Glue: The Binds that Tie Your Campaign Together

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Let me tell you something that happened a few years ago. I had these friends. Yes, I had friends. They were married. To each other. Just to be totally clear. I won’t say who they were. You don’t know them anyway. It doesn’t matter.

The point is…

F$%&… I’ve done this before, haven’t I?

Dammit. I did. In that “The Italian Campaign” article, I talked about my friends who got married despite very clearly and obviously being a terrible couple who hated each other. And their circle of friends who pretty much didn’t belong together either. And how miserable it was to hang out with all of those people. Yeah, f$&%, I should have held that Long, Rambling Introduction™ for THIS article. Because now I’ve got nothing. NOTHING.

Fine. F$&% it. Let’s just get started. We’re talking about bondage today.

The Most Important Thing Every Campaign Needs

Every ongoing role-playing game – that is, every campaign – needs TWO things. It needs a Shape – Spaghetti or Noodles or Meatballs or whatever the f$&% dumba$& analogy I used, I don’t know, I make this s$%&^ up as I go – and it needs Glue. Now, the Shape of the campaign describes how the adventures connect together. They might not connect at all, like random dungeon-of-the-week adventures with no real forethought other than “hey, that was fun, let’s keep playing with the same characters.” Or, they might connect up into a complex web of storylines. And, the thing is, the Shape can be entirely accidental. Like I said, LOTS of campaigns start with one adventure and everyone decides “that was fun, let’s keep playing – can we keep our characters?” That’s cool. Some of the best campaigns I’ve ever run have been nothing more than just “the ongoing adventures of that particular group of idiots blundering around the world doing stuff.” To be clear, though, the stuff they did was ADVENTURES. You know, with motivations, resolutions, and structure. They weren’t just “dick around the world” campaigns. That s$&% is just slightly less enjoyable than dental surgery.

The Glue is the thing we’re talking about today.

Now, the Shape and the Glue both basically do the same thing: they are about bondage. They stick s$&% together. The Shape of the campaign is about how the ADVENTURES stick together. The Glue is about how the CHARACTERS stick together. To put it in a more pompous narrative bulls$&% sort of way, it is all about establishing the CONTINUITY of the game. And that’s precisely what a CAMPAIGN is. It’s just a CONTINUITY OF ADVENTURES.

And, to be honest, there is one more aspect of the campaign that is also about establishing CONTINUITY: the setting. But that’s a separate discussion.

Every campaign NEEDS continuity. Or else it isn’t a campaign. Imagine, for example, an ongoing game that doesn’t have a continuity. Every week, the players would have a new group of characters. Every week, the GM would set up an entirely new adventure. And every week, the games would take place in an entirely different world. For obvious reasons, we don’t call that a CAMPAIGN. We call that… well, f$&%ing nothing. We don’t call it anything because if we called it anything we’d have to call every game in the entire f$&%ing world part of that campaign. And that’s stupid.

Yeah, by the way, system continuity is also technically a thing.

Now, imagine a game with only setting continuity. That’d be like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Every novel took place in the same world, but each was about different characters having different sorts of adventures in different parts of the world. At an RPG game, that’d be like running a series of adventures in isolated corners of the same world for different characters every week. One week, a group of swashbuckling pirates fight slave lords in the Archipelago of Piroslavia. Next week, diplomats are uncovering courtly intrigue in the City-States of Aristojerkwadia. And the following week, rebels are fighting imperial forces in Greater North Insurgencia. Hell, it doesn’t even need to be that spread out. A single city could provide setting continuity, allowing a criminal gang adventure one week and then a murder investigation adventure the next and so on.

And yes, I know technically, the Discworld novels did have story and character continuities because it was actually a collection of different series’ like the Night Watch stories, the Wizard stories, and the unreadable ones about those witches which sucked.

The thing is, it’s actually kind of hard to even see a game with setting continuity as a campaign rather than just a series of one-shots. And THAT is why I separated out settings as their own thing.

Now, imagine we add story continuity into the mix. Now, we have the f$&%ing Marvel comics. Every comic is about different characters or groups of characters in the same setting, but the stories all connect together in various ways. Like, for example, when that Civil War thing broke out and the government started cracking down on supers, it affected everyone in the Marvel universe, even when they weren’t sharing adventures together. Same with that DC bulls$&% about how the multiverse got broken and eventually Superboy had to punch reality in the face to fix it. Which was, I think, symbolic of the characters punching the WRITERS in the face and saying “get your s$&% together, this is f$&%ing unreadable. That had so little character continuity that there were infinite versions of the SAME CHARACTERS.

And honestly, it’s hard to imagine SETTING and STORY continuity really defining an ongoing campaign. I mean, hell, when you look at Marvel and DC, you still break them down by series, even when all the comic series are sharing stories and setting.

In point of fact, you define both comic series and the Terry Pratchett novels by… can you guess… wait for it… you define them by CHARACTER CONTINUITY.

Simply put, at the end of the day, the most important aspect of any story or game is the character. Most of the time, it’s the characters that grab us in a story. And in various franchises, it’s the characters that help us draw the lines between the stories. The Marvel Comic Universe movies are all named for the characters or collections of characters, right? Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Avengers when all the characters team up.

In point of fact, character continuity is so strong that – whereas it’s hard to imagine stories with only setting or story continuity, it’s easy to imagine stories with only character continuity.

