Gathering the party, even a party of veteran characters, is a standard literary trope. One or two protagonists learn of a threat and seek out old friends. Often they are shocked and surprised to discover what their friends have been up to in the meantime. The clever thief may now be a legitimate business man with a family, the paladin may now be an alcoholic mercenary, and the wandering bard may not have changed at all, still reveling in past glories. Gathering the group can be almost as interesting as dealing with the threat.
I recently started a Pathfinder (Rise of the Runelords) campaign. It reminded me that some of my most fun moments in any campaign is that initial session, where the player characters arrive from all walks of life and meet each other for the first time. Character descriptions and personalities are established and the party begins to gel during the initial adventure.
Unfortunately I tend to lose those sparks as my fantasy campaigns progress. No matter what the PCs’ backgrounds, they are soon known only as “adventurers” that have a tendency to travel around with their adventuring friends. And while they may collect titles, fame and fortune during those adventures, most characters never get a description, personality or background update beyond the context of those adventures.
As a result, character subplots and hooks not directly related to the adventures tend to be stillborn. Sure, you may be an exiled noble who hopes to someday retake the throne from your heartless aunt, but what does that have to do with the ruins of Tinar Morg two continents away? Maybe the son of the duke whose castle you spent the night in had romantic possibilities, but you’ve got to go defeat the draco-lich triad!
It occurred to me that I don’t seem to have this problem in other games, especially those that revolve around a home base. Once the current threat is defeated, the PCs return to their normal lives until the next threat surfaces. One PC usually gets hooked in and then recruits her buddies. In the interrim, I’m able to advance subplots and allow the player to resculpt his character.
With that in mind, why not do something similar in traditional fantasy campaigns? Instead of having the PCs march from adventure to adventure, give them some real downtime between adventures (and not just to go shopping). Ask the players what their characters do after the adventure is over. Flesh out hooks from their background. Advance subplots. Believe it or not, all of this can be done effectively within an hour or so of a single session. After spending a few minutes with each PC, start with the new adventure proper. Only this time, choose one or two PCs to get initially involved and then have them recruit the others. You can now have the character descriptions all over again, taking note of the changes since last time around.
It’s important as the GM to be very reactive when it comes to these “between adventures” cut scenes. One of the reasons why the initial session is so much fun is because the players are enthusiastic about describing their new characters. Let them continue to flesh them out. After asking the player what her character does when the previous adventure is over ask more questions to flesh it out. Build off of what the player gives you and you’ll find that they are more enthusiastic about playing it and showing off how their character has grown and changed.
So give it a try (I know I will in my current campaign)! And if you already do this, drop a comment and let me know how it’s been working for you.