Keeping players together when their protagonists diverge

edited December 2006 in Play Advice

Suppose you have a set up with a GM and several PCs, each with some interesting situations set up related to their characters' interests. Let's say:

  • Michael is playing Mihail, a swordslinger whose discovered he's been infected with a demonic disease from a rival.
  • Ellen is playing Elian, a middle-aged rogue whose gambling debts have just been called in.
  • Drew is playing Dura, a younger swordslinger and Mihail's rival, whose loyalty to the Guild has been recently questioned.
  • Sara is playing Seyn, a mage who's ex-wife has recently reappeared in the City.

They're stories may be stitched together, but there are lots of threads in each character's story where the interesting stuff is happening separate from the other PCs. The question is: how do we keep all the players at the table engaged in each others stories when their own characters are not in play?

The simplest (and perhaps most common?) option is to simply take turns: the GM does a scene with usually just one PC, and the others non-active characters watch and enjoy the story unfolding. This still consigns those players to creative inactivity, however. They can agree to politely enjoy and wait their turn - but isn't there some way to squeeze more fun into their four hours?

The Polaris option is to distribute authority and key NPCs: when a player doesn't have the protagonist-spotlight, they have a realm of some other fun ways to throw things into the story. This is a promising option, but suppose we have a player like Drew: he has a real strong affinity for playing the game through his character, but he doesn't like the freewheeling open-endedness of Director stance and GM-like roles.

There's Fan Mail: there's a common resource you can assign to other players, and thus effect the flow of play even if you're not in the scene yourself. That's an awesome mechanic, but that sort of fun (using rewards with others to help shape the story) is different from the sort of fun you get from pursuing your own character.

What other ways - in terms of rules, but also prep and socials - can we make this situation work? (Mess with the sample players/characters as necessary!)

Comments

  • a) De-emphasize NPCs. I've done this lately. Program the setting so that if anything big is happening to the PCs, it's either too big a deal for any prominent NPC to influence or too small a deal for any prominent NPC to bother with.

    b) i) What about a reward mechanism that will reward the currently spotlighted player for bringing the other players into their spotlight scene? i.e. During her collection scene, Ellen gets a bonus for saying that Mihail is the heavy who comes to collect her debts, or that Mihael shows up at the right time to witness and/or intervene in the collection.

    b) ii) Or you could just reward the introduction of story factors that draw in the other PCs -- perhaps Michael gets a reward for narrating that Mihail believes that Dura is responsible for his poisoning, even if that doesn't create a scene with Mihail and Dura right away.
  • Most importantly, encourage player kibitzing at all times. "Hey! It would be really awesome if you..." Some game texts suggest that if your character isn't present for the scene, or is otherwise incommunicado, you shouldn't be able to give suggestions to the other players. This is just evil; it encourages non-participation. It might help if you think of every player collectively contributing to spotlighted character's actions at all times, and the actual "owner" of the character just gets the final say.

    If you get out of the rut of assuming that characters can only "realistically" influence the action if they're physically present, you can open up the possibility of characters abstractly applying their "skills" or whatever to the current scene even if they're not there. Say Roger the Thug is alone in the woods trying to survive... and "remembers" that one time Mischa the Ranger found these dark red edible berries. (Here, Mischa's player offers his wilderness survival skill to Roger, even though Mischa is off somewhere else.)
  • Posted By: DevPThe Polaris option is to distribute authority and key NPCs: when a player doesn't have the protagonist-spotlight, they have a realm of some other fun ways to throw things into the story. This is a promising option, but suppose we have a player like Drew: he has a real strong affinity for playing the game through his character, but he doesn't like the freewheeling open-endedness of Director stance and GM-like roles.
    There's also the Nobilis flavor of this, where the GM says, "Drew, why don't you play Darrg, the Orc enforcer bent on collecting Elian's debt." Which isn't so Director-y. There is a turn of mind that I've seen, on the other hand, that dislikes anything not of single, in-character stance. In other words, taking on roles outside of your PC is un-fun. Players unwilling to shift to another character for single scenes might be very difficult indeed to involve, since my experience is that they're also not keen on an audience stance.
  • edited December 2006
    Posted By: DevPThey're stories may be stitched together, but there are lots of threads in each character's story where the interesting stuff is happening separate from the other PCs. The question is:how do we keep all theplayersat the table engaged in each others stories when their own characters are not in play?

    What other ways - in terms of rules, but also prep and socials - can we make this situation work? (Mess with the sample players/characters as necessary!)

    Well, note that you're presuming from the start that the other PCs are not in play. There are a lot of techniques for bringing the other PCs into play. Some have been mentioned above, but I think a better technique is to design from the setup ways to keep the PCs together.

    If you're going to have PCs alone in play a lot, then I'd say you should have players who are comfortable with Director-stance actions and/or playing temporary other characters. (i.e. the Polaris or PtA options).

