by Mike Shea on 25 April 2016
Note: This article has been updated since the original published in February 2013.
There are few games more different from D&D than the story-focused RPG Fiasco. In Fiasco, a group of players determine backgrounds, relationships, actions, successes, and failures through cooperative storytelling and a few rolls of the dice. There's no GM involved.
Other games have picked up on the idea of building character interrelationships right into the game. Dungeon World's character sheets include a number of potential inter-party relationships on the sheet, as do the pre-generated character sheets for Numenera.
The 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons includes a number of character development pieces such as traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. The Player's Handbook includes many potential options for these character background concepts but we can easily make up our own.
These character traits, however, don't include inter-party connections, but this is something we can easily fix. The "bond" box on the D&D 5e character sheet is a perfect place to plug in a relationship tied to another PC.
Pre-determined relationships between characters is a great way to tie an entire adventuring group together before the story even begins. It avoids the difficult question of "why would I go along with the group?" that can screw up games early on or when the PCs start to have divergent opinions about the challenges they face.
Bonded characters ensure groups have a reason to work together. They aren't just mercenaries who met up in a bar. With these bonds in place we know why they are together.
Tying PCs together through bonds also works very well for single-session games. It quickly ties the group together into a supportive and cohesive knot and focuses the limited time of a single-session game on the story itself.
Below is a sample of potential bonds that tie characters together.
During character creation, each player either chooses a bond or rolls 1d20 to determine a bond. They then either pick another character to share that bond or roll randomly to determine which character they are bound to.
Once they know who they are bound to and the general nature of the bond, the players can discuss the details of that bond. Perhaps instead of just being siblings, they're actually twins. Perhaps the bet the warrior lost to the wizard has forced the warrior to travel with the wizard for one year. Perhaps the barbarian is an apprentice to the ranger's mastery of nature.
These discussions are important to reinforce the bond and to give the player agency over the bond's nature. As a DM, you can suggest how to better tie the bond to the details of the story.
Some interesting things can happen as players discuss their bonds. New stories develop and the hierarchy of the group can change. Maybe, once the bonds are in place, the group has a clear leader and clear followers. The overall dynamic of the group can change before we ever drop that group into the world. These discussions can also change the very world around them. New religious orders spawn into existence. Guilds of wizards form out of thin air. Dangerous assassins step out of the shadows. The threads of these bonds not only tie PCs together but can weave into the very fabric of the world itself.
This list is just one example. If you want characters to be more closely tied to your campaign's theme, you can build a custom set of bonds that connect characters together and to the story.
Here are ten bonds that could tie characters to the campaign of Curse of Strahd.
Some RPGs include bonds that build conflict into the party. One character might be distrustful of another, for example, or another might disdain another for their use of magic. The bonds included here avoid these sorts of conflicts. In some story-focused games, Fiasco included, these antagonistic bonds can add a lot of interesting conflict into the story. In our traditional D&D games, however, these conflicts can end up taking the whole game off the rails. Thus our bonds are positively charged.
Just as we get together to share a story with our friends every time we sit down to play D&D, we intend for our characters to join together and face their challenges as a party. These inter-character bonds build in a strong network that ties our characters together, reinforces their place in the world, and builds fertile ground for fantastic adventures.