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The Play's the Thing

Group Dynamics: Part 1 -- So You All Meet In A Bar

by David Goodner
Sep 17,2002

 

Group Dynamics: Part 1 -- So You All Meet In A Bar

Welcome back. Thanks for stopping by. This marks the beginning of my second year of columns. The fact that you're still here either means I'm not as bad at this as I think, or you're all literary masochists.

Last year we talked about character creation. Of course, there's more to a game than a single character. Besides all those guys the GM plays, you probably have to deal with two or more other players and their characters. I touched on this way back in the first column, and for the next few columns I'm going to expand on that idea.

All the Player Characters will form some kind of group. Whether it's an effective group or not depends on how the characters interact. A good group needs a range of skills and abilities appropriate to the group's goals. For instance, a team made up of a portrait artist, a street mime, and a hurdy-gurdy man with a monkey would probably not make the most effective hostile insertion team. On the other hand a ninja, a navy SEAL, and a MI6 agent might not do all that well collecting change on the boardwalk, at least not without bloodshed.

A team also needs some measure of cohesion. They need to have some means of making group decisions, either through a command structure or some type of democracy. If they can't act in concert they're not really a team, just some people (probably highly armed) hanging out in the same place.

The players as a group need to build characters who will fit into a team (Unless they're playing a highly competitive game like Amber, perhaps). The beginning of team building is figuring out what the team does and how it formed. The GM may have something to say about this. He might tell you "You will be a team of Rebel Agents with the mission of delivering the Death Star plans to Princess Leia." That's pretty specific, while still allowing for a range of character types. The GM's concept could be even more restrictive, like "You're the only surviving members of a Ninja clan that was just wiped out by the evil Shogun." Often, though the GM just tells you to make up whatever characters you want. That has been my general experience, both as a player and as a GM.

The "open call" sort of games, if done well, provide the players with the most freedom and produce some of the most fun groups. If done poorly, however, they lead to the variations of the old cliche of "you're all at the tavern when an old wizard comes in and says he's looking for adventurers..." With a little more thought, you can do a lot better. Just because the GM didn't say your characters had to start the game already knowing each other is no reason why they shouldn't.

So then, who are your characters and how do they know each other?

Let's start at the beginning. Usually the GM will have some concept of a game. It's a good idea to find out as much as possible about what's going on before you make up characters. Find out if there's anything the GM really likes or hates. It's a good idea to avoid things you know the GM's not going to like. Find out where the story will begin. With that as your starting point, figure out who you want to play and how they got there. Start with generalities and hammer out the specifics later.

Once everybody has a character and a general idea of how that character wound up at the game's starting locale, you can start looking for connections. Every character does not need to know every other character, and nobody necessarily has to be best friends. What you want, if you can get it, is a lose web. Character A knows B and C; C knows D, and D knows E (who is secretly A's half-brother). When the game starts off, those characters would tend to gravitate toward one-another just because everybody else is a totally unknown variable. You can start building a real team as you go along.

Example:

I never tried to build a really cohesive group until my Vampire Chronicle titled "Now is the Winter." I gave the players some direction by giving them several concepts from which to choose. The one they liked best was "Servants of the Prince," but nobody wanted to be an actual "servant of the Prince."

I love being the GM.

So anyway, what I finally wound up with was:

Bradley O'Neil - Losombra Antitribu and former Arcanum member. Bradley was pretty easy. When the player initially gave me the concept I told him the only way such a poor fool would have survived was with the protection of the Prince.

He was an occultist embraced by a Sabbat Losombra. She was so cruel that he eventually attacked her and, by a stroke of luck, managed to diablorize her. Having been a member of the Arcanum, he knew enough about vampire politics to know that was bad. He fled to the one city where he knew any other vampires, and begged for the protection of the Prince (who kind of owed him a favor).

Jason Sinclair - Brujah political manipulator. Jason was the Childe of the Brujah Primogen. The Primogen was fairly weak owing to the fact that the Prince recently killed half his clan in a fit of anger.

Jason didn't present too much of a problem, either. He Bradely O'Neil was one of the Prince's flunkies, so they would have run into each other from time to time.

Dr. Zhou - Tremere Feng Shui expert. An old, Chinese doctor embraced by the Tremere for his occult knowledge.

Once again, it was no great stretch to say he would have known Bradley. The players even went above and beyond the call of duty and made up some personal connections. The Tremere Chantry was in the local university, and Bradley taught a night class. Better yet, my city's Chinatown was within Brujah controlled territory, so Dr. Zhou and Jason had crossed paths on ocassion.

Catlin (who's last name I can't remember) - Ravanos Stripper. (Why Amanda wanted to play a Ravanos Stripper I truly don't know). She was a former blood doll/prostitute. The Ravanos who eventually Sired her used to rent her out to other vampires as food. One of her customers was careless and gave her AIDS. Rather than see her die, her Sire embraced her. Later he regretted wasting perfectly good favors on a "chew toy" and abandoned her.

