Tying Backgrounds Together
Ray killed Vegas. Twice. Let me explain. You see, I DMed a fourth edition Eberron game which took PCs from level 1 to 30. The game was a blast and full of twists and turns that left the PCs wondering at times which NPCs were the good guys and which were the bad guys. Much to my glee at the time, this theme carried over to the players. One player wrote into his background that he thought he was talking to a god, The Silver Flame, when actually (unbeknownst to his PC) he was talking to a demon lord, Bel Shalor. That was Silas Witherin the human invoker, played by my buddy Vegas. Meanwhile my pal Ray’s character, the devoted drow avenger Elaria Feywing, worshipped the same god as Silas, but she did not hear the Bel Shalor’s voice during prayer. She heard the actual Silver Flame.
Anyway Bel Shalor is diametrically opposed to the views and ideals The Silver Flame, and the demon worked to undermine the god’s plans. Silas, believing he was in the right, often clashed with Elaria. Since we’re talking about a campaign where the fate of the world was on the line, these characters clung to their beliefs over their party loyalty and Elaria killed Silas. Twice. It made sense for the story and (I thought) everyone seemed cool with it so I let it go down. This was a campaign amongst close friends about intrigue after all! But…
In reality it wasn’t an awful thing for about half of my players, I daresay Ray and Vegas enjoyed it, but it did leave the other half of them upset, which is far too many in my book. Heck one upset player is a problem which should be addressed, let alone half your players. This game came on the heels of a previous campaign where an adorable gnome warlock named Fizzlebottom Cloisternook, played by my friend Andrew, chopped off his hand, cut out his eye, and replaced them with Vecna’s body parts leading him down the path to party-killing, Orcus-worshipping lichdom.
All this is to say a lot of my players were tired of their PCs deceiving and backstabbing one another. I figured if they were tired of that, this problem would take care of itself in the next game we played. After all, it’s up to them if they’re running off and doing their own thing, right?
Our next campaign was the published adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard as we wanted to try out the D&D Next playtest rules. The adventure was fun and the players did work together for the most part, but there was a moment when one PC wandered off on his own during the first session. The others asked him to stay with them and the player said, “But I don’t know you all that well yet. Why would I stay with you guys?”
Now I know some of you might say he wasn’t being a team player, but to be honest he did his own thing for five minutes and then stayed with the rest of the party for the session. Still, his words got me thinking. The player did have a good point from a story perspective, and I feel at least part of that onus is on me as the DM to bring characters together in a meaningful way. Sometimes that means going beyond, “The merchant has selected all of you to guard her carts on the way to Icewind Dale, now that you’ve arrived you want to keep working together, right?”
I know that by no means is this an original thought but that’s because this is by no means an original problem. Here’s a few ideas you could use to bring the party together during character creation or the first session of play in a new campaign.
As you may know, I’m big on stealing ideas from others. Well there’s a few games out there that make character background creation a really fun experience. For me, Fate and Fiasco are the two big ones.
You can actually checkout Fate’s rules for character creation for free here: http://www.faterpg.com/dl/df/charactercreation.html
As you can see it’s an in-depth process but there’s no reason why the High Concept, Troubles, and Phases sections can’t be applied to D&D or most non-Fate TRPGs. Heck, even just the Phases section, or just the Whose Path Have You Crossed section is all you need to tie party members together. The wonderful philosophy of Fate is that character creation is play, so check it out. You’ll have a blast doing it with your friends.
As for Fiasco, that’s a bit of a horse of a different color, but still fun. If you’re not familiar with the game, it encourages deceit and disaster amongst its players. Which is fine since it is meant to be a single session game. However, you could play through a session and have all the characters try to get along with an eye toward this being your future D&D party. There’s nothing in the rules which prevents that from happening. The story could be the party’s first adventure together.
Of course, instead of playing an entire game of Fiasco, you could just go through the Set-Up phase, wherein every character forms a connection to two other characters. Then you don’t even need to worry about changing the tone of the game. The rules of Fiasco aren’t publicly available, but if you’re interested in learning more the game’s Wikipedia article is actually pretty comprehensive on the subject. I recommend buying it and not just for D&D. It’s a ton of fun to play in its own right.
