I made a thing and want to share it with you, but let’s talk about character relationships first.
One of the things I love about RPGs are the small stories that pop up between characters amidst the larger story of a game. Back in the day, this type of thing often happened organically over the course of a campaign. Other than a few rare exceptions decided on during character creation (usually siblings or cousins), the characters brought to the table were strangers with one another and relationships formed as the game progressed. Of course, back then, I had far more free time and I was able to play the same game once or twice a week for months at a time. I certainly don’t have that luxury anymore and I imagine most of you are in the same boat.
Convention one-shots back then occasionally handled relationships in a different way. While many characters were just numbers on a piece of paper, some GMs would put some thought into who the characters were and how they related to one another. If done well, it could jump start the RP and get the players quickly invested in the game. You’d know that gal was your drinking buddy, while you were still mad at that guy for something that happened months ago.
I love this type of set up for a one-shot when it’s done well. Sometimes, the relationships for a given character can even transcend the rest of the character. A few years ago, I got to a Serenity game late and ended up with the only character left, an ex-farm boy, grease monkey that kept the ship flying. Not exactly my first choice, but beggars can’t be choosers. By pure happenstance, a friend was also playing that game and had picked up the charming con artist of the crew, a character my good ol’ boy considered to be his adopted little sister. When she ended up getting herself in trouble and went missing, it gave my character a whole new level of emotion to explore as we tracked her and the people threatening her down.
Many modern games have started recognizing that time is a precious commodity for most us and we don’t all have time to build up characters like we used to. To help facilitate games getting a running start, they’ve begun encouraging forming relationships at the start of a game through a variety of mechanical means. Dungeon World has its bonds, Monster of the Week has its history, Monsterhearts has its strings, Bubblegumshoe has relationships. Even D&D 5.0 has its background section and Fate has aspects. Perhaps not exactly the same thing, but it still jump-starts the roleplaying opportunities.
Recently, I ran a one-shot of Uncharted Worlds for my regular group. UW is one of the few PbtA games that doesn’t have a bonds or relationship section in character creation. There is a Cramped Quarters move involving relationships, but that is for use during the game and doesn’t help establish who these characters are to one another at the start. I decided we would still establish bonds between the characters even if it wasn’t part of the rules.
After the players created and introduced their characters, all members of an elite problem solving team in service to a powerful corporation, we went around the table and each player picked a connection to another player off a list I had created. Instantly, it set up some fun dynamics between the players.
- Holgar Enright, the ex-space-marine, decided that he and Hina Janus, the reckless explorer, had gone drinking together and ended up in jail. Hina added that they didn’t remember what they did to get arrested, but they both knew it had been a fantastic time.
- Troy Boxy, the surveillance techie, decided that he witnessed Xan, the stealthy scout, do something underhanded and didn’t trust him. Xan expanded that this was because they came from drastically different cultures and didn’t really get one another.
- Zolanda Shawphezh, the eight-foot-tall lizard engineer, decided she’d had a fling with Hina’s mother, but that Hina was still upset about this. Hina clarified that it wasn’t that she was upset about it so much as she refused to acknowledge that it had ever happened.
- Hina decided that her recklessness often got her into trouble, so she was indebted to Dr. Hauss, the wealthy doctor, because his intervention and medical expertise had saved her life more than once. Hauss, being a bit arrogant, was completely willing to go along with this.
- Xan decided that he and Holger had served together during a galactic conflict and the two of them had barely survived a battle that had taken out the rest of their team. Holger added to this that their combined skills working in concert were what got them out alive.
- Dr. Hauss decided that he and Troy had both lost a good friend that they were working together to try and save. Together, they defined that their friend had been grievously wounded during the war. They tried to outfit her with cybernetics to save her life, but her body rejected the implants.
They were having so much fun making connections, they added a couple more in:
- Holger and Zolanda decided that they were fooling around together, but were keeping it quiet from the rest of the crew. Despite being a big, tough guy, he liked being the ‘little spoon’. The rest of the crew pointed out that with the two of them, it was unlikely people didn’t know.
- Zolanda and Xan decided that they both shared a love of cooking and had bonded over doing little iron chef competitions with one another. This was something the rest of the crew dreaded because sometimes their culinary experiments were a little strange.
These connections came into play almost instantly. Their mission was to rescue a kidnapped scientist who was close to a breakthrough on ship hull construction that would allow taking advantage of faster interstellar travel. She had been kidnapped by the Kyett, the adversaries from the last galactic war. They had her on a cargo carrier that was obviously more than it seemed. Peace with the Kyett was tentative at best, so the team was instructed that they must recover the scientist, but must also avoid causing a diplomatic incident.
When I started to name the scientist, Zolanda’s player asked, “Is the scientist Hina’s mom?”
Yes, yes it was.
Throughout the rest of the session, other connections continued to pop up. Xan and Troy bickered over Xan disabling the camera in his body armor so Troy couldn’t spy on him. Zolanda kept making Hina uncomfortable by mentioning her ‘friendship’ with her mother. Holgar and Hina ran into a guard patrol that let them discover that while on their bender, they’d apparently developed some hand signals that let them work in concert together. Neither remembered it, but both responded and took out the patrol. This earned a fist bump between them.
When we got to the finale, the dice were amazingly cooperative at making it tense and dramatic, but it was really the character connections that sold the scene. Upon finding her mother hooked up to a machine while an unknown alien experimented on her, Hina charged into the room using her Reckless move to attack. She failed spectacularly, allowing the alien to stab her in the gut and toss her across the room to bleed out.
This sent Dr. Hauss into a panic and forced him out of the safety of their shuttle to try and get to her in time to save her life. Again. Meanwhile, Holgar and Xan separately attacked the alien in response to Hina’s seemingly fatal wounds. They both had horrible rolls for their first moves, giving the big bad an upper hand. Both were hurting and starting to worry they might not be able to successfully complete the mission. Then, they looked at one another and recalled the battle that had nearly killed them both. Moving in concert, they combined their attacks to try and get the alien off balance. This time, the dice gave them spectacular rolls and they took the bad guy out. Dr. Hauss got to Hina in time to stop the bleeding and they were able to get her mom out of there, leaving the cargo carrier rigged to explode as it passed too close to an asteroid field.
Without establishing those relationships ahead of time, it wouldn’t have been nearly as engrossing or dramatic for the players. Sure, the game probably would have been fun enough without it and there are times where starting with a bunch of strangers is the way to go, but why not kick start your game with some established connections?
I’ve cleaned up the Connections sheet I created and linked it here for download. Feel free to take it for your own games. I’ve kept it as generic as possible, so it may need some tweaking to fit different genres. Here it is:
Have you done this type of relationship building in your own games? Did you get a chance to use this sheet? I’d love to hear stories of connections from your games!