Why I need to stipulate a party ethos for my RPG campaigns

Continuing the discussion from Playing to the audience when the party is split:

I have two somewhat different modes that I use for short-form games (in which I am under pressure to achieve a satisfactory effect in a single session for a con or an ad hoc scratch game) and for games in a longer or open form (when I have time and room for digressions and explorations and more trial and errors, and when an incomplete resolution of conflict can be treated as the set-up for a next act).

The short-form stuff involves generally higher stakes, tighter crucibles, clearer choices between distinct alternative courses of PC action, and a more rapid escalation to violence. In short-form games I more often have a preconceived idea for the story, or a little menu of possibilities, and I nudge the course of events towards an opportunity to work my spectacular effect, take my bow, and ring down the curtain. That material tends to be a bit more railroady, and to feel more like an entertainment that I have provided than a game I have played. But players tend to like them a lot and remember them as tightly-plotted and exciting collaborative stories with conclusions that were unexpected but seen in retrospect to have followed naturally from everything that went before.

With more time and a wider canvas I like to improvise and collaborate more profoundly with plot. In a typical adventure I locate the PCs in their status quo, and then present an initiating incident. That draws the PCs into a developing situation with a core conflict. Character responds to incident. Incident arises out of character as the PCs and other characters react to changes in their situation and thus cause changes to the situation of their counter-parties. There is some sort of crucible in place that prevents the PCs and their antagonists from avoiding the conflict by fleeing or retreating into passivity — very often I rely on the PCs’ duty or business interest, or their steadfastness to a core motivation to provide half of the crucible². In the course of an escalating conflict, the PCs find themselves facing obstacles and lacking information. They must investigate, explore, do things to elicit informative responses, make and execute plans, act on contingencies if they are to respond to incident in a way that with further their goals. This will involve them with more NPCs and locations, subplots and subquests and subsidiary conflicts, and will gradually both reveal more and more about the situation and also raise the level of conflict with the primary antagonist. Eventually, either the players will come to a key realisation and solve the mystery, or else the level of conflict will rise to the point where one party or other makes a fateful decision, and then there is either a revelation or a crisis that resolves the conflict and allows a denouement.

My stock in trade in such GMing is intricate but consistent world-building. In my games the players can be confident that none of the scenery is painted flats, that everything will respond realistically to anything that a character might do to it, and that they can use anything they find for anything they can think of. The danger of that is that there is no law of conservation of detail³; many things have intriguing idiosyncrasies that could perhaps be used, but that are not themselves relevant to the PCs’ interests or goals. These can easily lead the PCs down rabbit-holes. I don’t care to play both sides of the table, so I seldom tell players what their characters ought to do. And I don’t run a Joseph-Campbell world that will keep sending the PCs repeated calls to adventure until they deign to respond. So I need to players to be active and purposeful. Any character can do anything, but I require willing co-operation to the extent that they will do things that respond to the current conflict. It turns out that I need to negotiate explicit buy-in to get that.

I run — used to run — a lot of campaigns in which the PCs are a professional team with shared duties, responsibilities, or business, and in which the adventures consist of or arise out of their going about their duties or business. For example, I have run a lot of adventures in which the PCs were a team of detectives with mutually supporting schticks whose adventures are their investigations of crimes in their jurisdiction and their resolution of the conflicts arising. I have run a lot of adventures for teams of undercover operators whose adventures were the clandestine operations that their bosses assigned them to. I have run campaigns in which the PCs were a small firm of private investigators hired by more-or-less mendacious clients¹ to poke into murky and usually criminal affairs. I have run a lot of fantasy in which the PCs were a clique of inseparable friends among the retainers of lord with a complicated dynastic situation and a difficult administrative duties, or a clique of inseparable friends among the residents of a remote mountain monastery that devotes mystical powers to hunting. I have run campaigns of Saturday-matinée cliffhangers and weird tales for cliques of inseparable friends in the faculty of Walpurgis University. I have run a campaign for a duo of unscrupulous archaeologists/art thieves/con men. These party concepts supply the players with a built-in motive to respond to a recognisable sort of initiating incident, a menu of responses, and a motive to persist in spite of conflict. Knowing what these are I can design a situation that will turn into an adventure for those characters. And knowing what these are going to be the players can design characters who won’t ignore or break those adventures.

¹ Though I have never got around to running the adventure in which a muddy black Labrador leads an under-age blonde into the PIs’ office and then runs off to fetch a bundle of slobbery hundreds.

² That’s where the stipulation of ethos comes in: e.g. “the PCs are a team of ILEA detectives who investigate crimes and bring criminals to justice on exotic worlds in Flat Black”. Unless the players provide me with that much co-operation I find it tedious, time-consuming, and eventually difficult to construct a new crucible for each adventure. Without a crucible the answer to “what would <my character> actually do?” is too often “avoid this dangerous and stressful conflict; sit this one out”. And then it would become tedious and difficult for the players to keep their characters involved.

³ Or rather, I don’t provide the conservation of detail. Players who want conservation of detail have to avoid investigating irrelevant trivialities, especially when the party is split.


I think there are at least two elements to a useful ethos, which I’m tempted to label the internal and the external.

Internal: fellow party members should be able to trust you and rely on you. GURPS canonicalises this as Sense of Duty (Friends and Companions). Some players prefer higher levels of potential party conflict than others.

External: you should be the sort of person who willingly gets involved in adventures. Less important in short-form gaming if other restrictions can be imposed (e.g. you’re a bunch of random people hiding together from the zombies), but definitely needed if a PC might be in a position to say “I don’t wanna do this any more” and make it stick.


I don’t think I use either of those.

As for internal, I don’t assume in all my campaigns that party members will have a mutual Sense of Duty. I may specify this for a campaign where it’s appropriate, but I’ve run campaigns where player characters were actively working against each other (Hong Kong Shadows, where the Wu Lung and the Virtual Adept were teamed up against the Wu-keng and the Akashic Brother) or whether conflicts emerged (Oak and Ash and Thorn, where the football hooligan had some bad clashes with the musicians). “We’re all on the same team with the same goal” is one form of crucible, but not the only one; “We’re all caught in the same situation” can also work.

As for external, I don’t necessarily oppose it, but what I find more important is that you should play your character in a way that gives the other players a sense of their own motives and characterization. An RPG isn’t just you privately knowing what your character’s motives and feelings are; it’s also you dramatizing them sufficiently so that other people can appreciate your performance. This doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything—any more than a movie character has to reveal all their motives—but I really want players to give some sense of what’s going on inside their characters’ skins.


After years of World of Darkness gaming, when D&D 3rd came out and we started up a game, the GM stated flat out: “All PCs implicitly trust and look out for each other” as the party ethos because he was not going to deal with the tactical simulation dungeon delving and a bunch of PC infighting shenanigans simultaneously.

That became a toggle phrase for years for whether or not a game was going to be a free-for-all or more tightly structured.

As a contrast, the same GM ran a number of fantasy and modern GURPs campaigns involving inadvertent and deliberate interparty combat and fatalities.

In a way that phrase allowed the party to collaboratively optimize against the world and really dive into PC niches for spotlight time.