Writing this while I wait to take a later flight due to plane maintenance is its own special form of irony, but let’s talk about missed connections in games.
Several systems, in addition to telling a player what ties their character back to the generic setting, also create ties to the other PCs in the group right from the start. Numenera may be the best example of this, with connections being baked into each character build and able to be rolled randomly for from various tables of options that include things like “one other character is immune to your fire effects” or “you share a dark secret with one other character.”
These prompt players to be thinking of the group as a group from before things get rolling, which for games that start somewhere other than in a tavern, can be an excellent way both to create a feeling of medias res to foster momentum and to give the PCs elements of their backstories that at least one other character has reason to care about.
One of my regular concerns with players who adore building backstory, and especially secret-laden backstory, is that they may be relying too much on the dedicated curiosity of the other players at the table to uncover it and make it matter. Since the GM already knows it to approve the character from the get-go, it’s only a surprise to other players, and if they’re (rightly) focused on the main plot instead, it can fall by the wayside and leave those same players who care the most about their characters’ secret histories feeling like they wasted a lot of effort for nothing.
Connections help solve the problem, at least to a degree. They’re specific enough to guide even RP-unfriendly players but generic enough that a secret-keeper can easily lay clues alongside why only that one other PC can fix their magical-mechanical arm.
Since connections are a form of shared backstory, it stands to reason that the players would need to collaborate on the details once the connection is made, which instantly gives both of them an opportunity to make their character background (and any secrets lying within it) relevant to at least one other player. If the two of them are the only ones who ever delve deeper, it’s still a shared experience that can be a lot more rewarding than either those secrets collecting dust or the GM slowly revealing them as the game goes on when no one bites at the mystique.
Connections can also even the score in that respect, so if some of your players simply bring a more enticing backstory to a game than others at the table, everyone still has something that ties them in. It also helps bridge character relationships and trust in settings where that can be inherently difficult, like Shadowrun or Vampire the Masquerade. Connections become the “you don’t have to like them, they still saved your life and you owe them” safety net to early tensions, giving players a reason to keep traveling and working together that isn’t just arbitrarily handed down by the GM.
We can talk all day about why having a reason to keep traveling with the party and working with the other players should or shouldn’t need anything to catalyze it, the truth remains that having something to fall back on other than “because you signed up to play this game with everyone” can help keep a tense game intact and minimize unintentional griefing.
Naturally connections are also great at onboarding new players to a game in progress. We’ve talked about weaving new characters in, and connections are a great way to immediately put them on a level with everyone else, as well as creating an in-character reason for a sudden new addition to the party.
Numenera’s tables of examples are largely generic enough to apply to any setting, and are easy to roll up or let players choose from for your game. Alternatively, the Prologue section of Fiasco has rules that give players a great amount of control over both their connections with the other characters as well as the initial setting itself, which if properly guided can essentially be used to let your players build a campaign idea.
Lastly, remember to play up the positive edge on connections whenever you can – even the ones that are less than pleasant, like “another character knows your dark secret.” Be on guard for players trying to use their connections to abuse other players or limit their play – they should always be about enhancing a relationship, not adding friction to it.
Similarly, never lean on connections as the great get-along sweater of your game. PC relationships still need to form as normal, connections just give them a jump-start. Since they were set at least part from a random dice roll, they’re often not strong enough for a GM to lean on to reduce friction in a pairing, although a gentle reminder here or there may give the players the opportunity to do that on their own.
Done right, you’ll end up with a lovely spiderweb of interesting backstory on the PCs’ interrelationships right from the start, which can help influence the themes you touch on throughout the game, not to mention make them more invested in the RP when they’re suddenly not as alone in their actions and the consequences they cause.
And hopefully your game will take flight in ways this plane very much isn’t.