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Sort of related to Is it wrong to ask a player to justify their character's actions?

Scenario

  • Player 1 wants to be a male drow necromancer that reveres Kiaransalee.
  • Player 2 wants to be a male human cleric that reveres Heironeous.
  • Player 3 wants to be a female human vampire rogue that reveres nothing.
  • Player 4 wants to be a male frost giant monster class that reveres Thrym.

Situation

Before character creation, I asked the players, "How would you all meet? You have a snow loving giant that lives in the Frostfell, a death loving drow that lives in the Underdark, a human cleric that stands for liberty and justice for all, and a human vampire (of all things) that can't walk around in the daytime."

Their response? "Well, you're the DM, you figure it out for us. I don't know how my drow would meet with a frost giant. That is where you come in."

I replied to that with, "So what about the cleric of Heironeous? Did any of you think about what the other was making before writing stuff down? Come on, you all know how this stuff works. Look, I am not figuring all of this out for you whenever I am trying to come up with adventure hooks, plots, NPC's, and everything else. Work with me here a little. I volunteered to be your DM because I enjoy doing it, but if I have to do the fundamentals of roleplaying then I will have to ask all of you to come up with something else."

"Well, if I can't be this..." "This is the character I made..." "If this isn't good enough for you..." "...I will just sit out this campaign."

My final reply was, "Either all of you come up with some very good reasons for group cohesion, common cause, and npc reaction implications now, otherwise the cleric will lose his status amongst his church for consorting with evil, the drow will be hunted as an exile, villagers will attack the giant with torches, and the church that the cleric belongs to will hunt down the vampire."

Question

What am I supposed to do exactly whenever players want to all be something so different? I understand that the stereotypes can be broken, and they simply don't seem to understand - "reality" for a lack of better term. When the entire consensus states, "You are the DM, you can figure it out." Should I?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "otherwise the cleric will lose his status amongst his church for consorting with evil, the drow will be hunted as an exile, villagers will attack the giant with torches, and the church that the cleric belongs to will hunt down the vampire." -- this is actually one of the best RPG drama/adventure hooks I have heard of in a long time. Sounds like you took lemons and made lemonade. \$\endgroup\$ – Jordan Jul 13 '15 at 4:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jordan I like it. I'd love to be in the motley crew and have to find a way to keep the villagers from the troll, the church from the vampire, and watch as the Cleric deals with becoming a fallen cleric -- against the players will. So much fun there. Dodging light b/c of the Drow and vampire... \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Nov 16 '15 at 18:59

19 Answers 19

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Don't run the campaign

It is often important (but not always) for the party to have a preexisting, long term reason to stay a party. It is especially important in situations like this, with non-standard parties. Unless that reason is part of your pitch, it is incumbent upon the players to come up with that reason.

Your Options

Make it a One-Shot

So you don't lose a game session you can run the game as is, without a real reason for the party to stick together, until the party inevitably falls apart. This kind of play is usually lighter in tone. The party may actually come up with a background in this throwaway setting.

Have them Re-Roll

You can have them come up with new, more standard, characters for the game and continue as planned.

Go Bowling

Just don't run a game at all. This leaves you open to come up with a new campaign idea, or revisit this one later when the players are willing to collaborate on party design.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +100 if I could. The players trying to offload all of the responsibility for crow baring some sort of semi-logical reason for their mish mash of a group of characters to be together is unacceptable in my opinion, and I would never allow it at my table as a GM. \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Mar 19 '15 at 7:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @eimyr: All of these answers and comments horrify me. I care a ton about all of my characters. However, I care mostly about stats. The character's history rarely even crosses my mind until the DM asks. The idea that I would be banned from playing hurts... \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Mar 19 '15 at 23:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooingDuck That's defiantly a play style, and while the site is play-style agnostic, I am not. If I had a player that couldn't give me at least bullet points of a background, I wouldn't let them play. \$\endgroup\$ – Tritium21 Mar 19 '15 at 23:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tritium21 We didn't run the campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Sep 23 '15 at 7:53
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"Fine, then we just won't play."

"OK."

Call their bluff, whether you think it's a bluff or not.

  • If they're bluffing, they do want to play and will buckle down and figure it out if they have to.

