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Party Cohesion

by Jennifer Knighton

In many games I’ve seen and been a party of (table-top, Live Action Role-Playing (LARP), and Multi-User Shared Hallucination (MUSH)) there is an emphasis by many players as well as game masters on party cohesion. What I mean by party cohesion is the idea that the party is working together to achieve an end that they all seek. It seems to be the general practice that the entire party has the same goal that they work together towards. I have never understood this. Personally I think it makes a game far more interesting when each character has their own motivations and there is always a chance that they’ll backstab their cohorts – metaphorically or literally.

I played a game the other night where I was a mercenary working for the other side. I had two masters and two pay checks, but the so-called bad guy was my true employer. Somehow the party kept turning to me for decisions. I made multiple attempts to sabotage my party, some of which even backfired and yet I was never suspected. At one point I even said the truth – of course the setting it was in made it very easy for them to believe I was lying. The point is, however, that they never once considered that I might be a spy. The players did not even come up with the idea, or if they did none of them voiced it. This caused me to wonder if we are so trained in party cohesion in a game setting that we don’t pause to suspect each other. I do not think we should all be paranoid and accusing each other at the drop of a pin (though in certain game systems that makes perfect sense). I just think that we should acknowledge the possibility.

In table-top Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most interesting games I’ve taken part in had characters who worked together because they were forced to by circumstance rather than by similar goals. I believe a member of the party actually turned out to be one of our main antagonists. Just because a party is, on the whole, good or lawful does not mean that all of them are always goodie two-shoes. Some of the most dynamic characters are the ones that are doing good for completely selfish reasons. For example, a character that is categorized as chaotic neutral – completely and utterly selfish – will fight with the good guys because they aren’t stupid. If they don’t help the good guys win, then the world ends and they die. A selfish character would be all about surviving. Of course once the threat has been dealt with they may turn on their cohorts, but until then they’ll work towards the greater good to save their own hide.

In LARP and in MUSH settings, I often play World of Darkness games and so my examples will be from that system; however, I have experienced similar things in other games as well. The Sabbat are considered to be the “bad guys” of the vampire world. They are the ones who embrace their bestial nature and don’t care who sees them for what they really are or how many humans they kill. That is over-simplifying things a bit, but it’s the gist of why they’re considered evil. Within the sect, however, they are not all seeking the same thing. Yes, they expect the end of the world and will go out fighting, but there are many philosophies as to how things will play out. Each character is different. To expect them all to agree would be foolish. One character within the sect may wish only for solitude and their studies and as such will keep a far lower profile than their fellows. They may even find ways to stop their brethren from destroying the city in a great ball of fire and disaster solely because that would interrupt their research. Some of these characters have closer ties to their clan than to the sect. Still others may be part of secret societies within the sect. My argument is that every character has their own motivations and will not always work well with the rest of the team – nor should they be expected to. They are tied together by blood – they cannot harm each other without good reason and a lot of willpower – but that does not mean they will always want the same thing or even that they’ll like each other. But then, like is an emotion that most in that sect do not allow themselves.

Two gangsters working for the Boss may both seek wealth for their family but might wish to undermine each other to improve their own standing within the family. Two soldiers in the military may go into battle side by side – but who’s to say that one of them isn’t a spy for the other side? A couple may decide to get married and spend the rest of their lives together – and yet the woman may be hoping to change the bad habits the man already has, while the man may expect her to stay at home and raise the kids. We all have different ways of viewing the world around us and different motivations in our actions. Even when we seek a similar end we may not always agree on the path to reach that goal. So why would it be different in gaming?

Characters have motivations and eccentricities just like real people. We players spend a lot of time developing our characters into realistic individuals. With that comes a complexity of disposition and at times conflict with other characters will develop. It is inevitable. It is logical. And yet, somehow, it is not always expected.

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