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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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15 Answers 15

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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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – Martin Sojka Sep 28 '12 at 8:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I especially like (5). I never thought of implementing "PC status decay" in order to ensure party cohesion. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 28 '12 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Superb answer! Let's vote it up high! \$\endgroup\$ – Vorac Oct 1 '12 at 7:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ #2 or #3, or something in between, seems like the most straight-forward solution to the original problem, and is the basis of plenty of works of fiction, where the unlikely group is forced by circumstance to work together. You just need a reason for them to all be in the same place at the same time, when the bomb goes off, they're all taken hostage, they see what they were not meant to see, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – bgvaughan Mar 5 '18 at 18:51
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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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    \$\begingroup\$ Unlocking vs limiting—nice, I'm going to remember that. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 27 '12 at 3:21
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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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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "You all meet in a tavern and then everything goes to hell." I've never known it to fail. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 28 '12 at 7:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @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. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Sep 28 '12 at 14:06
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I recently just recently started a game where the PC's are on a ship heading for the East and are paying their passage with work and were put on a work detail together. I just said that they all had to have a reason to come East but it could be whatever they wanted. This worked well, but I also have pretty agreeable players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ My nephew did the same thing in the 5e campaign he ran us in last year. Worked fine, and we also did some RP with the captain of the ship and the crew on the journey over. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 13 '16 at 12:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ But what happens when they unboard the ship. They need to have formed some connection by then! \$\endgroup\$ – Vorac Sep 15 '16 at 8:52
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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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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? \$\endgroup\$ – Vorac Sep 18 '12 at 6:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – Ravn Sep 18 '12 at 8:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – Ravn Sep 18 '12 at 8:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ 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". \$\endgroup\$ – Vorac Sep 18 '12 at 8:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1. I love your variation on the "Common Experience" thread. \$\endgroup\$ – Codes with Hammer Jul 16 '15 at 18:01
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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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I'd like to add an idea I had while planning a Star Wars RPG, this concerns forcing them to sit together at a table, or having the offer directed to all at once:

Four steps to party binding

(from binding individuals to finding common cause)

  1. Get them comfortable with eachother (in-character). The PCs enter the bar/tavern/establishment simultaneously, they literally bump into one another while stepping in, so they have to say the first "sorry" or something that will get them familiar in pairs.
  2. Force them to seat together. There are no empty seats, except for a table in the corner, so they have to share it. Hopefully a character with higher Charisma or at least socially inclined will turn to the rest and say "Shall we share that table? I feel awkward taking all those seats for myself, plus I hear if you bring many friends along you get a discount here, how 'bout we find out if that's true?", this last bit adds some economic incentive, and the GM may decide later on whether it holds true or not.
  3. Those who will not seat, can't not seat because the environment leaves them no choice. Some may say "I'd rather seat alone elsewhere", tell them "ok, you go out for the next 5 minutes, and in 5 minutes I'll tell you whether you found anything else", then you inform them that you found no-one on the streets, other inns were either closed or full, and knocking on doors had no reply, plus their feet hurt so they'll have to go seat back there.
  4. The story begins! Now that they've been sitting there and getting to know each other (encourage casual roleplay, it's best if you discuss their background separately ex ante and let them introduce themselves for the first time to each other at that time), you can bring in the story. I'm going to go with "Hey folks, I couldn't help but overhear you, you sound like you're just the people I need! Don't worry, it's for perfectly legal work!", of course there's no reason for it to be legal ;)

An example of how I plan to execute this myself

(as soon as the books arrive and exams are over):

It also helps if you have discussed their roles beforehand and in private, I know I'm gonna be having an unstable droid (our D&D GM), a force user (a fantasy friend who isn't into sci-fi), a military expert (military shooter obsessed friend), a spy/infiltrator (spy obsessed friend) and an aspiring cyborg (friend who's cool with anything but loves cyborgs)

So Industrial Espionage is the mission I'll begin with, the spy to retrieve a data unit, the droid to decrypt it, the military guy is definitely going to propose to the cyborg to join as support if things go south, and the force adept is just broke and lost and will tag along (he's willing to cooperate in general), and I'll see how any abilities he chooses will fit in.

After the mission is over (probably getting loud on the escape part) I'll make sure there's an "we're an awesome team!" feeling going around, what with one helping out the other, and I'll mostly let them do whatever they want for a session or two until the authorities or the company come chasing them ;)

hope this helps!

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Use Collaborative Storytelling Techniques

There is no rule in the game that the DM has to invent everything.

Matthew Mercer in attempting to describe a DM's job in one sentence said, "“A DM creates and directs a story for your friends ... and working with their ideas, collaborates with them in real time to write the next chapter together.”

Thus, use your players to help write the story.

For example, in play, we have seen the following work to have the players themselves build reasons for the party:

  • Ask players to invent their bonds: The DM began the adventure by asking the players to create two pre-adventure bonds of loyalty or friendship with other players at the table. As a result, the players worked with each other trying to figure out how and why they would be connected. One idea PCs invented was that the bard had composed a popular song of the exploits of another PCs heroic actions he had witnessed which made them friends. The result we saw was that the players themselves were invested in the bonds they had created. The bard later composed more songs about the other PC.
  • Ask players to invent a character they all trust: The DM started the adventure and asked the players to create a character that they all trusted. That newly created NPC then wrote a message to all the players saying there was an urgent need for them to meet at a tavern far away. The result we saw at the table was that players themselves role played their surprise as they all met the distant tavern and discussed why the NPC might have messaged them. The party itself formed with little effort from the DM.

