Common Bonds


I have a hard time walking into a bar. Why? Well, I'm afraid I'm going to bump into another human who is really a Player Character. And, after that happens, I know I'm doomed. Anytime two or more PCs meet in a tavern, it means they have to go on an adventure. It's a bylaw of RPGs.

I have a hard time walking into a bar. Why? Well, I'm afraid I'm going to bump into another human who is really a Player Character. And, after that happens, I know I'm doomed. Anytime two or more PCs meet in a tavern, it means they have to go on an adventure. It's a bylaw of RPGs.

I learned this lesson in my first RPG experience. If you need a Dwarven warrior to beef up your party's muscle, you go find him at a tavern. If you need a Halfling thief to ferret out traps, you go find him at the tavern. If you need a female, Elven archer-sorceress, you go to the tavern. A novice player might go to the church to get a cleric to heal him, but the seasoned player knows better. The only place you'll find a cleric in town is at the tavern.

The cliche is tried and true. In fact, the concept of meeting PCs in a tavern is engrained to the point it even happens in computer games. I bought Baldur's Gate for my Nintendo Gamecube last year. Guess where you start the game? Even in Torment, which I consider to be the best D&D computer game of all time, you find two of your NPCs in the same tavern.

I'm tired of taverns. But, I'm tired of just more than the cliche: I'm tired of the aftermath it causes.

The first RPG campaign I ever played in had its bright spots. But, upon reflection, I couldn't give you one, solid reason why those six PCs adventured together. Nordac, the cleric of Tyr, became the default leader and most of the games, for better or worse, tended to revolve around him. The other PCs tagged along because they had all met Nordac in a tavern one night and decided to be adventuring buddies. The group eventually disbanded because most of the PCs finally noticed their character had no purpose in life other than to serve the lead PC. The campaign had been started with an abrupt intro: "You're all sitting in a tavern when Haldor the dwarf makes an announcement. . . "

Initially each PC had been created with specific goals and motives. Nordac wanted to raise money to build a new church in lands where Tyr was not well known. Solomon the ranger wanted to protect the local woodlands. Garin the wizard wanted to earn enough money to build a tower where he could study ancient texts. Haldor wanted to rid his town of skeleltons (which was done in the first adventure). Ord the elf wanted to return and free his homeland. This was pretty standard stuff. Still, none of this was taken into account when the first adventure had been presented to us. Nordac proved to be the most engaged PC in that adventure and the rest of the PCs started deferring to him. Garin was still hording his money, but Solomon had left his homeland to stay at Nordac's side. Ord had all but forgotten his people. And, now that his town was free of a skeletal menace, Haldor tagged along. . . well, because he was a Dwarf.

Why did this happen?

Because that's what PCs do when they meet each other in a tavern. The players, as often as not, toss away all of the creative ideas they'd invested into the character when the character was created. Rather than stay true to their character and their motives, they sacrifice character content in order to remain part of a group of heroes/adventurers.

This happened to me earlier last year. Myself and three other guys were told to make PCs for a new campaign. Foolishly, we all made our characters without consulting each other. We made what we wanted to make because we didn't want any restrictions. What we ended up with was 4 PCs who were completely incompatible. One was an over-the-top religious zealot, one was an anti-religious barbarian, one was a reclusive ranger, and one was a secretive archer. The guy playing the ranger eventually brought the game to close simply by stating "you know, I have no reason to be with you." The ranger walked away, never to be seen again.

The ranger wasn't the only one who felt this way. I had created the barbarian character and was annoyed I had to totally revamp my PCs persona in order to make the game work.

In essence, there's nothing wrong for a group of 5 to 6 ad hoc guys to stick together simply for sake of adventuring. But, there are folks. . . people like me. . . who don't find any fulfillment in that kind of arrangement. There are people like me who are annoyed at the lack of common bonds between the PCs.

Common bonds?

Common bonds are nothing special. They are what they are: a commonality between PCs that makes them compatible. Common bonds give PCs a reason to continue adventuring together, week after week. Common bonds help establish a layer of reality and practicality to a game. Common bonds are an enrichment tool.