  • If they're not bluffing, they don't really want to play anyway and you've dodged a bullet. (GMing for a group that doesn't really want to play is a special breed of hell.)

Either way, the situation resolves itself into a better situation than it is now. This is also an opportunity in disguise, because if they haven't really been wanting to play but haven't wanted to say so, you'll find out right quick.

"But then what do we do?"

Play board games, play some Magic, dust off the Rock Band controllers, or just hang out. Move forward without being grumpy about it and you can just spend normal friends time together.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Best answer on RPG Stack exchange. \$\endgroup\$ – rlb.usa Jun 26 '15 at 21:30
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If you don't give your players guidelines, then they will do whatever. That said, you did give a guideline ("At least give a me a reason, any reason, you know each other"), a pretty low, low bar to meet, and the players aren't interested in meeting it.

Your options are:

Play the gonzo game with no expectations

I'm not a huge fan of this, just because usually when the players show up with that level of divergent ideas, have no interest in making any kind of plausibility together, they're pretty much looking to kick in doors and lunge at gazebos. I don't find that a particularly great use of my time, in prepping or playing, but some groups clearly love it. (For me, if I want over the top goofiness, I play games with low prep and more focus on creativity. But that's me.)

Start over, restrict the options and give some minimal setting to fit in

"Ok, you're right. I should figure it out. And what I'm going to do is say the game is taking place in this setting, in this place, and here are the races and classes you can pick from."

While that would give more guidance, my suspicion based on your description is that the players aren't interested in minimal plausibility at all, and probably are simply looking for the most mechanically effective options, or at least the most gonzo/weird options.

If that is the case, I expect more griping and even resentment. Or, alternatively, making new "weird" characters within the confines of the boundaries you lay out. Watch out when players really focus on making zany characters - it's often a defense mechanism against long issues with railroading, and is disruptive to play even when you're not railroading them.

"I'm not asking for much, so I guess we're not playing."

One social issue that shows up is players can be very demanding. And they get used to demanding anything and everything and not expecting anyone to draw a line. You can simply re-iterate what kind of game you want to run, what the expectations are for play ("What kind of characters fit?" "How much plausibility? Like this movie/book..." "What does good play look like?") and if they're not interested in playing it, and won't even put in the 10 minutes to make up even the flimiest reason they know each other... don't play with them.

This doesn't have to be a huge blow up, it can be really simple:

"Well, I want a game with (example) level of plausibility, but it sounds like you're not interested in that. Cool. Thanks for your interest, I'll keep your email on file if I find other people who want to run or play in that kind of game."

Consider this: you're going to put in effort into running a game - how much prep work will you do? Are you hosting? Are you going to use maps or minis or otherwise have invested time, energy, or money? If the players aren't going to do this minimal thing, is it worth it to you?

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What am I supposed to do exactly whenever players want to all be something so different?

The way I solve this problem is by not having it... Yeah, kinda circular but bear with me. First, all my game start with a set of requirements. Some are non-optionals, some are. Always, the first non-optional one is related to how I want the game to start.

For example, in a game set in Middle Earth, I might say "Your character must be in the Grey Heavens at the start of the game. In addition, they must be interested in sailing either professionally or as a longing for the sea". Clearly, this game starts with the characters getting their own ship.

In a cyberpunk game, I might say "Your character needs to know Dances With Glass, an analyst for some shadowy spy agency, have worked with her in the past and be willing to work for her again." Clearly, the game will involve the PCs being hired by said person.

Note that in no way does this precludes the player coming up with a character that they want to play. It just add a little piece to make my life easier. It is part of the social contract of the game -- see the same page tool.

"You are the DM, you can figure it out." Should I?

If players are unwilling to put a modicum of effort in the game, then do not role play with them. Harsh as it might sound, in the long run it brings less pain.

However, if the players are willing to put some effort post-character creation: Some either boogly or wibbily wobbly timey wimey event happens to link all the characters together: They all get the same tattoo. It is a manifestation in this realm of some being and it is trying to get back together. Being away from each other is actually painful: so the PCs need to travel and meet up. What does his being want? Was it exiled or did it flee? What else is coming through the boogly event?...