Catlin's story gave her some great hooks which I'll get into a little later. In the short run, we just needed a reason she'd hang out with all these other vampires. Since Bradley was an agent of the Prince, the players involved decided he got the job of teaching her the ropes after her Sire kicked her out. That put her next to one of my two prime movers, which was good enough for me.

Sir Miles - Gargoyle.

Sir Miles' player wanted him to be an ancient warrior who had been serving the Tremere for centuries. Since I didn't want a 1000 year old warrior of death in my game, I insisted that a huge portion of that time be spent in Torpor. Since I already had a Tremere, a Gargoyle was easy enough to fit in. If nobody had been playing a Tremere, I would have insisted that Miles' player come up with a connection to somebody else.

All in all, they were pretty cohesive, even though there was still a lot of room for conflict. In fact, it wasn't long before a couple of them were plotting to kill each other, but that's a story for another day.

Once you have a loose structure, it's time to start putting the pieces together. If the GM has guidelines follow them. For instance, in the Dungeons and Dragons game I'm playing now, the DM wanted to throw us together in the first adventure. Our pre-game planning was limited to figuring out how we might interact once we actually met. Since one PC was a Northman (and really big and strong) it wouldn't have been a good idea to have another PC who hated the Northmen with unquenchable passion. An initial prejudice would have been fine. In fact, we got a little bit of that kind of thing. But, the players needed to know what to expect going in to avoid hard feelings and player to player misunderstandings.

If the GM doesn't have any preferences, then you can do whatever you want. Try to figure out what's logical based on everybody's characters. In games like Pendragon, your characters might have well all grown up together. It's a good idea to work out these social dynamics early on. I've come up with really cool ideas for my character after hearing another PC introduce an element from his. I personally like to create the closest relationships possible (within reason), but some people like to start off as relative strangers.

Whatever you do, however you do it, you'll eventually end up with a bunch of characters who you know will soon be thrown together. Your next step is to figure out, at least in general, how they're going to interact. This is when you start really comparing histories and doing a bit of character editing.

Example:

Going back to the PCs in Now is the Winter, we had five vaguely connected characters. As the PCs played around with their backgrounds, some interesting hooks emerged.

Jason wanted the Brujah to run the city. It had been held by the Ventrue since it was more than a crossroads with two buildings, but everybody needs a dream. In the short term, he just wanted the Brujah to be less weak than they were. Still, his political ambitions were quickly going to bring him into conflict with two other PCs. Anything he did to or around the Prince was going to involve Bradley, since the Prince used Bradley as an agent in any matter he didn't want to risk one of his own clan over. Also, since Chinatown was in the middle of Brujah territory, Jason and Zhou were eventually going to be fighting over a piece of territory.

Dr. Zhou didn't intentionally cross any of the PCs, but the easiest way to work Miles into the rest of the group was to have the Regent put Miles under Dr. Zhou's direction. Zhou was also the Regent's Childe, so she tended to send him on her errands, particularly since she didn't like her Second. That made it easy to tie Zhou to the Prince.

Miles didn't have too many connections. His only real link was to Dr. Zhou. That was OK, since as GM I was able to quickly insert some others. I made sure Miles owed Jason a small Presitation debt in the first session.

Catlin was already connected to Bradely. She looked at him kind of like her Sire early on, and later fell in love with him (more or less, these are vampires we're talking about). She also came up with another cool connection due to one of her Flaws. Catlin was a Plague Carrier. Since she's had AIDS when she was Embraced, there was no easy way to get rid of it, but the Tremere with their blood magic, might know a way. If any Tremere would know, it would be a freaky blood alchemist with all kinds of esoteric medical knowledge. Luckily enough, there was one of those in the city, Dr. Zhou.

Bradely didn't really need any more connections. Almost every PC had some link to him already.

These hooks didn't turn them into a perfect team by any means, but they did establish some initial relationships. Bradely was the natural leader, with Jason always trying to wrest control away from him. Zhou could be counted on to be loyal, but only for as long as the Regent wanted him to. Right there I had a cool dynamic with all three subtly playing against each other. Miles wasn't interested in being in charge, but his ties to Zhou and Jason, along with his natural tendency to want to follow someone, put him in an interesting position during all the power struggles.

And there you have it. A group built this way has some possibilities that a group just thrown together at random doesn't really have. Before I started doing things like this, most of my PCs would interact with NPCs but had relatively little to do with each other. There weren't many in-character conversations between players, particularly in the early stages of the game. That left a lot of burden on the GM if players wanted to play through anything beyond the basics of the "adventure."

In Now is the Winter my players spent almost as much time interacting with each other (arguing, back-stabbing, sharing blood...) as they did talking to NPCs. That turned out to be a good thing, since it gave me time to figure out what was supposed to happen next while they were arguing about it.

The next column in this series will cover roles within the group. It doesn't matter how well integrated your characters are. If they don't have the skills they need to get the job done, they're going to be in trouble. So be sure to tune in for The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker.

See ya' then.

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