After last year's fiasco, the guys and I got together and hashed it out. We decided that, going forward, we wouldn't create PCs without creating a common bond first. If a gnome illusionist walks up to the heroes and wants to join, great. But. . . he has to have a common bond. We don't want the gnome hanging out "just because." The gnome needs to have a vested interest in what the rest of the heroes are doing. There has to be something at stake for the gnome. . . otherwise, he's little more than arrow fodder.

Creating common bonds isn't difficult. All it takes is a smidge of imagination and some cooperation between the players and the DM.

For example: in my current DND campaign, four of the PCs (the Rune-Reader, the Dwarf, the Archer, and the Kensai) are banded together because they have earned the enmity of a certain arch-devil. They currently don't have the power to take this fiend down, but they realize their chances of survival are greater if they stick together. What's worse, this fiend has captured an old ally of theirs and is taunting the PCs into a confrontation they can't possibly hope to win. So, they are seeking a means for a victory. The fifth PC is a Cleric who is tagging along because he fears for the souls of the other players. He wants to ensure his "flock" doesn't go too far in their quest; he wants to guard them from becoming the very thing they mean to destroy. And, the sixth PC, the Gnome Illusionist, is a collector of godsblood. The gnome doesn't have any blood from this arch-devil, but he'd like to.

The purpose of the common bond goes beyond giving a reason for the PCs to adventure together. The common bond gives the PCs and the DM material to utilize in the on-going campaign. For example, the Cleric is suspicious of the Gnome. Why would anybody want the blood of a devil? This plants the seeds for good character interaction. This might not have been so had the Gnome simply wanted to be a vanilla adventurer. But the Gnome isn't vanilla. He has a purpose and a reason to see the rest of the Heroes succeed. The Rune Reader is happy to have the Gnome along – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This philosophy, in turn, troubles the Cleric, who now has to divide his time by scrutinizing the actions of both the Gnome and the Rune Reader. And so on.

Without any common bonds, without any established groundwork, this would just be another group of six guys who are trying to tackle Moloch for the hell of it (forgive the pun). And, while this may be fun on some levels, it certainly isn't as engaging and solid as it could be.

Ironically, there is nothing special about common bonds. Some might worry that it limits character creation. To some extent that's true, but it's not as limiting as one might think. The benefits are worth the sacrifice because, in my experience, common bonds work wonders for a campaign.

Common bonds give PCs a sense of unity. Common bonds help ensure everybody has a vested interest in the adventure. Common bonds help keep everybody involved. Common bonds add a layer of depth to a campaign.

And, at the very least, common bonds can keep you from starting a game in a tavern.

Good point about common bonds. Last game I ran, I told the players that they were all starting from the same village/town, and that they had all grown up together. I let them figure out their histories from that point (the half-elf made a pretty good one about how he and his elven mother came to live there, and the cleric had a good story as to how he came to "know god" so to speak). They emailed and phoned each other to make some common memories of their collective childhood, and it gave me some additional fodder with which to work (having to save a guy who in their early years was a bully-- that kind of thing).

I have found that common bonds do add a certain level of comraderie to the group that might not otherwise happen with the typical "Ok, everyone is sitting in a tavern" kind of opening.

Some players, though, don't have the desire to go so in-depth with character development, which is fine, so long as they still enjoy the game without detracting from everyone else's experience. For those in my group, telling them that they knew everyone else from childhood was a start, and it helped them to feel that they were at least included with the other PCs and not just tagging along.

I've always found it funny, though, at conventions when playing Living City (and I guess Living Greyhawk, too?) and there is a finite period of time and the scenario has to get all of these characters who don't know each other. Interesting to watch how the more experienced players take it in stride, whereas some others are still fumbling around for their PCs "motivation" to go along with the quest that needs to be completed in four hours of real time.

Even the players at the table are, "Yeah, yeah, we're all in a tavern. Let's get moving already." =)

This is precisely why I haven't started a game in a tavern since 1996. It was during this era that my players started developing such a profound relationship with their characters that, should there prove to be no common bond, there would consequentially be no adventuring group. The characters' individuality became far more important than the DM's contrived manipulations....

