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I'm making a list of things to do for character creation for my first game as DM, and one things I've often heard is to have at least some reason for the players to have come together for their adventures (The traditional 'we just met at a bar and decided to have some fun' seems terribly lame...).

What are some better pretexts/explanations on how the characters decided to go on their journeys together. I want the players to be able to write separate back-stories for their characters, but I also want there to be at least a passable story of how they came to meet each other. I plan on them coming from completely different places, so they probably won't be able to have a very long history together, but I still want a decent reason.

How have you explained how your characters met each other and decided to go adventuring? Are there any good guidelines/examples for creating this part of the story? How can I give them a solid feeling of unity for a specific cause, whatever that cause may be?

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While I enjoyed reading the responses, this question is an "accumulate a list" question that can never have a final answer. If there is a specific setting/campaign with which you are having trouble creating a party, that might be a more answerable question. Or maybe it should be multiple questions. –  user1637 Sep 29 '11 at 20:58
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I think as long as the answers focus on the process and not the specific lists of group conceits, it'll be fine. So answerers, please do that! –  mxyzplk Oct 2 '11 at 5:29
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In our group, every character has to start with a connection to at least one other character. Players have to agree on the nature of the connection between their characters. –  Joe Mar 22 '13 at 0:19

16 Answers 16

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Some starting points I've seen/used:

  • The characters are helping to stop a war. There are 3 main factions that the PCs know about, the 2 countries warring, and the church that just wants the bloodshed to stop. Characters can be from either X country, or the church. As a result half the group was from the country, and half from the church. There were 2 factions that all had the same goal, so they worked well together.
  • Collaboratively create a back story that includes all the characters. Once the bullet-points are agreed upon, pull characters into a prologue that brings all the characters together with minimal conflict/chances for XPs, until the end of the prologue.
  • Company-man/woman. All the PCs are called together for a job. I've been in this situation multiple times, once it was in a Vampire Chronicle, so we all knew who was at the table and their clans, but didn't know anything else about them yet. As a result, we had a 1-2 sentence reputation of all the other characters. In a Shadowrun game, we didn't know each other until our Fixer(s) and Mr. Johnson agreed that this team would do well together. We met, got the job, and then went to a bar to get acquainted.
  • "There's someone I know who may help us". Player A knows player B. B knows A and C. C knows B and D. D knows C. Player A needs to do some task, and calls B. B calls in C, C calls D, and you now have a full team.
  • "Send in the Clones!" Paranoia. We had no background, history was above our clearance-level, good citizen. Requesting things above clearance level is traitorous to the great computer. Report for a summary termination immediately. Have a nice day-cycle. (as in, the characters were all rolled randomly in front of the DM, and neither we, nor anyone else knew anything about our past, present, or future).
  • Met in a bar. This actually happened with one of our groups. We were in a bar, there was a stick-up, and we needed to get our stuff back. It was a milk-run, but it brought the group together.
  • "I need a few brave lads!" This is the classic handful of characters are milling about in a tavern, some warlord comes in and declares that he needs a few brave folks to go after the Widget of Wondrous Awesomeness. PCs volunteer for the job, and keep adventuring afterwards.
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Check out the Dresden Files character creation. It's a cool method where each player gets a card and starts writing a story from their character's perspective then everyone passes it to the right. The next person picks up the story from their character's perspective. The Dresden Files' book gives really good prompts and directions too. This is fun because it's something that the players build together and gives them backstories to reference even in the first session of play. It's also super nice because they do most of the work instead of you.

This can give them the initial framework of friendship and put them all in the same place. Then you can hook them in the first session with your campaign line.

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The Dresden Files and Spirit of the Century SRDs. Free and legal versionso of the games :) –  Simon Gill Nov 10 '12 at 9:37

The meta game answer: When I run a game, I indicate the setting, what the game main theme is going to be, and how the characters will fit together. This takes a lot of the set up out of my hands and into the players. I find that this approach gets me a better gelled party with many reasons not to just go home when the going gets tough.

Because of the heavy character tie in, this opens me to create many sub-threads of the plot based on what the player come up with. Look at how Anime does it: All the characters have many layers of connections to the plot, to other characters, and mesh really well. Let your players come up with those and you can extrapolate many sub-plot threads.

