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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.

Still, you’d prefer not to have everything sweetness and light in the group. Conflict and rivalry make for sparkier character dynamics and more interesting sessions. In Tim Savin’s upcoming Victorian campaign, there’s a gathering thunderhead of mutual antipathy between my own Anglo-Indian aesthete (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.


  1. Further research has uncovered that my character's degree in 1888 would have been BA (Hons) Morphology, that being the nearest equivalent to biology at the time. So now you know.

  2. Hi Dave ! IMO, I think that social or familial ties will work best in Roleplaying if they have a consequence in the rules themselves, not just in the story. I must say I was a little disappointed by the rules of the "Tékumel" RPGs (despite the excellent background setting) and most other "campaign guides" because the character's appurtenance to a clan or a family doesn't have a consequence in the rules (your skills, even your equipment). One of the few books (that I have read) that addresses this issue is the first edition of D&D Oriental adventures. There are rules for "birthright" (what you inherit from yor clan) and Honour (both for you and your clan; your actions, good or bad have a consequence on your Honour and on your Clan's one). Regardless of the system used, "Ultimate Campaign" for Paizo's Pathfinder is a goldmine for adding depth : there is, among others, a rule for relationships (ex: parent, childhood rival....) giving the concerned characters additional experience points if they complete together common adventures.

    1. Hi Olivier, I've seen very many subtly nuanced social interactions in Tekumel games. I don't think they would have been enhanced by tying social status into numbers and dice rolls, though. We have to do that with skills because they are mediated by physical factors (luck, gravity, things like that) but social interaction happens entirely in a mental space and it is what humans are bred to do, after all.

      We're even good at adapting to new sets of mores, so that players in Tekumel games quickly become conversant with appropriate degrees of shamtla, when to demand a duel, the correct etiquette when dining with social superiors, and so on. I find that you only need to give new players a steer, eg:

      and they're soon slotting into the social strata of Tsolyani society, and even critically comparing their manners to those of other lands.

      Status does make a difference to a character's skills. Not in EPT, but in the very long character creation process in Adventures on Tekumel:

      or in my own Tirikelu RPG:

      The rules aren't simply a question of status => wealth => more skills. The Tsolyani upper classes are disdainful of scholasticism, for example, so are less likely to follow academic career paths.

      If you like the idea of familial relationships shaping a character's early life (as of course they should in any roleplaying game) then you might be interested in my intro to a Tekumel campaign for new players:

    2. Oops, I had not included your Tirikelu system into my "list" of Tekumel RPGs !Thanks for the lonk Dave !

  3. One of the biggest problems with the 'gluon' character is that it elevates that character's status (and therefore typically that player's status) above the other players. It's like being a team, but someone is the captain. Most RPG groups, unless they've been playing together a long time (so everyone's had turns being the captain) tend to be egalitarian/democratic, and resent the idea of someone being placed as the special macguffin character.

    1. Not at all, Michael. The gluon could be a 10-year-old kid. That's an extreme example, and would almost certainly be an NPC. But a PC gluon simply has to be the most liked character. They're not necessarily (or even often) the boss. I think my example of Buffy misled you there.

  4. But seriously, I can only dream of the RPG whose author line reads "Morris - Thompson - Harford - Nicholson".

    1. Mr Harford is a little busy these days, James. It's rare enough that he can even make it along to our fortnightly game. But when we're all retired and looking for something to do, who knows?