Hence a general chance of policy in the years since. If my adventure plans aren't forged to involve pretty much each and every PC at a personal level, then I tend to require the players to develop connections between their characters that will preface the adventure with pre-installed common bonds. Some players handle this really well, developing common histories and goals... others require a bit more aid compiling a playable backdrop for the character's motivations that involve a fellow PC they have yet to get to know personally.

This can backfire... but a clever DM can always find a way to use even the unforseen issues to his/her advantage.

Common bonds are important, indeed. Compelling as always, RG.

My problem comes when I have characters who are intricately linked emotionally and narratively, yet care nothing for one another. Somebody get me some real players!


Hmm... not sure I'd put players in that kind of position.

Granted, "real" players would work around their difficulties and play the role they have; however, it's a game and not a career, so I can understand a player's reluctance to go along with the narrative if s/he doesn't care for the other player(s).

Actually, that's where my problem lies. The players like each other just fine, but they play their characters as though they met in the tavern, when in reality, each character was brought in with a player/DM written hook, threaded into the main story.

I'm probably just bitching, but it applies to the article in that, even with a better character bond than the tavern-adventurer scenario, it takes effort on the players' parts to realize how much the other characters would mean to their own.

This is not meant to be an affront to RG, at all, as he outlines yet another tool a group can utilize to increase player attachment to their characters and the game itself. Every tool helps.

Ahhh.... I see now what you're saying. Yes, that is a pickle. To get the players to play out the role that they like/know/trust each other is quite difficult when they won't cooperate.

I don't think you're "bitching" because you probably spend a good amount of time working up a storyline that incorporates these characters, and they don't bite on it as you expected. Unfortunately, there is no real cure for this other than explaining to the players what it is you're trying to do. As a group, players and DM, you must collectively decide just what _style_ of game you want to play.

I've tried to run a complex, multi-threaded game with a new group, only to find several games in that they were more roll players than role players, and I had to adjust accordingly. Not so much fun for me, but everyone else had a blast, and that was the point. After that, I handed the reins to someone else who liked running that style of game.

Yeah, it's a disappointment. It's hard to find groups of players who will allow their characters to get hooked into a game like you're writing.

I'd be interested to hear anyone's comments on ways that they've handled this kind of issue...

A lot of things...and I mean "a lot"...hinge on group dynamic and effort. The DM can only do so much to help out a player or group of players.

Yeah...if the group isn't into putting out the extra effort, then things like Common Bonds won't do anything more than waste the DM's time.

As corny as it sounds, sometimes a group needs to get together and agree on what they want out of the game...keep people from spinning their wheels for naught.

yes but guys... you are ALL missing the point here....

NOTHING is funnier than having a group of rank 1 newbies for players sitting in an orc-ish bar and the local drunk dwarf starts up a round of "If you're happy and you know it slap a friend."

Of course this usually results in either a brand new campain within 5 minutes, or the players laughing their rears off for the next four days.

I recently wrote a 1st level module for Necromancer Games (publication acceptance currently pending) and I used this cliche start. I used the now classic, at least in my mind, line: "Like all great adventures, this one starts in a tavern." It's great.

Personally, I tend to start campaigns in dire peril. I find an excuse to get the PC's together, then give them a few sessions of white knuckled terror. Basically I railroad the first session, then let the players do what they will from there. After this beginning, I give them a bit of a rest, but they take the campaign more seriously, and the group does tend to rely on each other.

An example of this would be one campaign where I made the PC's into "torchbearers and apprentices" on a significant quest. I had a session of travel, getting to know the NPC party leaders (who treated the PC's like most PC's treat their NPC's) and background on the adventure and bigger picture. Next session the whole group arrives at and is trapped in the tomb they were exploring (the door won't open until 24 hours pass, and then not again for a calendar year) and discover the tomb is occupied by badness.

