This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
The Logic of an Adventuring Party
The topic for this installment of Save My Game is why characters choose the adventuring life and the particular companions that make up their parties. In a group that focuses on roleplaying, the logic of the adventuring party can become a consuming issue, and new character introductions can bog down when players roleplay their characters' natural suspicions of someone new. What's a DM to do?
Problem: Why Trust These People?
What can you do about the classic threefold problem that all roleplaying games seem to have: Why exactly should our characters get off their fat behinds and adventure? And why should they do it together? And how can existing PCs justify adventuring with a new character about whom they know next to nothing? -- Captain Casualty, from the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website
This problem is a tough one. Most modern folks would never take up adventuring in the first place, and the few who might be willing to do so would probably retire at about 2nd level and count themselves lucky. Furthermore, anyone who made it to a reasonably high level would likely choose to retire, since he would probably have accumulated more wealth than he could spend in a lifetime. And why shouldn't he?
Logically, PCs ought to think the same way. After all, they're theoretically modeled on real people, or at least real people as they might be if certain elements of the fantasy setting existed. And if individual characters have to scrape for reasons to adventure, how much more difficult is it for a group to find reasons for adventuring together?
In fact, a PC could choose the adventuring life for any number of reasons. For example, he might want to get rich quick, or right a specific wrong, or rescue a loved one. Alignment plays a role in the decision to take up the adventuring mantle, but it doesn't tell the whole story of why your PC makes the life choices he does.
The characters in an adventuring party need not all share the same motivation for adventuring. One might be in it for the money, another for god and country, another to find a long-lost friend, and a fourth to gain revenge against a certain foe. The individual characters' reasons don't have to be the same; they just have to be compatible -- at least on the surface.
New character introductions can be particularly difficult to justify within the logic of the game. Why should a group of savvy characters accept a person they've never seen before as a full member of their adventuring group? They've probably been tricked by monsters and evil NPCs more than once during their many adventures, so why should they simply accept a new companion at face value? It just doesn't make sense from a roleplaying standpoint, but not to do so can bog down the game and cause unnecessary bickering among the players.
Let's take a look at the logic of the adventuring party and examine several possible solutions for the problems presented above.
Solution 1: Holding out for a Hero
Adventurers are the superheroes of the D&D world, and it helps to look at them with that kind of mindset. Whatever their reasons may be, they forego the mundane lifestyles of their world's typical citizens and set off to adventure in lost realms, dangerous ruins, and monster-infested wilderness areas. Adventuring is what they do, and it defines who they are.
In both games and real life, a fundamental egotism accompanies the possession of power. A person with extraordinary Strength, magical ability, psionics, or any other rare capability eventually realizes that she can achieve results that "normal" people either can't or won't. Because she can accomplish great deeds, she comes to believe that she must do so. She may be driven by the realization that others with powers like hers might use them for evil ends if she doesn't stop them. Even if others can't or don't appreciate her actions, she sees the need for them and feels as though she is the only one who can or will do what is necessary. This sense of heroic destiny becomes a consuming part of such a character's identity, not something she can just lay aside. Not every PC is strictly a "good guy," but most PCs do occupy heroic (or antiheroic) roles in the cooperative story created at the gaming table.
Solution 2: All for One and One for All
Because D&D adventures are rarely made for solo play, characters are generally expected to act in concert. In that respect, a party of D&D characters is rather similar to a superhero team. Everybody has different skills and powers that support the group, and the individual members' strengths and weaknesses overlap in such a way that the team is well rounded and able to take on any challenge.
Part of a character's motivation for adventuring is just being part of the team. His teammate wants to undertake a particular mission, so he goes along to support her. Once a character is part of a team, he tends to do whatever the team does.
This concept becomes more difficult to justify at higher levels because as PCs gain power and responsibility, their loyalties become split between their own plans and the needs of the team. Should the wizard research his new spell or go kill the dragon with the gang? He has all the money he needs, so maybe he should sit this one out. Should the fighter run her barony or travel across the continent to the Dead God's Fane? Hmmm . . . she needs more money to repair her castle, so she chooses to strap on her armor and go adventuring! Sometimes the best solution when individual interests begin to supersede the importance of the team is simply to retire a character for whom the adventuring life just doesn't make sense anymore.
Solution 3: Put It in Writing
To encourage team play, consider creating "charters" for adventuring groups -- a concept introduced in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. A charter gives a little extra in-game weight to the team concept and forces players to think of the adventuring party as an entity in its own right. It's not just four people at the gaming table, it's the Scarlet Juggernaut of Elturel!
A charter can also help introduce new PCs to the group in a logical manner. Upon hearing of the group's mission and successes, newcomers can seek it out and petition to become members. In like manner, retired PCs remain part of the organization and may be called upon in emergencies.
Solution 4: One Recommendation Is Enough
Before beginning play, every gaming group should establish some ground rules about which classes and alignments are acceptable for the party and which ones are not. Doing so makes the introduction of new characters easier because although the other players may not know precisely what the newcomer is, they know what he is not.
When a player wants to introduce a new character to the party, try to establish a background connection between the newcomer and one of the existing characters. Perhaps they were apprentices to the same master, or grew up in the same village, or served in the same unit in the army. Such a connection allows the existing PC to vouch for the new one. That recommendation should suffice to ease the new member into the group unless someone has a serious objection.
Solution 5: Don't Worry about It
You and your friends have come to the table to play D&D. A certain level of in-game realism is important, but the game is really about high adventure, not bean-counting. We do enough of the latter in our real lives; doing it within the game setting simply dulls the gaming experience. Roleplaying a shopping trip to buy equipment may be realistic, in character, and even occasionally amusing, but after everyone spends 30 minutes watching one person haggle over armor, weapons, spell components, and a Ketite cerulean silk robe, players may begin to believe that in-depth roleplaying is overrated.
Finding reasons for PCs to pull together works much the same way. You and your players don't have to roleplay the background checks the party should routinely run on new members. Just assume that they occur and everything checks out. Presto, it's done, and the group can start adventuring.
Does this method constitute a cop-out? Sure. Is it perfect? No. But it works.
Rationalizing why a PC chooses to adventure in the first place and why she chooses the companions she does can be difficult at best. An individual character can take up the adventuring mantle for a variety of reasons, ranging from simple greed to a deep-seated desire to support his boon companions. A charter for the group provides an excellent way of establishing group identity.
New character introduction can also prove to be a stumbling block from a roleplaying standpoint. Why should experienced and savvy characters entrust their lives and fortunes to someone they have never seen before? Establishing a connection between the newcomer and an existing party member can ease this transition, or the group can agree to forego roleplaying the background checks that the PCs would logically want to make, assume that the new character checks out, and simply go on with the game.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.