Writing adventures (and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately), I was struck by the odd gap between the player’s side and the GM’s material. What’s the first or second chapter in most RPGs? Character creation – how to make your player character. Your singular, lonely, self-contained player character. Then, on the GM’s side, individual characters are hardly mentioned. It’s always plural: “the party”, “the adventurers”, “the investigators”, “the PCs” and so on. The assumption in most rpgs is that the player characters are working together as a group, an ensemble cast, and that the GM should treat this group as the primary focus of the game.
Yet, if an rpg addresses group character creation at all, it’s usually as an afterthought. You make your player character, then try to jam it in to some structure that vaguely fits with the other player characters. Even games which provide an explicit structure for the player characters (SLA Industries’ “you’re all Ops” or Ars Magica’s “you’re all part of the same Covenant”) don’t always give enough guidance to the players.
Group structures also feed into why the player characters have interesting lives, and may be a mechanism for the GM to dispense plot hooks. A group structure may also describe the roles that must or might be filled by PCs.
It’s common for a game to mandate that individual player character have reasons to adventure and to chase plot hooks, but what hooks one player character might not hook another. Trail of Cthulhu, for example, gives a Drive to each player character; they’re things like In The Blood (one of your ancestors was involved with the Mythos, and you’re tainted), or Vengeance (a shoggoth ate your buddy) or Thirst for Knowledge (you hunger for forbidden secrets). Drives are great, but either you go through absurd contortions to fit everyone’s Drives in (‘yes, you’ve heard a rumour of a book of forbidden secrets…and it was written by Bob’s great-grandfather… and, er, Phil, your buddy muttered something about a book as he was being eaten’). Realistically, you can only tie one or two PCs’ Drives in to a given mystery, and then you’re left hoping that they drag the others along in the absence of an explicit group structure.
The Laundry has a great party structure. Why are the PCs together? They’re all working for the Laundry, and the Laundry’s a weird place which can fit almost any PC concept. (In my playtest game, we’ve got an ex-cop, an ex-soldier, a mathematician, a computer geek and a cat-burglar.) Why do they go on missions? Because it’s their job. Follow the plot hook or else. It’s not perfect though – there’s no requirement for the PCs to work well together, and there’s no guidance on what makes a good group. (In the case of the Laundry, these omissions are at least partly deliberate – we wanted to leave room for the players to argue, to screw up, and to have grotesque mismatches of character skill and mission, for those times when one lone computer geek is sent out to save the world.)
Existing models for group structure:
You All Meet In A Bar…: The default in a lot of games; there’s no guidance provided at all, but it’s vaguely assumed that, y’know, everyone will work together for some reason. No explicit structure, no plot hook dispenser, no roles. You can muddle through with this sort of setup, but what happens is that the group ends up settling on one of the other models in this list. Examples: Too many to count.
Party: You’re together to kill monsters and take their stuff. D&D‘s the obvious source here. There’s a reason for the players to work together (dungeons are dangerous, you need help to survive) and there are class-based roles that are more or less clear (‘we need a fighter and a healer’). Examples: D&D
Team: You’re a group of professionals who go on missions. Mercenaries, shadowrunners and so forth. The characters work together because they have complementary skills, and the mission is the plot hook. For a team game to work, all the characters have to be able to contribute towards completing the mission, which means everyone has to be on the same page during character creation. Examples: Shadowrun, SLA Industries, Leverage
Members of an Organisation: You’re all members of the same espionage agency/corporation/secret mystic order/gentleman’s club, and this organisation does interesting adventure-related stuff. Ideally, the organisation is one that includes members from all sorts of backgrounds, so you can have a mix of character concepts. You’ve also got scope for NPC peers and superiors who are also part of the same organisation. Examples: Spirit of the Century, Kerberos Club, Wraith Recon
Crew: You’re all part of the crew of the same ship. The interesting thing here is that the ship is effectively a container for the player characters – the GM needs only to worry about bringing the ship into the game, and the characters are assumed to come along with it. Example: Traveller.
Circle of Friends: You all know and trust each other. When one is in trouble, all the others help out. Example: Call of Cthulhu
Chosen Ones: You’ve been brought together by a higher power. Examples: Nobilis, Legend of the Five Rings (using the standard magistrate approach)
Coterie: You are already exceptional in some way; you have banded together with other exceptional individuals. Your exceptional nature is both boon and curse, and plot hooks are likely related to this exceptionalism. Examples: Vampire
Common Goal: You share some common goal or task. I’m actually blanking on games where this is the dominant model – old-style Hunters Hunted, maybe?
Family Ties: You’re all related to each other, and blood is thicker than water. Plot hooks might threaten the family, as opposed to individual members. Amber and Nobilis are examples here; possibly Pendragon or L5R too.
Overlapping Goals: You’re all pursuing your own goals, but by working together you can help each other. In this model, each PC has a strong and distinct sphere of interest, and they may be opposing each other at times and aiding each other at other times. I guess Paranoia is one example of this; a lot of games shift to this set-up when the PCs have a lot of power and influence.
What other structures are there for getting the party together? And are there any games where the PCs are explicitly not working together? Are such games possible or desirable?