If you know the game (or buy it) and are interested in using it to set up connections amongst characters for an Eberron game, I actually created a Fiasco playset for Eberron which takes place in the city of Making in the country of Cyre right before The Mourning. Check it out: Eberron Fiasco – Making
Use Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws
The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons already has a baked-in backgrounds system and it’s great. Why not tell players that either their bonds or their ideals must relate to at least one of the other characters in the party. So a bond might be, “I never let my younger brother Bartho the Wise out of my sight because I promised our mother I wouldn’t,” or “I’ve sworn to help my best friend Kayla Swift pay off her father’s gambling debts to the local thieves guild.” An ideal might be more general, such as “Family. I put the life of my kin above all others – including my own. (Neutral)” Follow this up with a more specific note – the cleric is my sister. Boom, instant ties.
Perhaps less obvious would be to use the traits and flaws of a character. Personality traits describe the way your character behaves, so it might be something like, “I laugh at all my friend Bertha the Destroyer’s jokes,” or “I’m tongue-tied around the lovely Jake the Handsome.”
Flaws are ground to be tread very carefully. Only if you and your players want to play a game of deceit and backstabbing should flaws enter in the most obvious of ways. “I can’t help but steal from my friend Garrus the Blind,” is a terrible flaw for most games. Instead, encourage players to think of flaws that would be detrimental to themselves as opposed to others. “I worry about my nephew, Sid the Skinny, and so I give him half my food, even when he isn’t hungry and I am,” or, “I often embarrass myself in public by performing unnecessary acts of affection for my betrothed, Hermantia Hedgerow.”
Make sure players clear these with you and with each other before setting them in stone, since Jake the Handsome may not want the tongue-tied advances of another PC.
Shared Bonding Experience
Nothing bonds a group of people together like being in the same military unit, prison, university dorm, church, orphanage, thieves guild, or mercenary group. Maybe the party in your game has this in their history, like The A-Team. Or maybe your players shared in some traumatic experience together (such as a devastating earthquake or goblin horde destroying their home). You get even more specific and say they had the same mentor who has now gone missing. This keeps things a little more lose, but means your players already know each other and have something which bonds them together. Either pick a shared experience like this for your players to tie into PC backgrounds or have them decide as a group what they’ve shared which brings them together. If they belong to a shared group like a guild, decide if they still belong to this organization at the start of the campaign or if all or some of them have left it behind.
Why not start your players off with a battle and no explanation. Just bam! Drop them right in the action. After the fight you may say something like, “One day earlier…” and take them back to the start of the adventure. This is a suggested way to start the published Eyes of the Lich Queen D&D 3.5 Eberron adventure. Starting a story in medias res is by no means a new idea. It was done in Star Wars, The Aeneid, the Iron Man movie, and oh so many more stories. Yes, it does railroad your players for a bit, but that’s not a bad thing at the start of a campaign. Your players now know they have to work together at least to a certain point for the story to make sense. Hopefully by the time they reach that point in the story, their relationships with one another will be somewhat established. If they’re concerned about being on rails, let them know the whole campaign won’t be like this, it’s just a way for you thread a quest hook and bring their characters together. After all, that’s exactly what it is.
At Tracy Hickman’s XDM panel at Gen Con this year, the man of the hour actually showed up a little late. His friend, whose name I unfortunately cannot recall or find, actually started the panel and shared some great tips for building party cohesion. If anyone knows that guy’s name, please let me know! One of his tips was to have the adventuring party already established as working together at the start of the campaign. Perhaps mere days ago they just finished up a quest and the campaign opens with them at the bar bragging to others about the adventure. The players then go around and take turns telling different parts of the story, describing not just the action of their individual characters, but their interactions with each other as well. If you don’t want to do this in a tavern bragging setting you could simply have your players engage in a similar form of group storytelling during character creation. If you want more structure you could play a quick game of pass the story involving the PCs.
What Did I Use?
So I ended up going with a combination of using the fifth edition built-in Bonds and Ideals and the group storytelling. It seemed to work well for my players, who really enjoyed not just working another character or two into their backstory, but also kicking off the first new session with telling a tale of how badass their new character was without having to roll dice to prove it. What are some other methods out there? Let me know in the comments below!
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