Guest Author: Jonathan Bales
Jonathan is currently GMing a Star Wars D6 campaign. He’s also been playtesting a homebrew rpg, “Warriors of Zurn,” being developed by GMG community member Aaron Kamakwiwoole. In today’s article, he shines a spotlight on a widespread problem: the Dysfunctional Party Relationship.
Most of us have seen (or been in) an RPG group that Just Didn’t Work. It is usually a frustrating experience. The players all want to have fun. They love the plot and the setting, and they want to dig in. But they just can’t function as a group.
If you were lucky, the campaign fizzled. If you were less lucky, the campaign ended in a shouting match and at least one player storming out in anger.
I think these disasters are preventable. You can create a fun, playable party – as long as the GM and the party can develop a clear purpose for the party, and can define the relationships between player characters.
Clear Purpose: In good fiction, the main characters are united by a common goal, mission, or way of life. In Firefly, Malcolm Reynolds and his crew lives on the edge of civilized space, taking jobs to keep their ship flying. In Castle, the investigation team solves murders in New York. In Robin Hood, the Merry Men run through Sherwood Forest, having wild adventures and outwitting the Sheriff’s men.
RPGs work the same way. Your characters need to share a common purpose. Why are they running around in this fictional universe? What’s their game? It can be short and simple: “We are smugglers trying to break out of jail.” Or it can be complex and subtle: “We are Rebel officers plotting to defect to the Empire.” Above all, the purpose should be something that all the players enjoy and can get excited about.
A clear purpose helps the players get their act together. Once they decide what kinds of adventures they want to have, they can get on with the business of having them. Players don’t get lost in the sub-plots or confused about what the GM wants them to do. And the GM can create adventures that satisfy the party’s purpose – which (if you’ve done your homework right) happens to be stuff that the party enjoys doing.
Defined Relationships: Sooner or player, the player characters have to interact. They will discuss which adventures to take, how to divvy up the loot, and who to blame when a mission goes sour. And if they’re going to make these kinds of decisions, they should probably know why they are adventuring together. Maybe they’re all Rebels fighting against the evil Empire – but why are they traveling with these particular Rebels, and not those Rebels over there?
It is in your best interests to answer this question early. Help your players figure out how they know each other. Two characters might be old comrades from a regiment – if so, what kind of adventures and scrapes did they get into? Characters might have been business partners, or rival artists, or coreligionist schoolkids in a rough part of town.
Your answers should make it easier for the player characters to interact. This doesn’t mean that all the characters are good friends. But it does mean that they shouldn’t actively sabotage the party’s purpose. If your players bicker, that’s fine. If they routinely thwart each other’s valued goals and/or try to kill other party members, that’s a problem. Avoid those problems by coming up with fun, plausible reasons for why the player characters (A) know each other and (B) don’t want to kill each other.
So. If you can nail down the party’s purpose and relationships, you will lay the groundwork for a fun, compelling RPG adventure. A clear purpose keeps the players moving in fun and interesting directions (which is why they agreed to play in the first place). And defined relationships make it easy for the characters to talk, joke, debate, yell, and otherwise play out their roles.