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Question Keith #4: Let’s Get This Party Started

Written by Keith Baker - Published on August 27, 2011

But maybe they have a Hobbit.

We’re proud to present the 4th in a series of monthly articles by Keith Baker.  Best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom he’s also worked on at least five games that you’ve never heard of.  Yet.

QUESTION: “Okay, here are a few questions. First off, let me explain that I have been a gamer for 30 years, and most of my time has been behind the screen. There are two questions that have constantly plagued me: What non-cliched means of gathering a PC group together have you used, and How do you keep a party on track with the plot, knowing both human and gamer nature?

– Sean Frolich

ANSWER: A barbarian, a paladin, and a thief walk into a tavern. An old man is sitting at a table in the corner, and his eyes light up as he sees the strangers. This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and in some ways that’s exactly what it is; the default “Adventurers wanted, ask for G. Dalf at the bar” opener.

But what are the alternatives? Your players have shown up with a pirate captain, an introspective warforged artificer, a pirate-hating cavalier, and a rogue determined to win back his stolen throne from his evil uncle. You adventure is about a haunted castle. How do you bring these characters together as a group? How do you convince them to check out that castle?

My advice? Share the burden with the players. If you have a clear idea for the plot, tell them what it is and ask them to come up with ideas that fit that framework; in this way, you also address the second question, because you find out up front if the players are remotely interested in that plot or if they’d rather be doing something completely different. For example, when running a campaign in Eberron I sometimes like to begin the game during the Last War, and ask the players to make characters who are part of a military unit. They still have room to come up with whatever idea they want as long as it fits within that context. You can still be the rogue who was once a prince—if you can come up with a reason that you were fighting for Cyre at the end of the Last War. Usually, I’ll run one or two adventures set during the War itself. This serves a few purposes. It places the characters in a situation where they have a logical reason to work together—they are soldiers fighting for the same cause. It gives them a few adventures where they have an opportunity to establish connections, save each other’s lives, and so on. And it gives them a little experience. Once it’s gotten old, we jump forward a few years, and now we’ve got the same relationship as Zoe and Mal in Firefly, especially if they come from Cyre (the nation that lost the war and was utterly destroyed). We fought together; we’ve got no home to return to; all we have is one another. Now, people don’t have to be soldiers to make this work. You could have a chaplain, a mercenary, a smith, a camp follower, a medic… wait, now we’ve just ended up with Firefly again. I had one group where the halfling rogue had been an innkeeper during the war, and all of the players came up with reasons they were patrons of her inn: the mercenary soldier, the drunken priest now seeking redemption, the wizard from the great house seeking allies for his personal intrigues.

I’m not saying that you need to use the war story; that’s just one of my favorites. My point is that the simplest way to get the PCs together as a group is to work with the players and say “Why are you together as a group, anyway?” Can they find the connections? Looking to the four characters I suggested above, we’ve got the rogue who’s throne was stolen by his Uncle. Great! Can the other players come up with their own connection to that? Perhaps the pirate was the prince’s best friend and a captain in the navy who turned to piracy when the usurper stole the throne. The cavalier was the prince’s bodyguard and still is; he may hate pirates, but he puts up with the other PC because he was once a noble captain and could be again and they share a common enemy. As a child, the prince loved to play in the smithy, and it was there he met the artificer. And there you are—four disparate characters united with a common goal.

The next question, of course, is why these people will want to go to the haunted castle and fight goblins. Well, when you’re working with them to create characters, I suggest that you have each of them clearly define a personal motivation and then agree on the group’s shared motivation. For example, the former-soldiers might have the shared motivation of “help Cyran refugees” or “reestablish our fallen kingdom” (a pretty long-term goal, to be sure), while individual goals might be “Find my sister”, “make as much money as possible”, “spread the light of the Silver Flame”, “atone for my horrible crimes”, or “Find Count Vakur and avenge my father”.

Now that you know these, it’s simply a matter of finding a way that the adventure you want to run fits these things—the stories the players themselves say they want their characters to be involved in. Perhaps if they drive the goblins from the castle, it can become a safe haven for a nearby group of refugees—or it’s a group of refugees who beg for aid, as opposed to a Mysterious Stranger™. Perhaps the warpriest realizes that the people are losing faith in the Silver Flame – but if he could drive the goblins out, he would restore their fervor. Perhaps there’s a hint that Count Vakur is working with the goblins, and they may know where he is.

