the characters all get involved in the same plots and that all of the players have fun with the game.
It's also possible to have a coherent party and consistently interested players even if the PCs run off alone to do things. This mostly relies on several things: the PCs need to do interesting things that the other players find entertaining; the "spotlight" (or attention of the group) needs to move around often so players don't have a chance to get bored; and the characters need to spend short rather than extended periods of time apart.
During Character Creation
Take an hour or more during character creation to sit down with your players and make sure that everyone has a reason to work together.
This could take the form of what we call a "party theme." I.e., the PCs all belong to the same group, they all work for the same person, they're all of the same species, tribe, or guild, or something similar. This is the easy way to make them work together, but it can make some players chafe. Lots of roleplayers have pretty strong imaginations, and they don't want to be limited to one character concept. Not to mention that a lot of good conflict and plots can be had out of a diverse party!
This could also take the form of one specific tie that everyone has. Maybe they all went to college together and got to know each other well and trust each other. Or they all grew up in the same neighborhood, or they all have a friend who asked them to work together. This usually works well to start with, but there often needs to be more than this to keep parties together long-term.
A third means of tying characters together is the patchwork network of ties. Two characters grew up together. One of those two works with a third. That third was asked by a mutual acquaintance to work with a fourth. The fourth has a personality that will work together well with the second character's personality, and so on.
In this last method you don't have to connect each and every character together with each other one, but you will want multiple ties to each character. This reinforces party connections. It also means that if a character dies or a player leaves the game, it doesn't break the party apart. In general it's best to tie each character to at least two others. (Make sure the ties are such that you don't end up with two separate groups of characters; you need a single web that ensnares everyone.)
If you're up for it, spend some extra time on character creation. There's no need to get it done in one night. You could take a week, or even months if you know in advance that you'll be starting a game! This gives you extra time to iron out the wrinkles and find the conflicts before the game starts. (Thanks to Adrian Ringin for this last idea.)
Mix and match these ideas. There's nothing saying that you have to stick to just one method of tying the characters together during character creation; stack two or three together if it works.
Convince your players to give their characters some large ideological goal in common. If all of the PCs hate a particular group of people then they may be willing to work together to spite that group, despite their differences. If they all want a certain type of utopian society, they may work together to further that nebulous goal. And so on.
With a little planning you may be able to give your party such an ideology, even if the game is already underway. Create a plot designed to leave them all hating a certain overarching group, or wanting the same nebulous long-term goal. Then, every now and then, bring plots into the game that pull on that ideology. If they have to continuously work together to reach that long-term goal, they may come to think of themselves as a coherent group, rather than a bunch of random people.
The Common Bonding Experience
One way to encourage particularly tight-knit parties is to create an intense common pre-game experience. It's a variation on the "specific pre-game tie" method of character creation, and will probably bring in the "common ideologies" way of doing things.
Give all of your characters a common experience that they shared pre-game. It should be something life-changing. It should be something intense and emotional. Some sort of life-or-death situation is probably a good bet, but anything that causes emotions to run high can probably be made to work. (Side note: this sort of thing usually has to be pretty personal for the characters, so be sure to work together with your players on this one!)
Make sure the characters "bonded" well during that event. They helped each other out, even if they started out not wanting to. Maybe out of this event they even developed that common ideology, as well as a little trust and respect for each other.
Detail the event as much as you feel comfortable doing. Detail it loosely and stick to qualitative statements if you don't feel comfortable telling people what happened with their characters in the situation. If you have lots of time, energy, and enthusiasm, you might talk to your players as they design their characters and write up the event with their help, so they'll be happy with how it works out. Give every character at least one good high-emotion moment in the write-up.
Then, just to make sure the event sticks in people's minds, give each character an emotional, psychological or physical scar to go with it. Make use of any merits, flaws, advantages, disadvantages, quirks, etc. your system provides. That scar will help to remind each character just why it is that he or she works with, tolerates, or trusts the other characters.
Some GMs make this scene into the beginning of the game, rather than pre-game, so that the players have control over their own characters for the duration. For example, if the players are going to be playing ghosts, then the beginning of the session might be the event that kills them.
