Welcome back to the second in a series of articles designed to look at how sci fi and fantasy TV series can prove useful for writing roleplays (read part 1 here). In this article, I’m going to focus on what we can learn from the way TV shows manage large casts of characters when running adventures with our players.
Some TV shows, such as Dr. Who, focus on a single character, with anyone else who’s on the scene playing a supporting role (even if they are the ones who get to solve the plot). Some, such as Game of Thrones, have a cast of characters so large that they can’t all hope to fit into one episode (you could argue that Game of Thrones would need several roleplaying groups running under the same banner, with the ability to cross over with one another for key events). There are a large number of sci fi and fantasy shows that have groups of protagonists numbering from three up to fourteen or fifteen (maybe even slightly more) that can give us a fantastic model for how to run a roleplaying group, and some that can give us a great example of what not to do.
Moments in the Spotlight
The first major piece of advice I would give to any new GM for play by post and play by email rpgs is that attempting to run an entire mission with fifteen people all in the same scene will have a detrimental effect on your mental health. So many characters in one scene are likely to cause chaos, give everyone a headache as they try frantically to respond to a post before someone else moves, and then eventually choke under the weight of so many players. You may even lose a few people along the way.
The main thing that all roleplayers want, whether or not they shout about it, is a chance to shine a spotlight on their character. This can either be because they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them or developing them or because they, as players, want a chance to take a turn and do something cool. It’s rewarding when either one of those things happens, so that needs to be taken into consideration when you’re running a mission. Break up your group into smaller teams and give them all a clear purpose. You might not be able to give every single player a starring role within a scene on a silver platter, but you can give them a chance to make something of their situation. Do you have a player who enjoys writing action scenes? Throw them into the middle of an ambush. You can drop in your medic who enjoys writing their character bustling about trying to save people out in the field, as well as your newbie who’s been penning a nervous, gunshy recruit. Straight away, each of those writers has a chance to play to their strength and show their character in the light they’ve been trying to portray them. Success!
How Far Should You Go?
The answer is as far as you can without compromising other characters’ ability to enjoy themselves. It can be difficult to strike a balance (especially when you have new players that you don’t know yet), but TV can provide us with great examples of the kind of dynamic you want to avoid.
Shows like Doctor Who and The Flash have a dynamic where one main character is backed up by a team of other characters. This is fantastic for the TV medium where the actors are getting paid to bring their characters to life and they sign on with the knowledge that only one of them is going to be playing the title role. There are examples of both shows where their entire team of support characters take the lead and the hero has to take a back seat but there’s no escaping the fact that The Doctor gets to be the one who waves the sonic screwdriver or Barry Allen is the only one who can run fast enough to create the cyclone that puts out the fire. In RPG terms, this would leave most of your players feeling marginalised and wondering when they get to be the big star, so avoid it at all costs!
A great way of making sure everyone has something to do during your mission is put yourself in their shoes. If you’re running a Killjoys adventure and you have six bounty hunters working on the same warrant to bring in the same unsuspecting civilian, you’re probably going to find your players banging heads with each other. On the other hand, if they’ve been tasked with bringing in the corrupt head of a massive, well-resourced corporation like the Company, you may find that they’ll have to divide into two groups of three and run a split strategy, each group taking care of a different objective until they reach the final showdown. This set-up also allows for plot twists along the way that might delay one of the groups of players or give them an opportunity for their own showdown with a sub-boss that you’ve left lying in wait for them. It’s all about opening doors and tweaking your adventure to fit the characters that you have in your group.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Variety is the spice of life, and it’s certainly the spice of roleplaying. Dividing your writers into two or three groups and giving them clear objectives will work in every mission that you run. Sometimes your players will really latch onto the task they get given and others they will connect with it less than you thought they might, but they’re right there in the teams you made, ready to accept a new plot twist that will change things up for them and light the spark of enthusiasm.
There are a couple of other things that you might want to try from time to time. TV shows with a large cast of regular characters need a way of giving individual characters some time to develop, so they do give them the chance to be the superstar for one week. However, if you look at that closely, what’s usually happening is that there are two plots running alongside each other, and the “main” character is not alone. Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica provides us with a great example here – Helo remains behind on Earth after the human population of the twelve colonies flee the Cylon attack. The rest of the crew runs multiple missions without him but he has the opportunity to interact with Boomer, as well as Caprica Six and a host of other characters. In the setting of an RPG, Helo’s writer would have had plenty to engage them and the characters he was interacting with would also have the chance to impact his story. Back on the ship, the rest of the crew would be running their missions as usual, all the while speculating behind the scenes as to how Helo’s mission was eventually going to tie in with their own!
Your other option is more risky but can be rewarding when you have a solid group of writers with the ability to drive others into action. This time, I’m going to cheat a little and go generic (and also shamelessly call on something from outside our chosen genres in the form of Robinson Crusoe). The chances are that unless you’re piloting an entire group of rookies, many of your characters will have ongoing subplots that they’re looking to sneak in between adventures in short bursts, or that are surfacing from time to time as inserts in the middle of an adventure itself. Your players have a chance to use their imagination with them and they’ve probably already decided to bring a couple of other characters into that story. So throw them into a desert island situation – remove the external influences and budget some time to “officially” make things a bit more free form. Of course, you’ll still want a loose plotline so that people don’t feel like they’ve been completely cut adrift, but give them time and space where they have to interact with each other – it could be that the entire group is trapped are trapped in pocket dimensions, or they’re stranded in the past with no obvious chance of escape. It could be that the ship is stuck in a spatial anomaly, or a spell has convinced them all that they’re not really mighty warriors, but simple townsfolk, caught up in the politics of electing their next leader. Be creative, give your players something unique to react to, but make it clear that this is their chance to bring their subplots to the forefront. And always be ready to fold in anyone who seems to be on the outside of the action – don’t let it get cliquey!
Share and Share Alike
Whatever kind of adventure you decide to run, the key to keeping your writers happy is giving them all an equal chance at the spotlight. Always ask yourself – if I was playing this character, would I know how to get involved? What could I do that I would class as cool? And if you’re unsure of how to answer either of those questions then it’s time to shift your groups around a little! The more each member of your crew feels that their contributions to a plot matter, the happier they will be and the more likely they will be to take the initiative with their posts and steer the plot to places that provide opportunities for others to shine. RPGing is a team sport, after all!
This article was written for us by Diego Herrera from the Star Trek game Outpost Eden.