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In essence, how would you keep a colorful group of players together in a world filled with mistrust, without going too much meta?

Here is the scenario :

Our hero consists of members of a special academy, a school designed for grooming young boys and girls to become heroes and protector of the kingdoms. To fight monster and defeat evil when the time should arise. Unfortunately, a dark cult have infiltrated the academy, and started abusing the pupils for all kinds of dark twisted operations. As a result of this, the player group have cut of all ties with the academy, and now just go wherever they see fit, living by the original heroic codex upon which the academy was founded upon.

Its going pretty well so far, the backstabbery of the villain npcs came as a huge suprise for the players, and they have handled being on their own quite well.

The problem is that now, I have a group of characters that have learned that a number of people is clearly not to be trusted (which is absolutely true for this setting.) But since the roots of evil stretched far into their academy, how can I ensure that they don't start distrusting the other party members, and either split up or stop cooperating.

Im not looking for inspiration on dialogue or plots, but rather which game- or group-dynamics I could use to keep the group together?

So far, the players have been sharing some rather big secrets together, which kindof ties them together (they killed their mentor together on grounds that they suspected him of being a cultist, only to find out that he was on their side all along.)

The situation becomes really tense when :

  • Alignment differences begin to affect the common goal of the group.
  • New characters or players join the campaign, without having been part of the "basic trust" team.
  • Characters use their contacts (childhood friends or family mostly) without informing the rest of the group what they communicate to them about their new "friends".
  • The party is conflicted between fight or flee, since their adversary in this campaign is rather powerful.

Any methods or techniques you wise sages out there can recommend ?

If it matters, its a fantasy medieval setting using the Pathfinder rules.

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5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Don't worry about it too much

Until you conspire with the first PC to backstab the party, they will stick together simply because they're the players. It's not perfect storywise, but it's often better than finding some elaborate explanation that breaks the flow of the game.

A larger evil

Have an enemy ready that catches them together at one point in the story. For this evil NPC (works best if he's a higher up, cult priest or sergeant or something), it's clear that the party conspires against him, that they are together. Fighting against him or just foiling his plans will make the party move closer together naturally.

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...unless you just happen to have one or more of those players who have learned the rule "do what your character would do", but not yet the corollary "unless it breaks the game." I, for one, took some time to learn that the hard way. –  Ilmari Karonen Dec 25 '12 at 22:17
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To be blunt: Sometimes, in-party conflict is GOOD!!!

Step one is to discuss with the players if they are willing to accept the possibility of traitors in the party. If they are, then just continue, and let people contact you quietly to let you know if they are or are not part of one or more conspiracies.

If they aren't, ask them to explain why their characters trust each other. It's backstory, so it's best if the Players come up with it, rather than the GM.

Once they've made a decision, let it flow.

I've run games where the players never knew who was and wasn't a traitor to the cause... both in Star Wars and in Rogue Trader. My Dark Heresy game, they were all part of a heretical conspiracy (Their Inquisitor/patroness was a renegade Adepta Sororitas working on feminizing the Space Marines Gene Seed. One of the PC's dropped hints to another inquisitor's acolytes that she was "off.")

A mature group can handle either; maturity doesn't determine who will like that approach, tho', as willingness to be fractious in-party is a matter of taste, not maturity.

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But... How did you keep the group together as a cohesive whole? Why didn't each character go off on his own, and choose not to work with a half-dozen potential traitors? –  AceCalhoon May 27 '12 at 15:25
    
You simply make certain that working with the group gives them access to opportunities for self- or ethos- advancement. In the Dark Heresy game, it was mission driven. Knowing that their boss was a heretic meant that they knew also that toppling her would mean their execution. Which lead them to other, equally interesting, individual schemes on the side. But their pay and travel was mission based, so the campaign had no impetus for fragmentation. In Star Wars, it eventually lead to a confrontation as a campaign climax. And a bit of mind control later, a rebel takeover of a stardestroyer. –  aramis May 30 '12 at 4:41
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When a member of the party is necessary to the story line, it doesn't matter if the rest of the party trusts them. They still have to be brought along. Good role players will be able to have fun while playing characters that are either mistrusting each other, or all looking sideways at the one "new guy" who just came into the party.

So, in this campaign, I would see it as essential that each member of the party bring something special and unique to the party, and that this special and unique "thing" be integral to the story. This isn't just some random world you are having them play in, from what you describe. I'm not saying that every encounter is a scripted event where it all has to mean something. However, this party must be trying to accomplish something... like set the world right, fix the academy, destroy whatever caused the problem in the first place, etc. Otherwise, why is the party together in the first place? Just because they are friends in the game? In the world you describe, that's not enough (IMO) since just about anyone can be turned if the price is high enough.

And don't let that stop you from turning one of the players either. The world you describe is perfect for one of the players to become a fallen hero, with a later chance of redemption. Think of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." Edmund falls, can't be trusted, and later redeems himself.

I hate to say it, but I agree with @Catlord in that you've got a bit of the Harry Potter thing going on. Not that this is bad. You should really look at that series for material to help you flesh things out... if you want.

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Well, I've literally had 2 major campaigns with similar 'we can't trust anyone' attitudes. And if the PCs play in character and if you are doing your job...that is how it should be. I actually want to tell you that you are doing it right, if they are immersion themselves that way.

So one answer, at one level, is that you've made this great bed, let them lie in it. Inter-party tension is a good dynamic. But it sounds like you'd like to reduce the amount of distrust and maintain the 'us against the world' mantra. And there are easy ways to do this.

1) use NPC contact to reassure party members that the other members are working with them. Make sure the party comes into contact with NPCS that others will trust and have those NPCs offhandly and in the process of other more important conversation and contact drop hints and clues about the trustworthiness of other party members.

2) set up occasions where some PCs can come to the aid of other ones, making it more clear by the actions of others that they are working together.

3) let one of two members find notes or such from the cult that speaks about how party member 'x' or 'y' is working against the cult and is a threat. This will make it more clear that 'x' or 'y' is not working with the cultists.

4) I use a lot of dreams and hauntings. Many call my campaigns 'damn creepy'. And the group's ex mentor that they killed wrongly is a GREAT haunting excuse that may give them dreams or hints that may tie the group together.

OK. That's a few. Now, I'd be more likely to have cultists offer the world to one or two of the more evil party members to try to sow some dissension, but that is just me.

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It sounds to me (and I already hear collective groaning) like you might find some good material in the Harry Potter series because Rowling really likes to tamper with the whole "true intentions" and the art of the doublecross, as well as (not) knowing your limits.

Something you may need to do is establish a secret society (perhaps of exalted Alum of their academy) that the players can trust, and that they know they can trust. New characters could always just be referred to the party as they try to allocate things/people to where they're helpful.

Another method is having a Geas or Curse placed on the party that binds them to be loyal to those officially established into the group.

Does it just crank the plot device until the Ex Machina falls into place? Heck yeah. Does it work and also give the players something to look for if they're always on the road? Bingo.

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