View Full Version : The Eternal Problem of Group Motivation

2010-08-11, 06:38 AM
Greetings fellow forum-goers.

Something I've been thinking about lately is a problem that I seem to notice or experience in every roleplaying game that I've ever participated in - whether I am a player or DM, whether it is high fantasy or dark, whether we're off to save the world or exact petty vengence on the local peasant population - it seems to permeate games of all styles and people of all types - and of course, I'm just as guilty as anyone else. It is the question that the characters inevitably ask themselves: "Why am I here, traveling with these other people?"

The general setup tends to be that a group will consist of complete strangers that will find a way to work with each other without much question at first. Either they will be forced to do this begrudgingly, or simply be neutral about it while focusing on separate, personal agendas (such as simply being employed together). The assumption is that eventually, and before the group stops following this initial mindset and starts asking the big question, they will have bonded enough that they enjoy or respect the company of their fellow adventurers, or at least accept it as a slightly above-average choice at worst, in order to keep the group together on its own without further plot intervention necessary.

Unfortunately, this seems to be much easier said than done. Parties that are diverse enough in personality and personal agendas to be interesting consequently have a very difficult time meshing, and their allegiances to each other do not truly form. Inevitably, characters begin to ponder, "why am I with these schmucks when I could be doing X?"

Looking back, Order of the Stick managed to showcase a successful version of this scenario. Initially, the group is largely joined only by their employment to Roy (except for Durkon, who had been his friend for several years). By the time that Comic 294 (http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0294.html) comes around, Roy is able to remove this tie of force and still manages to keep everyone together through their own free-will. Although it makes for a great moment in an awesome story, I must question if the smoothness of this party transition was only possible due to it being a written story, authored by a single individual, and therefore predestined by the Hand of God, as opposed to the chaos of a real gaming group.

So with that, I pose this discussion: Is this kind of thing a problem for anyone else? What are the common solutions? Do you believe that the way The Order of the Stick handle the situation is plausible in a real RP campaign?

2010-08-11, 06:57 AM
This is something that I think a lot of groups (mine not excluded) deal with on a regular basis. I won't speak for anyone else but I think the biggest issue with a situation like what you are describing is this: how realistic can your game be while still being fun? I've been gaming with the same group of people for four years now and while we tried the OOTS method several times, every other time we decided that it would just be more conducive to a fun game if the player's all just got along regardless of what character type they were playing.

An example: in a previous campaign my group had both a typical "smite all betrayers" paladin and a sadistic, maniacal werewolf as party members. While normally two such characters would never travel with each other, the group as a whole decided to just sort of "look the other way" so that we could get on with the reason we were there in the first place: to game.

I'm not saying the OOTS style of play can't work, in fact I would prefer that it did every time, but the truth is that, at least in my experiences, it doesn't necessarily contribute to a flowing game. I think a lot of the time it just depends on how willing your player's are to work together and how they want to find a way to go about getting along.

2010-08-11, 07:04 AM
"Just look the other way" is one way of dealing with the issue of incompatible party members, but it's not as satisfactory as playing out and through the conflict.

Lots of literature and movies have two character who are at odds with each, but have to get along for some bigger reason, and come to respect and support each other by the end of the story.

In the game I'm running, the gorgeous elf babe wizard and the grim rough gladiator bitch hated each other - but after several sessions of being mean to each other, they've saved each other in combat and been good team members... and come to work together well. All that bullying and friction has turned into banter between two very different characters.

2010-08-11, 07:35 AM
The old 'you work for Lord Whatshissocks' is good, but many players prefer a sandbox. I tend to use this a lot in my games, in order to give direction. The party HAVE to work together for the sake of their lord/boss. Potentially one of the players can be the boss, and the others the employees.

'You must save the world. You all have special auras/special tottoos/are chosen ones' That works in games where the characters aren't going to be getting regularly killed. Only the players can succeed in a group because of deific fiat, essentially.

'You escaped from jail together and are on the run'.
Forcing PCs to work together can work if you build an 'us and the rest of the world' dynamic. They don't have to like it. They might even be a group because they daren't let one of them 'go' in case they are caught and interrogated. Being the only people who know a deadly secret can be effective.

