‘A wizard walks into a bar…’: 5 questions to answer if you want a cohesive RPG party

‘An elderly wizard walks into the bar. He is clutching a bloodstained map. He wheezes, “I seek aid from adventurers to travel through the Labyrinth of Skulls, to retrieve the stolen treasure hoard of King Vaughn. The hoard is guarded by…urgh.” And then he dies still clutching the map. You look around the tavern and see a number of other folks present who might just be adventurers. Maybe you should form an adventuring company to retrieve this missing treasure hoard…’
Hello, and welcome to the ‘A Wizard Walks into a Bar…’ Challenge. The following article is written by the owner of this website in response to the quote above, and you are invited to participate. The rules are simple:

  • Copy and paste the italicized text into the top of your blog post.
  • Title the post ‘A Wizard Walks into a bar…’
  • Write an article about RPGs inspired by the quote. That’s the only rule as far as content goes
  • Make sure to credit the blog where you found the challenge with a hyperlink here: It’s more than just gaming
  • Finally, go read/comment on/link to and share other participants posts!

This week I’m taking part in a blogging challenge created in collaboration with Its More than Just Gaming – you can find the link in the text above. This is open to anyone who wants to take part, and we hope this will be the first of a series of three challenges. Thanks very much to John for writing the text this week – I’ll be doing the next one 😊 You can find his article here.

So, onto my response:

The stereotype for rpg party formation is that a group of adventurers meet in ye olde taverne by happenstance and band together to defeat The Plot. I’ve certainly played successful campaigns where the characters have more or less met this way, but in my experience, this is not how the most memorable parties are formed. So, inspired by the challenge paragraph, my post is about how to create and maintain group cohesion from the beginning. I’ll be using quite a few examples, both good and bad, from my own games, with the approval of my role-play group (who have all added their ten pence worth).

Introducing the Bully Boys

The most cohesive party I have ever played in happens to be my current one, which is part a Curse of Strahd campaign [there may be very very minor spoilers ahead], so I’m going to be using it as an example a few times. The party concept is this: the Bullingdon Boys (or, more affectionately, The Bully Boys) are ostensibly a group of con artists pretending to be adventurers – this schtick is part of their shared backstory and, at the beginning of the campaign, it has been moderately successful. As a result, they are mistaken for real adventurers and trapped in Barovia, with the irony being that somewhere along the way, while pretending to be heroes, they become real heroes. While they started out pretending that they were going to kill the evil vampire lord, Strahd, in order to win fame and fortune and then scarper without doing the deed, they have come to the conclusion that actually killing Strahd is really important.

The Bully Boys really WORK as a party, and I think it’s the first time I’ve been party of a group with a whole party concept – its also the first time I’ve been in an adventuring party that’s had a collective name and identity. We each worked with that when creating our individual characters and backstories, so that our motivations and objectives were broadly aligned with that of the Bully Boys. If you’re interested, we have a campaign diary here, maintained by our GM Miles. The description of each party member is here.

 

Bully Boys Low Res.jpg
Our beautiful character art by Matt Synowicz

I’ve also played in extremely mismatched adventuring parties – this can sometimes work too. However, most have ended up becoming quite antagonistic, and forced the PCs to come up with on-the-fly reasons why characters who dislike each other and have different goals and motivations would stick together, so that we don’t break the plot.

 

Without further ado, from my experience to date, the five questions I’ll be considering when I create my next adventuring party:

What is the ultimate objective?

A cohesive party has to have a shared objective that all members care about or, at the very least, their objectives need to take them to the same end goal.

I played a campaign of Numenera where my character, the party leader, had a very focussed objective; namely, to obtain a certain magical object. All other characters were hired by, or chose to follow, my character to help her achieve this objective, and that was the sole basis of our adventuring party being together. The problem with this was that when shit started going down, why would those hired hands stick around? Their objective was to earn money, and mine was to obtain the object. Realistically, those two goals wouldn’t have lead those characters to the same places. My character had to go on quests for monetary rewards she shouldn’t really have been interested in, whereas the characters motivated by money went into situations that were life threatening when they really had no reason to do so, in order to make sure the plot kept moving.

If I compare this to the Bullingdon Boys, broadly their objective is fame and fortune, though individual characters do have sub-goals. The fact that we all agree that being famous and rich is important has lead us to agree that defeating Strahd is the best way to meet our shared goal.

So my advice would be to decide on an objective that every character agrees upon. In moments of disagreement, come back to that.

Why do they stick together?

