An easy way to prevent this problem is to use a setup that ties the party together. That way, you can focus on planning the story* rather than spending your energy keeping PC Gimli from abandoning the fellowship to pursue a career in beard trimming.
1. A Government Task Force
There’s a disturbance in the space-time continuum around Mars. Fortunately, the senior officers of the USS Problem Solver are on hand with orders to investigate. They all take pride in their uniforms and the years spent in hard training. These officers aren’t about to wander off when there’s a job to be done.
In this scenario, the PCs are put together by a higher authority, and this is the default assumption for many games. In Delta Green, the characters are all agents working for a government agency.* In the various Star Trek roleplaying games, the PCs are all officers in Starfleet, charged with boldly going where no one has gone before.
PCs who are part of a task force can’t just go running off whenever they feel like it. They’d lose access to their gear and their paychecks, plus they’d probably get arrested. More importantly, being part of a larger organization gives the PCs a sense of purpose. Their task force stands for something, be it protecting the Federation from Klingons or hunting down alien imposters in the halls of Washington DC.
The weakness of this method is that players can grow contemptuous of the organization they work for. If the government sends them on too many badly thought-out missions without any backup, the PCs will start to wonder if they’d be better off abandoning their uniforms and going solo. Once that happens, the ties holding the party together disappear, so make sure the organization stays on the players’ good side.
2. An Oath of Vengeance
The evil warlord Antagonista is rampaging across the land, and all are helpless before her. Fortunately, a stalwart band of sorcerers stands against her, all of them victims of Antagonista’s evil malevolence in some way. None of our heroes will shirk their duty because each has a personal grudge that must be settled.
With this option, the PCs have all been wronged by the same person or group, and they seek justice. Barring that, vengeance will do. This is the premise for Avatar: The Last Airbender’s first season as Aang, Katara, and Sokka join forces. Each of them has been hurt by the Fire Nation in some way, and they’re out to balance the scales.*
When characters are bound by vengeance, they’re unlikely to split up because they all have the same goal. Even if some PCs don’t get along, they’ll all end up at the enemy’s doorstep eventually. Make sure each player knows how the enemy wronged them, because there are few things players like better than getting even. If you have time, run prequel sessions to really get it fixed in the players’ minds.
If the rules allow for it, give the enmity a mechanical aspect as well. Many systems will give extra character points for choosing a sworn enemy or offer PCs meta currency for roleplaying with their nemesis. Using mechanics will drive home how important this tie is to the players and encourage them to stick with it until the end.
An oath of vengeance has one serious drawback: once vengeance is taken, the tie disappears. Hopefully you can build other connections between the PCs by then; otherwise, there may be a problem. If the PCs are nearing their epic showdown and you’re concerned they haven’t bonded enough, you have the option of revealing that the villain they all fixated on was but a puppet of someone else, but use this trick sparingly, or it will become very irritating.
3. A Co-Owned Venture
Disaster has struck the economy of Storytown, with corporate espionage and hostile takeovers threatening to plunge the whole country into a depression. Only one company, Protagonist Industries, resists the the panic. Its owners are determined to come out of this with their investments secure, and hopefully they’ll save the economy while they’re at it.
With this scenario, the characters are all part owners of something valuable. It can be a ship, a company, or anything else, so long as it can’t be easily split up. This tie works great with games like Shadowrun or Torchbearer, where economics are a core part of the setting. Because the PCs have all invested resources into their venture, they have a solid reason not to go wandering until it pays off.
Link the venture to the PCs’ personal resources as much as possible. If the venture’s doing well, they can afford all the cool gear their hearts desire. If the venture crashes, the PCs won’t have two copper pieces to rub together. This mechanical incentive will provide extra motivation for the party to stick together and protect its shared asset.
Then all you need to do is construct stories that put the venture in danger. If it’s a boat, someone will try to sink it! If it’s a company, then a hostile takeover is in order! PCs will fight all the harder to protect something if it affects their bottom line.
This tie has two major weaknesses. One, if you ever destroy the venture, you’re in danger of the PCs drifting apart once more. This can be a real problem if the venture is a ship and one of your NPCs gets a critical hit with a torpedo. Two, if a session’s story doesn’t directly involve the venture, the players may not be interested. Be sure to plan your stories around it.
