Ever since I have discovered Blades in the Dark, I have been struggling with the question of why, even in a role-playing game (RPG) that does so much to facilitate a group identity for the player characters (PCs), almost none of my campaigns saw them come together as a fully integrated group. While the kind of players I usually got definitely contributed to this, I also found was that while many tabletop RPGs suggest setting-appropriate explanations of why the PCs spend time with each other, almost all assume by default that their party is a secondary group, joining forces temporarily, until they accomplish a specific task. What I was looking for instead were primary groups, and having found little advice on how to facilitate their emergence in-play, I have come up my own system-agnostic conceptual framework to help role-playing groups think of their characters in terms of holistic group concepts and primary identities.
To make it extra clear, the topic of the present study is player character groups, not player groups. The following is not a guide on dealing with dysfunctional groups or so-called "problem players". While borrowing ideas from sociology, I am primarily concerned with narrative justifications of player party solidarity, because the way most RP groups project their out-of-character social cohesion onto their characters' without any in-character reason strains my suspension of disbelief.
Groups and Networks
Before we talk about those, however, we first need to clarify how they differ from social networks. As understood here, a "group" is any set of individuals sharing a common trait, while a "network" is a set of individuals interconnected via dyadic relationships. The rest of this study is concerned specifically with "group concepts", so we will only briefly review existing solutions to creating "network concepts".
Many modern RPGs (including Fiasco, Fate Core, Apocalypse World, and their many variants) offer rules or guidelines for creating parties-as-networks where every PC has some kind of a relationship with one or two others. Such games model dyadic relations via any combination of relationship valence (positive or negative), intensity (often expressed as a number), and, optionally, an object in the world that the relationship revolves around. While some (Fiasco, AW) offer textual relationship templates, others (Fate) leave all details up to the players' creativity. Finally, there exists at least one system-agnostic "master list" of possible PC relationships for quickly generating a party-as-network (see 100 Reasons Characters Are Together).
Three Key Questions
Fundamentally, every group concept for a player party builds upon one key question:
What do the player characters all have in common?
If all players can agree on a shared commonality of their characters, that commonality will serve as their group identity and the core of their group concept. If we want to push the PCs even closer together, towards even greater solidarity, we can instead ask:
What do the player characters all have in common that nobody else in the world has?
In following, we will suggest answers to these questions in statements starting with "All PCs share..."
The next key question must typically be answered by the game master (GM):
What threatens this group identity?
By coming up with in-story adversity to the group, the GM validates the players' creation. We will return to the central role of this adversity in a campaign later.
Lastly, the group has to answer the question that will give direction to the campaign as a whole:
What collective goals, needs, and motivations arise from the above?
In following, the answers to this question will start with "All PCs desire to...", with alternative suggestions separated by semicolons.
Party Concept Building Kit
By examining a large number of published games and campaigns, we have arrived at eight common group identities that can be combined with each other and fleshed out into a large variety of party concepts: Leader, Nemesis, Experience, Secret, Hierarchy, Capital, Belief, and Kinship.
We have also observed, however, that some of these are much more common in RPGs than others: while a lot of modern commercial games, for instance, assume some combination of Hierarchy, Capital, and Nemesis identities for the PCs, surprisingly few unite the party with Kinship and Beliefs. We therefore conjecture that the latter two identities are more emotionally intense than others and are harder to role-play safely with less experienced and less well-adjusted groups. The implications of such an intensity ranking are a topic for future work.
All PCs share a personal connection to a central character. All PCs desire to help the Leader reach their personal goal; to gain the Leader's favor.
In this identity, one character functions as the centerpiece that keeps the party together. Note that the "Leader" is not necessarily someone barking orders at the PCs: they may be a divine patron, a teacher, or any individual with whom each PC has a positive dyadic relationship. Based on who creates and role-plays them, three meta-varieties of Leaders can be distinguished:
- Non-player/GM character. Examples of NPC/GMPC Leaders include Friend Computer from Paranoia, the Master from Maid RPG, and the Ryuujin from Ryuutama. The Town from Golden Sky Stories is an edge case: while not a single person, it is treated mechanically as a gestalt character with whom each PC maintains a relationship ("connection") at all times.
