“You meet in a tavern” is a D&D classic. Also a classic: PCs that met in that tavern immediately trying to get one another killed, either subtly or overtly.

Unless what you want is a PvP game, I’ll argue that throwing a group of PCs together cold and expecting them to immediately bond with no real external factors is a fool’s errand. Cold party formations are much more likely to lead to players having less fun as they struggle with the cognitive dissonance of continuing to adventure with characters their character really doesn’t like (even though in-game they could split at any time) because leaving the party means quitting the game. The meta-game problem of “why am I continuing to hang out with this maniac?” is exacerbated when you have no good in-game reason.

Of course, I’m a big proponent of group chargen fixing these problems. Having your players make a balanced group of PCs with existing deep ties means you get to skip a lot of the bad tension. Hell, maybe they did meet in a tavern, but years ago, and have already worked out their major issues and kicked out the real troublemakers. But, either instead of or in addition to the intrinsic ties from this kind of chargen, you can also think very hard as a GM about providing extrinsic motivation and context.

That is, if the player starts to think about whether her character even likes these other characters and wonders why she would continue along with them, there should be an immediate and obvious answer. That way, the player can get back to engaging with the game rather than fantasizing about the adventures she’d rather be going on with characters that her PC likes better doing things that she’s much more interested in.

There are a bunch of easy options to provide this motivation and context:

Shared Patron

A very easy answer is to give the PCs a patron or mentor figure that suggests they all get together. This is more than just the mysterious old wizard they met at the tavern (nobody really gives a damn what Elminster wants them to do). This is instead someone from their backstories that they have a lot of built-up trust with and/or obligation to. It might be multiple people that are, themselves, connected (“your sires suggest you form a coterie” is a classic Vampire motivator).

You can get this patron in a couple of ways. The most organic is to suggest the NPC play a prominent role in the PC’s backstory before getting to the table. If you don’t have time for that kind of seeding, you can also take the more abrupt tactic of, “by the way, Elminster’s helped you out a lot in the past, and you have every reason to trust him. Figure out how that works in your head.” In either case, it’s good to include a pretty strong carrot for the relationship: what ongoing patronage does the PC expect from this character?

The player should have an expectation of beneficial transactions with the patron in the future sufficient to guide behavior. Beyond cash and XP, what does the PC want that the patron can provide? This could be specialized training, introduction to an elite group, and so on: figure out what the player’s long-term character development goals are, and make the patron key to obtaining them.

The most important thing is, even if the relationship with the other PCs is taking a long time to gel, the player can at least justify that her character would keep going because it makes an important patron happy, and she’s not interested in walking away from that relationship.

A caveat for this motivation is that the patron should have some reason why she can’t ever be of much direct help with the adventure. Maybe she’s politically powerful but not very clued-in or adventure-savvy. Maybe she’s rarely available except in snatches because she’s off putting out fires of her own. Maybe she’s flat out prevented from interfering directly due to the larger context. Importantly, what you want is to keep the players from deciding, “hey, if this is so important to our patron, why doesn’t she get her butt out here and help?”

Shared Organization/Home

An even better answer than a single patron (or small group of them) can be to lodge the PCs in an entire organizational structure. The adventuring guild is the most common of these types. WoD games often feature larger political groups, usually with outright group bases. It’s also classic to just say that the PCs are the only adventure-savvy kids from the same small town (which they have a vested interest in keeping safe from various threats).

This tends to change the dynamic of the game to become much more centralized to the home location of the organization. While fine if you’re doing a primarily city-based game, you need to make sure the organization retains the proper shape for longer-distance plots (e.g., a mandate for distant exploration and problem-solving, as typified by the Pathfinders and the Harpers). A small town thieves’ guild could lose motivating importance if the PCs have been months far away with no support.

The organization does everything a patron can do as far as carrots, with the additional bonus that PCs can be incentivized entirely with rank within said organization. It can also help a lot with games that have rotating casts of PCs: the group assigns PCs to the mission (that just happen to be the PCs of the available players), or a group must be formed out of whoever’s at the guildhall this week/in town and not otherwise engaged.

The caveat for patrons is even stronger with organizations. Particularly in a city-based game, there can be a huge push for just going back to the guild and rounding up a posse when the players have identified a threat that seems dangerous enough that they don’t want to just rush in to engage it. And while it’s pretty easy to explain why a single patron can’t help, it’s much harder to explain why, in this big group of adventuring types, nobody can spare a moment to help when it’s clear that the threat has become more serious than first believed and threatens the whole town. One trick to avoid this is time-sensitivity: by the time the PCs have identified the threat, it should often be risky to take the time to go back and round up additional aid, because the bad guys will advance their plots much further in the interim. Another is to simply structure your adventures so calling in the cavalry is an acceptable solution when time isn’t a factor, at a cost to the PCs in XP and loot because everyone else from the guild is going to get a share. As long as the players are in control of whether or not to call in the big guns, they probably won’t begrudge a big final battle being turned into a narration about how the combined might of the guild crushes the problem.