One of my favorites was an old TV show called Sliders that had two-and-a-bit good seasons before executives utterly f$&%ed it up. It was a show about four characters who accidentally stumbled into a portal that would take them to random alternate various of Earth in alternate dimensions every week. The stories were mostly isolated adventures with few connections to each other. And the settings ran the gamut from sci-fi to fantasy with a heavy leaning toward alternate history and even the genre varied from adventure to adventure. One week, the would be in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct. Next week, a world where communist Russia had taken over the world following the cold war. After that, a world where dragons and magic happened. The only thing consistent from episode to episode were the characters.

You can even argue that shows like Quantum Leap and Star Trek (the original and the Next Generation) had very week setting and story continuities. Star Trek seems like the setting is always the same, but between the planet-of-the-week approach to storytelling and the very small number of episodes that tied to each other, it was really only the character continuity tying everything together. Hell, the Simpsons has barely any setting or character continuity. Jokes have been made about the fact that Springfield – the city in which the show takes place – could be anywhere in the world and includes a ridiculous number of impossible geographic features located very closely together. You can watch the shows in any order because none of the prior zany antics of the Simpsons affect any of the others. Hell, the characters don’t even grow or change in any way. Every adventure is like their first adventure. The only thing that really stays the same in every episode is the characters themselves.

And in a role-playing game, character continuity is exceedingly important. That’s the nature of the game. The characters are the players’ avatars and proxies in the game. The players create them. And, even though they are generally terrible at it, they do put a lot of work into their characters. And they become attached to their characters. And they measure their progress in the game by way of their characters. That’s one of the reasons why GMs who are too lazy to worry about experience points are f$&%ing stupid.

More than anything else, character continuity defines the game. The characters could travel from world to world, ala Planescape or Spelljammer, and their adventures could be entirely isolated from each other, ala a Plate of Meatballs, but as long as there’s a continuity of characters, the game remains a campaign.

Stuck Together, Shoved Apart

Now, I already discussed this in the previous articles on what makes a campaign a campaign, but it’s worth bringing back up. The nature of the game and the need for strong character continuity REQUIRES the characters to mostly stick together. Obviously – just to placate the pedantic morons who sometimes wander into my comment section and to also prevent anymore Ship of Theseus bulls$&% – obviously, the team makeup will change a bit over time. Characters will die, characters will be replaced, players will leave the group, new players will join, old players will return. It happens. And OBVIOUSLY, the characters will split up sometimes. None of that means that character continuity isn’t happening.

Now, here’s the thing. In fiction – as I’ve already pointed out NUMEROUS F$&%ING TIMES – character motivations and choices MUST make sense. In fact, they must make MORE SENSE that real life people’s motivations and choices do. Denying that means TELLING CRAPPY STORIES. And so, the most important thing that a campaign does is to provide a REASON FOR THE CHARACTERS TO STAY TOGETHER.

See, the characters HAVE TO stay together. And the players know that. It is VERY RARE for a player to sit up and say: “you know, I think my character would leave this group” and voluntarily require a character. Especially one they want to play. And very few groups would discuss the idea of disbanding a party. So, the players WILL keep the party together. But, they also won’t necessarily CHANGE their character to keep the party together. They will just keep playing the character THEY WANT TO PLAY.

The classic – and EXTREME – example, is the paladin and the rogue who adventure together for years and CONSTANTLY fight over, you know, doing evil things or not doing evil things. Both players are playing the characters they want to play. Those characters are just utterly incompatible.

But even if things aren’t that extreme – and most of the time, they aren’t – even without that extreme, EVERY CAMPAIGN has a force SHOVING the characters apart.

The Nuclear Physics of Conflict

At the heart of every atom is a cluster of protons. Those are teeny, tiny particles who absolutely HATE one another. Protons are positively charged. All of them. And two things with the same electrical charge are constantly trying to shove each other away. Hard. It’s called the electromagnetic force. It’s one of the four fundamental forces that makes the universe exist. And it’s stronger than gravity. It’s the reason why you can’t, for example, push your hand through a wall.

Now, there is also a fundamental force in gaming that drives ALL PLAYERS APART. And that force is called conflict.

Conflict isn’t what you think. It isn’t fighting. It isn’t war. Conflict is just what we call it when there are two different wants or desires or goals or motivations and we can’t have both. Conflicts can occur between groups, like nations. For example, two countries might both want the same land. But both countries can’t both have the same land. Their desires are incompatible. There’s a conflict. Conflicts can also occur between individuals. Like, when your girlfriend wants to watch some YouTube cartoon about an anime cat or some crap and you would rather watch literally anything else. You can’t have both. Conflict. And conflict can even occur inside of a person. Like when you need to save money for new glasses but you also want to buy a new video game right now. You can’t do both. Conflict.

Conflict is what makes stories interesting. In fact, without conflict, there are no stories. And conflicts also make encounters happen in role-playing games. No conflicts, no encounters. And conflicts define social interactions. Social interaction – except for exchanging quick, meaningless pleasantries – is about dealing with conflict. Hell, self-identity is also about resolving conflict. It’s about how you reconcile your different desires. That’s what defines you as a person. And what defines how you interact with people. And so on. And conflict is also at the heart of every choice. Every real, meaningful choice is about resolving an internal conflict.