'You know each other and have bonded. We can do three play sessions of that happening if you like, or we can just take it as read that you generally like and trust each other and now let's get on with the game' - It can be a bit forced, but works. Characters may be from the same village, or whatever.

'You want to get rich/famous, and these are by far the most competent people that will have you. If you don't want to work as a team, the exit is that way, and your character can drop out, or be booted from the 'company' at any time.'

It's a bit forced, but selfish characters will work together if it's the only way to reach their goals. There are real non-team-players in the world who have to man up and push that part aside in order to get the results that they want.

2010-08-11, 07:43 AM
"how realistic can your game be while still being fun?"

this is important. Suspension of disbelief in games is essential. Most groups are willing to suspend disbelief as regards splitting the party, for the sake of expedience and not having their GM hate them. They are certainly willing to do so when it comes to the sometimes absurd capabilities of their party; such as ...well; magic. So why not do it a bit when it comes to party dynamics?

2010-08-11, 08:25 AM
One common solution is to give the players a backstory. Instead of making them think of five strangers that you then introduce in a tavern, just have them make five long-time friends who decide to _______ together. They can still be from diverse backgrounds and races, they just have to figure out when they met each other. If you want to roleplay a new friendship one of the characters might only be known to one other PC, who then introduces them to the party. In short, make the players do the work for you.

2010-08-11, 08:59 AM
The way I see it, each group's motivation is as different as each adventure.
The first adventure together depends completely on the party's mission goal. After that, they'll probably just stay together as a matter of convenience.

2010-08-11, 09:01 AM
One common solution is to give the players a backstory. Instead of making them think of five strangers that you then introduce in a tavern, just have them make five long-time friends who decide to _______ together. They can still be from diverse backgrounds and races, they just have to figure out when they met each other. If you want to roleplay a new friendship one of the characters might only be known to one other PC, who then introduces them to the party. In short, make the players do the work for you.

This is a technique that I have tried to implement a few times and it usually works, but YMMV depending on the creativity and, ironically enough, motivation of your players

2010-08-11, 10:11 AM
Most of the time it gets hand waved away. Leaving the party isn't much fun, so each player comes up with an excuse for why he wants to stick around.

One of my GMs uses the "you're all bound together through events beyond your control" method. Like, we're the only 5 people in the universe who have magic or super powers or some such.

Another GM uses an approach that I haven't seen before but am starting to like. He asks that we make a relationship to another PC in backstory. We don't have to be friends with everyone, but as long as every PC has a buddy to cling to, thinks should work out.

I try to tie players together with plot. It doesn't always work. In my current game, the players developed a number of common enemies and sticking together was their best chance at survival. Still, the first few sessions were tense and players did want to drop party. Now that they know each others secrets the group has formed a bond and I really don't see them breaking up.

2010-08-11, 10:18 AM
I start all my campaigns with asking the players "What kind of group do you want to play?" Only then I start to think about a plot, locations, and antagonists. The reason why the people are working together is the very starting point for me, when preparing a campaign.
Almost always every single player will say "We don't care. Pick something for us." Which I then do, but everyone is expected to come up with a character than fits into the campaign.
Worked wonderfully for the last years.

2010-08-11, 10:25 AM
An interesting method I've seen used is to connect character backstories - but not all to each other.

For example, in the 4E Eberron Game we have
- Changeling Psion (questing after the MacGuffin due to ominious visions)
- Shifter Monk (childhood friend of the Psion)
- Half-Elven Barbarian (mercenary bodyguard hired by Psion)

- Human Artificer (interested in studying the MacGuffin)
- Warforged Swordmage (bodyguard of Artificer)

- Warforged Invoker (original discoverer of MacGuffin)

So we initially had three distinct social groups united by a common mission. This permitted some pre-game bonds to be formed without messily tying everyone together. The Excuse Plot (the MacGuffin) then gave us a reason to keep the social groups together.

2010-08-11, 10:55 AM
The most important thing really is to fully flesh out the PC characters so they want things. A character that has no goals doesn't have to cooperate with people to accomplish anything. A character that does want things generally has to cooperate with others. Since their fellow PCs will be some of the most powerful people a PC knows they should be the naturally obvious allies to accomplish their mutual goals.