- Player-created GMPC. The initial creation of this Leader typically occurs during session 0, after which they are handed over to the GM to role-play. Examples: The Master from My Life with Master, the deity served by the Cult crew in Blades in the Dark.
- Player character. Since elevating any player (character) above others inherently runs the risk of power abuse, RPGs that mandate a PC Leader may contain mechanics that make them rely heavily on others in order to advance. Examples: Any Magus within their own Covenant in Ars Magica, the Heroine in Heroine, the Claimant in Rebel Crown.
Gaining the Leader's favor can be integrated into the gameplay either as a specialized mechanic (Favor in Maid), or as an extension of the game's general relationship rules (GSS); either way, the person role-playing the Leader is typically granted full discretion over its use.
A Leader identity does not have to be persistent: any quest giver sending the party to clear a dungeon can be seen as a transient "Leader", with the PCs setting out to gain their favor and the rewards that come with it.
On a final note, most (Western) role-playing video games frame their customizable PCs as Leaders of their respective parties, from the Companions of the Avatar in the Ultima series to Commander Shepard's squad in Mass Effect.
All PCs share the wrath of a powerful enemy. All PCs desire to survive; to come out on top; to destroy the Nemesis.
The Nemesis identity is the evil twin of the Leader: instead of unifying the group from the inside, the Nemesis is a dangerous Other that keeps them together via an outside threat. As the centerpiece of the player-facing adversity, creating the Nemesis character is also typically a responsibility of the GM, and the Nemesis typically targets all PCs equally to prevent internal divisions of the party.
The Nemesis can be a single particularly dangerous individual (the Antagonist in Heroine, the Usurper in Rebel Crown), a rival group or organization (the Rival MC in 1%er, the Aspis Consortium in Pathfinder Society, Dran Enterprises in Acquisitions Incorporated), or a general category (government agents and far-right parties in Comrades).
All PCs share a formative experience, whether it was traumatic, unexplained, or simply forced them together for a prolonged period of time.
This identity is by far the vaguest and depends the most on the specific plot hook of a given campaign. Likewise, the group goals and motivations that emerge from it depend entirely on the nature of the formative Experience: if it was traumatic, the PCs may desire to overcome their trauma together; if it was a great injustice, the PCs may demand retribution or vengeance; if it was a mystery, the PCs may band together to solve it. In any case, if the Experience was a singular event, it must have been something significant enough to alienate the party from the rest of the world, while also bringing them closer together.
On the other hand, even non-traumatic Experiences can become a group identity if a lot of them are shared by the same line-up over a prolonged period of time. In fact, this is precisely the identity that organically emerges in any party that keeps adventuring together: in other words, even groups that do not consciously invent an identity for their PCs often see one spontaneously emerge as they keep playing them. The big drawback of this particular Experience, however, is that it rarely, if ever, offers a clear group goal or motivation, since there isn't one major event to kick off the campaign.
All PCs share knowledge that they cannot or may not reveal to anyone else. All PCs desire to keep the Secret; to be able to reveal the Secret; to be accepted in spite of it.
The Secret is a particularly common expression of the Experience identity, with two variations distinguishing whether it pertains to the PCs themselves or to the setting:
- A personal Secret is most commonly a secret identity of some sort: the PCs may be masked superheroes, vampires (Vampire: The Masquerade), magical girls (Girl by Moonlight), animal spirits in human guise (Golden Sky Stories), teenage monsters (Monsterhearts), etc. Alternatively, the Secret may be a past crime or an ongoing criminal activity that the PCs engage in, as with most crew types in Blades in the Dark.
- A world Secret is a discovery that may not be made public (yet), such as the existence of monsters in Monster of the Week or of the Cthulhu Mythos in Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, and other Lovecraftian RPGs.
All PCs share a position in the Hierarchy of a larger organization. All PCs desire to rise in rank within the Hierarchy; to preserve the status quo; to expand the reach and power of the Hierarchy.
