“You all meet in a tavern” has got to be the most worn out trope in roleplaying. I’ve played (and ran) countless games that started basically that way. The party meets by happenstance, the adventure is somehow thrust upon them, and off they go. Long term campaigns suffer worst, because there’s little reason to hold together after the first few adventures.
So what’s the fix? Don’t start with character creation, start with party creation.
Party with Purpose
Everyone at the table knows the characters will be an adventuring party of some sort. Some games build in a binding element. White Wolf’s games like Vampire and Werewolf usually have the PCs as an exotic supernatural race with an internal society, and the creatures themselves have goals and ambitions. Mouse Guard and Spirit of the Century assume the PCs are part of an organization with specific mandates.
But maybe you’re playing something with less structure, like Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun. So start with a party concept. Here’s a few off the cuff.
- A mercenary company
- A knightly order open to people with a variety of skill sets
- A small team working under mandate from a church, temple or deity
- Childhood friends
- A single team leader or patron with a quest who hires capable adventurers for the job
- Thieves’ guild members
- A mono-racial party sent from their homeland
All of these groups have purpose, some more loose than others. The childhood friends, for instance, may simply want any adventure they can find, but they have reason to stick together.
This should always be the first step. If there’s a pre-planned adventure, lay out the premise ahead of time. No need to keep everything secret, as long as the good parts are still a surprise. This can also be a great jumping off point for a new campaign, since the party concept may create adventures all on its own.
Take a look at TV shows, movies, books and video games with ensemble casts. Some of my favorite examples include:
- Firefly/Serenity – the crew are collectively trying to live apart from the Alliance
- Star Trek – “to boldly go where no one has gone before”
- X-Men – Professor Xavier wants to integrate mutants and humans into one society, and teach young mutants to realize their potential
- The Lord of the Rings – destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom
- Star Wars – overthrow the evil Galactic Empire
Some groups have mundane aspirations, some have epic sagas. Many of the best stories come from the more humble goals. Often characters in these groups have personal agendas apart from the group goal, but the crossover is sufficient. Luke Skywalker, for instance, ultimately wants to redeem his father. It just so happens overthrowing the Empire aligns with his goal.
That should give you a good start. Have you ever started an RPG this way? What ways have worked for you to create a fun, dynamic group that everyone enjoys? What are some other roleplaying tropes that make you grind your teeth?