Just to reiterate, unless the players agree that their characters are going to stick together, then you have no game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Unlike the GM, players can only work with what they are given. Just telling them the game system is not enough. Telling them that the game is going to take place in Middle-Earth and specifically the Grey Havens and that the game is going to be about ships is vital. If a GM doesn't give them something like this as a starting point, it's impossible to make any meaningful descisions about their characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Yora Mar 19 '15 at 18:00
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There are already some great answers here, but I wanted to touch on something that has not yet been addressed.

The 'it's all the GM's responsibility' attitude that you are encountering is not that uncommon, and can cause a real problem as it tends to significantly increase the amount of work you have to do. For the sake of argument, lets say that you decide you do want to run this game for this group of characters. You are almost certainly going to find that this attitude crops up again and again in different ways, making your life increasingly difficult and your time as GM really un-fun.

For example, if they really believe that all work should be done by the GM, then they are unlikely to want to collaborate with you on plot hooks and character background. Also, a lack of party cohesion often leads to big problems with 'lone wolf' style play where individuals wander off and do their own thing, simply because there is no built in reason for them to stay and the players don't care.

So yeah, if you have a group of players who have made it clear that they have no interest in putting in work you have specifically asked them to do for very good reason and they refuse to back down, I would avoid them like the plague.

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There are two important social aspects of GMing (or really any form of managing people). One is setting expectations, the other is understanding what is expected of you.

The first role in this situation appears to have been fumbled a bit. The PC's were to have been given the freedom to make whatever characters they wanted, without any guidelines or restrictions. So much so that they even went as far as to partially design monstrous PCs which are typically even seen as heavily restricted even in the game rules describing their creation. By allowing them complete creative freedom you have created a situation in which they have invested resources (time, energy, etc) into a task and are now having their efforts challenged and critiqued to some degree. While the additional task work may seem reasonable to you, it isn’t hard to imagine the group viewing it as scope creep.

The second role in the situation, understanding what they expect, is something that need to be expounded on. The players expressed a clear expectation that you would address the issue of party assembly, so now you need to understand WHY they have that expectation. It is possible that in the past their GM has always set up classic tropes to assemble the party (worked together to escape a prison camp, “Nick Fury” saw their potential and gathered them, crazy “takes anyone” orphanage…), or even that in not giving their characters scope limitations they feel that attempting to apply any story at this point would move them into the job of “world-building” which is typically a GM’s responsibility.

This is not to say that the situation is entirely your fault, or that the players are acting in a fair or reasonable manner. The primary problem is that both parties are working with divergent expectations and no one is stepping up to the plate to establish or communicate them. The players aren’t straight up wrong in having little concern for party cohesion or backstory, if all they want is a kick-in-the-door style campaign that isn’t terribly important. As a GM there certainly isn’t anything wrong with wanting to place emphasis on the narrative.

If you don’t align goals and expectations via clear and open communication it tends to breed passive aggressive behavior.

Examples:

Their reply back was, "Fine, then we just won't play."

or

We spent the rest of that evening looking over books - actually I chain smoked cigarettes and played world of warcraft on my computer pretending to be researching. I volunteered to DM. I didn't volunteer to be their life coach as well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, "actually I chain smoked cigarettes and played world of warcraft on my computer pretending to be researching" seems like a pretty clear red flag that the problem is on both sides \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Mar 19 '15 at 17:18
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There are already a lot of answers aiming at the human problem and I think this is the way to go. However, assuming those people are friends or that simply dropping the game is not an easy solution, I'll try to tackle the problem from the other side and figure out a generic way to make such a group work.

If your party can't work in the standart setting, scrap the setting.

What I mean by that is that you don't need to play in Greyhawk (judging by the name of one of your gods). Let them play what they want, but put them in a situation where this party makes sense. Yes, that world will not be canon and some of your characters should be at each other's throat, but that's to your players to decide. It might also not be the kind of campaign you and your players had in mind. But it seems like you are currently in an impossible situation if neither you nor your players are willing to change their mind.

  • Hardest solution : Give them a common enemy to keep them together. An ancient order manipulating events behind the worlds back and randoms strangers are forced together. I'm not sure what kind of enemy could keep the party you have honestly.

