Bringing and keeping a party together in an RPG
I’ve always had trouble killing off player characters in RPGs. I understand the importance of real dangers to the party to keep the stakes high, but it’s difficult to separate a player from a character they spent so much time and effort into creating and playing. So, imagine my horror when I lost not one, but two player characters, in one night, to sheer lack of motivation.
One was an elderly preacher on a quest to see the fabled City of Lost Angels for himself; the other, the son of a wealthy rail baron trapped westward after a chance encounter with a fierce and sinister rival. Between the brutality of Ezekiah Grimme’s theocracy and the screaming fire of Darius Hellstromme’s ghost rock bombs, the two characters could not book tickets back east nearly fast enough.
And you know what? I don’t blame them. The characters would have left, and thhe players were good sports about it; they created new Deadlands characters that very night. Even so, it’s a problem I would do best to avoid.
What went wrong?
First, there wasn’t enough communication with the players before the game started. Second, and building off of the first, I couldn’t wrangle the plot to reflect what the characters were doing.
When I was preparing to run The Flood, a series of adventures in the Deadlands setting, I kept information from the players. Surely that way there would be more surprises in store, and a real sense of exploration! So, with only the core rulebooks and no further instruction, they created their characters. They did excellent jobs individually, but as a group, it was a mess. I had a way to force them together as the story began, as many RPGs are wont to do, but once the world opened up, they all started heading in separate directions simple because it’s what their characters would choose.
Not that it was an insurmountable problem, in theory; just insurmountable for me. I’m running a pre-written campaign, which only affords me so much flexibility before I’m writing my own campaign from whole cloth. That would be a plausible alternative, were it not for the fact that we’re using a rules system and a setting none of us have ever played before, so it’s particularly challenging to start tinkering with it. In short, I had a plan I wanted to stick to, and didn’t see a way to go about it.
On the bright side, it made for an excellent case study in what it takes to keep a party together in an RPG.
Before you begin…
Player agency is obviously important in RPGs, but so too is the social contract between the players at the table. It only works if everyone’s on the same page. To that end, treat character creation and the roots of the campaign as a collaborative effort. It’s an old-school trope that the game master’s word is law at the table, but that applies exactly to the point that the players keep agreeing to show up. The GM needs to keep players accepting invitations to the game, and the players need to keep getting those invitations. If either side isn’t motivated, it falls apart.
That’s not to say it’s adversarial, or that each side comes to the table with a list of demands. What is important, though, is communication.
If you’re running the game, consider giving some basic idea of what kinds of adventures you’d like to run. Now that the player has a slightly more specific idea of what you’re offering, they can go along with the idea, and create a character that fits with it; decline the game and avoid any problems with an inevitable loss of interest; or, perhaps best of all, start bouncing some ideas off of the GM.
Say you want to run a classic dungeon-crawl type game. If you approach the players with something just a touch more specific than “Who wants to play D&D?,” the players start thinking up the sorts of characters who would gladly join a rag-tag group about to pull whatever riches they can out of dangerous subterranean places.
But one of your players, lets call her Sarah, would really rather prefer something with a bit of political intrigue. Maybe it’s best she declines the offer now instead of just getting more and more bored until she stops showing up one day. But, the both of you could see if you can come up with some general ideas on how to compromise. Maybe the bulk of the adventures are dungeon crawls, but Sarah’s character isn’t some desperate rogue plundering crypts no sane person would venture near, but wants to find, say, an heirloom proving her birthright to certain title, or to turn her share of the loot into political capital, or to get revenge on… you get the idea.
Be careful not to let any one player become the main character of the entire story, but let them be the characters of their own stories. Get their feedback before you start.
While you play…
Let the players influence the story, and tailor the story to keep them interested. If it hasn’t happened yet, you have no obligation to keep pushing it in that direction. Obvious, maybe, but also challenging for many a GM who comes up with an epic storyline, investing in the tiniest of details, only to be derailed because a player had the gall to not know where the GM thought the story was going. It’s enough for an article in its own right, but to be brief, whether you’re working from a published campaign or one of your own design, anything that hasn’t been explicitly established yet is still at your disposal. If you can think of something more interesting and more engaging, do it. For the things you do plan ahead, leave empty spaces for you and the players to fill in as you go. Improvisation is a valuable skill.
Possibly contradictory conclusion
Finally, sometimes it really does make sense for a character to leave. Granted, at just a few weeks in I’m not about to cop out of taking responsibility for that train wreck, the buck clearly stops with me; but, with time and character development, it can make sense. Maybe Sarah’s character met her goal and reclaimed her title, or maybe she unyokes herself from the burden thrust upon her, sets her own path, and retires from adventuring a new woman, enriched by her experiences.
Or maybe she fell down a pit and died because she didn’t check for traps.
The point is, as much as I’m going to take the ideas here to heart, they can only go so far. Don’t force a group of characters together more than you’d force a group of people to hang out. Talk to each other, work together, and have a blast.