    Though, one alternative is to have simultaneous action. That is, one PC does one thing while other PCs do other things. Other players can also have conversations in-character without a GM. A common feature of our Amber campaign was to have a trump call between two or more PCs going on at the same time as another PC was doing something. You can also try running with two GMs.
  • John's got the right of it. If you don't want to split people up, don't design a game where you split them up. It ain't rocket science.

    I like the other suggestions/classifications, though...keep em comin'.
  • What other ways - in terms of rules, but also prep and socials - can we make this situation work?

    My Life with Master players remain interested in each other's scenes because they all share the same antagonist, who they each had a hand in creating. And because they shared and took suggestions from each other in creating characters, so they're invested in seeing how their suggestions play out. And also because the cast of significant NPCs and foils is shared across all of their storylines.

    Theatrix lets players assume control of existing NPCs or invent new NPCs to play when their personal characters aren't part of a scene.

    Paul
  • MoMo
    edited December 2006
    Brand ran a year and a half long campaign where the three PC's were very very rarely involved in each other's scenes. It was one of the bitchinest games I've ever had the privilege of playing. Here's a few of his techniques:

    Ensure that the impact of each PC's actions are magnanimous enough that they are felt halfway across the world. Very protagonizing and deeply involving to see how what you have done has changed the world so far away. Sometimes the effects of one character's actions would come to bear on the other PC ("You are allied with a menace, and unless you revoke your allegiance to her, we shall have blood feud!!") sometimes the payout of one PC's efforts would be realized in another person's scene (PC 1 had been, as a side-plot, working on helping a demographic of the population rise up and regain their lost power, and several episodes later, when PC2 is on the scene, the efforts of PC 1 payoff and the group become unexpected allies).

    And opposite johnzo's advice: emphasize the NPC's. Provide NPC's that will become critical to the PC's... love interests, sworn allies, rivals, enemies, rogues and rakes alike, and once the PC's have made emotionally connected ties (love or hate!) with them, involve the NPC characters in the other PC's scenes. The sworn ally of PC1 will pledge his life to the cause of PC2 because he knows it's what PC1 is looking to accomplish, The lover of PC2 is threatened or propositioned in PC3's scene, and PC2 gets to see his true love risk her life to turn down the advances of a powerful man, and provide an emotionally connective and bonding scene as PC3 comes to her aid on his friend's behalf.

    Crossing scenes - PC1 would learn something in his scene that would be directly relevant for PC2's next scene, and would tie the two scenes, and players together.

    All the players had a big investment in the creation of the world we played in, and the area of the world that one created would be the focus of drama for another player's scene. PC2's warrior tribe would be threatened by PC3's arch-rival lord's armies in PC1's scene.

    The social contract was built very deliberately to support this kind of play. People talked a lot before and after game about how they felt about the things they were encountering, and what they were invested in, and about what they liked in each other's scenes. There was allowances for people who were not in the scene to talk to the player in play where they felt strongly about how things worked out. There was a lot of socially responsibility built into the game, and breaking to ask for input from the other players was encouraged and rewarded in the social system of the game.

    ETA: PS to Dev: your playtest report for C&P was made of awesome, unfortunately I left for vacation the day it was posted, as soon as I am home, I'll be responding. Promise.
  • Two additional things you could try would be to first ask your players what it would take for them to pay attention and stay engaged in what happens to someone else's character, even when they themselves aren't playing anyone in that particular scene (thereby either getting ideas from them that you can steal, or possibly just shaming them into making a better effort)...and then combine this with stripping away the most common distractions (keep pets out of the room; no magazine, videogames, or nearby TVs; ask players to please not read their mail or surf the web or fill out their tax returns, etc.).

    On their own neither of those options really solves anything (I know, I've tried :( ), but as part of a larger strategy they might be more effective.
  • edited January 2007
    I've started incorporating different techniques into my campaign (Norwegian-language campaign wiki here).

    Some techniques:

    Rue du Roi: While one PC is walking down Rue du Roi, the other players portray aspects of his subconscious. One plays his fears, the other his desires, the third his self-image. They control NPCs, events, weather etc. Great surrealistic scene.

    The dog wants...: One PC has a dog-like personality. The other players are given cards at the start of the session; each card has a bit of text starting with "The dog wants..." For example, "The dog wants to leave - this person is scary!", or "The dog wants to mate". The player has full control over his character, and may choose to follow the impulses, ignore them, or play against them.

    Text vs reality: One PC's life is recorded in a series of more than 40 books. He hasn't read them all; some detail the future. One day he reads a disturbing passage, about how he rapes a serving maid at a party. The PC later gets invited to such a party; he doesn't do anything at all, but the other players "read" (that is, improvise) passages from the text, detailing what the PC might do/have done in another reality. These passages are things the PC remembers reading.
  • Generally speaking, aren't all these techniques simply ways to keep a player playing when their protagonist isn't present?

