Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Ensemble Cast Of Characters In RPGs

What if you're not just a one-character kind of guy (or girl, if any of you mythical female gamers are reading)? The role-playing hobby teaches us that we should create a character and hold on to it, pouring ourselves into that stat sheet and working hard toward achieving that character's hopes, dreams, and goals. We become incredibly attached to these fictional people because, most of the time, they are reflections on ourselves.

However, in my greater effort to personally examine individual trends, mechanics, and stations in hobby gaming that we all take for granted, I have begun to ask myself whether or not it's best that we all play only a single player in a game from session to session. That's how it has "always been," but that's never a good reason to keep on doing something if it's the only reason. What if it were more important to the game that you challenged yourself to play new types of characters, take up different roles within the group, or simply to pick up a stat sheet for a session that is better suited to that particular adventure or mission than your standard character?

Let's talk about it. Read on for more.

I think that there are a few ways one could go about this, each of them valid. Personally, I have only been in games where I played multiple characters during transition periods where I was moving from one character to another within the same continuing story arc. I've known others that played multiple characters simply because there weren't that many players, and they needed to beef up the party.

Multiple player draft

A particularly interesting method for playing multiple characters comes from Jason Marker of Motor City Gamewerks. He played in a Battlestar Galactica game, based on some ruleset that I can't recall at the moment, in which each player had three different characters.

Character creation occurred like so. Each player made three characters, then selected one to play. The extras were then thrown into the pot and then drafted, so that each player had a primary personally-created character, and then two others that were written by other players. These were the three characters assigned to each player, and they ranged from the Captain of the Battlestar down to lowly grunts in the engine room, from security forces to civilian politicians.

This provided a few major benefits that I see. First, it allowed the game to be massive in scope, spanning every department of every ship in the fleet. Whether the game session called for the Viper pilots to be deployed against Cylon Raiders, or for politicking from the bridge, black ops aboard civilian ships using Marines, or disaster in the engine room, there were player characters present. Players simply picked up their relevant parts whenever the scene change called for it.

Second, it flexed everyone's role-playing muscles. I hesitate to classify gamers as "beginners" or "advanced," but I might as well in this case; these are all advanced role-players. They've played for years and are not interested in the petty thrills of blasting things with a Boom Gun or seducing NPCs in the village watering hole or flinging a lightsaber around. They're in it to build a compelling story and to challenge themselves with new characters. Playing a character that was written by someone else, particularly multiple characters written by other people, is one sure way to do that.

Finally, everyone knew up front that this game would ultimately prove to be very deadly. This isn't Rifts where player characters hold a substantial margin of advantage over every opponent, or D&D where healed wounds and even resurrection are simply a spell and some component costs away; incidentally, those types of games are just fine and fun and dandy. Here, death is the eventuality which most of the characters would most likely face, and all of the players knew it. Having multiple characters would ensure that everyone could keep playing without having to introduce a new cast member and find a reason for that person to be significant in the middle of the game.

Talent pool

If the characters in your campaign number from five to ten, then chances are there arise a number of situations where that makeup of a team isn't ideal, and the ability to switch out some talent becomes a solid proposition. I think about the old Mission Impossible television show, where, as opposed to the A-Team or some other such espionage-ish type of series, the cast always changed. With the exception of the main character, Ethan Hunt, the team was always built to suit the mission. You had characters that repeated, of course, but the needs of every week's episode were never the same, so Ethan's crew always changed, as well.

We see this in computer-based RPGs all the time, and against almost always with the one central character and interchangeable sidekicks. Whether Marvel Ultimate Alliance or Knights of the Old Republic or Final Fantasy, this is a formula that existed for years and years, but has never really been widely adopted by the tabletop hobby.

