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I believe that it is generally a good thing that all the PCs travel together, as a "party". This way the GM has to manage one environment – not, say, five. The problem is how the GM can ensure such a relationship between the characters.

One simple and really great solution is to require the players to design their characters so that they know each other. This has the added advantage of cross-backstories – as the players try to adjust their stories to fit together, they get and create hooks for more narrative!

However, I am now experimenting with giving the players complete freedom at character creation and later meeting in-game. No luck so far.

It is not easy, as trusting someone with your life (what happens during combat) is not a trivial thing. Furthermore, people generally like others with the same behaviour/interests/skin colour. Fantasy is all about diversity – you do not character-generate a strong man with a sword, no, you generate a half-ogre with an axe never before seen!

How can the GM get players, with diverse characters who are strangers to each other, decide to have their PCs act as a coherent group. I absolutely want to avoid asking my players to just solve this through metagaming ("Hey Joe, think of a way to get together with those, I can't story-tell two separate groups at the same time!").

I'm not having the stereotypical problem where a bunch of PCs meet for the first time and are automatically so paranoid of strangers that they start trying to kill each other. My players have just created a bunch of characters who have their own legitimate interests, and are faithfully following those in completely different directions that don't result in a classic "party". I put the PCs in great peril together and everyone escaped by their own devices, but now I have to figure out get the guy who ran for the hills back together with the couple that entered the city. And, I want to do it by resorting only to reasonable in-game events, not out-of-game metagame suggestions.

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up vote 31 down vote accepted

I set a limited numbers of must, might and should rules for character creation. Those generally look like:

  • Your character must agree to do X — plot of the game. For example, work for Black Mesa, help NPC X, need work because of repayment on space ship, yadda, yadda…
  • Your character must have Y — linked to theme of the game. For example, be a known hero, have space ship crew experience; be a wizard of the White Council, yadda, yadda…
  • Your character must be willing to work with others. No loners.
  • Your character should speak language X — so all your characters can understand each other.
  • Another character may be your friend, ex-lover, contact or/and acquaintance.
  • Another character may have worked with yours in the past.

The reason I do this is because I am building a story in which the protagonists must, should, and might have those things. Otherwise, they are not protagonists and thus have no place as a PC for this game.

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It's often easier (and generates more interesting stories) if there's some pre-design criteria designed to link the characters. However, it's not necessary, you can do "random folks" games fine.

There's often some element of metagaming to them - most traditional D&D campaigns started with various different people in an inn and some guy shows up 'wanting help' and they're all off to the races. Of course when people then get deeper and try to have a backstory and all then this can be more problematic.

You have a variety of choices here, not all separate.

  1. Use a system (or just a philosophy) that lets it be OK that the PCs aren't all together all the time. This is shocking to D&D-heads but I urge you to check out some indie narrative games like Fiasco. Even the early Amber RPG was semi infamous for games where most of the action took place between individuals and the GM and only sometimes actually directly between players.

  2. Hard railroading. Toss them in the same slave ship (A1-4, Scourge of the Slavelords, or more modern, the Skull & Shackles Adventure Path). The city is surrounded by hobgoblin armies! You're drafted! Whatever.

  3. Soft railroading. Go through their backstories and link them all to the same plot thread/guy/MacGuffin. Or there's a deal people really can't refuse. "Hey you are in this crappy slum city but this troubleshooting company has sweet jobs for the skilled." This complements #1 in that they may not all be "let's all sleep in the same room" buddies from the get go. Make them think it's their own idea or even work for it, and they'll be much more on board and invested.

  4. If the group is very "in character," remind them to consider not acting like punks because of IC reasons. We had a problem once in a game where we were all undercover wizards in a land where wizards get hung on sight, and some kind of "possesses random people" kind of demon was after us.. So we have a new character roll up a 'crazy gnome.' He discovers our secret but doesn't even talk sense, he's just like "whee turnips!" In character, I laid it out to him, that if he couldn't say that he understands the risk and that he won't tell anyone about our magic use, he's going into a sack and being thrown in the river. No, seriously. He chilled the hell out. That's called solving it in game.

  5. Tell people "make whatever character you want. But if they're not part of the main action in a couple weeks, they become NPCs and you get to make another." Some people are just obstreperous about what 'their character would do' to the point of sociopathy. "Oh he's a dwarf, he would NEVER consort with humans no matter WHAT" (but hey, other dwarves in this world do..." These people get stuck between an in-game and metagame and it leaves them out - just make them start over.

  6. Have something so cool and interesting happen they don't have time to navel-gaze about it.

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Variant of 5: Have the group make several different characters for each player. Set the game in a setting where a group out of any of them can be created quickly (usually a geographically restricted area). Present a problem, then let the players decide which of their characters will tackle it (the others are too busy or uninterested), or just create another one if no-one of the existing fits. – Martin Sojka Sep 28 '12 at 8:37
I especially like (5). I never thought of implementing "PC status decay" in order to ensure party cohesion. – SevenSidedDie Sep 28 '12 at 14:09
Superb answer! Let's vote it up high! – Vorac Oct 1 '12 at 7:52

I generally start my campaigns with one or two "common thread" requirements that all the PCs must incorporate. I usually pick one Location thread and one Experience thread. For example, I might say that 'You must be living in X town at the start of the campaign' and 'You have suffered greatly at the hands of the evil Y Empire.'

