Getting the Party Started

This is one of those things I’ve meant to write about for a long time, but I always set it aside for other topics. But for a GM, it’s probably one of the most challenging things to do. How does the party get together? What forges the PCs into a team of people who are willing to risk their lives for each other? They can all meet in a bar, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue. Players will point out inconsistencies, and have a hard time justifying why their character is with the group. How do you do it without railroading? How do you get a group of misfits to fit together, to trust each other?

I will tell you the secret. The thing that will make your life a million times easier, and keep the party together while avoiding those trust issues that heavily-armed adventurers tend to have.  

Make the players do it.

It’s that simple.

Whenever I start a game, we sit down together and each of the players says a little bit about their character. Then, each pair of players ¬†tells a story about how their characters have met in the past. The stories should be brief, just a couple of situations. Have each player tell half of it, and let them work it out between themselves. Shape the story a bit by coaching the players. Ask open-ended questions, like “What about this led you to trust each other?” Building trust and relationships is the focus of the exercise. Don’t worry about the details.

Once you have some bonds between each of of the PCs, ask them to tell another story. this time of how they all met. Look for a situation, or an adventure. Get them to put it in context with their other stories, and ask about specific moments between specific characters. “Tell me about a moment where you had to rely on each other” is a good thing to get at. The whole thing is a trust-building exercise, and can also provide a lot of context for the adventure at hand, and helps create ties with the setting that you can use for later hooks. There are three important things to remember about using this technique, though.

1. It Takes As Long As it Takes

You’re probably looking at this process and thinking that it’ll take a long time. Some players are quicker to come up with stories than others, and it can take a while for them to negotiate their character’s role in it. You’re right. I usually spend my entire first session doing this, and even some of my second. But people still have fun doing it, and the reward for me is a party with ties to the setting and to each other, where they can freely have conflicts without necessarily breaking up like the Beatles after Yoko. It takes as long as it takes.

2. The Players Are the Authors

Part of the reason it takes as long as it takes is because the players are the authors. They have to be the ones creating the story. Suppress your desire to meddle, and especially suppress your instinct to say “No”. Just let it happen. Think of your role as that of a producer rather than a writer or director. Your job is to help them when they get stuck, and to offer ideas on pieces of the setting that might fit well with their story. The only time you should have anything to do with what happens in the story is when you are specifically asked. It’s their story, and they get to do it their way.

3. Everything Is True

Once the story is finalized, it’s true. It’s real in the game world. People will refer back to it, the characters and places actually exist, and it’s integrated with teh setting. Often, it has consequences which will impact the PCs later. This is essential, because it makes it a real event in the life of their character rather than a just-so story they told so their assassin wouldn’t murder everyone in their sleep.

How does this keep the party together? By giving them control, you give them ownership. No one knows their characters better than they do, so by getting them to decide the circumstances of their meeting, you let them provide the reasons they’re together. Any problems that arise are dealt with by them, with your mediation. It takes longer than “You all meet in a bar,” but it’s worth the effort, and actually saves you work both in getting the party together, and by creating opportunities for adventures down the road.

What are your strategies for getting the party started?

2 comments

  • I’ve had problems with this in the past myself. By starting in a position of peril, it can be easy to have the players start to trust each other, but my next game is starting soon so I’ve jumped the gun a little bit and set it in such a way that the players will have few people in the whole world they can rely on except each other. I know it seems a bit railroady, but it does make sense when you know how the plot is going to start…

    • Hi Shorty, sorry for the late comment, it’s been…A week.

      Starting things in media res is a great way to get straight to the action and push the PCs to make snap decisions about trusting each other. I find it can be challenging with diverse character types though, such as the lone wolf I talked about last week. Establishing a common background tends to create longer term relationships, and doesn’t keep you from starting things in peril, though it changes the feeling a bit. Instead of relying on strangers, they’re elated by a friendly face.

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