By giving players this initial autonomy to choose how the party is formed - they become more attached to the story.

As WebDM has put it, the DM is "just another player at the table."

The more you tap the players' imagination in creating the world, the more you will find the players immersed in the the world created and emotionally attached to the stories played.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvoted for having the players create the links. They won't feel railroaded and they can come up with new plot hooks for you. The Fate system does a great job of this. \$\endgroup\$ – Kieran Mullen Sep 13 '18 at 22:11
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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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One method I've seen used to form coherent character backstories is simply at either character creation or the 1st session for you, the GM, to go around the table and ask the players what their relationship to the guy on their right is and the relationship to the gal on their left is. Thus, everyone has at least two party connections and others are "friends of friends" or are known to the PC in some form or fashion.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Isn't this mentioned in the OP? \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Sep 22 '18 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TuggyNE This specific scheme is different from and more detailed than the one in the question (which is the common and ineffective “just be all friends” request from the GM). \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 22 '18 at 18:07
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These are all great ideas on how to get characters together as a group. One I have yet to hear, or should I say two are what follows...

In my current campaign, I had all the children grow up in the same town. A place where war has been going on for years (hundreds or maybe even thousands? he he he) This forced the players to group together as children and band in small groups for safety, but to push beyond this I added the mysterious friend. A drunk, dwarven cleric who had was introduced into each of the characters backstories created a tied together element between the two options. Not only did this work, but I have some extras I will show you in a moment.

Now that the campaign is going, and all the kids know each other and they have something tragic that they all secretly participated in. (Chasing off two children who were brother and sister due to a joke gone bad, and now thinking that they are dead...) They wish to bring in two new players... Now these players are not a part of the small village so how am I going to bring them in? I am going to use that drunk dwarf cleric who is more than meets the eye (and no he is not robotic). Add to that some time traveling elements that I borrowed from the Magicians show currently on Sci-fi. The kids in the village are dying over and over again in a time loop. So these new players are going to make this time loop break and continue past the players previous deaths.

The new players know that they need to break the loop, but cannot let the other players know... Meaning that they have a reason to try to integrate into the story and party hard. On top of that creating a great RP experience for all.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site, ARamsby, if you have a minute, check out the tour to get some knowledge about how the site works unlike other discussion forums, you'll get a badge if you do! About your answer, while it's great that you're sharing this awesome story as an example, we generally tend to look at answers that "teaches a man to fish" rather than "handing him a fish" (some excellent examples could are the top-voted answers here). I look forward to see you contributing to the site. cheers! \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Apr 21 '17 at 5:08
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I started a viking campaign where the requirement was that all of the players were to start off very young and currently living in and about a Norse harbor community. Every four years or so, the youngsters who wished to participate in a local Olympics-type event are divided into teams (by those organizing the event, who chose to assemble the teams by combined body weight: works well to get a big fighter, little thief, etc. together).

Each team then had to find a local sponsor, who would agree to contribute the team's entrance fee (used later for individual-event prizes). This gave me an excuse to have the players examine the township map and talk to local businesses and prominent members of the community. (Sponsors got to fly banners thereafter in town if their teams and/or members won contests.) My sponsor then sent the team out on a mission to earn the money and prove their worth. So the group did a small adventure before the tournament, learned of each other's skills in the process. Afterwards, they knew which player had the best chance at the individual tournament events and how they could best earn the team's final score. (Some head-to-head contents also led to forming some local rivals who served as foils in later adventures).

Before the tournament had completely ended, I also had the town be attacked by goblins. (Turns out the local aquatic goblins also were running a tournament of their own designed to conserve Goblin's community resources and to weed out their weakest members. And, if they could steal some supplies from the surface city along the way, cool. But most of the young goblins were expected to be lost. Only the strongest, and future goblin leaders would survive.) After all of this, the team members had gelled into a party and had plenty of reason to keep working together.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very specific example. This also seems to be all example and no solution. What advice can you generalise from this for those who are not running a Norse Olympics game? You can edit to add actionable advice. (Your post is receiving this comment because this site isn’t a discussion forum, so answers are expected to present a full solution rather than just share something to add to a conversation. See the tour for more on what the site is about.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 29 at 16:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. As SSD suggests, rather than just providing an anecdote, you should edit your answer to make a more general point, and use your experience as an example to support that approach. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Apr 29 at 21:38
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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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There are many ways you can do this, I will talk a little about my experience and some of it may prove useful.

Quests Adventurers all love quests, right? I find that often when I have to add new people to the group or even start one from scratch, a good way to have the party meet is through a quest.. oh you have component X and I need component Y! - *Oh I found component Y in the goblin cave earlier! Maybe we should pool our efforts and split the treasure * The flaw to this is if there is NO common ground between players you run the risk of them killing eachother, for meta sake I don't imagine many PC's would force this on a DM, we're all there to have fun.

Put them in prison/force them to cooperate, despite their differences Create a situation that requires team work, 4 PC's, 4 guards. They could take one each but there's no way 3 of them could take 4! Better to escape together than rot together!

weave their back stories

You seem to have already stated that having back stories that connect in some way is useful. There are always ways to weave characters into the world. If you have a barbarian dwarf (soldier) maybe he knows the blacksmiths son who is a human fighter, folk hero. They don't have to 'personally' know eachother, but having heard of eachothers feats and reliability or lack of can also play to your advantage!

Hope some of this was helpful and remember, everyone wants to have fun, your PC's should find a way to make it work for you as best they can too! It would be impossible to DM 4 campaigns at once!

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protected by Oblivious Sage Apr 29 at 15:18

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