Add More Life to the Party

Count Strahd von Zarovich

A combination of newfound free time and fresh blood has resulted in realistic plans to get a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign running amongst my friends. Of all the new D&D adventure settings, I selected Curse of Strahd. I remember the old Raveloft module, although I never got to play it. I did win a sealed copy – that was handed to me by DM-to-the-Stars, Chris Perkins – at GenCon 2012, and it remains sealed in a box of D&D 4th Edition materials in the “Harry Potter” room under the stairs of our house. My excitement to start a campaign and get back into the DM chair is fun to embrace, and I am eagerly cooking up methods to hit the ground running with our new group.

One aspect of running a campaign that I thoroughly appreciate is weaving in the backstory elements of each player into the game sessions. Whenever a player takes the time to create a backstory, I want to reward that in a meaningful way. The nice thing about 5th Edition D&D is the Player’s Handbook gives players reference tables to craft a backstory through Backgrounds, which provide ideas for Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. My hope for the new campaign is to add another layer to the character creation process to increase the interconnectedness of the party.

And to accomplish this I borrowed from my recent experiences playing the terrific boardgame, Pandemic Legacy.

The World is on the Brink of Disaster

Pandemic Legacy is a brilliant cooperative boardgame where up to four players attempt to save the world from spreading diseases. The game allows players to take control of one character each month, and those characters can be upgraded with skills or damaged (or killed) with scars. Another feature of the characters in Pandemic Legacy is they can have a Relationship with up to two other characters in the game. For example, a super-useful combination in the game is to give the Researcher and Scientist the Co-Workers Relationship, which allows them to share cards between each other from anywhere. All Relationship options give players a small perk or additional option to consider as they attempt to navigate the diseases that are trying to overrun the planet. While Pandemic Legacy does not require roleplaying, the Relationship options add to the flavor of the game. It increases the immersion into the gaming world for the players, even if the Relationship description is simply a small sticker that is applied to the character’s card.

pandemic legacy

As I considered my new group of players brainstorming their characters for our D&D campaign, I decided I wanted this dynamic for the new campaign. I want the characters to be connected in some way, and I want those connections to provide possible benefits and consequences in certain situations – which is an idea likely influenced by the Positive and Negative Quirks assigned in Darkest Dungeon.

The Fates in Barovia are Twisted

To prepare players for the Curse of Strahd campaign, I sent out a group email to get everyone prepared. Some of the players are long-time friends but others are completely new to the group, so my plan is to start some banter and dialogue before the first session. I sent the following snippet of text from the early pages in Curse of Strahd to introduce the campaign world:

Under raging storm clouds, a lone figure stands silhoutetted against the ancient walls of Castle Ravenloft. The vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich stares down a sheer cliff at the village below. A cold, bitter wind spins dead leaves about him, billowing his cape in the darkness.

Lightning splits the clouds overhead, casting stark white light across him. Strahd turns to the sky, revealing the angular muscles of his face and hands. He has the look of power – and of madness. His once handsome face is contorted by a tragedy darker than the night itself.

Rumbling thunder pounds the castle spires. The wind’s howling increases as Strahd turns his gaze back to the village. Far below, yet not beyond his ken, a party of adventurers has just entered his domain. Strahd’s face forms a twisted smile as his dark plan unfolds. He knew they were coming, and he knows why they have come – all according to his plan. He, the master of Ravenloft, will attend to them.

Another lightning flash rips through the darkness, its thunder echoing through the castle’s towers. But Strahd is gone. Only the howling of the wind – or perhaps a long wolf – fills the midnight air. The master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner. And you are invited…

In addition to the campaign teaser, I offered an option for an initial date, time, and location for the first session and inquired if players would like to use the first session to create characters or if they wanted to jump right into the adventure by creating characters ahead of time. It was unanimous to create characters ahead of time and start the campaign during the first session.

I then sent a follow-up message to introduce the Relationship mechanic I wish to add to the character creation process for the Curse of Strahd campaign:

One thing that I’ve enjoyed from playing Pandemic Legacy is how characters are connected. For example, the characters in Pandemic Legacy can be either siblings, rivals, co-workers, or friends with another character. Each relationship has a unique perk associated with it.