It wouldn't work in every campaign, obviously. If you had an ongoing story arc where one session ended with the characters camping and then the next week you opened with the start of the characters' next day, then you can't very well have people dropping in and out. Also, you couldn't very well have one character that was the star and everyone else only a support player; all characters would need to be equally disposable. However, if your game is somewhat mission-oriented, where like a CSI episode every gaming session is wrapped up with all loose ends tied and the mystery solved, then why not bring people in and out? This how this could benefit for a gaming group with unstable player membership as well, where work or kids or old-fashioned flake-outs changed the dynamic from week to week? The Game Master could easily roll with it, as no key member of the party would ever be missing, because there is no "key" member of the party, only a collection of parts.

In this situation you would need to come up with a system for doling out experience points in such a way that progressed characters, as well as rewarded players. My first inclination would be to award experience points to characters as normal, allowing the last player to take on the role to spend them as he or she sees fit, but also give that precious XP to the player. The player could then stockpile those points to either upgrade one of the cast members at a later time, or else to create a new character to add to the pool.

Think about a G.I. Joe or Transformers or Star Wars or Star Trek RPG using this sort of system! Now that would be a fun, fun time.

And more

I have some other ideas, but I'm sure you do as well. What are your experiences with using multiple characters? Tell us your triumphs and horror stories, along with any other comments, below.


A.L. said...

The only time I played multiple characters (aside from online) was very early in my career where there were only 2 players so each of us had 2 PCs for the game to make a full team. It worked out decently well, but it was just a three player game.

I like the idea of assigning NPCs to players to handle, and I've done it on occasion to great effect in some of my hero games. Unable to focus on the adventure AND give the player that nagging fight with his mom, I asked another player to RP the mom and it worked amazing. I then started doing it more and more, bringing the other players into the mix on personal scenes where they would drop their character, and take up a family member or friend of the other character.

I've also been toying with the idea of doing some B-Team adventures in a game I'm running. Everyone gets a different, lower powered, character and gets to see the story from a different perspective for a session or two. Use it to really hammer home how bad things have gotten.

Aside from that though, there is a game with this concept in it just waiting to be made (if it already isn't). A number of them in fact. It may be worth looking into too.

Lurkinggherkin said...

You have, more or less, described my campaign.

Multiple parties. Frequent line-up changes with characters switching between parties or sometimes just resting or working on pet projects like stronghold building or item creation. Every player has around 4 different characters of varying levels involved in the campaign.

We have a distinct lack of obsession with party optimisation - in-game dynamics drives party lineups more than 'we need an X, a Y and a Z' (that's not to say it never happens that way, but someone putting a team together has to make do with who they can get hold of).

Occasionally (though not frequently), players wind up running NPCs for a while because none of their characters are in situ where the action is happening. I usually make sure the NPC I am handing them is an interesting one with a distinctive persona and/or some skills or abilities that the player may not have had a chance to use with their regular PCs, so they are not just filler - there's a definite enjoyment factor in it for them.

I manage all this complexity (and it is a headache sometimes, admittedly) using my trusty timeline (patent pending ;-))

rologutwein said...

I only rarely used the multiple character thing. Once in a D&D campaign because there were a limited number of players. Here, they each controlled two (or so) in order to fill out a party.

In a homebrew mini-campaign of "Aliens" I created an entire squad of Marines and let the players each choose 2-3 of them to run. The thought here was that there would be some character loss due to combat. As it turned out, they only lost a couple folks in the whole campaign—mostly because (like most PCs) they really avoid all the "lets split up" mistakes folks in horror movies typically make. This is a bit off topic, but it was amusing. When faced with the situation of an entire colony of several hundred who may or may not be infected (and with a few Aliens running around loose), the Marines set up a perimeter outside of the settlement and told the colonists. "If you want off this rock, you come to us, we process you, then we go". Meanwhile, they had automated guns set up, range stakes out, mines planted, etc. Taking NO chances and NOT wanting to get into a fire fight in the confines of a base. Damn PCs. Ruining my fun. ;)

WildWalker said...

I played an Athas (D&D Dark Sun) game with multiple players and I really liked it. I'd set it up that way again in a heartbeat if I got the right group. Also after playing with my last GM i really got over the whole issue of players dropping in and out. In her game if you were there, your charcter was there, if your were not...the universe treated you like you'd never been...until you came back. Good times...

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