Group Development Inception

It was then that Skyden decided he would NEVER take second watch. Because he was an elf, and it didn't make mathematical sense for him to do so because he only had to go into a restful trance for four hours.

“You all meet in a tavern.”

We’ve all played in a campaign that started like this. Some DM’s will just ask for names. Other put it as “who are you and why are you here?”, hoping to grease the backstory wheels a bit. This is where you find out who’s really into backstory and roleplaying,  who wants to get their axes bloody as soon as possible, who’s just along for the ride, and who wants to pickpocket someone in the first fifteen seconds of the campaign because they rolled a rogue.

The first night of a D&D campaign is a very strange phenomenon. I don’t know too many other places that an entire room full of people who have known each other for decades can feel uncomfortable around all their new coworkers. Most groups go under the assumption that the other adventurers can be trusted, but those who like to roleplay may not make that assumption.

Learning How To Make Camp

There’s always friction when a new group starts. They even have fancy theories and models for this kind of thing. Tuckman’s stages of group development suggest there are four stages to group development:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

In a nutshell, groups form (1). There’s friction (2) until leaders emerge and they all figure out how to work together (3). Sometimes, they figure it out really well and go into super-awesome mode (4). Sometimes things will change, and sometimes they regress and the process starts back at (2).

In a D&D party, these can manifest themselves in combat, or in deciding marching order or the watch order at camp, or even deciding who speaks for the party during roleplay. There’s another layer to this, as well. Your D&D group — comprised of all the real live people who brought all their books and dice — goes through all these phases too. The extent to which they are separate depends upon each player and their own ability to distinguish between and/or roleplay the two.

Of course, I’m not suggesting the PCs have minds of their own or anything silly like that, nor am I suggesting players can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. I don’t need to go back to the padded room. What I am suggesting is that an adventuring party’s development is going to be affected by the development of the group of players. I sincerely doubt you’ll find a Performing adventuring party with Storming players. You’ll find them spending an entire session arguing over the watch order at camp. Not that I’m bitter.

Storming, Norming, Performing, Cheating, Skipping?

This past week, my group started a new campaign, and we tried starting things out a little differently. For starters, the PCs were members of the city guard instead of being random adventurers arbitrarily dropped into a setting. We also rolled characters starting at level 3. This was for a couple reasons. A few players wanted to try a new class and wanted to do a little more than just dip their toes in for the first few sessions. We also did it for my own convenience in setting up the campaign. I wanted to avoid the “you meet in a tavern” scenario and give the PCs a reason to have worked together for a short while.

Something really cool started happening right away with the group. Given the knowledge that their characters were already comfortable with their surroundings and with each other, the players just started adlibbing. References to previous events that never happened were common. Friendly crap-giving of the sort one might give their work friends ensued. There was a question at one point as to who was in command, and (after a quick out-of-character discussion) the fighter was nominated and everyone thereafter deferred to him, called him “chief”, and acted like it had been this way for years. The characters were more alive in the first hour of this campaign than they ever were in anything I’d run before.

I’d love to blame this on my superior DMing skills, but I honestly think two things happened. The PCs got to completely skip over Storming and started out Norming. (Do groups get “Norming” at level 3?) Watching this unfold was crazy fun.

More importantly, I think my D&D group figured out either Norming or Performing. I don’t think this is particularly far-fetched considering we’ve been together a little over a year, we have some very good roleplayers, and very little group drama. I couldn’t be happier.

No matter what happens, we had lightning in a bottle for a night, and I hope it sticks around.


Photo Credit (storm)
Xzibit meme by


  1. You know, I’ve never started out a party at higher than first level. After reading what you said, though, I may have to give it a whirl.

    I did play a 4th-edition campaign once, though, that began with the same type of feel you are describing at first level. I was using the “Mark of the Prophesy” adventure provided in the Eberron Campaign Guide (page 264). I started the PCs out as a group of soldiers who, similar to what you have described, all knew each other and had been serving together just prior to the beginning of the adventure in which the creation of strange mists of The Day of the Mourning occur.

    Perhaps having a common occupation and back story to start the game with is key.

    As for your mention that “I don’t need to go back to the padded room,” are you sure about that? 😉

  2. One thing I’ve heard time and again is that having restricted party themes (“all dwarves”, “all the same theme”, etc.) results in amazing games. You could speak to the point of salad dressing theory (there are 175 kinds of salad dressing in the supermarket, none much better than the others, and you become so bogged down in the choices that you have a bad time), or you could address it using group development, but simply put some choice is better than no choice, but more choice is not necessarily better than some choice. Making a few core decisions ahead of time gives players a framework or base from which to work.

    I’ve only ever used “you all meet in a tavern” once, and that was in my West Marches inspired rotating cast game. The tavern was their home base – they all lived there, ate there, hung out together there, and planned expeditions into the wilderness together there. In other words the tavern wasn’t used as a disposable contrivance device, but rather as a core framework… hm… I think I detect a pattern here 😉

    Greatly enjoyed this post, looking forward to more as always.

  3. Kosovodad says:

    Just recently I have been forced into a similar situation: DMing monthly games at a store where we have at least a moderate level of turnover. Very quickly we resorted to simply swapping out the departed player’s character for the new PC and saying “Oh, those last several days in the dungeon with the Paladin? The Paladin is now (and has been) the Shifter Druid.”
    And we really haven’t lost out on anything. I have used emails to certain PCs to develop backstory — for them that wanted it. The others just want to kill stuff and don’t care whether they are alongside a Paladin or a Druid while they are doing so.