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.