  • Weirdest solution : uproot them all and sent them to a setting where they are forced to work together. For example :

    • A Cube-like setting that is definitely not natural. This force them to work together. Plain and simple. This is however surely not the kind of setting you want.
    • A setting that looks like the world they are used to but is definitely not it. Maybe the sky is red and pterodactyls fly in the sky and no one seem to care that a giant is walking through the streets. Let your characters react to it and find out what happens. Ideally they should be the only ones to react like normal people and this should force them to stick together for a time at least.
  • Sent them to a place where such a party is not out of place. Like the Planes. They may be born there, brought there against their will. Maybe some characters will even play along and set their role as being part of the plane. You bring some more problems with your clerics as he would I think loose his powers.

    • So add an house rule.
    • Or you can make the party there and then send them back to the planes.
    • Or make up a reason for the cleric to keep his power : maybe a piece of the plane keep him in touch with his deity or some powerful being in Sigil can serve as a pseudo god.
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This is common for players to not put much effort into how they formed a party. Generally its "we meet at a tavern". Players form a character then some time in the game do the party formation story.

The players aren't lazy unless they won't do their own roleplay their inter-party dynamics. The problem is the character concepts have so much in conflict. Its like putting having a general system such as FATE and one create far future cyberpunk concept and the other create fantasy fighter concept.

My solution- have a warlord (GM) who kidnaps a random bunch of players and slaps some control bracelets on them to force them to do some mercenary missions for him. If they hurt each other or fail their missions, he can cripple or kill them. They still have considerable party autonomy to solve the missions how they like.

If players don't like it- tell them tough I gave you the option to form your own party organically.

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There is a dangerous misconception here among this group, and you may want to address it now before participating in any future games with them.

It is not the sole responsibility of the GM to keep the game going

This is an early roleplaying misconception, and one very easy to fall into.

It is true that the GM has a special role in the game that they play, and that they set up the story and setting for their characters, and that they control the NPCs and all enemy characters in the game, and have final say by Rule Zero (though you should avoid abusing that). So it's easy to see how a lot of the burden of keeping the game going would fall onto the GM - and to a degree, that's true.

But, you are not the only one responsible for making this game enjoyable, and you should not be expected to sacrifice your own enjoyment of the game for the sake of the players.

As it has been said before, You always have the option not to pursue a path that'll be bad for the game as a whole. And that applies to players and GM. If their chosen characters are not suited for your campaign (and they should know ahead of time what is allowed in your campaign), they need to change their character, or find some way to justify that character's existence in your campaign.

Negotiate or Terminate

You can try to help though - if your players are willing. You can try to find ways for their characters to fit into your campaign, and in-campaign reasons for them to want to work together. You can, and should, talk with them about how they may have come together, or possible ways for them to come to a common goal within your world.

If they won't negotiate, or won't talk to you about how they can make their characters fit, and they refuse to modify their characters or create a new one, don't run the campaign. If it is important enough to you that these characters need a reason to band together, you aren't going to have fun with this campaign, and they aren't going to have fun with your campaign if they aren't invested enough to come up with those reasons.

Random party assortments can be fun, in mindless, low-roleplay, heavy roll-play games like dungeon crawls or the like, where character backstory and fitting into the world aren't as important. But it sounds like that isn't the type of game you're trying to play, and it sounds like your players aren't interested in making characters that will fit into the type of game you do want to play. Forcing it is not going to make either party happy.

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Option 1: Be Honest: Tell them that 1: it's not the DM's job to come up with how the party meets, and 2: their party is so stretched to ridiculous levels that they need to have a legitimate excuse.

Option 2: Give them a reason to be together: Now, I don't want to say let them be right, but You can give them some recommendations or tell them why there are there. For example.

  • The Vampire is a good character and wants to prove they aren't evil be becoming a hero
  • The Cleric of Heironeous is trying to save the necromancer's soul with Sancitfy the Wicked (the Book of exalted deeds good guy equivalent of mind rape), but needs to get his trust long enough to use it.
  • The Frost Giant is childhood friends with the cleric or the rogue and is trying to fit in with society.
  • Finally the Necromancer could be a dread necromancer trying to become an "immortal hero", using the powers of death to do good.

The one thing I need to understand is alignments.

