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Ars Arcana Blog 3-1: A Party Comes Together

A Party Comes Together: A Modal Approach to Group Dynamics
Travis Joseph Rodgers
Ars Arcana Blog
Volume III, Number 1

Two of the central struggles associated with an RPG party - as opposed to the players or the game itself - are how to bring a diverse group of characters together in the first place and how to keep them sufficiently together in the long run to keep them a party. I draw out two distinct polaristic approaches that are especially difficult to make work for most groups: hard railroad and utter chaos. I draw out a third possibility, based on modal operators (what is possible, what is necessary, what is impossible).

Hard Railroad
Whatever railroading is in an RPG, there is a bad version of it. Eliminating player agency altogether seems also to eliminate the role of the player. This seems antithetical to the nature of an RPG (it's a ROLE PLAYING game, after all). At the same time, what amounts to railroading will depend upon what an agent wants to do. If an agent wants to remain with the party, then requiring the agent to remain with the party is no reduction of agency. It's precisely what the player wants. It's only when - and to the extent that - agency is actually reduced that railroading is a problem.

On the other extreme, game could be utterly chaotic, with players abandoning the plans their GM spent the week preparing. And then they leave, one by one, to do their own things for the remainder of the game. Again, if this is what the players and the GM have signed on for, then by all means, play that game. If, however, that sounds miserable and frustrating, then don't play that game.

Clearly, there are innumerable approaches between these two. One offered by Sardathrion on Stack Exchange held a good deal of promise. They based their response on things a GM could tell the players their characters Must, Might, or Should do. I've developed that idea here.

Necessity and Impossiblity
Your GM might tell you as players that you NEED to find a way your character knows at least one other character in the group. Your GM might require that you cannot be a certain alignment (e.g., no evils). In order to satisfy these requirements, just think of it as ticking a box. E.g., "You must have some ties to Small Town X" and "You cannot be a current member of the military." These might be important for story lines.

Without outright eliminating some options, a GM might make clear that some characteristics might make the planned game more difficult. A giant-sized creature in a subterranean game might be a bit of a problem - not a deal-breaker though. And two characters of rival clans or religions, etc., might make matters more challenging as well. Note that the goal need not be (and probably should not be) to eliminate conflict and sources rich for roleplaying. Rather, they can be used to caution about unforeseeen consequences of various choices. E.g., "It is recommended that you have access to some sort of combat skills," or "You are discouraged from being fantastically wealthy to begin the game."

Anything that's not necessary or impossible is merely possible. There's a rich canvas available for you as a party member to paint that character. And note, by the way, that these five areas could be arrived at after a discussion with the GM. It's not as if one side needs to drive the conversation. But, it's my considered view that just as players can have no-go zones, so can GMs. If a GM does not want to run a game for evil characters, then don't run the game - or change the alignments. If a player doesn't want to play in a world without magic, then change the game or the no magic requirement.


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