RPG groups are made up of different individual characters with different goals, desires, and priorities. And the choices that those characters make as individuals AND as groups are only interesting stories because those goals, desires, and priorities are in conflict. They can be minor conflicts or they can be major. Sometimes, there are compromises. Sometimes, one side just loses out. Sometimes, everyone loses out.

In short, it is the very nature of all role-playing games that the characters are always being shoved apart. And if that weren’t true, the games would suck. The characters would be bland and boring. The interactions would be dull. It would be all game (can you beat the challenge) and no story.

Gluons and Social Dynamics

Now, you might be wondering why all the atoms in the universe don’t just blow apart. Well, that’s because there is a stronger force in the universe than the electromagnetic force. And it’s called “the strong force” because physics is kind of weird when it comes to creativity. Sometimes, s$&% is so creative as to be absolutely bonkers (like the particles called quarks that come in six different “flavors” including “strange” and “charmed”), and other times physics is really dull. Like naming the strongest force “that strong force.”

Anyway, the strong force involves these particles called gluons (GLUE-ons) holding the protons together despite their desire to blast apart. Well… just to avoid the pedantic nitpickers, the gluons actually hold the constituent parts of the protons together and allow the protons to exchange pions and those pions actually do half the work. But this isn’t about nuclear physics. This is about the fact that, just like conflict causes the players to repel each other, something stronger has to glue them together.

See, here’s the thing. Whenever you join a group, you’re making a choice: you’re giving up some of your own freedom in return for something. When you join a bowling league, you’re committing to a schedule and probably putting down some money. That means that your Tuesday nights now belong to the league and you have less money to spend on other things you want. But, in return, you’re getting something else. You’re getting bowling, which you can’t get alone. And, for the most part, the inconvenience of committing to the schedule and the price are outweighed by the bowling.

But every time a conflict happens within the group, the group has to make a choice. And that choice might lead to further inconveniences. For example, if three members of the league can’t attend Tuesday night, the group might have to pick a new night. If you’re outvoted, you might have to give up your Wednesday night sexy line dancing class. The problem is, every time that happens, it changes the equation for you. The one you settle inside your head that asks: “is giving up this and that worth bowling?” Now, if the bowling is really good and the group is really fun, the bowling might still win. But if the bowling is boring to begin with, you might decide to just up and quit.

Every time a conflict happens inside of a group, the benefit of being in the group MUST be strong enough to overcome the negatives of the conflict. Otherwise, the group falls apart.

And THAT is the role of the glue in the campaign. The glue isn’t just the reason the party hangs out together. The glue must be a strong enough reason to overcome any conflict that might come up during the game.

Toxic Conflict

Now, as noted, groups don’t break up in RPGs like they do in real life. In real life, any group can get frustrated or annoyed enough to fall apart. Or go to war. Civil war, broken relationships, divorce, family estrangement, revolution, those are all the results of too many conflicts overwhelming the ties that hold the group together. In an RPG, though, the group WON’T generally split up because the players (a) know they can’t and (b) no one wants to give up their character anyway and (c) the conflict is all in character, so it’s all just dismissed as “part of the game.”

So, the gaming group becomes like one of those couples that SHOULD get a divorce, but won’t. What was once discussion and compromise turns to stubborn arguments and standoffs. Petty bickering and bitterness start to grow. And that bickering and bitterness usually starts to spill out of the characters and into the players. The players start to get annoyed at how the other players are playing their character. Though they usually aren’t consciously aware of it. And the game starts to become less fun. Because no one wants to play in a game filled with stubborn standoffs and bitching and moaning.

And then, one of two things happen. Either the GM (or the players) recognize the game isn’t fun anymore, blame the campaign, and decide to “start over.” Or, the players and the GM start to schism off and look for new groups or new hobbies. I’ve seen it go both ways.

Doesn’t Glue Make It Worse?

Now, here’s an interesting question: I’ve just said that the problem with RPG groups is that they are inherently filled with conflict and the conflict eventually ruins the game because the group won’t just split up. And my solution is to handcuff all the character’s together. Isn’t that bats$&% insane?

And on the surface, you’re right. Glue can make the whole situation worse. That’s why you need the right kind of glue. And you need to use it the right way. You can’t just say “this is the reason you stay together, now don’t ever split up.”

First, the glue must provide a motive around which each player can design their character. That is, the glue provides one motivation, goal, or ideal that sits at the heart of every character. The glue provides common ground. So that when the players are arguing over all their other motivations, there is at least one motivation or goal pushing them together. Yes, the thief wants money. Yes, the paladin wants good. But if they also both want to depose the evil tyrant, they have at least one motivation they can agree on. And that drives compromise.

Second, the glue provides a means by which the GM can step in and resolve toxic conflict among the characters. If the thief is so overwhelmed by his own greed that he starts working with the evil tyrant, the GM now has the power to say: “your character no longer fits this game, you’ve abandoned the game, either fix it or make a new character.” Harsh? Yes. But the glue of the many outweighs the glue of the few or the one.

The glue isn’t just a set of handcuffs. It’s an agreement that every player knows they are signing AND an agreement that the GM can enforce.

Of course, that only works if the glue comes before the campaign.

Gluing Good

So, what makes good?