There's a running series of significant fights (the PC's not getting much of a break, after all the bad guys are intelligent enough to search for them . . . this isn't Diablo), with heroric NPC's sacrificing themselves to get the larger group out of one scrape or another. The PC's contributing by fighting their way through the grunts and solving puzzles. After a few sessions, there was only one mid-level NPC left, we'd lost a PC and the characters were exremely anxious about surviving the next 18 hours and getting back to the door through the host of baddies.

Through guile and a bit of luck they did, and now had to get the information about the failed quest back to the King, who'd assigned the quest to his best and brightest. After the travel back, they still had individual goals, but the bonds forged in the 24 hours in the dungeon (which took 6 intense months of real time) stuck, and they worked on their goals together or not at all . . . to say nothing of the Kings new, more desperate quests.

I've done something similar, where the gang starts in a prison cell and they have to work together to escape. As you note, the intense run-for-your-life aspect helped forge friendships between some of the characters.

I'm cool with guys adventuring together because they're friends -- friendship can be a common bond for the purpose of RPG's. I have found, however, that if two players start off by simply stating "we're friends"...they have a tendancy NOT to pull it off well.

There's probably no rule for it...but, it does seem that PC's who are introduced to each other through some trial become better friends and have better interactions than PC's who just assume they have a friendship.

I tend to go for that route also. I just say from the get-go that everyone knows each other and have known each other for some time. This tends to make the group more cohesive at first and then things go well from there. Of course I like to mix it up sometimes too. For example I recently started an Orpheus game, awesome game by the way, where the party was put together byt their employer and they had no say in the matter. It's cool because two of them hate each other but have to work together anyway. It's great.

If done the forced group thing via corporate employment as well. For works well in Shadowrun. The problem that I've seen with that is it's hard to find a reason for the group to stay together after the job is done. And inventing plot hooks to extend the tenure of the job can become tedious.

I'm not a GM - I'm a regular player. The group I game with have all agreed that we like a common bond between PCs, but as you have all noted it is sometimes hard to get everyone to roleplay that bond. And sometimes the bond - or lack thereof - gets in the way of continuing the campaign.

In one of our most recent campaigns, the PCs are all students/apprentices/followers of higher-level NPCs, similar to Stephen's example. After the whole group got together the NPCs went off on a part of their quest that was too hot for the 1st-level PCs. They never returned. The PCs were drawn together by their anxiety for their mentors (in my case the NPC was my PC's spouse). Then winter set in and they were stuck in a frontier town that was regularly attacked by orcs. They were further drawn together by going through combat side by side as they helped defend the town.

Unfortunately, this still hasn't necessarily provided a good enough reason for the PCs to stick together. A couple of the characters have vowed to search for the missing NPCs for as long as it takes. But the players and GM decided that several of the PCs had only recently met their NPC mentors. Since they don't have much emotional attachment to the NPCs, there's not much motivation for them to remain with the rest of the group.

And what do you do with a group like this if you want to bring in a new player, or a PC dies and has to be replaced?

Another tactic I've used as a GM (after consultation with the potential players, of course) is to make all the PCs members of the same family, usually siblings or cousins. While this restricts everyone to the same race (or possible half-types under certain circumstances), players can choose whatever classes--or even alignments--that they wish. After all, you don't get to pick your family, but there is a literal relationship built right in.

I have had family-based parties in two separate campaigns, each with great results. Sibling rivalry is a fun prod for character interaction, but while many family members may bicker and argue with each other, they are much less likely to sneak attack them or leave them as fodder for a rampaging dragon. Related PCs tend to stick up for each other, too: you may hit your little brother, but if someone *else* picks on him, they'd better be prepared to deal with you, too!

Family-based parties need to be agreed upon by players before the campaign starts, but they foster an intriguing group dynamic and why-are-we-together reason that is rock solid. So, if you can't keep your next party in the tavern, try keeping it in the family!

I have also used curses that force players to work together. This can be cool or lame, depending on how its developed.

For example, The Dwarf was forced to spy on the party by an old enemy of their's for a period of several months (human time). This forced the dwarf to stay until his unfortunate condition was discovered.