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Other answers are correct that you left out telling them what kind of characters they needed to choose. "Anything from D&D" is way too broad, and will cause this problem. Now they have characters they like, which won't be compatible without creativity, cooperation, and/or several of them dying off or going their own way.

That said, here's an idea for what I might do (if I wanted to play D&D and not my own campaign world, and they were not willing to form a compatible group of character types, yet I still wanted to play with those players):

  1. Reconsider. I probably want to play my own game in my own world the way I want to play it, with certain limits to what character & group types make sense, and to play with players who want to play that, and not with people who want to play something else. But to go back to trying to serve this mismatched D&D group:

  2. Suggest each player come up with a reason why they would have started on a quest/adventure, to set the entry context for each character.

  3. Locate their starting positions in the game world, and construct a backstory outline that involves them all ending up in the same place in the same time somehow.

  4. Give each character their own part of that backstory, so they know what their character was doing before they enter play.

  5. Let the battle for party type commence! Have the characters enter the first scenario, where there is something to get all of their attention and have them meet in the same place. If they still have characters who'd kill each other, let them try.

5a. If there's one character or group of characters remaining that get along, that's the group. The other players are invited to make new characters who would fit that group.

5b. If there is more than one surviving character or group that gets along, who want to keep playing, I'd run more than one group and/or have a main group and invite the others to be adversary players to the main group.

Another (more ambitious, less bloodthirsty) idea:

  1. Determine which if any of them can be in a group together beforehand.

  2. Have multiple groups, with the players making sidekick/compatible characters for the groups their first characters aren't in.

  3. Invent an interesting reason why these different groups are somehow connected by a magical curse which has them all somehow know things about the other groups, coming via intuition or dreams or something. This explains why the players will have such knowledge, and also can form a long-term plot arc and mystery.

  4. Rotate sessions between the groups.

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Your players are telling you quite clearly what game they want to play: they want to play an implausible mixed bag of race and character types that make no sense together, but that they think are fun. Apparently they don't want to take the edges off this by changing their individual concepts, or by doing a lot of work to make their mixed bag plausible, or by paying attention to the fact that some of the characters will be very weak, or anything else you direct them to do to justify their choices. They claim that they're willing to drop the whole idea (and perhaps not play an RPG at all) rather than compromise.

Since you say, "we are all more experienced gamers", this isn't an accident, or ignorance on their part of what a typical adventuring party is. They've played a coherent party before, taking account of each others' strengths and weaknesses and alignments and all that, and now they want to do something different.

Therefore you seem to have two options:

  • Join in the ridiculous. Run it even though it's implausible and find out what legs it has. Make allowance for that fact that while parts of the game were designed in the expectation the party was strategically designed by the players to be a lean, mean, monster slaughtering machine, your guys are a shower of jokers, and if you send the standard threats against them then the weak members would just die.
  • Tell them that you're not prepared to treat Pathfinder with such flippancy, or just that you don't think the game will be worth the effort, and don't run it.

All you need to do is decide whether you want to run a ridiculous game or not. If you do, then sorting out how the party formed should be pretty easy.

Technically you have a third option, which is to try to manage, manipulate, or trick them into compromising. That's most likely to result in a game that everyone resents, but who knows, there might be some very clever and quite subtle adjustment to this setup which fixes it. I doubt it.

Note that you only need party cohesiveness via backstory if there's a risk the players will otherwise break up the party at the first opportunity, and you don't want that to happen. However, for this game, assuming you were willing to join in the ridiculous, then you could just tell them "OK, this party makes no sense, we're running it solely because you're interested in the races and classes. I'm not prepared to run 4 different games for these 4 characters if you split up. Therefore, you have to keep the party together as the bizarre team that it is, otherwise by definition the game ends. You meet in a tavern, describe your characters...". Then play it as long as the players remain interested in sticking to this ridiculous bunch of misfits. Which is likely to not be very long but, you know, Guardians of the Galaxy does all right.

Btw, if a player wants to play a Cleric who, out-of-character, he plans is going to switch gods in the face of what the party is likely to do, what's wrong with that? The player isn't a loyal follower of Heironeous, he's not betraying anybody. If he wants to play a priest who's just the freaking worst, OK, there are consequences to explore. If he just wants to switch gods as convenient to him, then he's not taking the Cleric class seriously, but then with the party you have this is not a serious campaign.

