Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Why Join The Party?

Why do 'Adventurers' stick together?

Just the other night, the members of one of my gaming groups (for whom I am currently running Champions 4th Edition in my friend William's 'Age of Champions' universe) got into a discussion about Player Character groups or 'parties', why and how they form, and what are their reasons for remaining as a unit. 

It struck us as noteworthy that a lot of games (especially ones we play) have a built in conceit for this:

  • Blades in the Dark PCs are a Crew, out to perform a heist or other criminal enterprise.
  • Call of Cthulhu PCs may be from different walks of life but all are Investigators
  • Star Trek PCs are all Starfleet Officers and the Crew of a Starfleet vessel on a mission.
  • Star Wars PCs are often a Rebel cell, in the Grand Army of the Republic, or members of the Jedi Order
  • Superheroes are all, well, Superheroes. Often they're part of a team or acting as one to fight evil. 

The list goes on and on. Of course someone out there is saying, "You don't have to be Starfleet Officers in a Star Trek game. You can be a bunch of Smugglers and Mercenaries just like in other Space Opera settings." Yes, you can. You can do whatever makes you happy. I am simply addressing the default assumptions of the games noted above and the majority of people who play them. 

My point is, you don't need to find a reason for your Superheroes to unite and battle crime and villainy. They are Superheroes. That's what Superheroes do. If you sat down to play Superheroes your reason for being part of the team is pretty much baked into the crust. Sure, each character might have their own inciting moment in their backstory, their own personal motive that drives them but since we've decided to play Supers, yeah, we've going to play Superheroes doing Superhero stuff. 

As always, the odd one out is the most popular one...Dungeons and Dragons. 

DM: "Alright, so with the map provided by the Inn Keeper, you set off to defeat the dragon Blorfog and obtain the Lost Treasure of Iron Smoke Mountain!"

Player 1: "I don't see why my character would go on this quest."

DM: "I'm sorry...what?"

Player 1: "Sure, I could use the treasure but I'm a Thief who is easily killed. My stats and such aren't great. It would make more sense to stay around the city and just pick pocket locals."

Player 2: "Yeah, and my character is a Ranger. I could see him leading the group to the mountain but then I'll probably just get paid for that and head back. My sworn enemy is Werewolves. I'm not really equipped or motivated to go against a dragon in tunnels under the ground."

DM: "Why would you make Adventurers who don't want to adventure together?"

Players (Together): "I'm just playing my character."

D&D, as well as all the D&D Clones and Cousins, aren't alone in this aspect. Traveller and other open universe, sandbox Space Adventure RPGs also see this sort of thing from time to time. Just as the default assumption of many modern games and IP settings is that the PCs are like-minded people who've formed a team from the start, older Sandbox games tend to default to a bunch of disconnected individuals who need to come up with a reason to join forces.

D&D Party Commission By ABD-Illustrates
Commissioned by  sinaasaappelsap

Thinking about this sent me down a rabbit hole of analyzing why these games are built this way, are they even built this way in reality, and why certain players feel it necessary to assert their defiant independence in what is clearly a group activity. 

When RPGs first emerged out of Wargaming, I don't believe a lot of thought was given to motivation, story, or any such concerns. It was, after all, just a game and while fun it hadn't yet evolved to be more than the sum of its parts. Your reason for going on a given adventure was that there was one and you wanted to play an RPG, ipso facto you joined a party of other players that wanted to do the same thing. 

Let's assume for just a moment that this is a truism. The idea here is that the creators of D&D, Traveller, and similar games of the era didn't expect the players to need motivations for their characters to go on dangerous journeys with others because that is simply what playing such games is about. A player plays an Adventurer and that is just what Adventurers do. 

Maybe that didn't come through clearly. Maybe that wasn't the point after all...

Eventually, quite organically I would imagine, someone added a bit more backstory to their character than was the norm at the time, taking the PC beyond a set of numbers representing game mechanics and into the realm of a protagonist in an emerging narrative that was developing at that very moment. 

So when exactly did the first player say to their Gamemaster that they needed a reason to go on the adventure presented outside of the fact that the adventure existed? Moreover, why did they themselves not try to provide a reason? 

Honestly, I don't know. I couldn't say. The ideas presented here are foreign to my thinking.

This is where I need all of you Old School Grognards to fill me in. This is one of those elements that fascinates and baffles me because my very first character had a motivation in my very first story driven adventure back in 1977. A reason to adventure was both provided by the players AND given by the Gamemaster since moment I entered the hobby. 

Follow that up with the fact that I enjoy and most often play/run games with the built in purpose I mentioned at the start and you can see why I have trouble comprehending this concept. 

To finish up I'll say this - As a player, find a way to motivate yourself. Give yourself a reason to adventure. Understand that you are joining other players and participating in a group event. Don't make the GM or other players have to cater to you and you alone. That's a violation of Rule Zero: Don't be a D**k.

GMs, keep in mind who your players are and who they are playing. Include elements of the PCs backstories and goals in your scenario and plot to give them something to latch on to. Making it more personal will make it more interesting and engaging. 

Work together and achieve more than you could in a vacuum.

Barking Alien


  1. I have also believed that D&D and other games just had the built-in conceit that the PC's would be pro-active and group-oriented. Every once in a while I launch a D&D campaign with some built-in team element (e.g. they were all named in an NPC's will) but more often than not it is just understood that players were supposed to go along with the game.
    This sounds like blog post material--I may follow up.

    1. And so I did:

  2. Back in the 80s and 90s, I don't think I ever encountered this. Much like the original gamers of the 70s, we just assumed that if there was "adventure" then our PCs would seek it out. It's only in the past 20 years that I've personally encountered players like you describe, and even then not so often.

    I think the GP = XP paradigm of D&D really fostered this attitude. No matter what your other goals might be, treasure would help you level up, meaning you'd have more power to achieve your goals. Does the dragon have treasure? Yep. Let's go give it a try.

    But even in other games where advancement didn't hinge on treasure, the attitude seemed to carry over. At least in groups I played with. It was only after D&D ditched the treasure hunting paradigm in 3E that I encountered players who would balk at the adventure hook "for character reasons."

    I don't want to shit on 3E, though, or its fans who play it and Pathfinder, though. I think that even in those games, if you set up a sandbox and make players negotiate their aims and desires with each other, they can stick together. If the ranger player wants to hunt werewolves but the thief wants to rob the museum, and the knight has been quested to slay the dragon, it makes sense to let the players negotiate their path. As long as players agree that tonight we'll follow one player's goal, and then they'll help the next player in another session, it should work out.

    Or, make players create a stable of PCs. Your ranger doesn't want to slay the dragon? Then how about your wizard?