On this battlefield, no one wins

In a few weeks, I will be engaged in playing a game wherein, due to a lack of time and players with compatible schedules, the GM and I have decided to employ a variant of troupe-style play that I haven’t really had to use since I was first introduced to gaming (which was just after the dawn of creation), and we simply didn’t know anyone else who gamed. The method in question is the ‘multiple characters per player’ method. While not my preferred mode of gaming it is 794 times better than not gaming at all, as I am sure you will all agree.

At this juncture, I am unsure if the troupe of characters in question (Yesterwald, Cohan, and Ryarrll Tanner) will typically be operating together, or if they will be used in different scenes.  As this is on my mind, I thought it might be a good time to write something about the different types of troupe style play.

All for one, and one for all:

In this form of troupe-style play, the task of providing characterization to multiple roles in the group falls on a single player’s shoulders. This in itself has two variants: the single-player variant, and the multiple-player variant. In my experience, this form of play is typically only conducted when there is a shortage of players, or when the demands of a scenario dictate a group larger than the number of players (which is really the same thing, when you think about it).

If this style of play has a weakness in my eyes, it rests almost entirely in the difficulty of making the characters distinct, and the practical limitations of holding conversations with yourself. By lack of other options, all in-party decisions, which normally are the very meat and drink of a group’s interaction and roleplay, are relegated to out-of-character, meta-game decisions. Even interaction with NPCs is hampered as the speaker must constantly be indicated. While this can be handled by some sort of non-verbal signal, it still adds a layer of distraction to what should be a fairly immersive experience in the game.

The strengths are obvious, I suppose, but I shall write of them anyway. First, one gets to play when one would otherwise not be able to do so. Additionally, party cohesion and teamwork rises to an all-time high when one or few people control the group. While watching the movie Expendables this past weekend, I found much of the interaction between characters to mirror my experience of a typical game group. While ostensibly, each player wants the same thing, not everyone in the group will see the way the scenario is unfolding the same way, and will certainly have differing preferences for how to obtain whatever it is the group is seeking, and will play accordingly. Being a one-man band solves the problem nicely, if not altogether satisfactorily from a roleplayer’s perspective.  Old bugbears like “My character wouldn’t do/know that,” and “Let’s split up!” suddenly cease to be problems… but the silence is deafening.

Variety is the spice of life:

Troupe style play occasionally crops up due to a lack of decisiveness on the part of a player as to character. This tends to be temporary, lasting until the player inevitably comes to favor one of the characters, and thereby resolves their dilemma.

Many of the early attempts at bringing the RPG experience to computer gaming provided a troupe-style experience, giving you control of a party of adventurers, via turn-based action, and even though those games were a solo experience, that approach connects more seamlessly to the fabric of what I hope to weave in this section. I am sorry that I did not warn you that a needlessly over-wrought metaphor was… (wait for it)… looming.

The use of multiple characters allows for an expansion of experience and utility, broadens opportunities for action and interaction within the setting, and greater immediate variety for the players. As such it is useful for those new to gaming, new to a genre or setting, or for those who have limited amounts of time to spend, but whose minds are full to capacity with creative ideas that are all seeking expression at once.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:

The next advantage – to be blunt – is that this style helps to mitigate the problem of death and dismemberment, not to mention the niggling problem of insanity.  As has already been touched on in my posts about Generation Games, a great way to ensure continuity, allow for a real sense of scale and time, and insure against the premature end of a beloved series, is to encourage players to build multiple characters and get each of them involved to varying extents. Furthermore, I feel it is important and helpful to have them take on additional minor roles throughout the life of the campaign; particularly recurring roles.

To my mind, a key point of narrative control that is being missed in the current debates concerning it, is not about ‘allowing’ or ’empowering’ characters to dictate or alter setting matters, but rather to trust them to take on roles outside of their character and play them appropriately and faithfully.

Does one character in the group regularly speak to a secret contact, and share the information gleaned with the group? Why not have a player play the contact, then? Got a sudden encounter or combat on your hands and just one or two players are involved? Pass the responsibility of playing the other combatants on to players who would normally be side-lined and waiting. Not only does this result in a better challenge for the PC, and give something fun to do for those running the NPCs, it also provides another lively characterization for the campaign, and thereby another potential recruit for a player’s stable of regular characters. Perhaps that secret contact steps out of the shadows out of a sense of regret once the PC who frequented him, perishes as a result of a bad tip. Perhaps one of the nameless thugs in a street encounter, turns out to be truly impressed by the PC’s Kung fu and changes sides. Weirder things have happened.

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours:

In a variety of games where class or station might present limitations or obviate barriers, the use of multiple characters can prevent the player from being excluded from situations wherein their character may be unwelcome. It’s one thing to roleplay elements of discrimination, living them is another thing altogether.

This advantage of troupe style play is good for all, but perhaps somewhat more attractive for those who fully support the recent trends of risk-of-loss-reduction + character awesomeness enhancement. By having multiple characters available to each player, it becomes much easier to create and ensure scenes where each main character of each player has an opportunity to shine, with the support of each other player’s secondary characters. Through the simple tool of having each player have one major and one minor character, with each of the minor characters connected to another player’s major character by some social means (mentors, relatives, employer, etc) and the regular use of scenes wherein the focus shifts from one player’s major character to another, but no one is left inactive or unimportant, it does not take long before the group begins to address scenes and situations from the point of view of which characters should take prominence and how to get involved/be supportive. This is a huge plus in my book, and does not require special mechanics or rules.

The bugle sounds, the charge begins:

There may very well be more advantages to playing this way, and I am sure there are more disadvantages to it than I have presented, but this is all I am going to write about the subject today.

If you have something to add, for or against, or if you can identify why I named this entry as I did, please do not hesitate to add a comment below.

2 Responses to “On this battlefield, no one wins”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    I have to say, this is one of the aspects of gaming I never understood. Gaming was always a social situation, a team sport. Without the interaction, or with minimal interaction, it resorts to the kind of mathematical excercise that everyone seems to despise.
    I can see the advantage in some game systems that otherwise never seemed to work. Shadowrun for example could have a large group, but multiple characters who could keep everyone active on those long runs in a mainframe. Guess I’m an old fashioned monogamist. 🙂

    • Runeslinger says:

      “…Guess I’m an old-fashioned monogamist.”

      That is revenge for the Jung thing, isn’t it? 😉

      Our group has had just 2 players + GM for quite a while now, so it won’t be too much of an adaptation on our part. Ideally, once the thing gets rolling, we will be able to expand the roster of players.

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