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Cooperative Party Building

I am starting up a new 4e campaign and the players and I got together for the first session this past Monday. I have realized in the past year or two that the ease of DMing 4th edition (by which I mean encounter building, monster reskinning, and NPC design) leaves me lots more time to devote to story development.

I like the idea of group story-telling and I generally encourage my players to add flavor when they do things.  For example: if a PC is having a conversation with an NPC about an historic event, they can make up things on the fly and add directly to the history of the world.  I encourage this and approve 99.9% of the things put forth in cases like this.  The only time I redact a player’s ad lib is if it directly conflicts with a story plot point.  Even then I usually allow it and just chalk it up to the character being mistaken about the truth of the matter when the real truth actually comes out.

All that to say: I really like the cooperative nature of RPGs.  4e isn’t known for this, of course, as you will hear many people complain that it is a tactical minis game with no role-playing, but that is a different topic altogether (and one which I will not address here). Today’s post is about cooperative story telling in the context of party building in 4e.

Before the game, I had the players all make characters and come up with a (relatively) short background.  I had provided them with an information sheet and character building guidelines for my homebrew world (Ruboryn) and given them some time-line information.  The first session was a party building session with a cooperative bent, and here’s how it went:

The PCs are starting out fresh (level 1) and so I wanted to give them reasons to be together more than the traditional “you are in a tavern and a shadowy man at a table in the corner beckons you to sit down.  I have a job for you, he says” kind of intro.  So I decided on a four pronged approach.

Prong 1: Have each player describe his PC to the others:

1) Describe the PC in terms of race, clothing, attitude, and weaponry.  This does not include personality, because I want personality to come out in role-playing.

2) The layer should say as much or as little detail regarding their background as they want the other PCs to know.  Some of the PCs in this game have pasts that may be considered… sketchy, so it is important for them to decide how much the other PCs might know.

Prong 2: Have players answer questions (asked by me) with the following parameters:

1) Answer as the character sees it.

2) Only the person asked gets to answer a question, even though the answer may affect the other PCs.

3) Be interesting.  This is what makes for great experiences.

4) I generally asked one player a single question, with maybe a follow-up or two.  I did not skip anyone and I tried to make each question have an effect on the party or on the world (or both).

So What were the Questions?

1) You feel that you owe one member of the party your life.  Who is it, and why?

2) Who is the leader of the group?  Why? (this is a question about leadership as the PC sees it, not about PC roles in 4e)

3) How long has this group been together?  Do you foresee the group being together for the long term?

4) What is one thing that you are good at that has nothing to do with your adventure training?  Why are you adventuring and not making a living doing that?  How does this talent/skill help or hinder the group?

5) Why don’t you want to be the leader?  Do you feel pressure to lead?  (I usually ask this of the person who was denoted as the leader in question 2, unless the person answers question 2 indicating that the leader is himself).

6) Who do you trust the most and why?  Who do you trust the least, and why?

Prong 3: Determine the relationships within the party.

This prong usually happens as a result of prongs 1 and 2 above.  During the course of the session, players may find that their PCs have things in common.  For example: they are from the same region, they are both running from the law, they are both outcasts from their respective social groups/societies, they are both good at a particular skill or knowledge (and the reason why that is the case).  Players may also find that their PCs have differences that may make the game interesting.  For example: one of them might have spent their childhood as a street urchin living off of trash while another is from a noble family, one of them may be from the forest heavily steeped in fey traditions which another has never been out of the urban sprawl in which he grew up.

Use these similarities and differences to bind different members of the party to each other.  Have them talk about the general goals of the party.  Once they determine what each individual PCs motivation is, it may be easier for them to form natural connections.

Prong 4: As a final challenge, ask the party to decide, as a group, why they are where they are.

This one is slightly difficult from the DMing perspective because, as you know, the DM needs to plan out the adventure beforehand, at least to some extent.  This means you have to be willing to go with whatever the party decides.  If they decide they are there looking for some rumored artifact, then go with it.  If they decide they are all running from their origins and want to start fresh, go with it.  If they decide they have been called their to help the leader’s Great Aunt perform a ritual, go for it.

After asking them to decide why they are where they are, I actually mentioned to the players beforehand that they had heard rumors of an artifact in the area, but told them nothing more.  The fact that one of their main goals was treasure-hunting prompted this disclosure.  Since the other main goal for at least three of the PCs was to increase their reputation, seeking an important artifact also addresses that motivation.  If your players get stuck deciding, give them a prompt, if not, let them decide and go with it.

And there you have it – DM Samuel’s Cooperative Party Building Technique.   Next time I will tell you about how it worked out, how my players felt about it, and to what great stuff it lead in our first gaming session.

Until next time, I wish you good gaming!

~DM Samuel


DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

12 Responses to “Cooperative Party Building”

  • You should have given specifics from our session. That would have been interesting, I think.

  • Yep, I agree, which is why I said “Next time I will tell you about how it worked out, how my players felt about it, and to what great stuff it lead in our first gaming session” at the end…

    I wanted to stretch this out into two posts, LOL.


  • I think this is flat-out fantastic. I’m still DMing my first campaign, and the party is only at second level at the moment. I’ve filled in a little bit of background for them, but I could see using these questions (or other questions inspired by them) for further developing their characters and their relationships to one another. Thank you for the deep level of detail on these questions!

  • Great – I’m glad you liked them.

    Two more questions added to the list:
    What is your PC’s biggest regret? (this should be something that they had the ability to affect and they chose not to, not something that they had no control over).
    You can ask one PC how they met another, letting one explain it and then the other one can say how it was from their point of view.


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  • I’m about to DM for the first time and loved this post. I’ll definitely try it out.

    Did your ever publish a follow-up? If so, I couldn’t find it. Thanks!