Troupe-Style Play

This is today’s pen-and-paper RPG musing. Troupe-style play was Ars Magica’s* big innovation: instead of playing one character each, you maintained several characters, who would cycle in and out of play for various stories – including the GM. Groups could even maintain a “pool” of shared characters in minor roles.

In AM’s case, the premise was that the players were running a Covenant, a sort of wizard’s monastery, populated by the Magi themselves, their Consortes (non-wizard companions with advanced education, exceptional training, remarkable abilities or aristocratic connections) and the largely interchangeable Grogs. Magi had to stay home in their labs and libraries to progress in magical abilities, so there was an incentive to swap Magi and Consortes round from adventure to adventure; and the Grogs, though essentially expendable, could develop their own interpersonal stories, grudges and objectives, that could weave in and out of the story.

It’s a cool system, once I’ve always admired and enjoyed playing. So I’ve been thinking of some other setups this works for. Famously D&D’s Dark Sun asked you to create multiple characters, but only really as back-ups; they were assumed to be invisibly and unobtrusively tagging along in the background, ready to roll up when inevitably PCs got killed. I can’t really think of any others out there, though.

So I’ve written some.

The Agency

For mercenary/espionage/cyberpunk games. Every player writes up at least three characters with distinct specialisms (e.g. close combat, intrusion, sniper, pilot, hacker). For every character, also write an in-character CV, including a psych profile and an evaluation by a former team leader – you don’t have to reveal everything, but be honest. Every player also roughly defines a “Director” character (Captain, Board Member, Mr. Johnson, etc.); this character doesn’t actually need a written-up sheet, just a name and a sketchy idea of their personalities.

Before every adventure, the GM puts a handful of mission dossiers on the table, along with the CVs, and the players – as their Directors – argue out which mission to pursue next (this choice can absolutely affect the overall campaign arc) and which agents to send on it, based on their CVs. You then play the actual adventure with the character chosen for you in committee.

What I really like about this is the ability to throw the classic TTRPG one-of-everything “omni” team out the window, from time to time. This is a stealth mission; what we need is three intrusion specialists and a hacker! This mission is a simple sweep-and-clear; just give me all your heavy-weapons guys! The Directors’ meetings also allow the GM to run a two-level game, where the Directors are gradually embroiled in a sprawling story arc that involves conspiracies, secrets and high-level politics, while the actual grunts in the field only ever get the vaguest notion of what’s going on.

The Writer’s Room

For any genre, preferably with a quick-and-dirty character creation system. Every player creates an initial character as usual, and also roughly defines a “Writer” character, who is a writer on a TV show. At the start of every adventure, the GM (as the Network Executive) leads a discussion about the coming season, planning story arcs and arguing about how to improve the “ratings” (you don’t have to stick to these planned arcs – things change, that’s Hollywood, baby) and whether any characters should be “written out” (but don’t “write out” a new character at the first meeting!) or new characters introduced to improve “appeal.” Old characters can be “written back in,” of course, even if they’re dead – with a little TV magic.

This is a great format for people who don’t take shit all that seriously, enjoy TVTropes.com and can think quickly. It’s silly and high-concept – you can even, with GM approval, give the Writers the ability to directly intervene during play in a similar way to the Luck/Karma systems used in some games.

The Family

For political games (including supernatural games like Vampire or Amber) that suit a time-jumping “chronicle” format. You play members of an extended family – a crime family, merchant clan, ruling family of a city, etc, – playing very long games with the power blocs of the setting. Create two or three characters, typically a mover-and-shaker in the family (your main character in the adventure), an elder who’s become less active but still gets respect as an adviser, and a child or young adult not yet schooled in the family’s objectives. Crossover with other players – your elder character could be Annie’s sainted aunt, while your younger character is Bob’s stripling son.

After each adventure, age everyone on a bit – kill off a couple elders, age some of the older movers-and-shakers into elder status, grow a couple of the kids up to main player status – and roll the campaign on. Embrace “flashback” digressions from the main campaign, where you revisit generations past to flesh out history and add context to current events (and revive beloved characters now gone the way of dust).

This is a good one for people who like to write journals and background stories for their characters. You’re working together to write an epic, and can think on very long scales, planning little dynasties-within-dynasties and play out power plays within the family.

League of Heroes

For superhero games. Every player writes up as many characters as there are players: one Hero for themselves, and one Support Character for each other player’s Hero. So, in a four-player game, you might play your own Hero, Annie’s Sidekick, Bob’s love interest and Charli’s clueless friend; while Annie plays her own Hero, your coworker, Bob’s Sidekick and Charli’s love interest; Bob plays his own Hero, Charli’s Sidekick, your friendly priest and Annie’s rival lawyer; and Charli plays her own Hero, your Sidekick, Annie’s old schoolfriend and Bob’s friendly cop).

Play runs in Seasons. Everyone gets one Solo Adventure per Season (ie. where you play your Hero and all three other players play your Support Characters), interspersed with occasional Team-Ups and Crossover Events where various mixes of Heroes, Sidekicks and other Support Characters join forces; at the climax of every Season is the Full Crossover, where all players play their Heroes (Avengers Assemble!).

This leans into the structure of superhero comics, of course, and incidentally offers a solution to the overpower problem (i.e. that to a reasonable superhero team, only earth-shattering threats are a real obstacle, and you don’t want every adventure to be an earth-shattering threat). Also gives a direct mechanic for allowing each player to shine.

Other Ideas?

Any other ideas? What sort of troupe-style games have you run/might you run?

_____
*Up to Third Edition; they pushed back towards traditional party-style play in later editions, with troupe-style play mentioned as an “optional” approach.

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