All that said, given the game they want, it might be that there's a better system to run them in than Pathfinder. I suspect that would miss the point, since making a mockery of Pathfinder's variations seems to be most of the fun, but you could perhaps consider Toon ;-)

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A couple more extreme solutions explaining how the players come together:

  • Escape from an impregnable fortress scenario. The characters are prisoners languishing in the dungeon of a powerful sorcerer's vast mountain fortress in the polar wastes. Perhaps they were all members of separate adventuring bands of varying alignment who were captured and thrown into a dungeon for the sorceror's amusement. The frost giant is the lone survivor of a raiding band. The vampire may be the last member of a vampire clan defeated by the sorceror. They're all scheduled to be executed. They have to work together to escape. This is a variant on the "Cube" scenario suggested by 3C273 and is a common movie trope. Alternatively, the Drow, vampire, and cleric are prisoners in a frost giant fortress in the Frostfell, and the frost giant PC agrees to free them in return for their aid in overthrowing his hated jarl.
  • Dysfunctional family scenario. The vampire and cleric are siblings. Perhaps the vampire character was seduced and converted into a vampire by a powerful vampire lord. The cleric has been outcast from her church and lawful society for refusing to execute and instead freeing her sibling. The vampire character has defied the will of his vampire master. Both siblings are outcastes from their societies and are hiding out in the Underdark. Both are hunted by the forces of good and evil. The cleric's ability to turn undead makes her a powerful ally of her sibling against the vampire lord's minions. They befriend a misfit Drow and a loner frost giant mercenary who got on the wrong side of his jarl and was exiled from the Frostfell. Since the characters inhabit the Underdark they'll have access to adventure opportunities without risking exposure to sunlight - instead of traveling overland they'll travel through the tunnels of the Underdark. Alternatively they can travel overland during the day, with the vampire player transported by coffin or else covering all exposed skin to avoid exposure to sunlight during daylight hours. As DM you could rule the vampire and Drow PCs are fitted with goggles similar to those worn by Riddick so they can operate in direct sunlight.
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Everyone runs their games differently, and people are very different. With that in mind, When I am DMing, I usually have a starting place or what the movies would call a 'meet-cute' in mind. Something that at least has the characters run into each other with a common goal. Based on your example, it might have to be something extreme, like everybody waking up in a prison/dungeon with vague memories of being kidnapped. The group may not like each other, but needs to team up to escape.

Now, if long-term, (beyond that first situation/session) the characters are not going to be able to stick together, or be civil/compatible with each other, then we have to make choices. Maybe it is just a one-shot. Maybe some of the characters could start leaning towards being more compatible (banished from the church, but retaining the affiliated bonuses for now?).

Yes, it is nice when the players can fill out all these details for themselves, and I let them if they have/give ideas, but at some point they want to PLAY, and normally the players don't have the knowledge of the background setting to navigate the geo-religious politics of your campaign setting, especially before they've started playing their characters even one time.

So play the first session first. Leave the explanations for later. It makes the beginning more exciting, and the players will be more invested by the time you need to rationalize why two characters aren't mortal enemies yet.

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Tell the players that you are going to have to stretch plausibility to get them in a group, by having some kind of crazy prophecy or something else that pulls them together - then do that. That kind of thing can fit the fantasy setting, after all. If they aren't worried about how it all fits together, you probably shouldn't sweat it that much either. Not every game has to have a high minded concept.

The biggest risk here is that it might not be as fun as they think it will be. If that happens, run a new game. You might even get a more reasonable set of characters next time.

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That is a tricky one, in the groups I've played in the GM has told us before the start of the campaign that 'This is a campaign on the high seas', so we know to look at the swashbuckler class, or roll a race that does well with water. Or another example 'this will be an evil campaign', so we know to roll an evil character and in this way there's some group cohesion and everyone has a (relatively) common interest.

As for if you are to figure it out or not, I'd say it depends on the campaign. In a campaign as described in my previous paragraph, absolutely. The GM is the one dictating the 'restriction' on the campaign in this case, for example evil characters etc. So they should be the one to decide how the characters meet up and start off the adventure. The GM I play with usually has us all meet in a tavern or in a dungeon or something to that effect.

