The Ties That Bind: How to Create and Use Bonds in D&D 5e
We’d taken the deep road. The journey would’ve taken another week if we’d skirted the mountain and continued on the switchback roads which wound through the valleys and passes toward the capital city of Oriole. We didn’t have that kind of time. The summons of the court magician, Chiasmus, had been urgent. The Regent’s behavior had been strange; prone to anger where he had always been a calm and rational man. He complained of headaches.
We’d seen this before. We knew what ailed him. And we did not have much time.
So we’d taken the deep road. Despite the peril, despite the things which haunted the dark, we forged down into the underground wilderness which marked the edge of the subterranean kingdom of the Dwarves. We kept silent. We traveled fast.
Until the third day when we found the survivor. She was a pale, piteous thing, ragged from travel and alone. She told us about the outpost and the horror than came. Drinking from Nim’s flask, she described the hollow-eyed fervor of the dwarves who had turned to madness and savagery. She took rations and made for Torsdelf, and its solid walls. As she left, she paused just long enough to tell us not to go to that haunted place.
Nim, canny little halfling that she was, assured her that we had no intention of traveling out of our way for a dwarven outpost full of crazy dwarves. We had bigger problems. Twenty families of crazy dwarves didn’t hold a candle to the entire realm. Our mission was too important to veer. Someone would be along to sort out the dwarves and figure what had gone so wrong in the long dark.
Torbik Helmclever chewed his lip behind his bristling mustache and breathed a low, heavy sigh. “I’m going.” He hitched his pack and made to head down the side path.
“Tor! We’ve got a quest! This isn’t our problem!” Nim moved to block him, putting her hands on his breastplate, shaking her head. Her eyes were wide in the darkness under the mountain as she searched his eyes for some clue about this sudden change of heart. The Fighter had always been of a mercenary mind, and never the sort to stick his neck out without the promise of some favor in return.
The Annals, 4 Sep 2016
“No,” he agreed, with a sad little smile. “No, it’s not our problem.” Slowly, as if wearied by a weight none of us felt, he pointed the head of his axe down the corridor, where our lantern’s light died by inches. “But, in that long dark, there are dwarves that are suffering. They are trapped, alone, and no one but we and that girl know it. And she is heading the wrong way. Bones of my fathers…that makes it my problem.”
I want to take a minute to talk about one of my favorite parts of the character sheet. Usually, people are most interested in those boxes marked STR or DEX (mostly DEX in this edition), or those sweet, sweet special abilities. Maybe their eyes immediately flick toward that list of spells there on the back. Not mine. It’s the third little box that’s never big enough over there on the right side of the sheet.
No single place on your character sheet does as much heavy lifting tying you into the world as a character’s bonds. So why is it that this is the block most likely to be forgotten in the excitement of creating a new character? Why is it hastily filled in with a random die roll, or left blank entirely.
I think the answer comes down to the fact that there’s no mechanical benefit or drawback to the bond. People tend to want to portray their personality traits, because they are the natural drop-in point for roleplaying. People like the ideals and the flaws, because they are easy paths to inspiration. But what about the bond? I mean, I suppose there might be a DM out there who hands out inspiration when you act suitably attached to something in the campaign world, but it’s not been my experience. Seriously, if you’ve seen that before, send me a note and tell me all about it.
But bonds are knives that you hand your DM, fully expecting them to put them in your back and give them a good twist when they want to amp up your buy-in. That means that you need to make a deal with your DM. You expressly have to care about your bonds. If you don’t the bombs don’t go off, the sparklers don’t light, the strings are visible, and the magic doesn’t work. In return, your DM is going to let you define a little piece of the world. Or they should, at any rate. Sort of poor form to restrict the sorts of knives they’re allowing you to hand them, isn’t it?
Personally, if someone’s buying into my world enough to want to determine the nature or character of a little piece of it, that makes me a happy DM. I’ve had people tell me about a family that they were raised by, or a community that’s tucked back in the mountains that they wintered over with one time, or a mentor that they’ve lost contact with…I’ve even had folks create a whole city-state from absolutely nothing and then helped them place it beyond the borders of the campaign map. That’s the kind of work that I, personally, appreciate. Not only does it save me some time and travail, but it is also, in a roundabout sort of way, telling me the kind of stories that they are interested in playing out. And that’s where the real purpose of the bond comes through.
The Things We Love, and the People We Hurt
That big block quote up there happened. In the same way that all of the other D&D adventures ever happened, I mean. Torbik up there was my character a couple of years ago. I was in a position to actually play in a game with an excited new DM and overall it was a competently run and, overall, pretty fun campaign. I’d only run D&D 5e about six sessions at that point, and so I wasn’t really hip to the importance of ideals, bonds, and flaws yet. I’m pretty sure that I left them blank for the first couple of sessions.
