GM Advice: Getting The Party Started - How To Bring Characters Together

Session 1! It's finally here. Long have you prepared for this day. Hours of prep time has gone into crafting a unique, original world for your players to explore and experience.You ask the players to describe their characters, and it goes something like this:
"I am a lawful good  human paladin who does not condone any illegal activity of any kind, which includes, but is not limited to: theft, public intoxication, aggravated assault and murder. I also firmly believe that 100% of the party loot should be donated to several orphanages, and all magic items be liquidated for gold to also donate."

"I am a chaotic evil drow sorcerer who wants to take over the surface world and rule it with an iron fist. I frequently consort with demons and command a small army of the undead. I kill indiscriminately, steal from children, and kick baskets full of kittens."

"I am a true neutral halfling thief who steals everything not nailed down. My kleptomania is so profound that I even steal from my own fellow party members. Did I mention that I am a compulsive liar and have no qualms leaving my 'friends' to die so that I may return later (when the danger has passed) to loot their smouldering corpses."

"I am a neutral good human farmer who has no desire beyond tilling his fields and harvesting crops. I do not wish to go on adventures, as I am but a simple farmer with no strife or conflict or combat training. I also own a horse. I do not ride it, but rather use it to plow my fields. Did I mention I am a farmer?"

"Roll to hoe."

You probably should have run a Session 0. A lot of this pain and almost certain failure could have been avoided. One of the first steps to take in character creation, before the characters are even rolled up, is making sure everyone knows what everyone else is playing. 

Parmony, or "Party Harmony", is a term used to describe the overall attitude of the group as a whole, in that it is a team meant to cooperate with one another for ensured mutual survival. This is what you as the Game Master wants to strive for, but more so, it is a goal for the players to aspire to. After all, they are the ones playing the game, you merely weave to story and set the challenges. Party members should compliment or compensate for each others' abilities or lack there of. 

This can all go to hell in a handbasket if you have a contrarian player that wants to make a character that directly opposes or antagonizes the party. Yes, your players can play what they want, but if they are going to go forward with that kind of character, it is best done in small doses, and they should have an alarmingly compelling reason for playing it. Being the "Wolverine" of the group can be fun, and creates an interesting dynamic, but most of the time, few players are able to rise to the challenge of playing such a character and end up being annoying little bastards the rest of the characters end up killing/imprisoning, and looting every valuable piece of property they owned. Only in death was the character able to create a harmonious party by providing them with a foe that brought them together.

Now, I am not saying that playing characters of nearly opposing alignments is necessarily a bad idea. Far from it, but those characters, like the type just listed, need to be handled carefully. Being a lawful evil character in a a party of good characters can actually create a useful dynamic without damaging the parmony. Suppose the party has captured the minion of a very sadistic villain who knows what his master's plan is, and where he will strike (no doubt cause a massive loss of life), but refuses to provide the information. While the rest of the party refuses to morally cross the line to extract this information from the minion, the evil character may step up to "take a wack at it", dismissing his kind-hearted companions from the area so that they and the minion can "talk". The lawful evil character is not morally conflicted about doing this, because they will do whatever needs to be done to achieve their goals, even if that means breaking up the jumper cables and going all Endo on their asses (heh, Lethal Weapon reference).

"He's really an artist."

The key to getting party members who don't naturally fit into the same morality mold or ideology of the rest of the party is to ensure at character creation is that they should have similar goals. If the player characters were all wronged by the same person once upon a time that set them on their paths, the character could be just be walking a darker path to the same goal. Perhaps they feel more safety in numbers, so they keep the party around, even bonding with them and fighting tooth and nail to protect them, not out of loyalty but out of necessity, which can be just as potent.

Either that, or they know one of the characters already.

How Do You Know Each Other?
Bringing together a group of strangers can be hard. Keeping them together can be even harder. You can throw challenge after challenge at them, and see what sticks, but after all those things are defeated, what is keeping them together that won't feel artificial or forced?

Personally, I like for at least two or three characters to know each other, or know of each other before the events of the game even transpire. Look at the Lord of The Rings. Sam, Frodo, Marry and Pippin know each other from the get go. They are fur friends from the Shire. They might not be best friends, and they might not run in the same circles, but they know each other. And that is an important point to make, knowing each other doesn't mean that they are best chums or soulmates, it just means that they know this person's name, and they can sort of vouch for their moral character. Later on, at the Council of Elrond, you find out that Legolas and Aragorn know each other from way back, and Boramr sure as hell knows who Aragorn is once Legolas lets slip his true identity. Gimli seems like the only odd dwarf out, unless you consider that Frodo's uncle Bilbo palled around with Gimli's dad, Gloin, during the events of The Hobbit. The only thing we're missing here is Kevin Bacon.

"Ye olde book club."

Having prior knowledge of or a personal relationship between characters can create all sorts of interesting story elements for you, the Game Master, especially if they are related to one another, romantically involved with one another, formerly romantically involved with one another, beholden to one another, like a master/servant or bodyguard/boss dynamic, or even opposing each other, like rivals.

 "Best buddies."

A Common Problem
Sometimes all you need to get you player characters together, and keep them together, is to introduce a problem that affects each of them. This can be anything from a villain or faction who has wronged them to an event like a natural disaster or magical/supernatural disaster. You could even take a page from the Wheel of Time, and conjure some force or faction that is hunting them for reasons unknown (giving you more time to figure out why).

The best thing you can do is sift through each character's backstory, looking for dots you can connect. Look for common threads or themes, for what is there, and what isn't. Then see where you can insert the problem in a way that won't alter or deter from what the player is going for with their character.

Example time: In my Dragonslayer campaign, the three main characters, Era, Merle, and Lamaia are perfect strangers right from the get go. The only thing they have in common is that they are in the same tavern on the same stormy night. There isn't much that organically keep these people together after the first adventure. Luckily I took a gander at their backstories and connected the dots. 

The Big Bad in Dragonslayer is a half-dragon wizard determined to resurrect an ancient and terrible dragon that almost became a God. To do this, the wizard first had to dismantle an equally ancient order of dragon slaying knights called The Sundered Scale. The wizard has been at this for awhile working towards this goal for the better part of a century. Given the characters' backstories were a little vague on the subject of parentage, I took a few liberties, making their each character's parents a part of this organization, working in secret to make the world safe from dragons, and subsequently falling to the hand of this vicious, power hungry wizard.As the characters progressed, they discovered that they were all intrinsically tied together, as if by destiny. 

Ham-handed, but still effective.

Once you get your players together, the sky is the limit! They'll fight for each other instead of against each other. They will die for each other instead of kill each other , and they won't necessarily loot one another after they die...

...but I wouldn't count on it.

Lets get the band back together,
+Ed The Bard 

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