Creating a Characterful Group: The Group Template

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A Characterful Group

Looking back over the many games I’ve played over the years, I find that the ones I remember best have very little to do with the character I was playing. Neither do they center around the coolness of the plot, the inventiveness either the challenges or the solutions, or even what game we were playing at the time. Probably because gaming is an entirely social endeavor, the games I really remember are those in which the group clicked.

All those other aspects help, and if you get them all going at once, you’ve got gaming gold. However, while there are many resources for GM and role playing advice, there are surprisingly few for creating group cohesion. Creating a group of characters who both make sense in the story, and know exactly how to relate to each other has been largely neglected.

When we’ve managed this in the past, it’s often been a happy mistake. More often, the character background were oriented ahead of time by the GM, something many GMs are reluctant to do. What I’d like to talk about here is a method of creating the magic that in the past we’ve had to stumble upon.

Group Template

Way back in Episode Two, the guys over at the Fear the Boot podcast described an idea they called a Group Template. My group and I have now used this method in three games, and have been very happy with the results. I’ve seen it work both as a GM and as a player, and it has great benefits from both perspectives.

The Group Template tries to answer the question of why these people are together. It also provides a foundation of character relationships, and a scaffold upon which good role playing can be built. The template seeks to give the group itself character.

Three Fields

The “template” is created as the players fill out three fields: Group Concept, Shared History, and Current Situation. I have modified a question or two in order to fit the particular game. Some of these can be filled out before character creation, to give a coherent theme to the group. Others must be answered after the creation of at least a concept.

In my opinion, the single most important question is number one: “Group Dynamic: In a few brief words, what will this party be?” It forces the group to think hard about what lies at the heart of the party. It is the theme that either ties the group together, or around which the characters can be built.

If the concepts have already been created, then the players must contemplate each of the character histories involved to find what ties them together. I think it becomes even more powerful when the concepts don’t yet exist. Then, the character backgrounds can develop together in an organic way.

Of course, it’s not as if the questions have magical powers. While the answers are useful, the real value of it lies in the process of bringing the group together. They force everyone to communicate. They aim to get the players thinking about the group as its own entity, and how their character will fit within it. In my experience, as I’ll relate below, that communication is as necessary as the template itself.

Experiences

Our first attempt at using a Group Template began when I posted the questions on our group wiki. As the GM for this particular game, I had set out some restrictions on the characters so that they would fit well into the plot. This seemed to simplify the work of creating the template, since the characters already had commonalities.

The players took with enthusiasm to creating relationships in their character backgrounds. The four players decided that the characters were members of two families, tied together by one character’s accidental murder of an NPC. By the time the game started, the players each knew exactly what their character’s relationship would be with all the others. It was as if that first awkward “icebreaker” game of a campaign had already been accomplished, and everyone got straight into role playing.

For the second attempt, I took on the role of a player. This time, everyone came up with character concepts first, and then we tried to tie them together for the template. We decided that the disparate characters had all crossed paths at an ill fated battle eight years previous to the start of the game.

It soon seemed that we had hit a speed bump, because we were left wondering how the characters would relate to each other so many years later. As it turned out, however, we used that mystery as part of the template. We decided that the characters themselves didn’t know why they had been brought together, and the old acquaintances were left wondering how to deal with each other now that they were older and more powerful.

Our latest use of the Group Template was somewhat last minute. We agreed first that we had been prisoners, and had cooperated in our escape. We then separately came up with character concepts. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the collaborative intertwining of character backgrounds that had been done in the previous two games. I think that this has had an effect on the party relationships, which are not as deep as in the previous two.

The Next Experiment

From our own experiences, I can say that the collaborative relationship building aspect is just as important as coming up with a group theme. However, I think that we can solve this problem by building that directly into the questionnaire. Here’s how I’m proposing that we use the Group Template tool next.

  1. Brainstorm a Group Dynamic together
  2. Each player separately submits a couple sentence character concept
  3. The group brainstorms relationships between characters
  4. Finish filling in the template

I think that this will navigate the group through the process, ensuring that we hit all the important points. We’ll continue to hone our technique, though, because that’s what we do here at intwischa.com: over-think things, and then tell you about it.

Do you have experience with the Group Template or other methods of creating a characterful group?

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