by Dru Pagliassotti
One of a DM’s hardest tasks is bringing characters together as an adventuring team. Will a group of strangers forge the bonds of trust and friendship needed to adventure together successfully? Do the characters share enough life goals to work well together, or will the team eventually dissolve in a series of quarrels and misunderstandings?
No DM can completely control group dynamics, but a few steps can be taken before the campaign begins that will help avoid the most common group problems.
The first thing the DM should do is tell the players what kind of campaign to expect. Most DMs have some idea of where they intend to take a new campaign. Will it be high-magic or low-magic? Filled with mighty heroics or gritty day-to-day struggles? Combat-oriented or relationship-oriented? City-centered or filled with travel? Should the characters be evil or good? Lawful or chaotic? Should they have strong ties to a certain area of the realm, or be footloose and fancy-free? Will certain races or classes face more prejudice than others? The more players know about an upcoming campaign, the better they can tailor their characters to meet that campaign’s expectations and goals. Of course, the DM should always be willing to work with a player on a particular character concept—if a player is determined to play a bold professional dragonslayer in a campaign intended to be a gritty, city-based political mystery, then the DM should try to come up with ways to integrate the character. Maybe the character is a retired dragonslaying veteran now moving into politics, or maybe one of the chief political villains will turn out to be a shapechanged dragon in disguise! But if the concept simply won’t work, the DM should be firm about rejecting it. In the long run, both the DM and the player will be happier if the player’s character fits smoothly into the campaign’s story line.
The next thing the DM should do is encourage the players to link their characters together. Are the characters related? Did they know each other in childhood? Attend the same schools? Fight in the same platoon? Do they circulate in the same social circles? Go to the same bar? Having players work with each other when developing their character backgrounds can make introductions considerably easier. I find shared histories especially useful when introducing new characters to an established game. If the DM can say, “You recognize the other guy in the room as your old childhood buddy Randulfo. He was the one who dared you to climb the tallest tree in the village—you fell off and sprained your ankle, and he had to half-carry you all the way home,” chances are the two players will pick up the story from there and the DM can sit back and relax, satisfied that the established character will invite the new character along on the next adventure.
Of course, sometimes players won’t want to create shared backgrounds, or the DM will be starting a game in which each player brings in a character previously created for a different campaign. In these cases, the introductions are more difficult. One option is for the DM to throw the characters together in the face of shared peril right from the start. Most players enjoy hearing, “Okay, the campaign is starting now—roll initiative.” Starting the campaign with combat makes it memorable and forces the characters to work together from the very start.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to bring new characters together:
The characters are related. Maybe they’re identical twins, fraternal twins, or regular siblings. Maybe they’re in-laws or cousins. Maybe they’re married—or divorced. Are they friends or enemies? Do they quarrel with each other but band together when somebody else tries to take sides? If your players are willing to make up shared experiences as they go along, all the better!
Friends or rivals
The characters already know each other. Maybe they grew up next door to each other or in the same village. Maybe they went to the same school, had the same mentor, or belonged to the same guild or military group. Maybe they dated each other. They might have been best friends or rivals. Be cautious about allowing two players to play rivals, however; this only works if they are friendly or respectful rivals (probably of good alignment), each striving to outdo the other but still putting the success of the group first. The rivalry concept can work well, especially if the two characters must finally overcome their rivalry to succeed in a mission or to save each other’s lives, but it can also break a team apart if the rivalry grows bitter.
Hired as a team
This is the standard AD&D introduction. The characters are hired by the same person—maybe by somebody who knows each of them separately or maybe by a complete stranger. Maybe the characters all belong to the same guild and are hired by their guildmaster. Maybe they all belong to, or were just drafted into, the military and are put together as a special-ops team. Maybe they gather around the deathbed of somebody they all know separately, and with her last dying breath the NPC asks all of the characters to work together to complete some task. The DM simply hopes that the characters will end up agreeing to stick together as a team after the mission is completed. In the military version of this scenario, the team may be forced to work together until the war is over.
The characters all hold a piece to a puzzle. Maybe they are all part owners in a mysterious shared inheritance. Maybe they have each been given part of a riddle, matching keys, segments of a magic item, or a section of a map. Maybe they were ordered to go someplace by their mentor “to seek your destiny,” and when they arrive, they find each other. The DM sets up some sort of overarching mystery that the characters must work together to solve—possibly over the course of a single adventure, possibly over the course of an entire campaign. New characters can be introduced to this scenario by giving them some new part of the puzzle that will help the established characters.
The characters all wake up suffering amnesia and find themselves in the same prison camp or cell, or on the slave block together. The characters are sitting in a bar when a fight breaks out between two rival gangs, and each of the gangs assumes that the characters belong to the other one. The characters are all in the wrong place at the wrong time and are accused of some terrible crime. The characters look exactly like an infamous band of highwaymen and, when they find themselves in the same tavern, are suddenly confronted by a squad of city guards hot for their arrest. The characters are all in the same shop when an earthquake hits and topples the building—or a great fire breaks out and begins to ravage the city—or a tsunami hits—or a dragon flies into town and begins munching on the townsfolk. In each case the characters must work together to save themselves or innocent bystanders or to figure out what’s going on.
The most important thing to remember is that all a DM can do is set the stage; it’s up to the players to work together to get the campaign off the ground. However, by giving the players a good idea of what kind of characters will work best in the campaign, encouraging them to develop shared character histories, and putting them in situations that demand their cooperation from the start, the DM can do quite a bit to ease character introductions and interactions from the very first moment of the new campaign.