First, the glue must come before the campaign. The players must have the ability to create their characters with the glue in mind. And the players must agree to the glue. And the GM must then enforce the glue right in character generation. What all that boils down to is that the GM and the players have to agree amongst themselves what it is that will hold the characters together. Each player has to make a character within that framework. And the GM has to review the character and make sure that the player has sufficiently bound his character to the group with the campaign glue.

Now, this doesn’t have to be particularly detailed. I’ve started many campaigns off by saying “this is a campaign about saving the world from evil” or “defeating an evil force” or “preventing a disaster.” “At some point, early in the campaign, you will begin to learn the details of a terrible threat or evil empire or something. You are, for whatever reason, the only group strong enough, brave enough, and/or destined enough to stop it. Make a character who is willing to risk everything to save the world, cool?”

That sort of opening can start off everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings and it doesn’t give any of the mystery away. But it does tell the players WHY their characters are together. It provides them a common motivation. And they can think about the sort of character they might play. You’re not likely to get a greedy, selfish thief. Instead, you’ll get the jerka&% scoundrel with a heart of gold (Han Solo). And if you DO get the greedy, selfish thief, you can tell the player that it won’t work and explain why.

Good glue also suits the shape and type of the campaign. I’m going to cover THAT in the next article about how to actually START a campaign. For now, just understand that good glue gives a hook for character generation.

But gluing good isn’t always about the glue itself. Just like in real life, cleaning and priming yourself can help your glue stick better.

Proper Preparation for Improved Adhesion

Any craftsperson will tell you that proper surface preparation is vital when it comes to gluing stuff together. At the very least, you should clean the surface. Sometimes, scuffing the surface with sandpaper is helpful. In extreme cases, you might need to use chemical primers or hardeners to get a good stick. What is this weak-a$& analogy about? It’s about all those other little rules that don’t count as glue but help the glue stick.

In this case, I’m mostly talking about little rules that limit the chance for major, game-breaking conflict. For example, in absolutely all my campaigns nowadays, I have a “no evil alignment” rule. And I am also very wary about warlocks, necromancers, assassins, and other folks who tend to skew “evil-ish.” But beyond “conflict avoidance rules,” there are also things you can do to increase the bonds between the players. For example, the characters might have personal relationships or they might all have studied at the same place or share the same faith or have been born in the same place. These connections, by themselves, might not be strong enough to work as glue. But they do enhance the glue. If glue is a common motivation, goal, or ideal, these sorts of helpers are common threads, connections, and bonds.

But there are just too many little things you can do to create extra bonds and connections to list. It’s more important to talk about the different things that work as glue in your game.

The Right Glue for Your Project

Let’s end here by looking at some of the different ways you might glue the party together. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. There’s pretty much an infinite list of possible campaign glues. These are just some of the most common.

It should be noted – because if I don’t note it, someone else with “remind me of it” with idiotic anecdotes – it should be noted that no glue is perfect. Some glues are stronger than others. Some work better for different types of games. But there is no glue so strong that it will absolutely prevent all forms of conflict. That’s because we’re dealing with human beings when we’re gaming and human beings aren’t exactly consistent, rational, or predictable. Remember, the point of glue isn’t just to overwhelm all conflicts, it is also to provide something the GM can point at and say: “you need to make a new character, yours doesn’t fit.” But even then, no glue is 100% perfect.

Personal Relationships

I’m going to start by talking about the crappiest glue you can use which is, unfortunately, one of the most favoritest type of glues that inexperienced GMs go for: the personal relationship glue.

Using personal relationship glue usually means the players are instructed to create characters who are old friends, family members, a pre-existing party, or have some sort of preexisting relationship. The hope is that those bonds of friendship, family, or professionalism will overcome any conflict.

It’s utter bulls$&%. And it rarely works.

Now, I’m not saying the players can’t have pre-existing relationships – except they shouldn’t, that’s a bad idea – I’m just saying they won’t hold a campaign together. I mean, think about it like this, how many people are you still friends with from high school? Yeah. Thought so.

Emotional connections are the least likely of all the different connections to overwhelm major conflicts. That’s why friendships split so easily and why relationships can fall apart once the two people realize they want fundamentally different things out of life. The romantic notion that love conquers all is utterly untrue. Love is only the starting point. People need stronger connections to stay together for their entire lives or to risk their lives for someone else.

See, emotional connections aren’t really motivations or goals at all. They are part of the backstory. They are part of the past. Motivations and goals are about future desires. So, emotional connections look in the wrong direction. Besides, as part of the backstory, they are much weaker than the relationships and conflicts that grow organically at the table through play. Past connections are inorganic. The players decreed them, but they haven’t been tested by actual in-game interactions. It’s easy to say that your character genuinely likes some other character during character generation, but if that character is constantly more snarky and sarcastic in the game then you anticipated and you grow increasingly annoyed, one wonders how your friendship even came to be.

My advice: skip this. This ain’t glue. It’s backstory bulls$&%.

Common Motivation

Common motivations involve every player in the party agreeing on something that they all individually want. For example, a pirate crew might be unified by their desire for money. Each character might have their own reason for wanting money. But they all agree that they want money and teaming up is the best way to make money. Characters might also want to be heroes. They might want to serve the greater good and do good things. That’s a good common motivation. Characters might be motivated by a desire for fame, power, by their faith, anything really.