Another problem unique to this setup is the tendency to lose party agency. When part of a larger organizational structure that regularly gives them missions, your players are going to become less prone to self-determination. There will be a drive of, “we brought the plot to the attention of the guild, and if they want us to pursue it further, they’ll tell us how.” There really isn’t a good fix for this if your organization has a command structure, other than a mid-campaign crisis where the command structure is obliterated and the PCs have to take charge (which obviously opens up its own issues of the resources now available to the PCs). Just make sure that’s the kind of game you’re comfortable running.

Mutual Enemy/Problem

Perhaps the leanest solution is for the group to share an issue that they need to solve for their own reasons. “You get to talking and realize you all want to punch the same guy in the face,” is a very simple start for a campaign. You can even do short solo introductions where you just let the players play out their previously idyllic lives until the villain shows up and does them wrong in an on-screen way.

A slower burn version of this is the “we were all working the same case” angle, where each of the PCs’ backstory motivators winds up all pointing at the same problem. One PCs’ dead parents were killed by the guy that kidnapped the next PC’s brother and is living in the ancient temple the third PC has sworn to reconsecrate. This can be harder to set up than it being obvious who did them all wrong, because you have to figure out a reason for them to actually share information rather than constantly ignoring one another (or fighting one another then running away when they show up at the same investigative location that you thought would bring them together). A brief dip into the patron motivation isn’t a bad idea in this case: an NPC party that also has a related issue isn’t really an adventurer, but has done enough research to identify the PCs and suggest everyone work together with her funding to deal with the problem.

The caveat for this is a big one: if the problem isn’t the end-of-campaign villain, there’s a risk that the party won’t gel by the time the issue is solved to at least one PC’s satisfaction. “Well I rescued my brother… good luck to all of you, we’re going home.” By the time the initial problem is close to being solved, you need to have gotten several other campaign hooks into the PCs so they’ll be inclined to continue past their stated goal. Or you need to be fine with PCs getting subbed in and out as these mini-goals are completed (likely with rules for replacing your PC with one of equivalent power, so players aren’t afraid to lose progress).


This can just be the strong form of the previous motivator: someone’s sending assassins after the PCs, and they need to band together to punch people until the assassination attempts stop. But in a broader motivating sense, this speaks to something innate to the PCs that sets them apart from others and, consequently, drives them together. The classic X-Men plot, and also seen as a key motivator for Baldur’s Gate, there’s something about the PCs that inspires others to hunt them. Maybe they are hated and feared. Maybe they hold a secret power that others want to kill them to steal. Maybe both.

With this motivation, the game is strongly colored by the problem. Every interaction is colored by the fact that the PCs are other, whether or not the NPC realizes it. When there are many powers in the world seeking to kill or capture them, logically even friendly encounters become tinged with the worry that they’ll trigger some kind of alert that brings their antagonists back down on them. And the thrust of the campaign inevitably becomes solving for the problem or transcending it, rather than any other central goal. You can’t just use this as an excuse to put the party together and then expect them to go off on typical quests to slay princesses and rescue dragons without those quests being informed by the greater context of what drives them together.


Finally, if your campaign supports it, you can just start with the PCs being trapped somewhere together. This can simply be the start of one of the other motivations (e.g., beginning with being imprisoned and then hunted after escaping, a Usual Suspects introduction to a powerful patron, or establishing the enemy that had them falsely imprisoned in the first place). But it can also be a major leg of the campaign itself.

As its own thing, the important factor is that the PCs are cut off from broader civilization, and are the only adventure-savvy folks that can investigate the problem. Common tropes involve shipwrecks, avalanches, unexpected transport to alternate dimensions/worlds, and just being in prison as a long-term plot. This can also be a fine introduction to a megadungeon (as the PCs get stuck on the wrong side of a cave-in, and now have to explore the whole complex for an alternate way out instead of just going back to the nearby town). Importantly, the reason the PCs don’t just leave is because they physically can’t. They’re stuck with each other, whether or not they like anyone in the group.

As with all the other short-term methods, if escaping isn’t the whole point of the campaign you need to put in other story hooks before the PCs get out to keep them together long-term.


Have any other motivators that I missed that you’ve used to success in the past? Please let me know in the comments.