I’d like to expand on this idea for our D&D campaign and help promote a bit more backstory between the characters. So, in creating a character, consider how your character might be connected with another player’s character. Consider these tables if you want to roll randomly:

Other Players in Campaign (roll d8, and reroll if you roll yourself)

  1. Ricky
  2. Bobby
  3. Ronnie
  4. Mike
  5. Ralph
  6. Cheryl
  7. Sandra
  8. Deidra

Relationships (roll d10)

  1. Rival
  2. Member of the same guild
  3. Blood relative (e.g., cousins, siblings)
  4. Drinking/substance use partner
  5. Survivor of same tragedy
  6. Childhood friend
  7. Former lover
  8. Fellow soldier
  9. Member of a traveling troupe
  10. Business associate

You don’t HAVE to be connected to each character (that would be a bit silly), but it could be fun to have at least ONE connection with another member of the party. I’m in the process of developing what positive/negative bonuses would apply for each relationship.

For example, Ralph would roll a d8 to determine the other player he has a connection with; he rolls a 6 and has a Relationship with Cheryl. He then rolls a d10 on the Relationships table and the result is a 4; Ralph and Cheryl now share the Drinking/substance use partner Relationship.

I could stop here and allow the players to simple have this connection and work it in as they see fit during the campaign. Players who are eager to roleplay could use this to fuel ideas throughout the adventure, while players less interested in social encounters during gameplay could shrug them off. To help with the later group, I created a benefit and consequence for each possible Relationship that touch on the Three Pillars of Adventure (PHB, p. 8) – Exploration, Social Interaction, Combat.

The benefits and consequence for the Relationships are below:

Rival. Efforts are made to one-up each other during any negotiation, which can result in a less favorable outcome. Once per day, a character may make an immediate basic attack on the target their Rival misses to chide him or her during combat.

Member of the same guild. Characters can decide the profession of the guild they both belong to, and have advantage on all rolls associated with acquiring knowledge in that field when working together (or within 10 feet during combat). The guild is known to have a scandalous history and a powerful enemy, either of which could add complications at the most inopportune moment!

Blood relative. Characters have advantage on any roll targeting their relative with any action meant to aid, assist, cure, or protect him or her. Blood relatives are prone to sacrifice other members of the party in order to further the wellbeing of his or her family.

Lem Wingman
“Where’s my winghalfling?”

Drinking/substance use partner. Partners engaging in social interactions together in an establishment serving alcohol – or other mind-altering substances – have advantage on all rolls. Partners have disadvantage on all attack rolls in combat within 6 hours of consuming alcohol or other mind-altering substances.

Survivor of same tragedy. Survivors can decide the details of the tragedy they share, and have a wide range of knowledge about any facet of their tragedy as it may apply to events, locations, creatures, and lore throughout the campaign. These details can provide useful clues and shortcuts to party objectives. They both become distracted and emotionally overwrought in situations that closely mirror those of the tragedy. Roll to afflict the survivor with a long-term madness for 1d10x10 hours (DMG, p. 260).  Intelligent monsters and NPCs can sense this weakness and exploit it to their advantage.

Childhood friend. Once per day, friends can spend a few minutes together sharing old stories and joking about simpler times; friends engaging in this activity can gain temporary Hit Points equal to 1 Hit Dice + Constitution modifier. Friends are often too boisterous at the wrong moments, and suffer disadvantage on Stealth checks when within 20 feet of each other.

Former lover. Characters with this relationship take measures to interfere in social interactions when another character is attempting to flirt, romance, or otherwise use charisma to charm or influence his or her former lover – or when their former lover is trying to flirt, romance, or charm or influence another character. Former lovers know each other inside and out, and this experience can be useful during stressful times; once per day, former lovers can grant each other the opportunity to re-roll a saving throw.

Fellow soldier. Soldiers are well-coordinated in combat, and can roll an additional damage die when he or she lands a successful attack against an enemy that was also attacked by a fellow soldier within one round of combat. Soldiers have accumulated a variety of wounds over the years, and only have two failures available on death saving throws before they suffer death.

Member of a traveling troupe. Troupe members can use the Vicious Mockery cantrip (PHB, p. 285) as a free action once per day. Troupe members are quick thinkers, but are not prompt when responding to battle; they have a -2 penalty to all initiative checks for combat.

Business associate. Associates can determine the business venture they shared, and know an assortment of useful non-player characters in that field. Associates can sell treasure for an additional 10% above the listed price, and can purchase items at a 10% discount. Associates are prone to greed, and will not pass up the opportunity to take treasures – even if it seems likely those treasures are a lure or trap – or hoard treasures for themselves if other members of the party are not aware.

The list of possible relationships above was influenced by playing Pandemic Legacy, Darkest Dungeon, reviewing an old Sly Fourish article, and brainstorming. You could modify the list in any way to suit your purposes!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

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