Example: The game is a horror post-apocalyptic reconstruction, with heavy elements of steam punk, and some supernatural horrors. Mostly, your character needs to be good at investigation and character interaction but some combat/magic/technological skills would be a plus. The characters get a letter from a dear friend asked for help. The game starts just before you arrive at his house. I would expect some characters to know each other and at least to have heard of the others.

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I haven't had the chance to do this myself, but I've been wanting to use the "Usual Suspects" set-up.

Surprise, you're all in a single jail cell for a crime you didn't commit (which is tricky for mixed company). Then you find out you've been setup by another mastermind, whom you have to appease, or else.

You're all thrown together, maybe having a passing, professional knowledge of each other. Forced to work together, opening into an instant scenario. Obey the criminal mastermind, flee, try to double cross him. Your choice.

Of course, this works best for slightly less-than-good characters. I've tried setting it up for my children, but they're still good kids, and always run lawful good characters. But, I still love the idea.

Forget the tavern, put them in jail!

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My first game was at least sort of like that, but they had all committed their special crimes; they just happened to get released at the same time and none of them had any other contacts in the city. –  KRyan Jan 25 '13 at 17:56
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Every Elder Scrolls game begins like this. –  brice Aug 6 '13 at 12:23
    
-1 I feel like this approach risks the characters losing their reason to stick together once they resolve their immediate problem. You can fight that with some GM "railroading" (ick) or just a bit of player "metagaming" (not really a problem at all), but pretty much any setup works then. –  Alex P Jan 26 at 5:54

We struggled with this in one group until we decided it should largely be up to the players. The GM explained his general setting, and then challenged us to come up with some kind of central conceit that would keep our characters together. By having one that the players devised as opposed to one imposed from outside by the GM, that created buy-in that ensured that players weren't always trying to bypass the perceived restrictions of a group conceit that the GM came up with.

Two specific implementations:

  1. In a D&D 3e campaign whose setup was "we'll run the Freeport trilogy, then whatever 3e modules we can lay our hands on, rotating GMs" we were a pirate crew, who had all signed the Articles. We might be evil or lone wolves or disorderly, but we're expected to cooperate and stay within bounds or get keelhauled.

  2. In a low magic world where magic-users were hunted and we all had magic powers but were also hunting down evil wizards, we decided we were a travelling troupe of entertainers called The Wizzards, who dressed up like Gandalf types and did obviously fake magic shows. It served as both a cover and as a group concept.

In both cases the group concepts were both accommodating of most character types but also provided a framework around which we could all stay somewhat under control and moving in the same direction without weird metagaming. "I don't really know these guys but I guess I'll follow them around the country sleeping in an inn room with them!"

Sometimes we then emerged group conceits as players by ourselves later in the game. In one Eberron game we "inherited" a bar in Sharn and all became joint owners, and suddenly were going on adventures with the purpose of paying for the bar, furnishing the bar, etc. We had lacked a group conceit and the GM hadn't asked for one, but one emerged later on and took what had been a somewhat formless sequence of random adventures and turned it into a larger overall goal and narrative.

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My DM once decided that he was going to run a campaign that he had created from scratch. He had the same problem that you are having. He didn't know how to bring our characters together, so he went with something off the wall. The four main characters were all introduced to each other in a sleazy back water bordello. As we were all enjoying our evenings with our less then good looking whores, the place was burned down by corrupt city guards. Since none of were really the stay quiet and accept what was happening players. Every last one of us ended up in the same jail cell and from there it was all about breaking out together and then just working with one another to become filthy rich and powerful.

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Your DM started a campaign with that scene from The Usual Suspects? I've wanted to pull that one for YEARS. –  Pulsehead Mar 22 '13 at 18:49

We've had some good intro stories and some bad ones for our group over the years. Everything ranging from the "You look trustworthy!" cliche to other examples with really deep back stories.

When we ran the Shackled City campaign a couple years ago, one of our characters was from a merchant family and heading to Cauldron to open up new trade routes for the family business. My character was also from a merchant family, but the business had fallen apart with the disappearance of my father and had been bought out by the other character's family and I was traveling with him as a hired hand.

Other characters had their own reason for going to Cauldron, but we were all traveling together in the caravan for several weeks together. By the time we had reached Cauldron, we had established a business partnership as an adventuring band.

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I would suggest you have a look at The Reject Files: You all meet in a tavern.