Making the PCs rank-and-file agents of an organization dedicated to some purpose is by far the most beginner-friendly group identity (likely because "having a boss who has a boss" is a very familiar experience to most role-playing urbanites). Examples of PCs at the bottom of a Hierarchy (i.e. having no command authority over its NPC members) are the most common: the Nomads in 1%er, Grogs in Ars Magica, activists in Comrades, Dogs in Dogs in the Vineyard, Pathfinders of Pathfinder Society, franchisees of Acquisitions Incorporated, and the Commando, Marechal, Sbirri, and Watchmen coteries in Vampire: The Masquerade V5.
A much rarer variation places the PCs in a position of shared authority and responsibility within the Hierarchy, giving them discretionary control over its resources and NPC personnel. Examples include crews with subordinate gangs in Blades and the Regency coterie in Vampire V5. Of course, both variations can be combined by giving the PCs a degree of authority while also making them answer to a position higher up in the Hierarchy.
The key difference between the Leader and the Hierarchy identities is that, in Weberian terms, the former is rooted in the personal, charismatic power of the central character, while the latter is based on the impersonal, traditional or legal power of the larger organization.
All PCs share the ownership of a commercial enterprise. All PCs desire to make a profit; to grow their revenues; to expand their business.
The Capital identity is closely related to the Hierarchy, but instead of belonging to someone else's organization, the PCs are the joint owners of an enterprise (often an equal-share partnership). Said enterprise can be anything from a local "adventurers guild" (Acquisitions Incorporated), through a black market operation (most crews, but particularly the Hawkers in Blades), to a freelancing spaceship (Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the Stardancer and Cerberus crews in Scum and Villainy).
The Capital owned by the PCs needs not be commercial in nature to function as such: a hypothetical campaign centered on a group of knights defending and expanding a fiefdom effectively positions said fiefdom as the knights' Capital identity.
All PCs share strong beliefs about how things should be. All PCs desire to enact sweeping social change; to preserve the status quo; to spread their beliefs far and wide.
The Belief identity requires all PCs to share a specific set of convictions that the campaign will test. Unless said convictions are wholly uncontroversial within the players' cultural context, this identity brings with it both the risk of a major emotional injury, and a potential for the most rewarding role-play, so it should not be invoked haphazardly.
Examples of Belief identities include religious (the Faith in Dogs in the Vineyard, the Cult crew's worship in Blades), political (revolutionaries in Comrades, the Radicals crew in Blades, the Firedrake crew in Scum and Villainy), and socio-ethical causes (the Vigilantes crew in Blades, the Champions and Vehme coteries in Vampire V5), as well as entire lifestyles (the Plumaire coteries in Vampire V5).
All PCs share a common ancestor or relative, who may or may not be famous. All PCs desire to live up to their family name; to improve the lot of the next generation; to leave behind a worthy legacy.
While blood relationships are often found in parties-as-networks, the Kinship identity, where all PCs are members of the same family or clan, seems quite rare in RPGs. Examples include noble houses in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and vampire clans in Vampire: The Masquerade.
Regardless of specific group identities that comprise your group concept, following tools and techniques can help you integrate it into the campaign.
Giving the PCs' newly-formed group a Name is the best way to "anchor" it within the setting of the game. The group's Name functions as its own mini-identity for players and PCs, and serves to validate the group's existence by having unrelated NPCs refer to them by their collective moniker.
Another possible anchor is a graphical Symbol, such as a crest, a badge of office, a coat of arms, a corporate logo, a gang tattoo, etc. In-fiction, the Symbol can be worn by the PCs during their collective ventures (in fact, it can also be a uniform or just one distinct piece of apparel that each PC integrates into their attire) or left behind as a calling card.
The third possible anchor is a programmatic Statement, such as a noble house's motto or a political slogan, which typically expresses the group's specific goals for the campaign.
As an example of all three, the Pathfinder Society organized play campaign concerns the organization of the same Name, which issues iconic magical compasses named "Wayfinders" (Symbol) to its agents and instills in them the faction motto "Explore, Report, Cooperate" (Statement).
