Theme Thursday: Pathfinder Relationships

In the world of the Pathfinder RPG and DnD, most games will not have truly deep and meaningful relationships between characters. And that’s fine; the game isn’t really designed to handle these kinds of things with great depth, and it’s left up to the GM to have a free-form style.

But what if you want to go there? What if you want to have a relationship in a campaign, in the manner of the Jade Regent adventure path? Well, then today’s theme is for you, because you aren’t going to find a whole hell of a lot of useful advice in the player’s guide for that campaign.

Feel free to mix the three methods outlined below to suit your campaign and your group.

Relationship Scores

This is the way they do it in Jade Regent, and it is a cool way to get the players involved with the interesting characters. I don’t really like the specific choices made in the design of this feature in the adventure path–it’s possible to gain a lot of bonus xp, which leads to strife between players and problems with challenges in the adventure path.

A MUCH better way to handle Relationship Scores would be to grant small and specific bonuses to skills and abilities. Getting close to someone with great tracking skills could give you a +1 bonus on Survival checks when they’re present. Avoid wide-reaching blanket bonuses (like +1 to all Charisma-based checks) because this leads to devaluing the relationship in favor of the bonus. In other words, people have more fun when they find themselves getting a very specific benefit that clearly comes from a choice they made. It’s much less fun to get a general bonus without an easily remembered source.

The Staring Method

Not all the most memorable parts of a role-playing game have to contain a direct incentive to make the players participate. The truth is, if your players are interested in relationships and you’ve created interesting characters (see this post for advice),  they will seek out interesting stories on their own. The key is to maximize the key role-playing moments for dramatic effect. When your player demands to negotiate with the king, wraps a comforting blanket around the escaped witch, or tries to trade stories with the local bard, leap on that opportunity.

Lock eyes with your player. Speak slowly and dramatically, without being funny (unless it’s a funny moment, of course). Use deliberate hand gestures to emphasize your words, and pitch your tone at a low but carrying tone that will literally force your players to lean forward intently. Even if you suck at acting, your players will respond. They can’t help it; once they’ve initiated this kind of encounter, your manner will draw them into the scene irresistibly. The staring method makes players remember characters and epic events in a powerful and visceral way.

Critical Backstory

This is the method I find myself using the most often. It requires a little initial work, but can often enhance a campaign in a thousand ways you never expected.

When the PC’s come across a character you’d like them to have a relationship with, make sure that character has a backstory which is critical to the development of the plot. Your players will make knowledge checks this person, seek them out in conversation, and seek to befriend or antagonize them. Everyone hates to leave a stone unturned when they care about a story, and so long as you keep the game moving when a character turns out to be a dud, your players will engage with every interesting character they meet.

The former rival that holds a piece of the Starstaff, the tavern keeper whose son is a fey changeling, the girl who told no secrets and was turned into a raven–these are the people woven into the story of the game who the players will desire to know intimately, and who will ultimately define how much they care about the game.

Go forth and expand your game’s horizon!

And hey, leave me a comment about awesome or terrible in-game relationships you’ve had!

Max Porter-Zasada

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