In your case, I'd say it's not your responsibility, the campaign sounds like it has loose restrictions on character creation, which is fine, it gives the player a bit more freedom on who they want to be. But if that's the case, they should also be ready to come up with a back story of their character and maybe some idea of how they meet the others in their party.

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Stop playing Pathfinder, start playing Rifts. Problem = solved. :)

Srsly.

This groups sounds like a whacky bunch of oddballs all interested in playing their weirdos as they like and letting you the GM sort out exactly how that will work. Alignments create an issue, leveling and PC power create issues, and then the campaign setting creates issues.

Rifts has none of those. Sure I don't think you can play a "Vampire" but I'm equally sure that Rifts will have more than enough weird PC options to keep your group happy. Unequal power levels between PCs aren't an issue (I mean they might present issues in play but not at a game level), alignments don't work the same and allow more flexible arrangements.

Ultimately, for the group as described, the insanity of Rifts seems to be a much better match for the play style this group of PCs seems to be headed towards. Trying to fit all these concepts in to a "regular" game of Pathfinder seems like a challenge you don't want to deal with. But a planehopping game?

You can even probably use the d20 system rather than buy all the Rifts books. I think this is a variation on the "escape from the fortress" scenario presented in one of the other answers. First encounter of the first game all the PCs get sucked through a rift to another dimension\plane and...then they get to deal with that.

Play it more like OuterSpace or Red Dwarf or...Rifts. Rather than try to constrain the madness just embrace it. The PCs are stuck in a lifeboat adrift on the multiverse trying to get home. An endless dungeon where every door opens on a new universe and the PCs are forced to work together 'cause they all gon' die otherwise.

In other words rather than have the PCs justify their actions just make up the justification, like they suggested, but don't try to make it make "sense".

More like whacky survival "horror" than the more traditional fantasy thing. And then you can let any type of PC conflict escalate to PvP killings and introduce another in a whacky series of anything goes oddballs via the same mechanism.

Don't try to make it make sense, just pretend it's a Michael Bay movie, everything in fast forward all the time, with explosions, and "there's no time!!!", and give them weird bizarre monsters and scenarios until they get tired of the madness.

They want to turn up PC concepts to 11? You can just turn up GM setting madness to 12!!!

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That sounds like a pack of munchkins. Warn them if that if they don't want to take the RP part of RPG seriously, then that's the game they get -- brutal, nasty and short. My suggestion is that you play it somewhat like Paranoia, that great old game where you should be done in a few hours, everyone gets six clones because the DM will try to kill them off as creatively as possible. There is as much RP as the players feel like doing, but the emphasis is on manic fun. Hopefully your players will see the folly of their ways and agree to play a more reasonable party mix, or figure out their story line for themselves as you already tried to make them. At least you would only waste an evening, with not too much expectation from either side of the table.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a tip, passive-aggressive antagonism is not regarded by this site's community as the current "state of the art" in resolving game organisation hiccups, so this answer will probably not get much in the way of positive votes. Browse through the answers on the questions in our [social-contract], [problem-players], and [group-dynamics] tags for examples of newer techniques that are considered more effective. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 19 '15 at 23:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you dropped the judgemental tone (especially the first sentence) and change "Warn" to "Tell", then maybe this answer could go somewhere. It's along the lines of "have a fun, anything-goes short session with the characters they have, then re-consider." and maybe won't get all the negative votes if it was phrased more positively \$\endgroup\$ – Neil Slater Mar 21 '15 at 8:52
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If I may, group cohesion and common cause are only necessary in certain types of campaigns, campaigns which you need to tell your players about before you start playing. For instance:

"Oh hey, the universe is dying, Cthulhu is riding a comet towards the earth, cults are burning everything to pieces, you're four characters working together because if you don't, you die."

See? No need for extensive backstories and perfectly reasonable for characters from underdark, overdark, middledark, inbetweenlight, middlinggrey, and everywhere else to get along.

DM Things

If you are going to run a campaign that's big on story over action though, big on railroading over creativity, big on defined points rather than improvisation, then you need to let them know that. If I want to run a campaign big on intrigue that stays in the same city and has no fights, and is based broadly in a royal court, then the characters that will fit into that campaign are going to be radically different from one where there's a monstrous war going on which is set to cover the whole world and possibly a few others if a cabal of mages get annoyed enough to step in and start opening portals.