Apart from that, I can add personal experience of it being best to start PCs in a way that they don't have to meta-game getting together. I have used taverns to start adventures within a campaign, but to get the group together in the first place there's nothing like a little danger.

I have had the group happen to meet at a cross-roads (after arriving from different directions) at dusk, and setting up camp together, then (obviously) get attacked and have to team up to take out the opponents. This gives the group a good reason to travel together (safety first!) and can lead into a campaign of finding out where the attacks came from and then stopping them, if you are so inclined.

Of course, sometimes the PCs are all hired as guards/investigators/mercenaries/adventurers. To make the whole "Circumstances have thrown you together" thing slightly less railroad-y, try adding some NPCs who are also hired with the PCs. Maybe they are good friends with the PCs (or some of them), or have a small rivalry with the other half of the group - setting up minor plot points, or even major ones (The hired hand with gambling problems who was arrested for stealing in that one city ran away with the MacGuffin, to use a really clichéd one). This also means a dead PC can take over one of the NPCs, or a player joining for only one session can quickly play a character. Also, a missing skillset can be provided. No healer? No problem! The quiet bloke in the corner who doesn't do much during combat can quickly Cure Light Wounds! The NPC adventurers can also be used to pass hints to the PCs, such as when they're all level 3 or 4 but want to kill a dragon while they are out of spells. An NPC party member (who doesn't want to die just yet, thanks) can tell them to run - or better yet, show them (or die horribly as a warning of course).

These two are my favourite ways of getting the PCs all in one group, and can be useful for future plot development. Of course there are many others, but these I have used most and prefer.

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This is sort of specific to my game, but I think it applies. Our game is called Guildschool. The reasons are unimportant. What matters is that the GM must carefully set up each guild/school in each town in a graph. So when a player creates a new character, their skills are dependent on the guild they start with, but a huge amount of their background is already interwoven into the whole game, setting and rules.

Example: Sirrah Astell Arsain's Primary guild affiliation is with his school, the Knighthood of the Bone, in Steel Isle Town. This knightood currently serves as the knights of the Church of the Orcus the Guardian of the Dead. They are charged with protecting Boneyards of all stripes and denominations from the depredations of unscrupulous necromancers. The are often companions with the Order of Stenron (some 10 knights in Steel ISle town belong to both). The Church of Black Irony and Fate (Jubilex) is the largest Entropic church in Steel Isle Town. Grisli's IronMongery normally makes their laquered heavy armors for tham (where many of the other knighthoods also shop and order)...and Grisli's is part of the Sceding Tree Trading conglomerate, which has ties to many underworld and trading groups...

So in many settings, knowing the interweavings of the places that the players would have to be affiliated with solves this problem every time. Coming up with the intertwinings is part of the fun in our game...

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Ones I have used in the past to get the group together and get things rolling:

Wake for me

The characters are all called together for a wake for an old mutual friend from their past. The characters son proceeds to give them all a fine evenings entertainment as they reminisce how they each knew the deceased (good for getting out back story and learning about each other) during the course of this they are introduced to a mysterious artifact/old story from his past/puzzling bit of information about his death/etc

It's Relatively Dull

All the characters are vaguely related (distantly, adopted and in one case even pretending to be to try and get the inheritance!) and are brought together for a grand family event, insert shocking revelation, sudden crisis and presto!

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Of course you can always go with a generic tie: You're all hired by the same guy, or are thrown together by strange circumstances (you're framed/hunted/robbed/whatever). Some games make this easier than others, but it can probably work in just about every setting.

But I've found the best ties come when you give the players free reign to make up the connections based on their individual backstories.

Also encourage conflict in the ties (within reason). Just because they all need to work together doesn't mean they all need to get along.

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At the very start of my pulp campaign I had everyone write a bit of backstory, then I discussed (via email) some details with the players and came up with a reason for each of them to be on the same ship going from South America back to the USA... and then the ship sank (this was part of the actual first adventure, they happened to share a lifeboat and started adventuring together).

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Here are a few of the ones I have used:

  1. You all grew up in the same village and have known each other since childhood; some of the PCs are related to each other by blood.

When I used that, we did some random roles to decide everyone's relationship with each other. Two of the characters were half-brothers (one was a half-elf!) and two others were grandfather and granddaughter, the rest grew up in the same village or nearby and had known each other for many years. Since all the characters were related, it did cut down on the "how do you know each other?" stuff, and for fun a couple of the characters even made up some "stories from the old days" to create a little history between their characters.