    The problem isn't, to my mind, inherently about their protagonists not being present. It's the combination of that with any rules that say that they aren't allowed to participate through any channel but their protagonist. If you transform scenes where the protagonist isn't present from "Scenes I observe passively" to "Scenes where I play in a different way" then it's not hard to maintain engagement.
  • <blockquote><cite>Posted By: TonyLB</cite> If you transform scenes where the protagonist isn't present from "Scenes I observe passively" to "Scenes where I play in a different way" then it's not hard to maintain engagement.</blockquote>

    That's exactly right.
  • I've had experience with a game in which everyone was perfectly happy to not care about what other players were doing and enjoyed chitchatting, playing X-Box, and reading magazines when it wasn't "their turn". That doesn't happen all the time even with the same group, but I have seen it happen.
  • Yeah, Jason, I've seen that too. But striving to overcome boring players isn't really a valid technique. I mean, who gets up and walks away from a movie when their favorite character isn't onscreen?

  • who gets up and walks away from a movie when their favorite character isn't onscreen?

    This isn't actually that unusual with, like, serial TV dramas. With movies it's a little different because you are constrained by considering the rest of the theater audience, and it's a much higher expense/entertainment ratio.

  • Posted By: JDCorleyI've had experience with a game in which everyone was perfectly happy to not care about what other players were doing and enjoyed chitchatting, playing X-Box, and reading magazines when it wasn't "their turn". That doesn't happen all the time even with the same group, but I have seen it happen.
    Same here; actually, that's the default response. If protagonist (players character) is not there where things are happening, players usually leave the room on their own accord, since they don't want to witness what happens when "they" are not present. If they don't leave, they usually observe things passively. This is not the same thing as boredom (in my groups; don't know about other groups), more like voluntarily restricting the flow of information and retaining a sense of characters self. If the game allows, the player can play an NPC, though this presents some problems if the game is chararacter-centrict. The amount of time when characters are not present are usually kept in minimum, though, which sometimes is a bit tricky.
  • If people are walking away from the table, but that bothers others, then that's symptomatic of a lack of relevant stuff for them to enjoy or do, but it's also something that just needs to be mentioned upfront. (I've also seen groups be fine with parallel-play or wandering players, but I enjoy that less myself.) Let's assume that everyone is charitably at the table and paying attention to things when it's not their turn. They're just not having as much fun being a passive observer.

    I like the suggestions so far. The NPC one seems really good, except: GMing to me involves the use of a web of NPCs to keep providing interesting story material for the spotlight PC. If other players are taking on NPC roles, do you weaken the GM's ability to provide that? You either need to give the non-spotlight players smaller, more color-ish roles (perhaps like the various Crew each Captain has in Galactic), or you need to communicate what that player's objectives are in portraying the NPCs in a way that doesn't create too much overhead.
  • A permutation on sharing each player's NPCs: link each player to a single plot-magnet NPC, something like a Buffy or Commander Adama. Most characters will have some business with affecting the central NPC and thus affecting the other players. You can also use this NPC as a easy tool for stitching the PCs together in interesting situations. As long as it doesn't come off too forced (or Mary Sue-ish), then it should work.
  • Link each player to a single plot-magnet NPC

    City of Birds uses this strategy, doesn't it?

  • I can't recall, despite having read it...
  • Posted By: TonyLBThe problem isn't, to my mind, inherently about their protagonists not being present. It's the combination of that with any rules that say that they aren't allowed to participate through any channel but their protagonist. If you transform scenes where the protagonist isn't present from "Scenes I observe passively" to "Scenes where I play in a different way" then it's not hard to maintain engagement.
    I'm wrestling with this one at the moment, in a PBEM game I thought was supposed to be about the creative collaboration and playing together and just hadn't managed to click yet, and today I was told that for at least some of the other players, being in a scene with another PC would destroy their fun for them, and they aren't terribly keen on other people observing their scenes even passively. Which sounds to me like they're not actually playing a game with me, but a separate game that we pretend is the same game. I'm trying to work out if it's worth persisting with, or if that sort of desire to too incompatible with what I want from a game. Still thinking on that one.

    Claire
  • For what it's worth, Full Light, Full Steam addresses this issue in the Creating Conflicts and Complicating Cogs steps of Engineering the Situation. In short form, the three central conflicts of any given situation are based off of two or more players' flags: my Loyal Friend plus your Orders are Orders results in a conflict where the PCs are ordered to do something against a friend. Later in the process, the bits of the conflicts are crossed with each other: the friend who you're ordered to betray is also the, say, victim of a blackmail plot that's keyed off of other players' Blackmail and Sordid Secrets flags. Assuming that any scene includes two or three NPCs, sets, or props, there's always something that each player cares about in every scene.

    Also, I think JD and Merten are pointing out something worth noting: while this is something important for Dev's play, this isn't necessarily something that's important to all play. Some playgroups and some games are perfectly fine with players drifting away and back to the table. In fact, I'm kind of curious what support for that play style would look like.
  • Support for that playstyle comes from real-world stuff like having interesting magazines/books/video games around, as well as a "come back NOW" prompt return to the game, when it works.
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