If you want to be DM-lite, then let them be creative and run the campaign and let them know that. If you want to be DM-heavy, then let them know that. If you want to run somewhere in between, then put in some broad restrictions or be prepared to pull out a few contingencies/improvisations like ye olde "You're all in a tavern when...".

Otherwise someone is going to spend a lot of time going over exactly what they want only to be told that their job just got bigger because they spent a lot of time. You're basically encouraging people to leave or to put as little effort in as possible. Emphasised by how creative the players got and how much effort they put in afterwards while you just played WoW and then criticised them online. From what you've said, it looks like they're trying and you're moving the goal posts on them while being lazy. Don't do that.

DM Roles

Also, NPC reactions? If they're telling you how your NPC's are reacting, then there's no reason for you to exist. The PC's play PC's, four different characters played by four different individuals. You play everything else. If you aren't going to do that then I can see why they'd be annoyed at your lack of commitment. You want to be DM-lite but at the same time you want them to justify everything they do? That's not a DM, and it's not a lifecoach. It's just a pain to deal with.

Quick Notes

  • Hate your friends less. It's not that they don't understand reality, the four of them seem to be working off the same page, it's that you haven't understood them, or you think things can only be done a certain way. If you have restrictions on players choices, let them know beforehand. "This is a cruel world and no-one likes each other. Ever." is a quick sentence to write when discussing playing a game, but a long one to justify when you tell the Dark Elf they can't be friends with the Human. You may feel that people can't just decide to do that, they need to write an essay justifying it, but let them that know before they dump a lot of time into crafting the perfect character.

  • Constrict character creation in DM-heavy campaigns because interesting characters are hard to deal with for a first time DM who wants to run a story their way or for someone who feels creative needs to be justified. If you give them free reign, let them have free reign; Don't punish them for it or your game is going to become the downpoint of everyone's week and die a slow death.

  • Be prepared to improvise, either on the spot or plan out a few contingencies beforehand. I love contingencies/improvisation heavy campaigns as it allows for the most player freedom and creativity which conversely means I put less effort in as DM. If you don't like that then let the players know well before they agree to play with you as DM.

  • Put some work in yourself. NPC reactions aren't on the players, that's all you. If I'm playing my character and the NPC's then I don't need a DM.

  • If you can't put in at least as much enthusiasm as the players, quit. You'll just make life miserable for everyone if you don't and laziness is a horrible reason to make people unhappy. If they're putting work in then playing WoW and talking about how horrible they are online isn't cool, if they'll read books then sit down with them and DM their conversation which sounds harder than it is. Just listen, and if they seem to be catching onto an idea then run with it. Help them expand the idea, work out how you can fit it into your campaign, etc.

  • Relax a little. Group cohesion isn't important when characters are getting mobbed by an Orc warband, or even in intrigue. Backstabbing is kind of the point during intrigue games anyway. If your campaign relies on it, then again let people know when you're still talking about playing a game.

  • If all else fails, Cthulhu on a comet. Really. In 3.5 DnD there's a book called "Elder Evils". You can pick out a monster, use a few random encounter tables to keep your PC's busy while you work on some intrigue "behind the scenes", so to speak, and have yourself a merry old time of death and destruction. Combine it with "Lords of Madness" and you're got a great foundation for lazily inflicting death upon your characters while still entertaining them. In a few worlds/universes, Eberron and the Day Of Mourning for instance, you can even use it to start off some fairly intense worldbuilding for next time. Dark Elves are being chased up from the underdark by terrifying creatures, said creatures have broken through the surface in a few places, now you have a reason for the band to be together.

  • Finally, if you aren't interested in being a DM then don't. Go raid Stormwind, assuming that still exists these days, don't prolong the agony. You'll be wishing you were playing WoW, the PC's will be bored and frustrated, and you'll end up hating each other.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't even know how to respond to something such as this. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Mar 22 '15 at 11:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems to be a repeat of the many existing "just talk to them" answers, distinguishing itself only by wording it with blame and condescension. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 22 '15 at 15:14

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