We humans get lonely. We crave intellectual exchanges like conversation and debate; as well as primal sensory experiences like passionate sex, warm embraces, or a gentle caress from someone who cares. We’re a social species. Sure, there are outliers, but hermits are a small fraction of humanity. People need each other to function and strive towards higher goals. So why is getting a group of RPG characters to work together the hardest part of a campaign?
Let’s set the scene: the four players’ characters are in a tavern. They’ve never worked together, maybe never even seen one another. Suddenly, a messenger steps in; bleeding to death. He warns of a grave threat nearby and then collapses. Maybe one or two characters sally forth to fight, but the others are a bit too self-interested to risk their lives. The GM prods them to go. They do for the sake of the story, but it’s totally out of character. Immediately, the most important relationships in the game are poorly constructed. Every subsequent interaction is flawed by this foundation. Your players won’t really notice what’s wrong either, since they’ll be fulfilling the social interaction on a personal level but not their characters’ level.
How do we fix this? The way I see it, there are two solutions: force the players to band together under duress or establish the party’s backstory. The former is easier for new players, but the latter lends more storytelling depth.
Situations requiring the players to work together aren’t hard to come up with. Any violent scenario with immediate threats has the players’ characters acting in concert to pacify the aggressors. Bear in mind, they need to stay together once safety is returned. In a recent playtest, I had the players escaping from a prison. The entire first session centered on this goal and they had no reason to abandon each other before leaving the grounds (strength in numbers after all). In doing so, the characters learned about each other, their strengths and weaknesses, how they complimented each other, and what quirks made them endearing as people. They organically developed friendships from fleeing the facility. Abandoning each other at the next town didn’t make sense: they’re the only people they can trust.
The goal is to have characters stick together for the duration of the campaign. Having that bond established as part of character creation gives players reasons to act with each other that would not easily happen otherwise. Have players discuss how they know each other and why they are working together. If someone is a mentor, they act with pride or shame when their counterpart succeeds or fails. The mentee is forced to try and prove their worth when it might not otherwise be advisable. Having characters indebted to each other gives opportunities to pay off life debts or call in favors. These previous connections don’t have to be fancy. Having characters who stick together because of stuff like old school loyalties lets players make callbacks to previous events outside of the campaign, adding depth and fun storytelling moments.
The goal of role playing is to live vicariously in a fictional world through a different personality lens. Taking the existing social structure of the room’s people and transposing it into the game world does the experience a disservice. Make them like each other all over again. Approach friendships from a different angle or completely ignore your real life bonds. Don’t always save Slim because he’s your boyfriend; save him because he is kindest soul your character has met in this dark world.