Common motivation glue is GREAT for loose campaigns made up of short, random adventures. You know, adventure-of-the-week style meatball campaigns. Every adventure just has to provide a means of obtaining whatever the shared motivation is.

Common motivation campaigns tend to hold together pretty well by their nature because most conflicts can be resolved simply by agreeing on which choice leads to the most of whatever the party agrees they all want. Most of the conflicts that do occur are about what lines can and can’t be crossed to get the thing. Remember, you don’t want NO conflict. You just want something that provides a strong, common goal so conflicts CAN be resolved without turning into festering, ongoing resentments.

Common Means

A common means campaign is a campaign where each of the characters has a different motivation, but they have united because whatever they are doing gets them whatever they want. For example, Alice might want money, Bob might want fame, Carol might want power, and Dave might want to serve the greater good. So, they go out and have adventures. Adventuring provides a common means for each character to accomplish their goal.

These campaigns are the most common types of adventure-of-the-week style campaigns. And they are also pretty crappy. The problem is, each character is only tied to the group insofar as every adventure leads them to the thing they want. The moment they have to give up some amount of what they want because of what someone else wants, they will realize they are better on their own in. Or in a group more compatible with their desires. A pirate is better off with other pirates than with a group of mixed motivations.

Thus, these groups tend to get into the most arguments. See, eventually, there’s the adventure that forces someone to make a trade-off. The greater good character, for example, doesn’t want the party stealing the money from the tomb. Or the party finds a magic item two people want and one wants to sell.

Common means is the purview of accidental glue. If you give no thought to the glue before your campaign, you’re relying on this bulls$&%. This also tends to go in tandem with personal relationships. That is “you’re all friends who decided to become adventurers so you can all get what you want by adventuring.” Guess what? They don’t work alone very well and they don’t work together very well.

That said, strengthen them enough by forestalling conflict and by ensuring compatible motives, and you have a campaign that can work. Work with each player to make sure their characters want similar enough things that the conflicts won’t become major fights. Or find a way to enforce the means outside of the party. That brings us to:

Employers and Organizations

Relationships, motivations, and means are all internal forms of glue. They exist between the characters, but, in the end, they rely on the characters opting in. Employers and organizations are external glue. They exist outside of the group. Basically, any given employer or organization is either a common motivation or a common means (or both). But the difference is that they reinforce and strengthen the glue by providing a reason and a method for resolving or avoid conflict.

It’s like this: when you’re just a group of buddies plundering tombs for money, you each have your own sort of personal code of conduct. Because, apart from money, you have other things in your head too. Other desires, fears, moral or ethical codes, eccentricities, behavioral quirks, and beliefs. And all of those have their say too. As tomb-robbing buddies, there’s no external framework to help resolve disagreements. You want what you want, your buddy wants he wants, and you argue about it until you fix it. Or hate each other. In addition, once you realize your desires and your buddy’s are incompatible, it’s easy to just go find another greedy tomb-robber.

But if you both work for a tomb-robbing organization with its own code of conduct, there are some lines around your behavior. Moreover, there’s more of a feeling that you HAVE TO resolve your conflicts because you HAVE TO be able to work together.

An employer or organization is just a way of creating an external common motivation or common means. And that makes it stronger. It also means that, when a conflict does threaten to pull the party apart, the GM has a way to get into the conflict before it spills from characters to players. And, because everybody agreed at the start of the campaign to be part of the organization, it also reinforces the GM’s authority to enforce the campaign’s glue.

Personally, this is my second-favorite method of gluing a campaign together. The next one is my favorite.

Common Goal

And finally, I end on what I consider to be the absolute strongest method of holding a campaign together, the common goal. A common goal is like a common motivation in that the players agree that the character’s all want the same thing. But a common goal is much, MUCH stronger. For two reasons.

First, recall that goals are distinct from motivations in that they have a definite endpoint. You can say whether a goal has been accomplished or not. Wealth is a motivation. It’s a thing you always want more of. You’re never done gathering wealth. But the desire to build your dream home? That’s a goal. In game terms, they both lead to the same behavior: collecting money. But the difference is that the dream home goal has a finish line and a way of keeping score. The progress is quantifiable. And whenever you must give up some progress, you can measure how much you’re giving up. That makes it easier to make decisions and to resolve conflicts and reach compromises.

If your motivation is wealth and the party asks you to give up the opportunity to grab 100 gold coins from a tomb because they think disturbing the dead is evil, it’s hard to quantify just how much you’re giving up. How does 100 gold coins compare to your desire for wealth? But if you’re saving up to build your dream home and need 5,000,000 gold coins, 100 gold coins is a very small amount. Especially if you already have 2,500,000. At that point, it’s far easier to recognize that 100 gold coins is too small an amount to quibble over.

Second, whereas motivations are internal, goals are external. And for the same reason that employers and organizations are stronger than common means because of their external nature, so are common goals. A common goal is a tangible, real thing everyone in the party can point to and say: “I agree to pursue that.” Moreover, the party can more easily assess and quantify progress and compare means of achieving the goal.

Thus, whether the party is trying to overthrow a tyrant, save the world, or buy an airship, a common goal is the strongest way to bind a campaign together. Note that I’m not saying it’s always the best, just the strongest.