Slanting Character Actions
One of the recent articles that went up on the Burning Void RPG Resources page was on what we call "slanting" character actions. This means that each player takes the fact that it's a game and that players have more fun when they're involved in things into account.
When a player decides what his character is going to do, he goes about it slightly differently than usual. Many players ask themselves, "what would my character do in this situation? Would he bring the others along or would he go alone?" The idea here is for a player to instead ask, "does my character have a specific reason for leaving the other characters out of this?" And if the answer is no, he involves them. In real life people go off and do things alone, because it usually doesn't leave their friends alone and bored. In a game only one group or person can have the spotlight at once, so it requires slightly different considerations.
If the player's character is doing something that would entertain the other players or that he specifically has a reason to do alone, he still can. But if he has no real reason to leave the others out, then he doesn't. He slants his actions to include the others. When he must do things alone, he tries to find ways to take up less game-time, so that the others aren't sitting around bored for too long.
You can explain this concept to your players and ask them to keep it in mind when playing. For a longer and more complete explanation of slanting character actions that you can print out and hand to players, see the full article.
Make Use of Story
Start your game off with a very strong story that forces the characters to work together for a while. Hope that during that time the characters will develop bonds that will keep them together. If possible, engineer circumstances that will teach the characters to trust and/or like each other. This can be difficult. If necessary, ask a cooperative player to help you set this up.
Introduce reasons for characters to work together if there aren't enough already. If you have a real loner problem on your hands, try to make the loner reliant on an NPC, then have that NPC ask or require him to work closely with one or more of the other characters. Or you could somehow make the loner mystically dependent on having one or more of the other characters around. There are many possible variations on this setup.
Introduce plots that teach the characters that they're stronger and safer when they stick together, and that the world is a very dangerous (and possibly deadly) place for someone who likes to be on his own. Make sure that the world is dangerous for people who wander around alone.
Get Players to Help
Explain to a player you trust that you want to make the party a little more cohesive, and ask her to help you out by trying (in little ways here and there) to bring the characters together. For example, if one character has a habit of running off to do his own thing for long periods of time, ask another player to have her character be more insistent about going along with that character.
This is a little tricky, though. If the insistence annoys the loner it may make him want to go off alone more. So start slowly. Ask your helpful player to be subtle and friendly. If this doesn't work, move on to a different method.
In general, though, ask players you trust to help keep the party together. If you have a player who's good at playing natural leader-types, work with that. Put him in a position where he can make use of that, and ask him to put some effort into keeping everyone involved.
Most loner characters really have no place in a party-play game. Unfortunately most heroic or villainous characters in fiction, movies, and RPG books are loners, and that's where many players take their inspiration from. When we think about an interesting heroic character, we're likely to think of a loner.
Make sure any loners have particularly strong reasons to work with multiple other characters. Consider linking them to most if not all other characters, rather than relying on one or two ties to keep them in the party. Specifically make sure that those ties give the character reason to trust the other characters and include them in his work.
You might also convince the player that while his character is a loner on the surface, he really is dependent on other people; he just likes to pretend otherwise. Go ahead and tell the player straight out that the point of this is to make sure that the character will be a part of the party. You can also point out that very few people in real life can exist entirely alone without relying on other people, so this is just more realistic. If your system uses merits, flaws, advantages, disadvantages, or whatever, you might give the character a flaw or disadvantage that reinforces this dependence.
Third, if for some reason it seems that the above suggestions won't be enough, then tell the player straight out that the character he's designed is too much of a loner, and that you're worried it will pull the party apart and cause players to get bored and irritated. Tell him that he'll have to make the character into more of a team player before you'll let him play it.
Keep Everyone Involved
Make sure everyone has a reason to get involved in each plot. If your party is particularly coherent, that reason may be as simple as "character A is involved, so B and C are too." If the party isn't coherent, you may have to work a bit harder to entice each character to get involved. Make use of character backgrounds to do this. The more background that comes with characters, the easier it is to get the PCs involved in things. You can appeal to them emotionally, play on past traumas, and use their contacts, enemies and allies to push them into things. (You can also set up plots that require abilities or knowledge that various characters have, so it isn't possible for a fraction of the party to solve the plots alone. This method may not work when used by itself, however.)
