During one of my consulting sessions, I told Ron one of my major design concerns regarding my current project is the concept of interdependence: it's a game about a group of people fighting things that should be well beyond the possibilities of the common human being. How do they do this? I want one of the answers to be "together".
Now this is rather easy and possibly menial to reproduce in the dry practicality of combat situations; there may be some nuances in doing it well, but it's treaded ground. The question that naturally comes to me is however concerning the concept of adventuring parties at large, of shared goals and group ethos, and if and how we can implement or facilitate a sense of belonging, of camraderie and ultimately a shared sense of purpose in the player, on a design level.
The fundamental tension I see is that roleplaying games that implement or require this notion of "adventuring party" also seem to be those who strongly hinge on the concept of personalism/protagonism: it's your character's story, it's about her past, her relationships, her goal, her nemesis, her revenge, her gold, her loot. And you have two, three, four other individuals at the table, all with their pretty backstories and interests and sets of skills they want to employ. How do we turn that immense centrifugal force into something that can be shared and partecipated? Is it even possible?
So naturally I started looking at how games I know and expecially those I like do it. I've made a small list that is probably in no way exaustive and definitely not scientific in approach, but I hope to get a clearer vision through the eventual discussion in the comments:
- The most common answer is probably "through fiction". This encompasses a very wide range of situations, going from "The game doesn't really give you any guidance on this" to very specific prescriptions.
The first case could be that of your average D&D game, but it applies to a very large range of games: beyond a basic presumption that players and DMs will reach some sort of agreement on how and why characters get and stick together, I don't really see anything prescriptive in this kind of approach. There are some very strong elements of interdependency in the combat mechanics (which I'll touch on later on) but they're strictly limited to characters needing each other to survive, and often in asymmetrical ways.
Other games use the fiction in a prescriptive way to enforce or at least facilitate that sense of belonging. Two of my most recent reads are such examples: in Band of Blades players are part of a mercenary company, and in fact that game has a very strong fictional premise in place: you're told the name of company, the stage of the war, and the specific battle (and defeat) you're walking away from. The fiction couldn't be most specific about it, and the players are assigned a role within the company: they're part of it, they're in for each other, and they are created with a shared goal in mind.
In Circle of Hands, the characters are uniquivocally circle knights, no buts or ifs. Now, my impression of CoH is that it's a game with some incredibly powerful prescriptions that go from fiction to play with exceptional strength (small digression: I entertain the idea that enforcing the fact that there's no inns or taverns and the way the rules of hospitality work would have a stronger effect on the average playing group than most of the hard-and-fast rules that involve dice and numbers, which is a testament to the strength of setting as a mechanic), but in this case the prescription is as strong as it's vague. You're not given goals or long bullet list codes or even a general idea of what's going on on a macro level: so while you're told what you are, you're left with a sensible amount of freedom in what to do, and I'd wager in how to do it. What's particularly interesting to me is that this extremely careful balance between extremely detailed prescriptions on a micro level with no real reflection on a macro one seems to play out in every stage of the game. When you start a venture, you do so in the there-and-now; much like in Blades in the Dark's heists, no time is wasted on explaining how we got there, what happened before, the current status of the war and so on. And while I'm guessing there's more important reasons for this approach, my honest impression is that this will play out as a major strength in creating a sense of belonging to the players' group. After all you don't start out with much to work with except the fact that you're there, together, with a common shared cause, and that strong yet blurred out motivation is something you're going to fill out in the process of playing. Which leads me to think that the virtue of this approach is that you combine what is a good principle in my book (creativity is born from limitations) with the impossibility to solve that riddle ("Why are we in this together?") before play start. And I've been arguing for a while that the more baggage you create before play start, the more difficult it is to give value to what actually happens at the table, so this is extremely convincing to me.
Another and perhaps the most functional example would be superhero games: here the idea of the superhero team and the loyalties and shared identities that come with it is so ingrained in the players' imagination that probably no further guidance is needed. In fact, the struggle between larger than life, world-ending threats and personal struggles is something that is inbuilt in the fiction you're aiming at creating, which means that that struggle is accepted and validated in the social contract itself.
Perhaps a step back here is necessary: as I write this, I'm thinking "can all this, not just this part but the entire discussion, dismissed as part of the social contract?". If I decide to sit down playing CoH or Marvel HR, haven't I already solved the issue by accepting to give up part of my freedom in creating and directing my character in order to play for a common goal? I have no good answer at the moment.