Once you’ve thrashed out the objective of the party, you should be some way to answering this already. If my objective is to make money, why do I choose to make money with these guys as opposed to those guys? If you adventure together for circumstantial reasons, when things get tough, or other opportunities come up, why are you not taking them? Is it that you just like the other characters a lot? Are you related to them, beholden to them, or loyal to them for some other reason?

To use a different example, in Dark Heresy, you play a cell of acolytes who are ordered to work together by the Inquisition. The penalty for failing to abide by those orders is death. So all characters have to agree to obey the Inquisition to take part in the plot, in spite of their backstory and private motivations. Whether they agree with the Inquisition is pretty much irrelevant until the point they decide not to obey any longer, as this means that they leave the party.

What is their history?

Having a history together, even if it isn’t well fleshed out, is a really good way to link your characters. At the very least, work out how they met and how long they’ve known each other. As I touch on in this post, ideally each PC should have a definable relationship and backstory with every other PC. A strong session 0 can really help to create these relationships. If your party has a shared history, this will go some way to explain why they stick together and what their ultimate objective is.

To use the Bully Boys again, two of the characters are brothers, so they have a long history together. The other two characters are essentially criminal partners, disguised as paid servants, and each backstory describes when and how they joined the group: all of this took place prior to the campaign, so that the story started with characters who already had a relationship and a past together that they could discuss and refer to IC from the very first session.

What are their shared values?

This is not so much to do with objectives, but the things that all the PCs think are morally important. At the simplest level, this could be considered ‘party alignment’ – Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Evil. Characters will be individual, but ideally there should be points everyone agrees upon to avoid excessive antagonism, such as whether its’ acceptable to loot corpses, torture people for information, or the loyalty of the party to certain authority figures.

To make this simple, all new joiners to the Bully Boys now have to recite an oath which pretty much lays this out (credit to Isaac for this):

“I [blank] do swear by these words, that as a loyal Bully Boy I will always uphold the Bully Values: money, loyalty to my fellow Bully Boys, and good running shoes in the event it all goes south! From this day until my last day, I will not rest until my coffers are full; my tankard overflows with fine wine; and the rights of Cornelius Pfeffil Bullingdon as the Marquis of Saxonia have been restored.”

I think its safe to say that we’re a Neutral party…

What are the characters’ non-negotiables? What action would be so bad that it would force them to leave the party, and what would they forgive?

While party harmony and cohesion is nice, I find it’s a good idea to have an idea which what values your character is unwilling to compromise on – everyone will have a breaking point, whereby certain actions would force them to leave an adventuring party or come to blows. Your character might be a generally righteous person willing to overlook a theft or two for the greater good, but when it comes to killing innocent people, they might just be willing to turn against their companions.

That said, it’s important not to be too rigid in your character’s ideas that they won’t ever compromise, or that the slightest disagreement will lead to PvP, as this can make it quite difficult for others to play the characters they want at the expense of upsetting a single PC. If you don’t want to end up fighting your companions, either makes sure your values are mostly shared, or only have 1 or two that you won’t compromise on.

In a 13th Age campaign I played in, one of the PCs was stoic dwarf called Relgin who had a personal grudge against Necromancy. However another PC was a Necromancer, posing as a perfectly ordinary wizard – he was called Setra. In a particularly trippy dungeon, we came across a room where the PCs could make unbreakable promises, just after Relgin witnessed Setra performing obviously necromantic magic for the first rime. Relgin demanded that Setra promise not to cast any necromantic spells from now on. This would have pretty severely compromised Setra’s abilities, so he refused, but Relgin’s character was founded upon his hatred of necromancy, so he felt unable to continue without that promise. This lead to a stand-off, where no one was willing to move forwards. In the end, we had to ret-con Relgin’s discovery that Setra was a Necromancer, in order to progress the game, and Relgin agreed to remain wilfully ignorant. This was an example of two characters’ values being so opposed that it impeded the plot very nearly ended with PvP or one or both characters leaving the party.

 

Thanks very much for reading and I hope you found this useful. If there’s anything you think I missed or that you disagree with, let me know in the comments. If you’re interested in taking part in this challenge, remember to link me 😊

 

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4 thoughts on “‘A wizard walks into a bar…’: 5 questions to answer if you want a cohesive RPG party

  1. Great post! I love the concept of RPG challenges for blogging and you rocked it with the questions to ask. I think this would work for characters in any story, not just RPGs (:

    Like

  2. I will not partake. Mix of tech troubles and health issues. Thanks for the invitation though. Hope you will dwell on the benevolent side of dorkness. Still wondering how anybody could consider Mort Kemnon a bad guy, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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