Friday, 17 July 2015
Ties that bind
What keeps the characters in a role-playing game together? When I started gaming, it wasn’t something we thought about much. With no template for how we were ‘supposed’ to role-play, we took turns. Each player got 20 minutes with the umpire (‘GM’ to you non-wargamers) and it took a few sessions before we twigged that by banding together we’d all get more playing time.
Having come by that route to the whole notion of group play, we were lucky to have begun with the best: Empire of the Petal Throne. In EPT's rich social setting there are many ways that player-characters might be colleagues, united by family, clan, temple, legion, or political faction - and usually more than one of those at once.
In our non-Tekumel games, Tim Harford has given most thought to group cohesion in the campaigns he’s run. I’ve spoken before of the Company of Bronze, a group of mercenaries held together by long comradeship and the desire to avenge the massacre of the rest of the company. In Tim’s Spartans campaign, we’re all survivors of Thermopylae who grew up together through boua and Crypteia to phalanx – a stronger band of brothers you couldn’t find.
Both of those campaign set-ups could be characterized as ‘Starship Enterprise’ groups. The characters are first and foremost a team. There may be rivalries or close friendships, but nobody gets left behind. In Tim’s Redemption campaign, however, he brought us together with a shared need (the clue is in the campaign name) and a means to achieve it. But, although sent out with nominally a common goal, there was plenty of scope for the betrayals, alliances and disharmonious aspirations that make for an interestingly fraught drama.
The Redemption idea works well for a quest campaign. The characters are thrown together, usually en route to some geographical objective, so to a large extent they are held together just by that plot momentum. But how about campaigns that aren’t built around a single goal? In Jakalla or Lankhmar or Lyonesse Town, characters inhabit a fully realized social milieu. Why should they stick together?
As I mentioned above, the characters could be held in a group by membership of the same factions or institutions. In a 19th century British setting, for instance, they might have gone to the same public school. That helps to explain a friendship in later life, but it’s not a sufficient condition. Tom Brown may or may not have hung out with Harry Flashman in later life – stranger things have happened, but more likely they’d belong to different clubs, different social sets, and pass each other with but a faint curl of the lip going up Pall Mall.
Who's Who entry above) and Oliver Johnson’s bulldoggish hearty. It promises to be fun. But players should never have their characters act in way that simply serves the entertainment value of the ‘narrative’. For the really interesting and unexpected developments that make role-playing unique, you need to think entirely from inside the character. So why would my and Oliver’s characters not simply decide to have nothing to do with one another?
A useful pointer comes from Joss Whedon. Xander and Spike loathe each other, but both care about Buffy. If you have one character in the group who is a really good friend, relative or dependent of all the others, there’s the gluon that will hold them together. Ideally it should be a particularly well-liked player-character, but at a pinch you could make it an NPC. Affection for a sweet little mutual godchild might make even Holmes and Moriarty grit their teeth and shake hands.
With the gluon character, you can have as disparate and mutually hostile a bunch of characters as the players care to (or happen to) create. They can’t escape from each others’ orbit, so the tensions can freely crackle around the group and nobody gets to just shrug and walk away. And trust me, that kind of role-playing beats multi-classed thief-witch gnomes doing Detect Traps hands down.