Another game I’ve run a few times begins with the PCs all suffering from various curses. They meet one another on the road traveling to a town said to be the home of a holy man who can lift these curses. But when they get there, the town is in the hands of bandits. The priest won’t see people. It turns out he’s been possessed; the PCs all need his help, so they’ve all got a reason to work together to deal with the problem. Once they rescue him, he reveals that he needs to go on a brief pilgrimage to restore his faith and powers; if they need his help, they will have to guard the town in his absence. Instead of Firefly, you now have Deadwood, with the players taking on roles in the town while they wait for the priest to return. They need the same thing. They have a shared mission. And after a few adventures protecting their town, they can see the profit in working together in the future.

So, in conclusion: Work with your players. Encourage them to build a party as opposed to a single character. Have them establish motivations; once you know what they actually want, you know what adventures they’d like to have.

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Written by Keith Baker

Creator of Eberron, Gloom, and awesome snickerdoodles.

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9 Responses to “Question Keith #4: Let’s Get This Party Started”
  1. Matt says:

    Generally, I just let my players work out who their PCs are and the backstories, and then I spend the next week twisting the opening of my campaign to fit them all in it effectively. That way I can still keep things a surprise but attempt to ensure that the PCs motivations are still intact. If I really have an idea I just want to do, and to hell with my players, then I’ll often have them wake up together ala Cube or something of the sort.

  2. M. Whelehan says:

    Once again some good wisdom for DM’s, Keith.

    While our gaming group has been playing long term campaigns via the Pathfinder series from Paizo, the party origin is an important part that sets the theme for the next few years.

    I also like the connection to character origins/motivations. All too often there is also the standard character origin I like to call “The Unattached.” This is where the adventurer starts adventuring because she is an orphan, widow, kidnapped, etc. where she has absolutely NO personal connection to anyone or anything in the current campaign. Your suggestion allows for all of that, should a player choose it, but they start with some attachment to the party.

    I always found it confusing when a group of strangers would meet and within 30 minutes of meeting each other they’re buddy-buddy because the player’s know they have to work together but there characters have little to no in-character motivation.

  3. B'omarr Punk says:

    Keith, great article. Thanks! I agree that putting some of the burden on the players is the best way to do it. The most rewarding campaign I’ve run yet took place in the Forgotten Realms, in a tiny ranching town called Longsaddle. The players and I collectively chose this location, and we worked out complementing character concepts while I developed the campaign plot.

    The players eventually decided that there should be character links (friendship, mutual contacts, religion, etc) that go back to a time before the first game session. No matter how tenuous or faint, these links provided great roleplaying fodder and a level of character cohesion I’ve not seen elsewhere.

    We ended up with a ranger, bard, wizard, cleric, and fighter. All of these characters had ranks in ride, to represent their upbringing in/around this ranching town.

    The wizard and bard had both been whisked away to Silverymoon for their respective training, and bonded there as the two hillbillies from the boondocks. When they returned to Longsaddle in session one, they already had a friendship.

    The wizard and the (female) ranger had once played together as kids, and their childhood crush had now grown into a budding romance.

    The cleric was newly assigned to the local chapel as a replacement for an acolyte recently killed in an orc raid. That deceased cleric was a close friend of the ranger, and how she was judging the new priest against the standard of her lost friend.

    The fighter was the village idiot (kinda) so everyone knew him by reputation and took it upon themselves to teach him manners and such.

    So, before we even rolled the first initiative, we had characters who cared about each other and had a reason to work together other than share of the treasure.

    Epic!

  4. DoveArrow says:

    I had a friend of mine who tried something really interesting. The players all receive letters from a mutual friend, inviting them to a dinner party. When they get to the friends’ house, they discover that he’s been murdered. The rest of the campaign was devoted to trying to figure out who murdered him, and why.

    It was a really interesting way to start a campaign, and really brought the players together nicely. I actually snagged it for one of my own campaigns and the players loved it.

  5. Frank says:

    Hey Keith, good advice, teamwork and communication go along way. I have a quick question about the warforged from Eberron if you don’t mind. In 4e, it is written that they only need four hours of ‘inactivity’ to regain all the extended rest benefits, however they are still fully aware and perceptive of their surroundings during this time. So i was wonder, what constitutes ‘inactivity’ per se? Would one be able to do simple tasks during this time? Specifically could they work on learning a language for the hours? This is something that has come up in my campaign and I wasn’t sure what the specifics were. Thanks for the help!

  6. Keith Baker says:

    @Frank – Good question. I just posted the answer on my HDWT site, as it’s seems like it’s worth sharing with other folks…
    http://tinyurl.com/3t2z7fy

  7. Frank says:

    Keith! Thanks a million for the deep insight into the warforged. It is fascinating to learn about how they have evolved through the editions. You have brought up a nice way of looking at and breaking down the extended rest, essentially through physical and mental rest/preparation. This makes sense to me as a rational and my Warforged player and I have come to a fair resolution. Thanks again!

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