We've all been there in that awkward moment when a group of players starts a new group of characters together. Everyone rolls his favorite race and class, and the party leader invites everyone to chat. You meet up in Elwynn Forest or Durotar, filled to the very brim with the nascent possibilities for future roleplay.
And then you stand there. And stand there. And time passes until someone finally asks, "So, uh, how do we all meet?"
The adventuring party archetype is as old as roleplay itself. Even the Fellowship of the Ring was little more than a tricked out D&D group where the lucky halfling got to carry a legendary artifact. (And no doubt the whole crew was bitter that they lacked a sufficient healer.)
But to get a good group like this rolling, it really helps to have a good joint story from the very start. So let's talk about my five favorite archetypes for getting an adventuring party started.
You met in a bar. I'm pretty sure that roughly two-thirds of tabletop sword-and-sorcery games start in-character at a bar. There's something magical about using a bar as a location. It's dirty and dusty and gritty. There's beer, which is a substance fantasy geeks hold to be a magical elixir, making us all more masculine and adventurous by its mere possession. Even better, bars have two more vital staples of fantasy novels: bartenders and barmaids.
I can't explain this Oktoberfest-like obsession gamers seem to have about bartenders, barmaids, and corner bars filled with fire smoke. But it's very real and we all respond to it. For all that the story you met in a bar is a hackneyed cliché, it still works. We still picture an elf and a dwarf sitting by the pub fire, drinking "iron ale" and "elfwyne" and somehow striking up a lifelong friendship.
I do acknowledge this origin story been done, done well, and done to death. But if we're just roleplaying (and not trying to write a script for a new Peter Jackson movie), then why not embrace a proven formula? Why not take this best practice of fantasy fiction and use it for our own characters? Hell, met in a bar is such a proven, experienced trope, the story damn near writes itself.
You're all family. Of course, another common trope for how adventuring parties get together is that you're all related. Your group could be a noble bloodline, bound by blood in your devotion to your king and queen. Or you could use a much more provincial story and embrace the idea that you're like the Hatfields or McCoys. Farmers from Westfall probably aren't terribly inclined to leave their family land, for example. It makes sense that if Little Billy was going to strike out into the world, he'd take family members with him.
There are a few advantages to using family as the cornerstone of your group's joint story. First, it's pretty easy to build inter-party relationships. You can simply start with how you are relative to one another on the family tree. Second, it can be easy to add new members to the party. "Uncle Bob decide he's going to roll with us into Kalimdor!" Third, a lot of the drama and conflict is already built into a family party. Have you ever met a brother and sister who simply and easily got along?
You met by chance. It's a joke in LARP but viable everywhere: "No shit, there I was." By using coincidence as the foundation for your adventuring party, you're basically just saying you met through some crazy, random happenstance. You all just happened to be hanging out in a village when Deathwing came by and burninated all your thatched roof cottages. By chance, you were all on the same boat to Northrend and got to know each other on the open seas.
The downside to happenstance is that it can be difficult to form good, joint stories. Your characters don't even have the love of beer and brewmaidens to bind you together. Generally, happenstance leaves you with a shared mission, like getting revenge on that pesky dragon. But once that quest has been accomplished, why do you stick together? Hopefully, your party had some good times along the way, or your joint story is over.
You're in the military together. It's pretty rare that you think of military service being the binding element of an adventuring party. The reason for that, in my mind, is that you always have a handful of characters who want to be lone wolves, all rogue and rebellious against "the man." But I actually really like the idea of a group of soldiers working together as part of a common goal. This joint story certainly worked well for the characters of Babylon 5.
The downside of this story is that military ranks get involved and you tend to have a character who is in charge. That can rub a lot of players the wrong way, since roleplayers tend to be independent-minded folks. To solve that problem, simply say that you're all peers who all report to an NPC leader in a distant castle. You all have to work together.
The nice thing about having your adventuring party all serve in the military is that you can spontaneously change directions without much rhyme or reason. If you get bored adventuring in Westfall, simply say mysterious orders have shifted your team off to Kalimdor. You don't need a reason beyond "the captain gave an order." Even better, if you build up enough of these mysterious orders over time, you can weave a metaplot out of the activity.
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Filed under: All the World's a Stage (Roleplaying)