And that’s the lesson to takeaway: there is no BEST glue and there is no PERFECT glue. There’s just STRONG glue. And when it comes to strength: external beats internal, goals beat motivations, motivations beat means, and means beats relationships.

And next time, we’ll talk about how to put this information to good use: we’ll talk about how to actually START a good campaign.

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48 thoughts on “Glue: The Binds that Tie Your Campaign Together

  1. You know your $#!& got serious when Angry forgets to get his fiction wrong, and mentions characters and movies by their *actual* names and contents.

  2. This was great, I’ve been binge reading Angry articles lately and I feel much better equipped to start a new campaign. I have one doubt though; I want to give my characters the common goal of defeating a Big Bad, but at the start of the campaign this enemy will not have made an appearance. Should I tell the players there will be a Big Bad at some point and that they should build their characters with that in mind?

    • Can’t hurt. One thought would be you start them with a mini-quest that delves into a little backstory about Big Bad, so they while they don’t have a direct introduction, they get enough of a taste to be the glue.

    • I’m being a bit lazy. The players will learn about the BBG, and that the BBG will be taking an interest in them, during the first session.

      Somewhat vague because at least one of my players reads here, the players will go through an event as part of the start of the first session that will mark them. They’ll get a quick infodump from an organization face who will tell them that prophecy says eventually the BBG will be brought down by people so marked. However, there’s a remarkably high death rate among the marked. “By the way, to help you prepare and maybe survive, we’ve got these couple of minor tasks you could do for us.” Short term goal, common long term goal, organization (that they will outgrow, but by then I’m hoping the hooks of short and long term goals will have set).

      the bonus for me in this is that I’ve got ready reason to introduce new players (just more marked souls who’ve gained a chance due to the organization) and a means of defeating the BBG off-camera if I find a need to do so down the road. (Players lose, consequences suffered, new party has new mission in same world some time later.)

    • Is there any particular reason WHY you can’t have the Big Bad make an appearance at the start of the campaign? Or even just make the PCs aware of his existence and (probable) motives?

      • This particular Big Bad is someone who is close to the party who will slowly turn evil, so they will actually know him, just not as a bad guy. I’ve also thought of making bad guys in other campaigns who were secretly controlling various organizations from behind the scenes, and that person’s involvement was a mystery the party had to solve. I think there are quite a few reasons not to reveal the Big Bad, but if I don’t want to use the other types of strong glue I may just change the Big Bad’s origins.

  3. I agree very, very strongly with the thesis of this article, to the point that in the next campaign I’m planning I have set explicit conditions for character creation to set multiple anchor points between the characters.

    The only disagreement I have with the article is the dismissal of personal relationships. In past games, personal relationships have served as powerful bonds between some characters, such that they would rely on each other and create deep and lasting moments with one another. It’s pretty awesome to see when it happens.

    Also, I think you give short shrift to the use of family as a connector within this subtype. Just look at our preeminent D&D movie franchise, the Fast and the Furious, which binds everything together through Vin Diesel mumbling about “family”. You can choose your friends and your romantic entanglements, but you can’t choose your family.

    In my new game, the characters are all connected somehow to a minor feudal lord in a failing human kingdom. All of them have deep generational ties to this royal family. The game is explicitly going to start in the kingdom, creating relationships with the townspeople, and the lord’s family (of which some players are part), and the surrounding communities. The goal is to make them care about this legacy of stewardship and community bonds…

    Making it all the more devastating when the samurai lizardmen and their marauding dinosaur armies sneak attack and occupy the town, necessitating that the party rise to the occasion!

    • So, something like the Game of Thrones RPG, where players are explicitly recommended to create and choose the same house? (They don’t have to be heirs; some might be common retainers).

      • Yes, and I very much like what Green Ronin did with that system in a lot of ways.

        Except gameplay, because the dice pools in that game got kind of sloggy. But I’ve full on stolen elements of house creation from them!

        (Also, the mass combat system in the Dragon Age RPG, combined with the encounter table system in Red and Pleasant Land, is absolutely delightful if you’re looking to brew something up that ends up playing like the D&D version of Call of Duty)

    • I would consider this almost an External motivation, though.

      “We are loosely related to this family so we kinda hang out together” is different from “We are loosely related to this family in a society where this kind of bond has a lot of weight because of our legacy and social status”.

      You are not building up from pre-existing friendships and bonds between the players: those don’t exist. You may think, as a GM, that they exist, but they don’t. Either the players start to care, and in that case you have a bond they have created, or they don’t, and in that case they won’t give a s*** about how the GM told them their characters are SUPPOSED to feel.

      You are starting from a specific structure (feudal society) with rules that are either explicit or not, but still depend from someone else: a player betraying his group is not just going against “friendship”, he’s throwing away years of tradition and rules that everyone in the kingdom holds dear and may be actual laws in some cases. It’s a very strong structure, and a great way to keep the group together.

      That kind of personal relationships, though, is unfortunately something that can’t be created beforehand, not if you want your players to care about them.

      • I think there’s still something to be said for direct family ties in a non-feudal sense though. Namely that we all have some sense of familial bonds personally (whether through personal experience or absence thereof), and how they create a sense of permanence in that relationship.

