Six Degrees


No doubt you’ve heard of the Six Degrees by which everyone is purported separated. But in role-playing, you can use that idea to create more complex relationships and increase your investment in the character. At the table, it makes for some pretty hilarious or moving scenes, while in “massive” contexts, it’s essentially required in order to get more than random RP. Here are some tips for tying your characters to others in both platforms, and even some “homework” for you to make your characters more connected to their world.

At the Table

When players create characters for my campaigns I usually hand them The “Ten-Minute” Background sheet, which seems to always end up taking the better part of an hour. A bit of a misnomer, that. What I like about it, though, is it gets them to think about just enough to make for an interesting character background. Traits, goals, secrets, oh, and that sneaky thing called connections.

Because I house-rule it a little and tell them they need at least one of the following:

  1. An NPC Ally of their devising
  2. An NPC Enemy of their devising
  3. A PC Ally from the rest of the group

The third bit is by far the most essential, in my view. It makes for a more cohesive party and sets up role-play antics. It works best if you don’t double-up on each other, but sometimes that’s unavoidable. In those cases, you may want to opt for–gasp–two, count ’em, two connections!

I know a friend who knows a friend…

For instance, in my Marrakesh game, the Tiefling Assassin (who now can transform into a powerful devil when he enrages, fun fun) and Halfling rogue have tied themselves together, not just because they’ll compete to see who can cut the most purses in a night at the tavern, but “because they’re the two shortest people in the Party.” Praise players for going beyond the obvious, with more “huh, I wouldn’t have thought of that immediately,” connections that go beyond simple race/class similarities.

Now, the Halfling tends to stick around the Elven Ranger, perhaps because of OOC reasons, but IC’ly it comes off as the him being drawn by her remarkable beauty and grace. More complicated is that the Elf herself flirts with the Tiefling, who is perhaps the most “handsome” of the group at least in terms of behavior–he’s protective of the elf, charming and flirtatious, but this may yet complicate the Rogue and Assassin’s relationship. And I oh-so look forward to that time bomb going off.

See how we’ve already got a triangle going? Add in the Tiefling’s antagonistic relationship with the Dragonborn Paladin, that by default makes him also somewhat at odds with the Paladin’s cousin, a Warlord. Now we’ve a pentagon at least, and still two other party members to account for…

And that’s just from one character’s perspective.

Not Just In-Character’ly…

Sure, these relationships might have sprung up over time, but most of my gaming group didn’t know each other well before they started playing together. Forcing them to reach out broke the ice and gave them game-related reason to be buddying up with someone, when us introverts would be otherwise uncomfortable.

If and when character deaths do occur, I’ll be asking them to make a bond with a different player, so they get to know someone else and tangle the relationship webs further.

Massively and Multi-Player

Role-playing guilds and forum games, though, are another story. Due to the sheer size of them, you have to zoom out a little bit, making Affiliations by Country, Caste, House, College, Company, Division, et cetera the primary method of association. Giving your character a place to belong is important, even necessary, to establishing contexts for role-playing.

But in smaller guilds or forums, these entities might be sparsely populated, requiring you to go the interpersonal route. Even in larger situations, you’ll want a smaller group of RP buddies. Regardless, I recommend at least three connections, mostly to be determined at character creation/incorporation, but secret/unknown possibilities exist for older characters as well. Potential relationships include:

  • Family: Spouse, Parent, Child, Sibling, Cousin, In-law
  • Business: Boss, Client, Coworker, Competitor
  • Education: Mentor, Student, Peer
  • Military: Knight, Squire, Captain, Recruit, Comrade
  • Government: Representative, Constituent, Lobbyist, Staff
Think Sideways

Certainly, Affiliations might cover some of these, but I invite you to go further and define the specifics of the relationship. Some guilds aren’t that organized as to have subdivisions and groups, instead having only general member ranks, or are already especially distinguished (e.g. Trading Companies, Military Orders).

This makes the Priest’s relationship with the Warrior’s all the more important. Who knew they were childhood playmates? But that bond is strained by the healer’s pacifistic, only-in-self-defense attitude, while the Warrior has learned she has to be ruthless in order to survive. Here you have a dual relationship–they were effectively siblings growing up, but now they’re comrades-in-arms with opposing views.

Moreover, just because you’re in one group doesn’t exclude you from having relationships related to the others. If you’re in a Military Order, you likely still have familiar and educational connections, and maybe even business, too, if you’re not a professional soldier, or had a life before you joined the organization.

Your Turn

  1. If you’re in a tabletop group, work with another player who you haven’t partnered up with before. Find a common thread between your characters, and agree on the relationship. If you’re already in a long-established campaign, consider the possibility that the connection was previously unknown. Talk to your GM about your ideas, and see if you can work something into the adventure to bring the relationship to life. Bonus points if you’re forcing antagonistic characters to have to play nice with each other, or causing a rift between friends.
  2. If you role-play in an online game or forum post a wanted or classified ad looking for connections. There should already be a location for this kind of thing–if not, contact an officer or admin to suggest one. Give a basic outline of your character’s concept and ask if anyone has characters who might have associations with him. “I have a rugged, retired pirate who is looking for family, friends, or enemies.” Or, if your plot calls for it, fish for participants to join in. “My characters has three older brothers, and I’d like players to save them from NPC in for me. In the near future, we’ll be doing…”

    Make sure that you don’t get over-specific in your requests/parameters. This turns others off and stifles creativity. Sure you might have thought that having a bastard brother would be fun, but don’t discount the other player’s suggestion for an undead one! Try to get three relationships from the above list to start. I guarantee your role-playing will be the richer for it.

Further Reading

Writers and Gamemasters can also implement the Six Degrees concept in their stories and plots. For a look at this in depth, I recommend Campaign Mastery’s “Sophisticated Links: Degrees of Separation in RPGs.”

3 Responses to “Six Degrees”

  1. lindarcia says:

    Family connections in RP are one of my favorite things to investigate and develop. It always gives me an idea of ways to pass on traits I liked to play or quirks that I enjoyed, and it sets you up for potential storylines almost instantly. It doesn’t work for everyone (some people prefer to go “loner” or stick with letting alignment/personality dictate potential actions and storylines) but it’s always been fun for me.

    Sometimes I think I would do well to branch out from using familial/alliance connections in RP/writing and try to find experience in a new medium of connections, but I’m not sure what I should look into first. Any ideas?

    • lindevi says:

      First? I’d say to look at what is generally independent of your family–your class or career.

      Some things to consider: Who taught your character their specialty? Who taught your mentor, and who else did your mentor train? Will you take on an apprentice of your own? Connections needn’t be cooperative–perhaps you’d like to look at rivals, friendly or cutthroat.

      I suddenly think of the “schools” of swordplay from Edo Japan. Being trained in the “Burning Lotus” school automatically puts you at odds with the “Crane Moon” clan. The strength of your relationship with your “sensei” opens up entirely new plot points as well. Do you seek to surpass them, prove to be their most loyal disciple, or open up a rival school?

      “Why your character does what he or she does, and how they got there” is an incredibly rich field to reap for non-familiar connections.

  2. Mike Bourke says:

    Great post, and some excellent additional suggestions in the comments. Thanks for the link!

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