  1. All the characters feel themselves drawn to a particular spot in the woods along a trail one night; a gypsy witch appears and tells them all they have a shared destiny and must stay together to accomplish it, she then disappears leaving behind a curio (a key, a necklace, a ring, etc).

The DM can decide what the mysterious "destiny" is as the campaign goes along, what part the curio plays in the destiny, or to make it more fun let the characters figure it out themselves through actual game play. It can be a complete McGuffin and never really turn out to be anything, or the DM can spring it on them when they get to high level and are ready to face a deadly or powerful foe ("You get a feeling, hearing about the Lich King of Daktoma, that this is the destiny that was spoken of many years ago, and the amulet the mysterious witch left for you has some kind of connection to the Lich King")

  1. The characters are all in one spot and a attack is made there; they must flee with the other PCs and form a group to survive the escape.

I used this to good effect in one campaign; the characters were all in a tavern when it was attacked by frost giants and white dragons, who were destroying the town for not paying the annual tribute to the giants. The characters all managed to escape into the woods, and had to travel across a mountain range and forest to reach a major city and let them know. This caused them to quickly bond with the shared goal of survival, and by the time they reached the city they were 3-4th level and had formed a tight group, sworn to revenge themselves on the giants.

  1. The characters, through one way or another, all work for the same guild or merchant group.

This also worked well with a group of mine. All the characters were in the employ of House Valaryan, a merchant house with an outfit in a jungle outpost. Some of them were related to the upper members of the merchant house; some were merely paid employees; others owed a debt to the House that they were paying off through indentured servitude. They often got sent on "missions" together so they bonded well through the shared experience of having the same employer.

  1. All the characters are being stalked by the same enemy, and must band together for protection.

Through various methods, the characters have all run afoul of an evil organization, monster or individual and are being hunted down and killed. They bond together for mutual protection, plus they can only let people like themselves know who they really are. The foes could be a evil religion that is hunting down unbelievers (any religious beliefs not worshipping the evil god, which happens to be all the PCs); a lich is sending out servants to find his lost phyactery which he believes one of the characters holds (none of them do, but the lich isn't very reasonable, and puts them all on his death list); or a powerful lord or King is hunting down members of the family who originally deposed him...now back in power, his foes are long dead, but he will revenge himself on their children and relatives.

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Why not give them something to link to, and let each player decide how it fits his character? "You each owe a favour to this retired swordsman"; maybe he taught you to fence, maybe he saved your mother's life when the bandits attacked, maybe a bet on his arena fighting financed your training. Or "You're all in this village, and short of cash; how and why?". The newbie's character just came of age and needs to work for a living; muggers took everything the merchant/wizard possessed, so he needs work to pay off the doctor and to earn the fare back to where his money is; the thief/bounty hunter was (mistakenly) arrested for robbing a merchant, and fined all her cash. If the players need help, you can suggest something, but if they come up with the links, that's a free set of story hooks, that you know they're comfortable with.

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It is better to create a web of relationships rather than the hub and spoke map that you have here. A web is more responsive to changes and will keep players involved if something happens to their relationship. –  Simon Gill Jan 25 '13 at 17:45
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@SimonGill You are right, however, the hub and spoke can often be a start that leads to a web developping over time and the "predefined link" can give a fast way to start while letting the players write their own characters. –  TimothyAWiseman Jan 24 at 20:45

For my recent campaign, I decided to offload that responsibility from the players by first getting them on a boat, then forcing them to work together to not die horribly by pirates. It's a decent enough reason as to why they feel they can work together I found; I then sealed the deal by making the group of them directly responsible for mass-murder of an entire archipelago.

Yup, nothing makes a group stick together quite like shared memories of that time they blew up a few islands. Now they basically have to stick together for story reasons. Shared secrets, especially the kind that you can't talk to other people about, does wonders for getting people who wouldn't normally associate stick together.

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I think explaining the problem to your players (before they create their character's if possible), will largely help alleviate this problem. Give them a brief summary of the plot (no spoilers, just something so they get a general idea of what they'll start out doing), and explain that you want them to work together as a group so you want them to come up with a good back-story together, that explains why their character's are friends together.

If that doesn't work, I always think making them part of a military squad tends to solve most problems. However...then one of them needs to be in charge, this can result in power struggles, but can be useful if they'll accept it.

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