- the second possible approach is obviously through the game's own procedures and instructions. This is where I initially started looking and there's a surprisingly rich amount of games that attempt at this on different levels.
Some of these mechanical efforts are fairly complicated; for example, FFG's own version of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd edition) asks the group to choose a "party sheet", that identifies them as something like "Brash Young Fools", "Gang of Thugs", "Swords for Hire" or "Servants of Justice". These sheets include slots where you can equip "feats" that apply to all members, some special property that the group shares (the Thugs get really good at breaking legs and intimidating people, the Mercenaries have good conditioning and similar things). You also get a shared pool of hero points that you refill by doing things that go along with your group concept. It's all pretty but it's just an extra layer of buttons to press, in my experience. More interesting is the party tension gauge: whenever the Narrator or the players feel it's appropriate (generally when people argue or struggle to work together), you add tension to a meter (generally going to 1 to 9); at fixed intervals bad things happen. So the mercenaries start to tire out when their teamwork isn't pitch perfect, and the thugs literally start beating each other, and so on. So in my experience the game kind of hammers you on the head for not getting along, and the consequences are never so fun that you may actually want to explore them (there's a lot of "everybody gains 2 stress and 2 fatigue then tension is resetted").
The aforementioned Blades in the Dark/Band of Blades follow a fairly similar approach, giving you a full set of group-shared features and bonuses and things to fill up, but the big difference here is that your crew is part of the character creation process and changing it over the course of the game is more laborious. Your crew also informs your shared goals, the nature of your group's business and so on. So while the fiction tells you you're scoundrels and outlaws, your crew and the discending mechanics tell you what kind of criminal you are, your best skills and your field of competence, and generally what you're going to do.
Then there's games like Greg Stolze's Reign that take this to a further level of complexity with the Company element. I'll admit that I never got to play Reign so I have no valuable feedback to give on the actual implementation, but I'll say that on paper it feels beefy enough to almost give me the impression that running your company is the entire point of the game.
- the third approach is something I struggle to consider a design feature but has been fairly prevalent in my experience, and it's something I could simply label as "we make it up as we go along". The most common example is one player listening to the others, guessing or simply picking up their interests and proceeding (though whichever authority they may have) to make those interests converge in the same place.
Curiously enough it's something I experienced mostly in very GM-led games and in masterful/masterless games. In both cases it feels like something the design points to: you play off what other players say, and build on that. I can't help but think it's a poisoned apple in GM-led games, however. For example, I'm currently running Pathfinder 2 for a group of friends, and of course they are a diverse bunch of characters all with different interests and origins. I decided to do nothing to bind them together at character creation because A) it's a group of extremely experienced players who are used to dealing with the problems and B) I wanted to use this chance to play a very traditional system to see how we would behave in complete absence of mechanics that guided the group to unity. The end result is predictable: I'm putting the arcane writings the wizard character is researching in the same ruins where the barbarians have dragged the prisoners they made in the ranger's village, which incidentally are part of the castle the monk has a claim to. It works simply because the players are willing to see through the implausibility of it all for the sake of entertainment and for my minimal skills in making it a bit less ridicolous than it sounds, but it's an experience that is reinforcing my resolve to figure out something better for my own game. If not better, at least easier on the players. I feel like this is the classic case where full freedom may come at a great cost.
I'm leaving out of the discussion all those games that either don't touch on the notion of adventuring party or that reject the notion completely. Interestingly enough, there's a lot of games that do this but still take the route of narrowing down player roles through fiction - as I said, it's something with far bigger implications than my own, very specific concern here. I'm thinking of Polaris, Trollbabe etc.
If I have to draw my own conclusions from this rather meandering analysis, and prefacing that these are my own personal preferences and desiderata, and not really a suggestion of what's right and what's wrong:
- That this concept of adventuring party/group/family is reflected at some level in the fiction is a necessity, even if it comes at a price in terms of freedom
- In order for this to happen, the necessary premise is a strong social contract and the will to play that kind of fiction (and game)
- In terms of procedures, the process should start at character creation: players need to know what they're getting into and it's highly desireable that it's them working on forming these bonds from the get-go, rather than them happening as an adjustement provided by the system or GM
- Dedicated mechanics that refresh these ties can be welcome but don't replace the above; excessively complicated and mechanical procedures risk reducing what should be people playing off each other to busywork.
What am I leaving out? Are there other ways to approach the matter? Is there good examples of games and procedures that facilitate this kind of dynamic in play, perhaps in less obvious and explicit ways?
Thanks for your patience navigating through this, and I'll be reading what others have to suggest on the matter with full interest.