I have been a player in a D&D campaign (5e) for a bit now and having a fun time role playing, something I feel like I don’t do nearly enough. Recently our group experienced something that I believe is crucial for every live-action role playing party to go through: The Bonfire of Friendship.
Now I’m pretty sure this phrase is made up, but I would bet that people who have played table-top RPGs know the concept I’m talking about. Every non-virtual fantasy RPG adventure has a few of these tropes: The Party Has a Barfight! Defend the Caravan. The Priest is Really a Demon. The Cellar Has Giant Rats. All of these are familiar ideas and The Bonfire of Friendship is no different. It is when the party gets a breather from some harrowing quest or activity, usually in a very safe location where every character feels at least semi-comfortable. During this breather (usually around the eponymous bonfire), the group tells stories, histories, and motivations for their membership in the aforementioned group. For me, this is a great time to align everyone and focus the intentions of the party, especially in heavy role-playing groups in which the players may be willing to work together (obviously), but the characters may be at odds (because they are good role players). This bonding could be due to two reasons (or maybe more, but here are two):
One: In adventures there is rarely down time and the backstory of each player may not ever develop naturally. In fact, in D&D I feel like each leg of the journey tends to have some character who is little more invested than the others. Helping a group of farmers caters to the druid, roughing up some gangs favors the rogue, speaking to nobility lets the wizard or bard shine. Having a consolidated story time for the players helps explain the “why” of it all to each other. While it may be easy for some to suspend belief in a fantasy game, sometimes it is important to really figure out why the wizard who doesn’t want people to know he is a wizard is hanging out with the half-orc barbarian and her entourage of green-skinned allies searching for a McGuffin. I believe this is especially true in lower level parties before the value of the group becomes reflexive, wherein the group works together because it has always worked in the past. So naturally people are trying to create closure, which in this case is the act of filling in gaps that may appear in the narrative by using a set of norms. The norm here being that it’s good to know who you’re traveling with if everyone is allowed to use deadly force. The group wants this closure, as it makes their perceptions of the situation easier to interpret.
Two: People like bonfires in real life. I’m sitting on my back porch right now trying to figure out when would be the best time to get a chiminea going. There is something calming and mysterious about fire, a feeling which I’m sure could be addressed more poetically by our early hominid ancestors than I ever could. But there is no denying the uniting power of fire in the course of human history. It makes sense that something that has the potential to bring us together us in meat space could serve as the exact same touchstone in the game. That’s what makes it a trope, people do it all the time. At the risk of using an appeal to tradition, if so many people have done it for so many years, there just might be something special about fire. Just imagine right now: beach bonfires, chilly October fire pits, S’Mores, I mean really, fires are just great.
There are, of course, the practical uses of fire as well. It provides warmth, cooks food, and destroys darkness. I cannot think of a time when I shared a fire with an enemy of mine, in real life or otherwise. You know the people around a fire and dare I say, trust them. It is a symbolic marker of comfort and adventure. A respite in the otherwise dreadful world that is still dangerous and at times untamable. Fire is both constant and ephemeral. Heck, if you want an incredibly extreme example of this, look at the importance of bonfires in the Dark Souls series where players have suggested that fire is intertwined with humanity itself (spoilers?).
Regardless of why fire is important, it was a good session and it was neat to see everyone finally settling into more or less an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie despite differences in goals, opinions, and morals. Sometimes all it takes is a concept that is potentially instinctual in every human to get people to open up to one another, even if it may seem like rote role-playing. It’s a trope for a reason.