Roll Call: Avoiding the Dreaded Tavern

Whether you play RPGs or not, you have more than likely heard the standard cliche of how an RPG commences: All the players just happen to be in a Tavern, either at their own accord when something eventful goes down, or summoned there by some benefactor with a very special quest. The heroes then bound together to accomplish goals, slay monsters and loot the bejesus out of any poor sap that gets in their line of sight.

For real, though…. That scenario sucks ass.

The only thing the Tavern is provide, at best, a reason for players to cooperate for maybe one quest or step in a campaign. The only way it holds together is if you just happen to get lucky and all the player characters share the same values/personalities/beliefs/morality/etc. If anyone comes at odds with someone else, the group is so loosely tied together, it becomes hard to reason them staying together. If I’m kickin’ it at my local pub, and some Internet Millionaire comes in offering riches to those who help him with a brief quest, I will probably go have a seat at his table. Now, if I’m joined by a big, sweaty redneck, a self-professed brony, and Donald Trump, I’m gonna say “F*** it” and skate. That’s the problem with the Tavern mechanic: It gives too much ability for Player Characters to just quit the group.

Now, this is in no way a new discussion. People have been talking about the Tavern stuff forever, coming up with many new inventive ways to keep groups together without just telling PCs “hey, learn to like each other or stop playing.” But what I want to hit on is that the “Tavern” feel doesn’t just represent when the game itself actually starts. I think the Tavern aspect simply represents a moment when the characters of a game have very little to no reason to remain attached to one another. Again, Tavern games can work if it turns out that all your PCs end up friends and want to work together, but that can be tough to achieve in long running games. At some point, one character may do something that another character has serious qualms with, or a PC may find motivation elsewhere that does not directly relate to the main task at hand. Any situation can arrive and cause an alliance of characters to become shaky. If all these players have tying them together is “We met and you seemed cool” then in the narrative it makes sense for someone to leave. This isn’t necessarily a problem, and they can just make a new character if they want, but it just becomes a stressor or anxiety for the group and avoiding it becomes a problem for people who lay a lot of stake into narrative.

What’s important is to give player characters a solid stake in the ongoing progress of the whole campaign, not just the initial quest. I have seen this done a few different ways to varying success. One idea is to make the world they’re in or their place in that world actually dictate their necessity to stay together. One of the coolest recent Pathfinder campaigns I did was a zombie-apocalypse style campaign where the Player Characters were part of as small group of survivors in this huge city overrun with all nature of nasty creature. This weekend I am starting a Star Wars Age of Rebellion campaign, wherein all the Player Characters will be part of the Rebellion against the Empire. In both these situations, staying together is a necessity and we have very little choice in the matter. This may seem slightly constricting to player choice, but considering the regulation keeping us together is the overall theme of the campaign, it works and doesn’t leave player characters wanting.

Another idea is to just wrap the players into a larger organization, letting them know what the group is before they even create characters so that they form something that fits into the mold. I recently ran a (very expansive) Star Wars Edge of the Empire campaign where the players were recruited by a retiring Vigilante in order to help him continue his work (think Batman Beyond if there were multiple Beyond Batmans). The players knew this was the plan before ever sitting down to build their characters, so they built characters that had some reason to seek justice, their PCs came in with similar ideologies and bonded over their belief in justice and doing what’s right. We have been playing this campaign for quite some time and I have, admittedly, tortured these characters. They stay together because they still maintain those corp values. My friend and I discussed other ways to do this in other campaigns, such as requiring everyone be a part of a Dwarf tribe seeking out a new mountain to build a stronghold, or everyone is part of a Mage’s guild, sent around to do various duties when asked. If you open with “hey guys, here’s what your characters are roughly gonna be involved in” it will help the players build characters that appropriately get along at least a little bit better (but let’s be real, that’s all just temporary until that one guy kills everyone in a village or tries to pick-pocket the king or something).

Finally, it can be as easy as making character creation a group activity and building characters with relationships with one another. There are various ways to do this, one of my favorites being the relationship charts in the Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign guide. A simpler method that doesn’t require a book is to star by having your players sit in a circle and write two major events or achievements that their charcter did on a notecard, one on each face of the card. Each player passes their card to the player on their left, who picks one of the events and writes some way that they were involved in that event. Players then pass to the right, and that player writes their relationship to the other event. Not all your characters have some sort of connection, however small it may be. It makes the world feel smaller, at least in terms of your starting town/city and helps the players kind of see how the relationships are going to form.

There are plenty of other ways to avoid the group becoming a Tavern group. Hell, it may be a simple as just keeping the action constant so PCs don’t have time to argue. However you achieve it, the main goal is to just avoid the players ever wondering why they or another character are still involved in the quest. Make sure your players to bring narrative concerns like that to you, and you can then work to find specific solutions if need be. Narrative is valuable for a lot of RPG players, and it’s important to cater to everyone’s needs so everyone can have an enjoyable time.

Game on.

~C

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