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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You Are Not the Star

As we begin this post, I'd like to forewarn you of something: this is not suited for all styles of play, and that's okay. I by no means think that this post describes elements that you definitively need in order to enjoy an RPG session. With that said...

An Interesting Trend
I've noticed that in traditional fiction, especially fantasy, there's usually only ever one hero who stands out. It's Frodo who is the ring-bearer, Edward Elric who is the Fullmetal Alchemist, Luke Skywalker who is the destined savior of the Jedi, Buffy who is the Slayer, and that dual-wielding drow Drizzt who is the one and only exile of Menzobarranzen (and yes, I had to look that up...). This...well, it's not exactly how most RPG campaigns turn out.

In most RPG campaigns, everyone is special in some way or another. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has a role to play in the grand overarching story--but it's often an equal role, at least by default. Everyone wound up with that one destiny, or perhaps with separate destinies. Now, there's nothing wrong with that...

The Mark of Fate
...but what if there was a campaign where this wasn't the case? What if you ran a campaign where one character truly was the central character, where they had that special mark, or the destiny to rule the nation, or the hidden backstory with the Big Bad? What if you were in a campaign where most of the PCs were actually supporting characters? Well, that's a game that's rife with potential problems right at the start...

After all, what player would turn the spotlight 100% over to another player? It's not generally something that you want to do, right? After all, this is your character, and your character deserves plenty of chance to get a word in on how the story goes. Well...this is where the choice comes in.

You can choose for that not to be the case. What if, instead of approaching the game from the point of view of the character, you approached it from the point of view of the story? With this in mind, things evolve drastically. No longer are you scrambling to make your character in the image you desire. You're looking at the big picture, and how your character fits into it.

This requires a certain mindset and agreement from the players and the GM to work, though. You can't just out-and-out say "this is about the big picture, and not my character". You'll get trounced right out of the story by the other PCs. And that's not what you intended to happen. If everyone's on the same page, though, that lets plenty of things happen in the story. It can focus on one character, and also on the journey that has been given to that character. It becomes more cohesive. And in the end, you find something out...

You are not the star. The story is.

EDIT: An anonymous commenter had a very insightful bit to say on this topic. I'm putting it here for reference.

This shouldn't be a problem if you make certain your other PCs are like Wedge Antilles. Just because only one of the players will be running the character who will change history (or whatever) doesn't mean other characters are less important or capable. I'm reminded of the story of Cleitus the Black. Cleitus the Black saved the life of a man that would become one of the most famous men in history: Alexander the Great. Later he would fall under Alexander's spear. His fate was not to be a great leader of history, but does that mean Cleitus was historically unimportant?

10 comments:

  1. Dangerous ground to tread. It sounds to me like the story > players...or rather the GM's story over the players. Sounds like forcing the players into a story of the GM's making; the players are puppets (with some self-will) in a play the GM has devised. I suppose this could work if the story is a truly collaborative, narrative rpg experience, but if it run in the "traditional" style it sounds a lot like GM > players.

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  2. It is indeed dangerous ground. I should've mentioned too that it requires a specific maturity on the part of the GM, too. The GM should be perceptive to the wants and wishes of the players, but the GM is also the Game Master for a reason. They -are- in charge.

    Of course, the primary responsibility for ensuring that the players aren't forced into a story lies with the GM. That being said, I don't think it's a bad thing for the story to be of the GM's making. The problem lies when the GM orders the players to follow the story, rather than allowing them to follow it, since it's what they wanted anyway.

    The pluses of having a GM include having an individual who not only knows the world, but also knows the secrets and inner workings. Thus, the GM is capable of weaving the plot a lot tighter than the players are. It's the nature of the position.

    In a game like Burning Wheel, the role of the GM changes drastically, of course, because secrecy is seen as a bad thing, and it's heavily slanted towards cooperative storytelling. Here, I'm thinking more of traditional gaming.

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  3. This shouldn't be a problem if you make certain your other PCs are like Wedge Antilles. Just because only one of the players will be running the character who will change history (or whatever) doesn't mean other characters are less important or capable. I'm reminded of the story of Cleitus the Black. Cleitus the Black saved the life of a man that would become one of the most famous men in history: Alexander the Great. Later he would fall under Alexander's spear. His fate was not to be a great leader of history, but does that mean Cleitus was historically unimportant?