New players coming into an established group are faced with pros and cons. They have to make themselves welcomed, which can be hard. But, they old group already has an established back-story from which the new player can find a common bond. These guys hate Orcus...well, so do I! Or something...

Other RPG skills are usually needed to help clunky groups make common bonds work if the common bonds don't function on their own.

A few months ago I had to face the question of how to get the characters of a group of players that had next to no role playing experiance to work together. I had a good idea of all the characters as I took the time to take all players aside for a moment to help them build a little background as they turned up for the roleplaying session.

As they were relatively new, I thought I'd give them a non-leathal setting to try out their fighting and other mundane skills. So I had them approach a town where there was a series of constests being held - ranging from drinking, to fighting, to rodeo-type things and even singing and poetry contests.
The knight was sent there by his family (being the youngest son he was told to get some reputation to his name). The amazon had been on an errand delivering a note and stayed on because she was challenged for her riding abilities. The dwarf in the group had been following the amazon (the players idea.. it's a bit weird, I know, but there is a little side-plot developing between those two characters. The elf had wanted to sell some furs with his usual contact but wound up at the contest arena, being a little crazy he instead entered the contests for fun. The two wizards had met up at the local academy and had been invited to watch the contests by one of their collegues.. and ended up participating in the singing and poetry contests. The players had a lot of fun trying out viarious techniques, got comfortable with the dicerolling and also got the hang of what I wanted from them. THeir chars managed to win a few prizes and the amazon even managed to win the second place in the overall rankings. I even managed to give them a few semi-vital bits of equipment they had initially missed. At the end of the day the winners were invited to eat and drink at one of the local taverns. They we're happily chatting about their background and now and then they caught a bit of gossip that people were a little angry about the first place winner idin't show up at all. They had all seen the "mysterious guy in the black armour" - even fought against him in most of the contests. Natrual nosey-ness finally got them to inquire about the guy. They prevented Mr. Mysterious from killing the head judge and stealing the written records but when they struck him down he left nothing but his helmet, his sword and his armour. Two of those items bearing strange signs and powerful magic..

Even though the true adventure started with them all being in the "Tavern" they never noticed.

I like using cliches.. but I like them more with a twist.

"If done the forced group thing via corporate employment as well. For works well in Shadowrun. The problem that I've seen with that is it's hard to find a reason for the group to stay together after the job is done."

My DM had a good trick for this. The party started as caravan guards hired by what seemed to be a nice but eccentric rich fellow. The guy was a little weird but the pay was GREAT, who would complain? Well, things got a little bit weirder each day, until at the end most of the NPCs were dead and the employer ditched the party, leaving them alone together with no idea where the hell they actually were, and no food. Soon afterward, a new NPC appeared, introduced herself, and informed the party that she had been tracking the caravan, and why. As it turned out, their employer wasn't eccentric at all -- rather he was quite evil and was seeking to complete a collection of artifacts that legend said could allow a man to ascend to godhood. She then gave the party other details that made all the weirdness of the previous time fall into place. The goodguys felt they had to atone for being duped into helping this villian to advance his cause in any way, the neutrals had a grudge for being left to die, and the one evil PC (mine) was very interested in the artifacts and the godhood. This gave the party reason to stick together after the job was done, as they all wanted to go after the elusive former employer for one reason or another. (He actually managed the godhood, we're still trying to figure out how to confront and deal with him....)

One of the funniest twists I've seen on the common "money at a bar" scenario was published in a swedish game module. It dealt with the necromancer Zathuri, who was in the process of building himself a nice little undead army to take over the country. However the supply of bodies had begun to wear thin and the townspeople were starting to get slightly suspicious, so Zathuri tried a new tack.

He simply wandered around taverns with the hood pulled up and looking mysterious. Occasionally a roving band of adventurers would buy a map from him - the map leading them to a subterranean complex where a treasure would supposedly be buried. Well inside, several nasty, unfair and thoroughly fatal traps would be activated, and the bodies collected for necromantic reanimation. As a bonus, the bodies would usually be armored and armed.

I loved that idea. It's so deliciously evil.

