Last night was a wonderful, filled with great roleplaying. The only thing that would have made it better is treasure of some kind, but eventually that will come. Last night was session two of our new Pathfinder campaign. I was playing an elven wizard (again!), and the team included a paladin, rogue, druid, and gunslinger. It’s a city adventure set in “Daywood” and the characters have been finding out about the city. There’s a Lovecraftian thread, plus insanity rules, as well as a secret society that answers only to the local Theocrat. Last night our introduction to the city came to a head, discovering that the secret society had ordered the assassination of a local rich recluse, and that the recluse’s mansion was also a mansion of madness that had driven one NPC investigator insane. We learned that our rogue was the killer, and spent the rest of the night evading the secret society, deciding whether or not to kill the rogue, and basically getting into a lot of trouble. We cleverly ended the evening by hiding in the mansion of madness, with the rogue (still alive so far), and the insane investigator (who was none too happy to find himself there). After a few hours of mad dreams, our gunslinger stayed up the rest of the night cleaning his gun, while the rest of us got some well-earned rest.
Getting there was a lot of fun. Everyone stayed in character and played their characters well, and there was a lot of infighting, recriminations, and tension. We were in way too deep and knew it, and we spent a lot of time stressing about possible ramifications and plotting ways to avoid it. Perfect! The rogue knew she was dead woman, trapped between the secret society (which would kill her if she talked), the player characters (who would kill her when they found out she had murdered someone), and losing her human family when they found out she was part Wild Elf (the secret she was being blackmailed about). She actually spat on the gunslinger (in game) and then turned away, which all of us knew was a suicidal act when dealing with the player running the gunslinger. How she survived is still a mystery.
The DM had done a great job of setting all this up by having us go through a cooperative character creation session before we started playing. I had never done that before and I will never run a campaign without doing it from now on. It was a great technique and really rooted the group in our characters. There’s a discussion of various methods of this technique at rpg.stackexchange.com if you’d like to see more about it. Brian Ballsun-Stanton calls this “group character creation” and offers some ideas about it in his paper, Constrained Optimization in Dungeons and Dragons. Brian’s method is much more affirming that the method we used, but probably builds healthier parties. The method we used was closer to what Mike Shea calls Fiasco-style relationships. The Fiasco-ish Relationship Builder lists more ideas in the same vein.
In our case, the DM drew from his experience in Dungeon World, which has its players choose bonds to each other at the start of the game. Typically a player can resolve one bond per session, and can then take a new bond to a new character to use thereafter. This keeps the players thinking about the continuity of play and of the party, rather than just thinking about how much loot is coming their way. Jeremy Friesen thought the bond choices tended to be limited, so he put together a bond generator chart which is what our DM based his prompts on. The DM gave us each a set of prompts that were predetermined questions about each of the other characters. These included things like “you know a secret about one of the other characters” or “you stole something from one of the other characters” and we had to identify which character it was, and what that secret or item was, and what that meant for our relationship. If one wanted to do more creative writing, these bonds could be used to build a character relationship chart. Game of Thrones, for example, can be best expressed through either the who killed whom relationship chart, or the who did whom chart. Another example would be the Community relationship chart.
Anyways, I thought the idea was a fantastic one, and greatly helped our play, so I’m including a list of potential prompts below that I will offer the players in the future. I haven’t used this method much yet, so I’m not sure if Jeremy is right and it needs to be mixed up, so I’ve left them as open-ended prompts for the characters to develop:
____ and you are related. How?
____ and you dislike each other instinctively. Why?
____ and you have a common goal. What is it? (this might be glory, money, fame, a particular acquisition, service, knowledge, etc.)
____ and you have a romantic connection. What is it? (this might include a direct connection between the characters (successful or failed) or it might be an indirect link by a third character)
____ and you have been rivals in the past. How and why?
____ and you have shared a disturbing and possibly prophetic dream. What was it?
____ and you have worked together before. How? (this might include a job, military service, youth gangs, bandits, service on the slave galleys, an early adventure, monastic or magical training, etc.)
____ and you like each other instinctively. Why?
____ and you share a dark secret. What is it?
____ and you share a love for someone. Who is it?
____ and you share an enemy. Who or what is it?
____ and you share an interest. What is it?
____ has done you wrong in the past. How? (this could be an insult, a debt, an assault, a theft, a misunderstanding, etc.)
There are also prompts about which the other person might not be cognizant, such as:
You have done something wrong to _____ in the past, which he/she doesn’t know about yet. What is it?
You know a dark secret about ____. What is it?
You suspect _______ and worry he/she will betray the party in some way. Why?
You feel drawn to _______ and feel a need to support him/her. Why? (this might be because of love, a prophecy or dream you had, their Charisma, their power, their weakness, how they remind you of someone you care(d) for, etc.)