        I could get all critical theory and talk about “thrownness” and the bonds of fate here, but that’s besides the point. All I know in my experience is that if players are playing sibling characters, they aren’t usually turning on each other over gold or morality squabbles, at least not in the same way as an adventuring group seeking gold and glory.

      • I would consider this 100% an external motivation.

        The players are not playing characters who happen to be related, they are being told to play characters who belong to a specific group and have bought into the goals of that group.

    • From how I read it, it sounds like Angry dismisses the idea of using JUST personal relations to glue the party together. That isn’t to say that personal relationships cannot work for some, but in other cases it just won’t work out. Consider the issue of the rogue and the paladin, does introducing some relation (maybe they are brothers for example) really help solve the underlying problem?

      I think there is a difference between forcing relationships to happen through backstory and allowing them to happen naturally in game. I’d also be very careful trying to draw parallels between a movie franchise (where everything is ultimately controlled by the writers, who usually agree on where to take the story) and an RPG (where the players can do whatever the DM lets them get away with, and goals/motivations may not align)

      • I said they were the weakest of all of the glue. I didn’t say they can’t hold a game together. I just said they are the weakest way to hold a game together. Because there is nothing in the familial relationship that can actually be used to set priorities in a conflict the way motivations, goals, and employers can. They are extremely tenuous and risky. Backstory doesn’t bind the future together. Goals do.

    • I made my characters important parts of an effort to settle an island. That has worked mostly and given them a sense of purpose. They do it for people they know, their success is the success of their faction and vice versa, there’s a steady stream of missions and so on. Works. Kinda in the external organization category (faction) and in the goal category (make the damn settlement survive and prosper).

      I have given people relationships and bonds and what not, and it worked pretty much the way Angry said. In fact, when I bring backstory material up in the game, people usually don’t remember the shit they made up themselves. I had to remind people of their own tearjerker-boring-what-the-fuck-do-I-care relationships, relatives, and friends. My belief in such glue has taken a blow for sure.

      In fact, I think what you describe is more of the former and less of the later. The feudal lord _is_ an external organization more than a relationship. If it played no role in the campaign, nobody would care. But that is only my take on it.

    • I don’t think that feudal bonds are the sort of thing Angry was talking about when he discussed personal relationships. The family you are describing is really an organization, and the feudal lord is a patron.

    • Here-in lies the rub though. Your glue isn’t familial ties at that point. It is Organization/Benefactor.

      It is the goal of seeing the Middle-aged Mystical Samurai Geckos fall in relation to said organizational ties.

      Just seems like you are giving time for the glue to set, or be washed away. I do like the idea, but I also liked the IDEA of New Coke, once upon a time. We all saw how that turned out.

      • Yeah, we will see how it goes. And to be fair to Angry’s counterpoint, I’ve certainly seen backstory glue fail big-time, but I’ve also had characters with family ties form some of the strongest and most affecting character relationships I’ve had in a game. So, in summary:

        ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • It may be pretty awesome to see when it happens, but that doesn’t contradict the (likely) possibility it rarely happens, hence why Angry calls it “weak”. It’s one thing to handwave that two characters are old friends/family/etc, it’s another to go through actual interaction to establish whether or not they STAY bonded.

      Also, familial ties can backfire rather spectacularly. I have one campaign where one PC prefers her family over the rest of the party, and it has led to several threats of bodily harm, murder, and even splitting up the party solely because she wouldn’t do anything that might risk/harm her family. Even if it meant killing her teammates and letting thousands of people die.

  4. I’m not gonna lie, I look forward to your posts, but this one kinda sucked.

    You spend more than 70% of the article convincing us Glue is important.
    Then about 30% actually discussing gluing methods.

    I get that you got a bunch of new readers from some twitter war you got in or something, but I’ve been reading for a while. I agreed with your hypothesis pretty much immediately, so to me, the majority of this article was just me sitting in a choir box being preached at.

    I NEED SOME CRUNCH, MAN!
    I’M JONESING FOR SOME ANGRY CRUNCH.

    Actually, that sounds like an amazing breakfast cereal.

    • I have this urge to take a cap’n crunch cereal box, slap angry’s face on it (the drawn one) and change all the words on it to stuff like “for those f$%&ing days” on it and then change the name to “ANGRY CRUNCH”

      But that sounds like too much work.

      • Ah, the amount of awesome things that would exist if they weren’t so much effort to make. 🙂

        That’s exactly why I wish more games had easy-to-use map-makers.

  5. Yep, my glue is of the Employer/Organization variety. With a sufficiently large organization, you can easily drop in new players and leave out old ones who don’t turn up, which is my modus operandi at the moment. Doesn’t matter what they play, or even if they get along, so long as they could conceivably be part of the organization/family/locality/whatever.

  6. I actually know a guy who will have his character leave the party if he thinks his own character would do that. I’ve seen him make his character wake up early and leave in the wilderness because it’s what his character would do. Not even over alignment, he just decides his character doesn’t trust anybody anymore. Or split himself off from the party to try and ambush a group in advance.

    • I was in a campaign a few years ago where the local temple of Pelor was actually a band of doppelgangers who slowly replaced all of the clergy. With a green dragon as muscle, the church took to extorting the town and surrounding locale. After clearing the temple and chasing off the dragon, it became apparent to our party cleric of Pelor that his character was going to retire and be an actual shepherd to these people. Didn’t hurt to have a former PC/New NPC providing healing.