I come from a background where you discover your character as you play, you see. Back in the golden, halcyon days when Elf was a character class and you rolled 3d6 down the line. This edition, despite seeing a major step back in the direction of DM as final arbiter and adjudicator, has actively shifted some of the narrative onus over onto the shoulders of the players. It’s still perfectly possible to build a classic D&D hero who’s only in it to bust down the dungeon door, stab an orc, and take his gold and magic items. But reading through the Player’s Handbook makes it pretty clear that this is not the default assumption.
Nowadays, there’s a lot more emphasis on narrative over the explicitly game-y aspects of the system. You might have a group who still jumps at the mention of a dungeon in the wilderness, straps on their packs and swords, and heads into the face of danger for riches and renown. But you might find yourself faced with some blank looks and even a “but why?” What’s their motivation, right? Now, I’ve always been a method-actor kind of gamer; I do the voices, and I try to handle things as my character would. But this novice DM was the first one to really take the bond that I’d put down on my sheet and make me feel it.
See, I’d written down that my priorities would always be as follows: “Family, Clan, Dwarves, Everyone Else.” And when he’d described how the dwarven outpost had simply gone mad, descended into chaos and bloodshed for no apparent reason, and then stuck a survivor in front of me–showing me that perhaps others who hadn’t caught whatever kind of crazy might still be out there–I really didn’t have a lot of choice as to what Torbik was going to do. I mean, I did. He didn’t push or anything. There was no big “but thou must” flashing above the broad road leading upward to Oriole. There was just a quiet little side road that tugged at my poor dwarf’s heart-strings.
That’s what a bond is. No matter how big and important you get, no matter how far from your roots you drift, and no matter how your situation in the world seems to change, you still love the things you love. Your ranger might still hold an affinity for that pack of wolves that she ran with for years. Your wizard might still recall with fondness his time spent at his old alma mater. The rogue might still have an antagonistic friendship with that crooked fence who always haggled them down, but never let them starve. And when your character hears about these people and places, there’s a reaction. If the news is good, there’s a little part of the character (and you as the player, I’d wager) that is happy to hear that they’re doing well. And if the news isn’t good, then there’s a part of you that wants to fix that.
But we can’t always. Your bond can put a face on the people we sometimes have to let down when too much is at stake.
But we’ll talk about flaws some other time.
What Makes a Good Bond?
Bonds aren’t made in a vacuum. They have to be worked out with your DM, first and foremost. I know all too well the allure of the randomly rolled table-style result that you can get from your background. I know that it’s easier to just scribble something down and figure it out later, or keep it in your back pocket for when the DM throws out a vague hook. “Oh, yeah. I’m sure Ol’ One-Eye that I used to run with probably knows something about that.” Who? “My bond. Y’know. This thing? He knows, right?” Resist the temptation.
Instead, give some thought as to what part of the world interests you as a player. Make your bond something that hinges on that. If you’re interested in maybe having adventures related to a Thieves Guild, it’d be great to have a bond connected to some of those folks. It’s an easy trick, have bonds to the kind of content you want in your game. Everyone having a fleshed out bond is like handing the DM a palette loaded with the kind of local color everyone is interested in, and they’re free to take it from there!
The other side of that is a narratively interesting bond. Sure, maybe your Dwarf is a stodgy, ornery little cuss that doesn’t care for most people, but maybe he’s unlike most of his half-pint brethren. Maybe he’s indebted to an elven hunter who got him out of a bind with an owlbear way back when. Maybe your Rogue is a criminal informant for the city watch. These kinds of bonds do two things: they differentiate your character from the other characters that may share their race and class combination, and they bring some pre-baked friction to the table. A Dwarf who sheds that Tolkien cliché of the Dwarf who hates elves, or a Rogue being pulled between his criminal buddies and the city watch? That makes for an interesting character, and a ready-made personal arc.
Lastly, bonds can be powerful tools for building your party. I’ve heard the question bandied around since the dark ages of the hobby, “How can I make sure that my party doesn’t just split up as soon as they’re out of danger?” Well, if you’re lucky enough to start off with a party that wants to be established adventurers, you can emphasize their shared history with interparty bonds. “The Fighter is my childhood friend. He kept the bigger kids off my back, and I helped him with his chores. I’d follow him anywhere.” Ooh. That shared backstory can make for some great roleplaying, and a strong motivation to stick together when the chips are down. “I’m convinced that the Wizard is my protégé, and I intend to teach him everything I know.” Is that a hilarious bond for a Sorcerer–or Barbarian? Sure. Is it going to spur some interparty role-play? You better believe it.
So don’t let your bond be a footnote that goes unconsidered or unfinished. It’s your most powerful tool as a player to tell the DM how your character is invested in their world. And as a DM, be sure to consider you characters’ bonds as valuable fodder for adventures. It’s a neat and easy way to avoid a bad case of the “So What.” When your players give you a knife, it’s rude not to twist it.