And their goals should be something more specific than "wealth" and "power" because almost everybody wants wealth and power. In fact the more specific the better. A wizard shouldn't want "more spells". They should want to accomplish something like "uncover the lost art of necromancy and prove to my colleagues, who doubted me and called necromancy a vile sin, that it can be a force for good." The more specific the goal, the more realistic it will seem, the harder it will be to accomplish, and the PC will have more motivation to work with others.

Mark Hall
2010-08-11, 11:32 AM
One good, simple solution to this problem is to make characters together, under the GMs guidance. A GM stating "You're all from this city" can do a lot to give everyone a framework to build characters on.

2010-08-11, 11:45 AM
I've actually got a group that doesn't usually have all its members in the same place. I spend a good deal of time covering two to four different locations at the same time. Luckily, this game is PbP, so its not a continuity nightmare. The story works out better, but its a lot of work. More and more bonds are forming between characters, so eventually they will split up less and less.

2010-08-11, 12:35 PM
The game I'm a player in right now started with the characters in a barfight, followed by being hired to deliver some goods to a major city. In the process, we captured a riverboat that some pirates didn't need anymore and now we all have a stake in the boat. It has worked out pretty well so far.

2010-08-11, 01:24 PM
My players make characters like months in advance of playing them, and they always have backups for their backups, so there are never any pre-planned relationships or motivations. Everyone just expects the DM to motivate them. In a recent campaign, one of my players asked in character "Why should I trravel with you guys and help with this quest?" When no answer would satify him, I, as DM, finally just said "I dont know, why dont you tell us why you want to play this game? If you wanted to play a character that is so such an independant loner, why dont you just go play by youself over there?" He got in the team spirit after that. I then explained that it's as much the player's responsibility as the DMs to come up with reasons for your char to want to adventure.

On a side note, I really like the eberron example above, I might have to try and organize something like that sometime.

2010-08-11, 02:10 PM
I'm fond of the "has an attachment of some sort to at least one other character in the group" technique. Although our current game is just a group of solars that are drawn together because of past lives.

2010-08-11, 03:23 PM
The first session of my last campaign detailed how the party, independently of each other, stumbled across a town that had been swallowed overnight by the surrounding forest. In the struggle to get out of the actively obstructive forest, they attracted the attentions of a sidhe lord who had caused the event. After getting free of the forest, they decided to stick together, because the sidhe lord had hinted that they had become persons of interest. In trying to protect themselves from him, they wound up allying with his enemies, and eventually realized that they were stuck together, for better or worse.

The first session of my next campaign will detail the crash of an airship on an exploratory mission, and the survivors' struggle to find their way home.

2010-08-11, 09:05 PM
We're playtesting a bit here. We have TN/NG (haven't decided) druid (me) and a CN cleric with necromancer tendencies. In ordinary play these two characters wouldn't work together at all. We talked beforehand and decided to tie our backstories in together...so the pair were childhood friends and the druid has a crush on the cleric and is thus willing to overlook his necromancy.

2010-08-12, 04:07 PM
Lots of literature and movies have two character who are at odds with each, but have to get along for some bigger reason, and come to respect and support each other by the end of the story.

I use something like this, though I find it more fun when it's a "We've got bigger problems right now...but when we don't, I'm going to kill you so hard" route, similar to the warlock and dragon shaman in that one SCS campaign archive. Made it a lot funnier when me and another player built characters to do the whole "strained relationship for the greater good" thing, and we ended up being the ones that worked together the best. Probably because he ended up being too pragmatic to be good.

2010-08-12, 04:42 PM
As a DM, I usually tell the players the circumstances of the campaign before having them roll their character. Something like "you're all going to be mercenaries working for..." or "you were all aboard the same ship when..."

I expect the players to have playable, motivated characters on their own after that.

2010-08-12, 08:27 PM
I have a warforged character that joined up with the party initially because... hey... big dragon. They were mostly killed and he wandered off to be repaired while the survivors took care of getting the dead members rez'd. Later he met up with them again and agreed to accompany them because terrible things happen any time they are around... they must be cursed and maybe he can help keep the curse from being quiet so devastating. Eventually he worked his way around to sticking with them because they "paid" him more than he's ever been paid (share of lewtz!) and hadn't been prejudiced towards him despite him being prejudiced enough towards fleshy types for the DM to cackle "you racist ****, I love it!".