Some Thoughts on the ‘Ragtag Crew’ Tendencies
In some ways, it’s almost required for character party in a role playing game to be made up of a disparate group of misfits, vaguely tied together for the purposes of the plot. The early days of D&D put half a dozen different classes in a bar together, largely ignoring their backstories and motivations for the sake of seeking adventure in the wild and unknown depths of a local ruin. Star Wars practically begs for this, being as the main characters of the first movie were as unlikely as any group, thereby setting precedent amongst the role-playing fans. Along the way, most of the RPG’s on the market have built their systems on the idea that the characters will have to fill different roles in order to have a cohesive whole that can handle any situation.
There’s a certain logic to it. RPG adventures tend to require a varied skill set to be able to win out over the obstacles that game designers throw into their games and modules. D&D adventures tend to require someone to be able to hold the line while the spellcasters take aim at the larger threats, even as they need a person with stealth and one to heal the inevitable damage. Call of Cthulhu adventures shift a lot of the focus to the tweedy academic, but there’s ever a need for the brawny dockworker that’s willing to wield a crowbar or shotgun against the cultists when the time is right. Whatever the specific genre is, there will be a spectrum of character builds in order to make sure that the party isn’t caught short when a scenario unfolds a certain way. Starting characters can only specialize in a narrow band of skill, so in order to cover all the angles, there has to be a variety of professions, which are then vaguely stitched together through some happenstance of backstory.
And for a lot of players, this is generally taken for granted. There may not be a lot of logic as to why the nobleman and the guttersnipe are hanging out, but this is often an unimportant element that can be collectively hand waved past. More often than not, the players are there to throw dice instead of discuss origin stories, so details like these take a much less significant role.
The Paizo Adventure Paths have taken some steps to try to alleviate the vaguely nonsensical assortment of disparate character builds through the use of setting specific character guides, campaign traits and recommendations to the GM. With their first Pathfinder AP, they made a point of noting that the characters were all from the same hometown and grew up together. The campaign traits were also an interesting addition, in that they offered minor advantages for the characters in return for a way to tie them into the setting and the overarching plots that were to unfold.
In a lot of ways, the difficult thing to do is sell the players on the idea of the homogenous group, being that they’ve rarely seen such things in the wild. Sure, we can vaguely make sense of the disgraced nobleman, the swarthy and mysterious desert nomad and the ivory tower mage all hanging out together without any real strife, but what about being made to play characters that all have the same sort of background and skill set? Not only is it an alien concept to the jaded grognard, there’s the inherent question of how much fun it would be to have a character that’s identical in a lot of ways to the other people at the table.
One such example was the Star Wars game where the characters were all Imperial Stormtroopers. Their squad had all graduated from the Academy around the same time, and the main differences came from their planet of origin and the particular specialty each one had taken for their particular bent. In some ways, it was actually rather refreshing, as they were freed up to concentrate on more specific nuances of their personalities and interests. Another one came with the first Exalted game I ran locally. The characters were all Dragonblooded Dynasts descended from the Scarlet Empress, which narrowly dictated a lot of their skill choice simply to reflect the rigorous education that all Dynasts are expected to have undergone as a product of the Blessed Isle’s particular academies. Where Stormtroopers were expected to have skills befitting a soldier, fully one third of the skills allowed for a Dynast had to reflect their training, where another third had to reflect the particular elemental aspect they lived by. It made for an interesting array of skills, forcing the players to have to choose what remained of their pool wisely.
In some ways, the restrictions on the character builds forced the players to differentiate themselves very carefully, as more of the variation rested on the character themselves, rather than the profession they’d undertaken. Too often have I seen the start of a new campaign include introductions where the player shrugs their way through character description with the race and profession as main signifiers. In the case of the Exalted game, they had to consider how the character’s background made them interesting, as all of the characters were fairly similar in a lot of ways. In some cases, this led to detailed examinations of the families and relative social positions to reflect certain aspects of their numerical stats.
None of this is to say that the standard character archetypes shouldn’t be thrown together in the familiar sort of hodge podge groupings. There’s a reason why they’ve become such a staple of gaming precedent, beyond the math of trying to cover all possible outcomes of an adventure. And in the case of classic D&D, the survivability of a party that was stocked with only fighters or mages would be fairly minimal, simply because versatility also implies the ability to survive that much better.
But in the cases where it makes sense, this sort of party build out has the potential to offer something new to the normal and routine assortment of mismatched ruffians.