The issue of keeping everyone involved is one reason why it's so useful to link the party together well. That way you don't have to find a reason to get each separate character involved in every single plot (which can stretch credibility). You just have to plan well: "Hmm, if I involve Max in this way, then Christie will follow along, and if Christie gets involved, so will Ben, and that just leaves Mary..."
When characters insist on going off alone for no good reason, abstract as much of their actions as possible. For example, if someone insists on exploring room-by-room through a large empty building without the other characters, tell him "you don't find anything interesting on the second floor" instead of allowing him to minutely examine each room. This will keep the time when the characters are apart shorter.
If the character is doing something that the other players find entertaining, there's little reason to do this. And if the character has a very good reason for leaving the others out, then you'll want to cut him some slack. But if you see yawns all around it may be time to bring out this particular weapon. If the player complains to you, gently explain exactly why you're doing it. Point out that if he involves the other characters more, you won't have to abstract things.
Give Characters Time to Gel
Allow players to make minor changes to their characters during the first few gaming runs. This tends to be a good idea anyway, as a player's image of his character can change a bit once he's played him. It also allows you to quick-fix any major problems you find with characters that don't seem to want to work together.
Why yes, we are going to beat this dead horse into the ground! As always, communication between GM and players is paramount. If a player is causing problems by tearing the party apart, tell him so. If your party members don't have anything in common, sit down with the players, point this out, and brainstorm between you how you can fix the problem. Fixes to problems work best when the players are aware of them and acting to help the GM make things work.
Pushing People's Buttons
This is the hardest part of what we're going to tell you today. It's a complex issue, and relies on player cooperation that you may well not be able to get. It's also a very personal thing, and will vary from player to player and group to group. So we'll explain the bits and pieces of what we mean, and you can decide how much of this particular section to try to follow, and how much just isn't feasible for your group.
Characters that push each other's buttons (do things that irritate each other) can cause friction in your party and may well cause characters to go in separate directions. There are many, many ways in which characters (and players!) can push each other's buttons. Some of these are strictly character issues, and you may be able to solve these by appealing to the players to make minor adjustments to their characters. Note that not all character differences need to be solved in order to have a good game, as mentioned earlier--sometimes PC conflict can make life interesting. It all depends on the effect it has on your game.
A character with a strong sense of morality who insists on his companions adhering strictly to his standards is likely to be a problem unless everyone in the party has the same moral standards. Characters who don't insist on everyone else being just like them are going to get along with parties much better.
Pay attention to characters' loves and hates, and try to make sure that those loves and hates won't interact badly with other characters' traits.
Some people don't value ways of doing things that don't match their own. If you have players or characters like this, you're better off with a group of characters that mesh well, are similar, and don't have a great deal of diversity. (A character who only values clever and subtle ways of defeating opponents is likely to look down on and avoid any combat-oriented characters in the group.)
If you have insecure players, you want just the opposite: lots of diversity. Otherwise a player who feels that someone else's character steps on his character concept (particularly if that other player carries the concept off better) is likely to be unhappy.
Try not to step on players' character concepts yourself! If a player plays his character concept well and gets ridiculed for it, or if the GM or other players constantly keep him from playing his character concept, that player may be unhappy. (For this reason among many others, if you have a problem with a character concept, you need to speak up before the game starts, while the player still has a chance to change things. If you just don't realize it will be a problem until after the game starts, then sit down and have a talk with the player rather than just thwarting him at every turn.)
The players and the GM also need to have a similar concept of what sort of game they want to (or are willing to) play. This refers to genre (fantasy, science fiction, horror...) and to style of gaming (character-oriented, hack-and-slash, puzzle-oriented...).
We hope these suggestions will help you to wind up with a coherent party, whether your game has already started or not. An incoherent party can really irritate players and GM, and yet it's a difficult problem to overcome. Luckily there are all sorts of ways for you to work on the problem. Hopefully one (or five) them will work!