That is a pretty sweet idea. Not a bad seed for a common bond for a party, either. One could easily build an adventuring group from the surviving relatives/friends of a party who had suffered such a fate, seeking their missing relatives/friends, or if they start in the know, payback.

Indeed. If so, I'd let them know that something was "off" about the place and that their friends hadn't returned. That way, the seeing their friends or family return as shambling undead would be that much more horrific. As long as we're evil, that is. :)

My story begins in a tavern....

I guess it just seems to be canon or something.

Oddly yours,

I tried something a little unconventional. You see, i had the worst group you can get in D&D. (That i know of)
1: An Orc CE Thief. (Not to mention he's an Ex-Munckin)
2: A human LG Soldier (he actually took the Fighter class, but Soldier was his style) serving to try and catch thiefs (Wargamer at heart)
3: An NC Elf Wizard out collecting mushrooms (his player is constantly challenging me to motivate his character)

What i do in these situations is let the Thief and Soldier fight at the start, while the NC Wizard is kept around (because the area is full of mushrooms, of course).

When the Thief tried to flee (i didn't admit, but that wasn't in the plan), my archvillian swept down and knocked him out, and ran.

The Thief was actually being kidnapped, but the Soldier assumed somebody was trying to rescue him and rushed off after.

The area convinently was soon devoid of mushrroms, which the wizard then annilathed. (That's why he does it, launching fireballs around (lighting fires the manual way) without him knowing the spell, as he then admitted. He then launched them on the city nearby. I then realized he'd tricked me and was actually CE)

My plans thwarted once again, i had "Law Enforcement" attack him and bang him out.

When all 3 wake up in the same cell, Number 3 admitted defeat, but nethier 1 nor 2 was out yet, and they forged seperate ways out.

The Thief tricked a guard by telling him that they forgot to clean them of weapons. This wasn't true, but this didn't stop the Wizard finishing off the unfourtunate idiot with a few spells. And now the door was open.

The Wizard and Soldier then had a fight. (I know, i know!) In the end, the Soldier made a pact: After they escaped, he submit to the authorities for weekend imprisonment. The Soldier ensures he gets nothing worse then weekened imprisonment (for 60 years, yes, but...)

The Soldier&Wizard managed to defeat the main villian, while my Thief got saved by my GM NPC. (To get them a traditional number of 4)

Too bad my thief promptly killed the GM NPC. Luckily, i had a backup- the GM NPC was the only one who knew which of his many keys was nessary for each door.

Well, i decided to finish it off by having a rampaging troll attack the building, along with a Level 20 Wizard with the Earth Wall Power. (a previous player had worked out a clever trick- dropping them ON the enemy. I think they weighed about 54,000 pounds, giving him the advantage)

The reason i made the encounter so hard??? A fellow GM warned me about the time the thief's other character, a Level 1 Cleric, beat 30 Level 20 Fighters, but this was meant to be an introductory, not an ultimate encounter!! But not too easy etheir...

Unfourtunatly, my Thief managed to beat the Troll all on his own (shouldn't have underestimated him) while the Soldier and Wizard held off the Level 20, then they smashed him beaten together. (I think they used the NC Wizard's Mushrooms and set them on fire around the Wizard, then fled. The Wizard had to run through the flames while keeping himself o.k with medpacs while the thief, soldier, and wizard's combined strength allowed them to dump the troll on him)

I thought they'd work together, but the Thief ran away. Just goes to show you can't keep coherent parties together if they're members don't cooporate and they're smarter then you....

(I'm telling you, even if that party were trapped in a dungeon with stats all on 8, fighting against 500 Level 20 Fighters, they'd take turns trying to take on the mob!!)

<< Just goes to show you can't keep coherent parties together if they're members don't cooporate and they're smarter then you.... >>

That last part's pretty much a given. When you're smarter than players like that, you either get them to sit down and create a common-bond party, or you don't GM them.

"A fellow GM warned me about the time the thief's other character, a Level 1 Cleric, beat 30 Level 20 Fighters..."

This kind of thing should never happen.

But that's just my $0.02 worth.