These threads are mandatory, but all the details are left up to the players--one character might have been born in X town, while another might be hiding there as a refugee; one character might have lost a brother during the war with Y Empire, while another character might be an escaped slave from it; etc. You can be as creative as you like, and in many ways these little limits actually expand the range of possibilities by giving the group some helpful focus. If somebody says 'Tell me a story,' it will be rather hard for you to come up with something out of thin air, and the story will likely be kind of dull. But if somebody says 'Tell me a story about pizza,' you will suddenly have a lot more to say, and the things you say will be more interesting. The 'about pizza' requirement doesn't limit your story--it unlocks it.

I like the Common Location + Common Experience Model because it allows the greatest diversity of backgrounds, but there are lots of other possibilities. I had an idea for a campaign set in Hell (the players were all supposed to be damned souls assigned to corrupt living people, but there was the idea that they would be able to work towards redemption if they wanted) where the requirement was that the character had to have done something bad to end up in Hell. I've also had campaigns where the entire party had to be related to one another, either by birth, marriage, adoption, etc.

Ultimately, the aim is not to require the players to play together, but rather to arrange it so that they have lots of good reasons to naturally do so, and encourage them to develop ideas that otherwise might not have occurred to them.

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Unlocking vs limiting—nice, I'm going to remember that. – SevenSidedDie Sep 27 '12 at 3:21

In addition to the back-story requirements others have written about, a method I use is to have an inciting event where characters no matter their background are drawn together for story purposes. The tavern they all just happen to be in is attacked by a bandits (rather than them just forming an adventuring party) and only the party and one noble is left standing. The noble basically hires the party to hunt down whomever sent the bandits and deliver justice. From there you have a short or long quest and afterward a shared back story that rather than being written in, is played as a party.

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+1 for "You all meet in a tavern and then everything goes to hell." I've never known it to fail. – GMJoe Sep 28 '12 at 7:49
@GMJoe I like it because it takes the cliche and throws it out the window, though its almost its own cliche at this point. I also think the you wake up in a prison cell, slave wagon, torture dungeon, etc. and break out together to be just as effective. – Joshua Aslan Smith Sep 28 '12 at 14:06

I started my campaign with a huge Tournament that lasted several days and consisted of several events. People had to sign up in teams of four, so I started out by telling my players that they'd met through 'Participants Wanted'-posters on the capital market place and decided to form a team. It also had the benefit of forcing them to pick a team name that I could use for the rest of the campaign.

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Well...yeah, but! If I let the players create arbitrary characters, those PC-s all have their various reasons to "adventure". Why would all PC-s want to fight, willingly? – Vorac Sep 18 '12 at 6:43
The thing is, if the characters are so different and the players all want to go solo and pursue their own stories, nothing short of you mechanically forcing them to stay together (placed on same team for tournament, thrown in same dungeon, sole survivers of same catastrophe) is going to change that. When the PLAYERS want to form a party, there has to be an implicit need for the CHARACTERS to do/want the same. – Ravn Sep 18 '12 at 8:17
If they don't (want to) create a reason for this at character creation and it's up to you to make this happen, they need to accept it, or there's no campaign. You simply cannot have a team-based story where all characters want to go their own ways. Even if you create a mechanical reason to band them together, it would have to last until level 30, otherwise they'd split as soon as they could. – Ravn Sep 18 '12 at 8:21
Interesting thing is, I tried to confine them to the same space, but one of them escaped! I think I'll go with the "It has been foretold" excuse for awkward things happening all the time. Or maybe the "you are all poisoned, find the antidote". – Vorac Sep 18 '12 at 8:30
+1. I love your variation on the "Common Experience" thread. – Codes with Hammer Jul 16 '15 at 18:01

This may be a bit "left field" but what about using a system that doesn't require the party to always be together (or even *gasp* be cooperative!) I've been playing Apocalypse World quite a bit lately, and we've had some very interesting PC vs PC conflict. Admittedly the game is a lot more story driven than D&D, and if you are really interested in the Fantasy setting then Dungeon World might be more appropriate. Regardless, if you are dead set on not railroading, blowing up the whole damn train might be a good start. There are other systems out there as well that don't rely on "Don't Split the Party."

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Have you at all tried just letting the characters diplomatically sort things out in-game while putting them up against threats they cannot face alone and which prevent progress until they're defeated?

An example

There is one bridge leading onto the Isle of Muthadorn, a small island a stone's throw from the coast. Lately though an army of Gnolls, Bugbears, and Goblins has blocked the path to the island and supplies aren't making it in.

All your PCs are trapped on that island for one reason or another, and if they act the way you say, will try to get past or fight the army alone. When they realise they cannot, and retreat, they may seek each other out and try to confront the horde together. And while they may choose to go separate ways in the end, you can always take a similar approach and make an impassable obstacle.(Don't do it too often – in my experience that kind of railroading is good, but taken too far is not fun.) Also, make your players write detailed back-stories and provide towns and cities. Perhaps two of them grew up together or something. The point is to look for commonalities in back-stories and use them against the characters.

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I also started once with a tournament. One of the characters was a prisoner whose only hope was to enter the tournament to secure his freedom, another was goaded into entering the tournament by his brothers (2 other PC's) for the tourney winnings and the last player had a debt to pay. I created several basic NPC's of various levels and various classes we spent one night having short one on one fights; this culminated with a three-way battle at the end. Luckily for me the three PC's that entered made it to the final round. This did cause some bad blood at first, but the PC's ended up respecting each others fighting ability which helped when the other 2 PC's rejoined the group.

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