4. Family Relations
The Emperor is dead, and no clear heir stands to take the throne. The great families of the realm battle each other for power, their cunning matched only by their ambition. In this deadly game, the Heroicas family must balance its desire for power against doing what’s right. While its members don’t always agree, in the end they’re still bound to each other by blood.
You can’t choose your family, and neither can your PCs, but there’s no denying that family creates strong ties. Characters from the same clan have an automatic investment in each other’s future, even if it’s not always positive. A PC is unlikely to walk away if a sibling is in peril or if a sibling is making a play for the family fortune.
This tie works best in settings like Legend of the Five Rings or Game of Thrones, where the family is also a political unit. That way, characters’ prospects are directly tied to their family, whether they like it or not. If the family is attacked, it’s an attack on every PC as well. Even if a character wants out, the family’s enemies will not forget the ties of blood.
The biggest weakness of this scenario is that too much familiarity can breed contempt. Resist the urge to throw in too much family drama, or your players may turn all their energy to getting out of their familial obligations, which defeats the point of tying them together in the first place. This scenario can also limit character creation options since everyone has to be from the same family, which is why it works best in settings where families are large and cover diverse groups of people.
5. A Binding Compulsion
In the distant future, a group of unaffiliated badasses come out of their life-restoration pods and discover something strange. While they underwent rejuvenation, their brain scans were subtly altered so they now have an overwhelming desire to save the solar system from an imminent alien invasion. The only way to get their free will back is to become the heroes humanity needs.
This option is for the GM who leaves nothing to chance. If you don’t have time to come up with a story you know will completely engage your players, slap some mind control on them and call it a day. It’s most obviously applicable in high-magic settings where gray-bearded wizards can lay spells upon the party, but it works in settings like Eclipse Phase as well, where technology is so advanced even the brain itself can be altered.
Once your PCs are enthralled, they have no choice but to stick together. It’s heavy handed, but sometimes that’s the only option available. Many inexperienced players actually benefit from the clear direction a compulsion provides, as it removes all the guesswork from the confusing process of figuring out what to do in their first campaign.
Of course, more experienced players will understandably resent the compulsion. They want to be masters of their own destiny and won’t take kindly to your meddling. Many groups will spend more time trying to get out of the compulsion than fulfilling its terms. Of course, a sneaky GM can use that to the story’s advantage by making whoever laid the compulsion into a major villain.
6. A MacGuffin to Protect
The Queen of Status-Quoia lies slain, and only her youngest child still draws breath. The Queendom’s enemies will stop at nothing to end the royal line, but a cadre of the last surviving Royal Guard stand in their way. In defiance of all odds, these brave soldiers must keep the heir safe until the throne can be returned to its proper monarch.
In this scenario, the PCs have something important they must protect. It can be a magic weapon, ancient artifact, or important person. Whatever it is, the MacGuffin can’t be replaced, and only the PCs can protect it. They can’t stash it somewhere, either because it might get stolen or because it has to eat. A famous example from fiction is the Lord of the Rings, where the One Ring set the standard for all MacGuffins to come.
For the best effect, give the PCs a strong connection to the MacGuffin. If it’s an item, have each player develop an idea for what they think is the best way to use it. If the MacGuffin is a person, detail their relationship to each PC. One PC might be the MacGuffin’s older sibling, another might be the MacGuffin’s mentor. Once the connections are established, the PCs will stick together through thick and thin in the name of whatever they’re protecting.
This scenario’s biggest risk is that the PCs will start to see the MacGuffin as a burden and want to get rid of it. This is especially true if the MacGuffin is a person who’s always running into dangerous situations. To counter this, make the MacGuffin useful. If it’s a person, give them support abilities like healing or hacking. If it’s an item, make it vital to destroying tough enemies. That way the players won’t see their protection as a loathsome chore but rather as a valuable partnership.
Keeping the party together is a tricky thing. It’s often vital for the story to work, but many systems pay very little attention to it. Some groups may not need a special premise to keep the PCs together, but for many it pays to plan ahead. Keep a few scenarios like these in your back pocket, and you’ll never have to worry about your party scattering to the four winds again.