The IKEA effect refers to a cognitive bias that makes us treat things as more valuable, the more of effort we have invested into them. Accordingly, the best way to get players to live out their characters' group identity is to let them create it in the first place. When exactly said creation takes place can vary:
- Session 0 sees the players and the GM sit down for a special session before the campaign proper starts and discuss their expectations for it. The players can then co-author their characters and group concept, giving the GM enough time to adapt their campaign before the first actual play session. This approach is best suited for experienced, genre-savvy groups ready to commit to a multi-session campaign.
- Session 2 lets players complete a self-contained pilot adventure without a group concept. At the beginning of their second session, however, they and the GM then reflect on the dynamic that their group has developed (if any) and commit to a final concept (or decide against having one altogether). This is best suited for indecisive and inexperienced groups, as well as for campaigns originating as one-shots.
Group Identity as Protagonist
One of the most important insights of this study was that if the players come up with a group identity for their party, said identity must be the protagonist of their campaign. Unless the party's identity is that which is at stake in their central conflict, such campaigns will either railroad the players into a battle they have no emotional stake in, or break down into parallel plots focusing on individual PCs (which is, granted, a perfectly valid way to run a campaign). Either way, the group concept will likely end up as just so much superfluous flavor, letting the players' creative input go to waste.
For the party to become a primary group for the PCs, they also need opportunities to interact outside of the aforementioned central conflict. While working towards a common goal promotes functional unity (teamwork), emotional unity needs a safe environment for PCs to expose their vulnerable and supportive sides. Offering such downtime opportunities in-between high-tension episodes is both a responsibility of and a valuable tool for the GM to manage the pacing of the campaign.
Good candidates for downtime PC bonding activities include sharing food and drinks (as well as other kinds of drugs, as long as all players are comfortable with that), preparing a meal, shopping or foraging for supplies, performing everyday maintenance and repairs, playing a friendly game of ball (or doing some other group exercise), or visiting a recuperating friend.
Any of these can be role-played as a short vignette, with each player free to describe how their character contributes to the overall activity. Rolling dice can complement the role-playing here, but instead of failed rolls inducing complications, they should be framed as opportunities to help each other out: as the GM, say "You fail, but someone helps you out. Who is it?", then ask that player "How do you help them?" and let them succeed without an additional roll.
The present study has catalogued a number of tools and techniques for creating fictional group identities for player parties in RPGs. However, many open questions still remain for future work on the topic, such as:
- How can group concepts be used in one-shots and at conventions, if at all?
Previous sections have mostly presumed a player party being created for a multi-session campaign. Consequently, most suggestions above would take up too much time to be practical in single-session ("one-shot") games, especially with time limitations imposed by most role-playing conventions. The latter also often pose the additional hurdle of having strangers at the table fail to come together as players, let alone as player characters. The question of whether group concepts (except for the most straightforward ones, like the Hierarchy) can be used in such environments (and if so, then how) remains unanswered for now.
- How to accommodate the death of a player character, especially if they are the Leader?
PC death in RPGs is a controversial topic in its own right, but if a certain group concept relies on all of its original members' survival in order to conclude the campaign, then any PC's death presents an even bigger headache than usual. In particular, the death of the Leader character in a campaign structured around their personal long-term goal can spell its premature end. While the best advice is to simply avoid such hard failure conditions, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question at the moment.
- How to accommodate the absence of a player, especially if they play the Leader?
The natural decay of role-playing groups due to real life factors is an unfortunate fact of our hobby, and like with the PC death, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
- How to introduce new characters or even players into an existing group/campaign?
A common follow-up to the previous two questions is replenishing the losses. Because primary groups typically have high barriers to entry, it is tricky to justify changes in their line-up (resulting in many an awkward "You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?" moment). While some group identities are more open in this regard (e.g. a Kinship identity can be extended via marriage or meeting a long-lost cousin), there is, once again, no universal answer.
The author thanks the participants of the Fantasy Rollenspiel Treff Stuttgart and the Metaphorum Thoule roundtables for their contributions and feedback to the early drafts of this study.
Appendix A: Random Group Concept Generator
Knowing most role-players' infamous propensity to disclaim creative responsibility by rolling dice, we offer an easy-to-use tool for randomly generating a group concept with nothing but a table and a pair of dice.