      • Now, that retirement makes sense. It also helps he did the retirement BETWEEN adventures.

  7. I red this whole thing and aknowledge I have started my campaign in the wrong way. My question is: can the glue be strenghtened? / does it make sense to add another kind of glue on an ongoing campaign?

    • Yeah. I’ve been having some doubts about my own players’ cohesion recently and was looking forward to some advice, so I was rather disheartened to read the phrase “the glue must come before the campaign”. 🙁

      It’s still great advice for the next campaign, though. 🙂

      I find it interesting that some of the 5e hardcover adventures suggest some relevant personal goals to choose from (thus providing a motivation for the adventure), but they don’t mention the possibility of everyone choosing the same goal.
      Same for factions.

    • Depends on the problem. Also depends on the players. (From previous experience, some players just don’t get along and no amount of glue will save it.) Care to elaborate?

  8. I need that campaign starting advice by Tuesday… no pressure. 😉

    Nice stuff. I hoped for a killer glue but I still liked what you laid out, I will keep it in mind.

    It completely kicks my plans in the nuts of starting my campaign more open-ended. How do I serve a plate of meatballs when I don’t immediately have a goal I want to present them with? Tricky…

    • Well this is very situational with me having precious little knowledge about your campaign, players, or characters so my advice may be flat here.

      Normally you would tell the players “make a character that wants to achieve goal X”. If you are past that primer point then try to take a look at the characters and find a goal that they have (or at least -could- have) in common. Then make that goal fit the campaign/adventure.

      Next take a look at the Organization glue and consider trying to tie the characters to a prestigious organization that they could hardly refuse. (The employ of the King or what have you) Now they are tied to the organization and they are doing something that hopefully is in line with their goals.

      Now take a look at the other glues and see what you can use. Unlike real life – these glues you can slap on top of each other and it makes the glue stronger.

    • Why not give them a more generic glue they can at least begin to agree upon? Not just a goal like “explore a new land”, but an additional motivation like “explore a new land to establish trade relations with friendly locals”. That way their personal goals can be closer in line.

      And when you reveal/decide a specific goal, make it a step deeper than what you’ve already established.

  9. Pedanticus takes great offence at being called a moron. He sails away into the sunset on a ship made entirely of ripped up and reconstituted Angry GM articles.

    On a more serious note: I’m very glad that you have now covered this. Misunderstanding this principal was what lead to some awkward moments early on in my last campaign. Luckily, I spotted the problem (a bit late), and the players and I agreed to retire the difficult character (Evil in a party of Neutral and Good characters).

    • Evil characters tend to be difficult, even in a party composed entirely of Evil characters.

  10. What about metagame glue? If you have players that enjoy playing with each other, they will want to come up with excuses to glue things together.

    • Explains why the players stay together, doesn’t explain why the characters stay together (or why the players play this particular campaign).

      • If the players want to stick together they will make reasons for the characters to do so. But yeah, I think it helps if you have a fig leaf for the characters.

        • No. They won’t. That was the entire point of the article. This belief is a bad belief that can sink a game. They WILL keep their characters together. Because of the metagame. That glue already exists. But it does nothing to help resolve any actual conflicts.

          • Some players have enough sentience that they will adjust their characters to the need of the game.

          • Though very badly phrased, I did not think I disagreed with you.

            Players will make excuses for their incompatible characters to hang together. Usually. Provided the players are still getting enough satisfaction out of playing together.

            character glue is a fig leaf for those players. But even then it reduces the dissonance, which in turn makes it easier for players to let their characters associate. That is more important when players have other options for game night and may be more fond of the game than the players.

            Still not in full agreement with what you wrote. But then I’m only an experienced gm, not a great one.

        • My experience has been sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t (highly dependent on player maturity among many other factors) but why leave that up to chance?

          It helps a lot if you put this in context in front of your players before they make characters in order to set up proper expectations. Setting the right expectations is basically what half of this article is about. It seems ridiculous to me that I feel I actually have to say “make characters that aren’t total wang rods that will play reasonably nice with each other” but oh well. Really this advice is just more primer – the glue will be doing the vast majority of the work.

  11. Not all his articles can be crunch. He’s said he’s restarting the Megadungeon articles, those are very crunchy. (Thanks, Angry! Semper Iratus!)

  12. I think it could be possible to glue the characters after the start (for those who already have ongoing campaigns): simply have them meet an employer or discover a goal they all agree to during your next scenario(s).

    It would be more shaky than setting them from the start because the players may already have a feeling of their character, but hopefully they can ajust.

  13. I’ve run a game with no character continuity… The players played… Effectively new characters every adventure or so. They were all cryo froze settlers crash landed on an alien world. The players would un freeze new PCs every session or so to add new colonists to the settlement and get specific skills they needed.

    The eventual goal was to have a cast of PCs that could form Star trek style away parties that changed from soon to session, as well as letting the players create the NPCs that populate the world.

    Unfortunately, the game didn’t last terribly long (queue the I told you so)

  14. I once accidentally stumbled onto a glue that kept the players together: they woke up in a lab with only broken memories of what had happened to them. The fact that their characters had been messed with right from the start made the hate they had for the guy who did this to them so strong that it kept them together ’til the very end of the campaign.

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