Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the actual act of playing a RPG — tabletop, not computer — and specifically thinking about things I’d wish I’d done with our group when we started.
One thing that’s difficult to get past is how the characters do or do not mesh. Back in the early days of D&D, it was OK to have your characters meet for the first time at a tavern, which was little more than a clearinghouse for adventurers who were looking for other brave souls to delve into the depths of the local ruins in search of treasure. Really, that’s what D&D used to be about in it’s entirety: dungeon crawls, hence the first “D” in D&D. The second “D” was optional, as was any kind of character development.
Of course, now we’re living in an age when everything has to be grand in scope, so simply throwing characters into a mixer and expecting them to come out of it with crackerjack teamwork skills is asking a lot. D&D 5E has attempted to make that a bit easier by providing Backgrounds for players to choose from, reducing some of the time needed to get a character up and ready for action with the kind of history that modern RPGing demands. Still, spending some time on party dynamics before the game officially starts has benefits, and that’s what I wish we’d spent more time on before we started out Tyranny of Dragons campaign.
A History Lesson
I have been reading through the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, because it’s still cool to read a source book cover to cover. In reading about the geography I started to think about how the different locations fit with the characters in our campaign. Who was from where? And if they’re from X, Y, or Z, then what’s the chances that they knew one another, or of one another, or had some connection to one another (what I like to call the “Sixe Degrees of Elminster”), long before they met up in my half-assed contrivance that put them on the road to Greenest.
We didn’t spend any time on working up proper dossiers on most of the characters. Although the backgrounds were chosen, they were just kind of chosen (by some) as a matter of course in what the PHB suggested we do. I was reading an article over at Tribality which talked about a “session zero”, and I really wish we’d spent more time on character creation as a group because I like the ideas that the article brought up and how it relates to party cohesion, roleplaying, and opportunity for players and GMs.
I like the part of the Tribality article that states “it’s not the GM’s job to bring the party together”, and while I can agree with that (especially in light of the examples provided in the post), the GM at least has to provide some kind of situational framework if the players aren’t going to hook up their character’s histories on their own. Of course, it’s a slippery slope: if your players need to be on the campaign adventure, put them into a shared situation beforehand. But then again, how do they get to that situation where they can meet up? Best not to put too much thought into the Escherian possibilities and just pick a starting point.
Another benefit is how the character will respond to situations and NPCs in the game. For example, the SCAG talks about races and their origins and homelands. Although I wouldn’t demand players go out and buy SCAG, players who want to go that extra mile could benefit from reading up on their race’s history, picking a home town, and immersing themselves in that history. It would also give them a “hook” for how they would interact with NPCs, and how NPCs would interact with them.
Basically, we’re describing role playing here, I know. Not everyone is into that level of “character-world building”, and that’s OK, but I’d certainly like to have it on the table for anyone who wants to take advantage of it.
Aside from providing potential side-missions, it also gives the GM something to work with on a situation-by-situation basis. For example, if a gnome is afraid of water because she almost drowned as a child, that would be a serious impediment for the party to have to RP through should they encounter a quickly flooding room or need to cross a watery chasm.
The overall goal should be for the players to figure out where they stand in relation to the rest of the world, and for the GM to use that information to work with the team to grow their characters according to what’s important to each player.
I am a fan of roleplaying, personally, at least to the extent that it provides opportunities for A) players to play their character in character with limitations and specializations dictated by more by their “nurture” than their “nature”, and B) provides a benefit for the player to have elements of the narrative focus on their character for a little while, taking them out of the “generic party on a dungeon crawl” and putting them into a “this is a story in which your character is participating” vibe. If folks want to talk in Olde English to get their RP fix, then that’s OK as well.
Another benefit of a session zero that the Tribality article mentions is the definition of table rules. Even though we’re playing on the more casual side of things, there have been rules questions and situations that would really have benefited from having some rules codified. I think we hit most of the ones listed on Tribality, although we do sometimes run afoul of folks talking over one another that might have been solved with a pre-inception table agreement. As time goes on and we encounter arbitration scenarios we build up our list of table rules (we’re not using encumbrance, and are skirting spell components, for example). I think it might be a fool’s errand to try and tick off all of the boxes for every rule in the game with a yay or nay, so we’ve opted to adhere to the core rules for combat, saving throws, death, healing, resting, and spell casting, but leave everything else as “optional” so long as it serves the purpose of telling the story and ensuring that we don’t route the fun in service to rules lawyering.
And that’s kind of the whole punchline here: making the game fun. Locking down the game to a very specific style, dictating what must be and what cannot be done might be fun for absolute purists and I’m not speaking ill of anyone who wants to play their games that way. The group as a whole has to agree on what’s fun because some people will like harder-edged rules, and some will prefer the ultra casual approach, while the GM will also have his or her expectations (yes, the GM will also want to get some fun out of the game!) Not everyone will want to create characters that they inhabit in an RP sense, although some will gravitate towards the idea that their character is inhabiting this world. I think those two can be mixed, so long as everyone agrees on the compromise that some characters will get a little more focus on the course of the game than others will. Of course, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves, then it’s a job well done all around.