What if every player character in a one-off adventure came with a backstory featuring their own individual goal? Designing such a module or convention game where different members of the party possessed their own unique motivations is challenging for the writer yet can reward everyone with memorable roleplaying. You want to allow players to really get into being a pre-rolled character and stay true to their temporary roles. However at the same time as a Dungeon Master you need to keep an eye on the overall game. Here are 2 ways to balance the realism of personal plans within a group that still needs to work together and the 1 challenge that this story structure presents.
Initially, it is imperative to give each character a compelling reason to join (and then stay) with the others that goes beyond the ‘You all meet in a tavern,’ cliche. For instance, you have a party that forms because they are trying to break a criminal kingpin out of a maximum security prison. One of the characters may actually be doing this because they have an ulterior motive of trying to kill him as revenge for something the kingpin did to their family. Another may be trying to genuinely save him so as to demonstrate loyalty and perhaps rise in rank in the organization. And another may desperately want a specific item or piece of information from him that is crucial. Thus all the characters may be subtly making different decisions throughout the adventure due to their true motivations and yet they all have the impetus of getting to the crime kingpin. Shared goal, different reasons for that shared goal. And ultimately, an exciting resolution of these conflicting goals.
The 2nd way to balance diverse motivations in a party is to make the encounters challenging and require a diverse array of skill sets. Even if characters have a compelling reason to stay together, there might still be points where one feels another member is not important to their own ends. So a well-written adventure tries to make each character necessary for the party’s overall success. If the players can be made to realize that they will not be able to complete the mission without the whole team, they will be left with the choice of staying together or risk failing. Skill based challenges, from traps to puzzles to a certain type of knowledge that requires different classes, ensures that the characters must rely on each other.
Finally, the 1 main challenge with the structure of individual goals is that secret motivations might cause your characters to split up or need to speak with NPC’s or you in private. The key to these meetings is balance. If different players are constantly going off and having private and separate interactions it will hampers game play and slows down everything for everyone else. Success is to keep the whole party engaged and interested even when talking to certain people individually. So pass notes, but pass notes sparingly and perhaps have them pre-made to speed this part up. And don’t take too long if you do have any one-on-one conversations; NPC’s time is important!
Several friends and I team formed a team we named Redeemed Revenant to design a game that utilizes these principles: a 5th Ed D&D convention style or 1-shot adventure called Khatogon (Cat-oh-gone). It is designed for four 4th level characters and we think it’s criminally fun. Check out our Khatogon Adventure if you want to see more.