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  4. Wedge Antilles. I like that. In fact, I'll quote that at the end of this post.

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  5. I've seen this work well in similar, but not exactly the same as you mention here, contexts in gaming.

    One example that I can think of right off the top of my head -- I played in a couple of Star Wars games where we were a military unit with a strict hierarchy and one player was the leader/officer. Other players had to suck up and take orders. It worked well -- as long as everyone was willing to play that style of game.

    Another example was the Buffy campaign I ran once upon a time... I mean, everyone is important, but only one of them is the Slayer, right? This one was a lot of fun because the PCs enjoyed taking on the role of "lesser" white hats and supporting their big, buff hero. Of course, that game was campy teen tragedy...

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  6. I definitely think that players being up for this type of game is a must-have, and I think it could be cool. I didn't think of a military-style game with a commanding officer. That's cool. (I didn't think to add in a Buffy reference, that's a good example too)

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  7. The heart of an RPG is informed player decisions. Random choices won't do, and neither will being told what to do. In my opinion that's the primary problem with having an player character officer. After all, if Player A is telling Players B & C what to do, why do Players B & C even have to be there? Couldn't NPCs follow orders just as easily?

    The PC leader / follower arrangement must be implemented in a way that the leader can issue orders (and be responsible for them) without the followers being cut out of the action. I was thinking upon this recently and came to a possible solution:

    Allow the player running the Leader PC to forgo his/her action in exchange for issuing an order to another- PC but allow the Leader to take his/her action anytime during the round. If the Player decides to follow the order, his/her PC can take immediate action to carry out that order even if the PC had already acted that round and without forfeiting that round's action if the PC had yet to act.

    This would enhance the Leader's value to the team by allowing the Captain to make leadership decisions without diluting the other player's contribution to the scene.

    Of course, it also makes the PC team more powerful than the NPC team. But there's always more Stormtroopers where those came from- right?

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  8. @ Anon...

    And that's the difference between some player groups I suppose. When it comes to allowing one player to take on greater responsibility/leadership of the party, if the other players are interested and want to explore that type of game, no "mechanics" are needed at all.

    I mean, you basically described what the Warlord class does in 4E D&D. Which is fine -- and a lot of fun to play -- but what I was getting at was that players may enjoy experiencing the different roles and still have a good time.

    Look at any military drama on TV. Star Trek is a great example. The Captain is the leader -- and clearly the "Main Focus PC" -- but everyone has episodes devoted to them, is a part of the team, and still makes important decisions of their own.

    Look at Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang is clearly the main character, with the destiny, and the most powerful bender in the world -- he also has two amazing "pets." His supporting characters though, if played as PCs are just as interesting and just as much fun to play -- if not mechanically as powerful.

    Also, if you want to check out some interesting Leader-style mechanics in a rules-lite style, take a look at Dogs of War RPG. Leaders have a very interesting "off-camera" mechanic that has an affect on team missions.

    Just something to think about.

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  9. In Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader, one of the characters is a super rich captain of the space ship while the rest of the characters are his or her underlings. However, the game balances this remarkably well. The Rogue Trader is the face character, with Fellowship-based skills, and proficiency with small arms, as well as a leadership ability that gives a +10 bonus to his/her ally's rolls as a free action.

    While the Rogue Trader does give orders and is the leader, he or she is not an incredibly effective character at anything except leadership and face time. The other characters all have better guns or magic, while the Rogue Trader has pistols, and won't conceivably have anything BUT pistols until Rank 4 – a long ways off.

    As well, the Rogue Trader has to know when to delegate command to someone else's expertise – the navigator certainly knows more of the perils of the warp than the Rogue Trader, so only a foolish Trader would try to boss around the navigator when it comes to space. The Explorator knows more about machines and the Arch-Militant about combat tactics.

    I think this is a good way to look at leadership in the game. Make sure the leader has a focused specialty (in the Trader's case, he/she has money, owns the ship and is charismatic) that doesn't conflict with others. The Leader is going to have to delegate and take a backseat to characters who know better in other situations. Unless the leader is a total Mary Sue.

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  10. Cool. Another interesting thing to consider is that in a military position, a leader may very well be more skilled than his comrades...but at the same time, is incapable of fighting things out solo. A good leader depends on his squad.

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