Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: The Dwarf, The Elf, and The Onion

Welcome to the New Year dear readers! I hope 2012 will bring you more great game sessions and plenty of inspiration for new campaigns. Along those lines, hold on tight as we head into a new adventure…

This time I want to share some of my ideas about building a party of PCs. One question that’s always bothered me is how to make PCs understand each other better. Or, to be more exact, how can they learn about each others’ motives and feelings so they work together more easily (or at least attempt to)?

I can hear you thinking… Why? And that’s simple: words don’t always do enough. You can spend hours explaining why their characters like or dislike each other, how well they know each other, and how they must trust their fellow party members. But it’s just words. And no matter how good a GM you are, any social bonds you create will most likely never emerge in-game. And then add to that the fact that new parties have no common experiences upon which to build (or antagonize) a party into a coherent whole.

If that’s not enough, another reason is even simpler. When players and PCs begin to understand the motives of their other party members, that understanding will more easily come through in-game. Such understanding can lead them to being more willing to make bigger sacrifices for one another or even less willing to do so, sometimes tempering hot heads and fast decisions.

Of course, every GM has their own methods for creating and encouraging player-to-player interactions, whether they use storytelling techniques and a deep narrative or simple die rolling. (Personally I prefer the “deeper” gaming approach, not “dancing with the dice” at the game table.)

I use several ways to create links of understanding between PCs. Of course, this “understanding” does not always result in friendly relations between the PCs. Sometimes better understanding leads to deeper antagonistic feelings in the group (and this is something I like even more!).

Important Point: Whatever you decide to do as GM, do it to the PCs not the players. You must be very careful when you “play” with emotions, psyche or adding drama into your game.

OK, enough yammering, let’s move onto the tools…

1. Welcome Back to the Neighborhood

Often in fantasy roleplaying, PCs are composed of wandering adventurers. They travel around the world, rarely visiting their homelands. Though it can simplify things somewhat to have PCs all from a common area, sometimes it’s useful when you have PCs from disparate races, cultures, and nations. On the road, all of them are strangers – which can sometimes be easier to relate to. (Everybody remember the Lord of The Rings?)

So why not take a party to the homeland of one of the PCs. Visit his village or city, his home – and let the character become host and guide to the rest of the party. While at home, remind the character (& player) of his favorite foods,  scents of his favorite flowers, the sounds of a forgotten familiar river… Make him (or her) feel at home again and have them share that experience with the other PCs.

This can be fairly easy to work into a story – maybe something bad is happening in their homeland, or maybe a quest is connected somehow with their place of birth?

(Plus, it works in real life too. Invite someone to your home and often their attitude will often change. Your guest may start liking you more (or less) when they get to know you better.)

2. Exploring “Codes” of Ethics

For this one, try to create a situation where the PCs have to decide what to do according to their personal codes of ethics. The situation may require deep thinking about accepting or rejecting traditions, religious practices, or upbringing, and should be a sensitive or delicate issue to consider. Usually this type of tough situation can have many different solutions and none of them work out for everyone involved.

But keep in mind a couple of things…

First, this should be a situation where the players have some time to decide. Don’t hurry them. Let them talk, quarrel and discuss it together.

Second, remember that the decision may not be as important as how they come to it. (It’s the journey, not the destination, right?) With this sort of approach, it’s often more important that each PC (and player) hear what the others have to say.

3. Changing Perspectives

This one’s a bit trickier and definitely more time consuming, but worth a try. Let your players swap characters with one another briefly, but don’t let them know you’re doing it ahead of time. This seems to work best when you have a small group of players.

How do you do it?

Once during a long campaign I told my players – let’s take a break. Next time we’ll play a one-shot adventure. I asked them to create characters – teenagers – giving them a few background details. Then we played through a really good adventure but they had no idea that they were playing as their PC’s grandparents… Plus, I mixed up their roles a bit. For example, the player who usually plays the thief played the teenage grandfather of the knight in the party. And the knight was playing an ancestor of the thief. The adventure was somewhat related to the PC’s usual campaign characters, but my players had no idea that was going on.

In the final scene, they woke up… as their normal characters. But they came away richer with a unique experience knowing more about their family backgrounds. This helped each get a bit more familiar with how their fellow party members approached things. After all, they WERE related to other for one session!

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And what tools do you use my dear readers? Let me know!

Keep on gamin’ in 2012!

(Editor’s Note: If you’re wondering about the dwarf, the elf, and the onion, I want you to try and imagine the first night of a new party around a campfire. The dwarf is in charge of dinner and the elf is arguing against including an onion. As the dwarf tries valiantly to explain to the elf why the stew needs an onion (and that truly every meal is not complete without one), the elf is just as vehemently arguing that the onion will unbalance the delicate flavors of the rest of the stew – the meat, other vegetables, and seasonings… Wouldn’t you rather listen to *this* conversation than another battle-tested discussion of the price of turnips or the weather? When party members know more about each other you can have some truly memorable experiences at the gaming table from time to time!)

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