Monday 8 January 2018

Guest Post - Assembling a Group by Heinz

I've got another guest post for you! This time, Heinz discusses how a GM can guide players to create coherent characters that work together.
The lovely Fern Kali allowed me to put my thoughts together on a kind of… guest author week she’s doing on her (much better and waaay more frequently maintained than mine) blog. The central focus seems to be about characters, and since I mainly play as a GM, i thought I’d write about that. I literally have no idea if this isn’t just a bunch of stuff anybody knows, so, here goes nothing.

As a GM, of course you can simply say to your players “What do you want to play?”, and you should. But let’s be honest: the character design is far too important to leave it to players. ;-) No character is an island, and it’s not possible to not communicate. So characters encountering each other at the inn, or characters already established as a group when the game begins, are more than the sum of their parts: a group is a social network, if you will, and it requires careful assembly for you as a GM, be it by gentle nudge or by Word Of God. And if you are a Player, you might help your GM by bending your concept a bit in the way they propose. 

The first rule of all, in my opinion, is: the character must be playable in a group. This seems like a no-brainer, yes, but it’s surprisingly easy to fail in this part. Can the PC do everything alone? Fail. Has the PC nothing that ties him to the group or its goals? Fail. Can’t they even pull his own weight? Also fail. A character has to be able to be a part of something bigger, a part of the party, and for that, they has to be able to give to the others and they must need to take from them. Otherwise, there is no reason for him to be on board. How many times have you seen groups where people accompany each other just because? 

Groups need a bond, a common goal, and they need it to be bigger than their desire for freedom. This doesn’t even have to be there from the start – if you chain your group up on a slave ship and force them to spend time together, they can bond there. But there is still the need for something they can bond about. It might be as simple as one hiring the other. But there needs to be SOMETHING they can build on, and I have seen a lot of players that seemed to have a lot of fun in raising hurdles for others to like them. Don’t let them. 

So, here’s a list of Do’s and Don’ts if you are a GM that composes a group for a game.

-          Regardings skills: give them something they are the lone expert for, but make them depend on each other.
This is fairly easy: characters that can do everything are boring, characters that can do nothing are useless, and it’s nice if your character is really good at something. The trick as a GM is to make them depend on each other despite being experts in their field.
An example: my most recent group is a bunch of space explorers, stranded with a failing colony ship and desperately trying to keep that giant ship afloat. There are two fighters, one primarily ranged, one more for the CQC, but both can assist each other in their roles. The other two are technicians: one for the electronic stuff, one for the mechanical components. One of those is also a psychic on the side.
Usually I mix up the tasks for them: everything that needs to be done requires at least two of them. The broken door must be mechanically opened and electronically fixed. The giant machine must be lifted by strong people and/or the psychic and its base fixed by the mechanic... you get the gist. I design the challenges so that one alone can never succeed. At the same time, you need to make sure that a single character taken out doesn’t kill the group, so for every specialist, there is one stand-in who’s way worse in the skill, but can at least fill in the role of the missing character (in my group, one of the fighters is a hobby mechanic, and the other one does his own electronics on the side, while the technicians can also use a gun if they must). If the task is really complicated, they can also assist each other. Oh, and: have one healer, but more than one medic. ;)

-          Regarding character design: bring the band together.
I like to use the concept of the Five-Man Band. That’s a trope from tvtropes, and it is really well explained here: As said there, the Five-Man Band does not have to be composed by exactly five people, but it helps a group to work if you split up the functions of these five. The Leader, the Lancer, the Chick (I usually call that The Special, because someone ALWAYS wants to be special), the Smart Guy and the Big Guy are usually easy to assign, and they are easy to adapt to your respective game world. The concept can be bent, even broken in parts, and it’s no guarantee for a working group dynamic. But if you assign your players parts in the Five-Man Band, it usually allows you to see the structures more clearly, and to see where there are holes to fill.

-          Tie them into your world.
Another thing that seems fairly obvious, but nevertheless: if you are planning to send your group against Dragon X on Mountain Y, in the desert of Z, and you are travelling with the airships of A, the cityboats of B and the dancing charlatans of C, then put strings to these things in your characters backgrounds. Put more than exactly these strings there – it would be fairly obvious, and who knows where they are going instead? You can only railroad them so far... ;)

-          Challenge your players with new roles
This is if you have experienced players in a new group: a very traditional group played by the “wrong guys” can be serious fun. Assign the guy who always played the mage as the knight that leads the group. Ask the all-time mercenary player if they would like to play the medic. See if the all-time human scientist player doesn’t want to try his luck as a locust in an exosuit. Sometimes, players have these ideas themselves, but sometimes it’s an actual help if you suggest something: you can often see better which roles they could fill. But: tell everybody at the table about the experiment, and: both of you better be prepared to say “Okay, bad idea” soon and bury that guy in a fast and decent way.

-          Don’t let them play the edgy loner.
Remember how cool it was when Aragorn, pipe aflame in the darkness, sat in the corner of the inn, all mysterious and dark? It does not work that way at the table (it might every once in a while, but it’s just dumb luck). We’ve had that type, it’s been played a lot. Our cup runneth over with shady lone wolves. Play someone who wants to be alone, if you must, but then allow the situation to pierce your lonely coat. A good approach is to ask your players “Why should anyone care about your character at all?”, and if the answer is “Because I’m a player”, then scratch that.  They can play complicated if they want, but they shouldn’t play pure refusal. RPGs are parlour games – treat them as such.

-          “My character would never do that!”
If that is the answer to something that is required for your group to work, then that is dumb design. Plain and simple. Yes, we all know the type who has principles, a code, honour, whatever. They have always lived by that, and they would never do THAT. That’s nice. I mean, someone has to have rules and respect them. But if it’s clear that, sooner or later, you have to work with that half-orc over there, and you design your character to never do THAT, that’s bad. Allow them to be fearful or hateful, mistrust half-orcs, be racist, whatever. But if you close doors and vow to NEVER open them, then that is a flaw by design, for you are setting the player up for disappointment. It will always come up, and it will get on your group’s (OOC) nerves sooner or later.

-          Mind the gap.
Fairly obvious: you shouldn’t allow Gandalf and Rincewind in one party. It’s pretty clear who will always be the better mage, and who will be bored (or gone). Do not allow really big skill gaps or anything like that – it is frustrating. I feel dumb pointing it out now, but it IS important.

So, that’s off the top of my head what I keep in mind when I compose a group for my games. I’d really love to hear the readers’ thoughts – this is far from complete, I guess. ;)

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