For reference, please see my previous laments on Alignment and Spell Components.
There is one aspect of play in a traditional fantasy/sci-fi RPG that I only got to touch on once or twice. It’s called Troupe Play. If you’ve ever played Ars Magica2e or high-level AD&D2e, then you may know what I am talking about. Troupe Play is where each player controls multiple characters of different race, class, motivation, sensibilities, and/or power with some kind of uniting allegiance or purpose. This style of play is quite unique from the usual one player-one character dynamic most RPGs use.
In Ars Magica, especially 1st through 3rd edition, the game encouraged the players to make one main character (a mage) and many supporting characters. Supporting characters were divided into two groups Companions (body guards) and Grogs (servants). I’m simplifying a bit, but the basic idea was each player (including the GM or Story Teller) would have a Mage and a group of supporting minor characters that helped the Magi research, gather resources, defeat enemies, and provide for the Covenant (the organization all the characters belonged to). Some sessions, a player would devote his entire time to playing his Mage. Others, he wouldn’t play his Mage at all. It just depended on what the group decided they needed to accomplish that night.
This method of roleplaying had its advantages in that Magi could actually do the stuff you’d expect wizards to do like researching, casting rituals, making magic items, and so on. These activities take time, so instead of being out for the rest of the session while the player’s Mage does his work, the player could switch to playing another character and help the other Magi in their tasks. This style gave the players a chance to broaden their perspectives and invest themselves in the motivations of the other players’ characters. Players could even rotate into the Story Teller spot. This was very unique at the time it was printed and still remains a scarce trope in contemporary RPGs. Sadly, this style of play has been relegated to the optional rules section in the modern incarnation of Ars Magica.
In AD&D2e, characters- especially martial classes- would get followers starting around level 9. I played a fighter in ADnD2 in college and got him to 17th level. By then, I owned a keep in Battledale in the Forgotten Realms complete with a small contingent of soldiers, pages, squires, and a rookery of gargoyles- all followers gained through the randomness of the follower mechanics. It was amazing to me that the campaign changed from the dungeon-based adventuring we did for the first ten levels to the managing and organizing of a small vassalage in the last seven levels. I had character sheets for most of my important followers and would sometimes play them instead of my main character, or let some of the other player (including the DM) play them if the need arose. You can check out the first page of this thread on RPGnet for some other anecdotes on what playing with followers was like in ADnD2e. (After the first page, though, the thread devolves into the usual sniping that characterizes many RPGnet discussions)
However, much like spell components, the follower mechanics were oft ignored by players and the mechanics did not survive the transition to third and fourth editions.
And I think that’s a real shame for three reasons. First, having to play multiple characters broadens your experience in the game. You get to see the same story from different perspectives, and that informs and improves your play. It kept the action of the game from getting stale. If you got tired of playing your Mage, you could switch to a Companion and go bash things with your sword for a while.
Second, I liked this style of play because it posed a fun challenge for the GM. Switching from an adventuring party-oriented campaign to a defend-the-keep style campaign let you really exercise your GM skills. It can be hard to get excited about starting yet another campaign with fresh new characters that take time to get to know. It can be equally hard to challenge a group of high-level characters drenched in magic items accumulated over fifteen levels worth of hack-and-slash. With a troupe, you can start with characters that are already made and have an established base of operations. GM-burnout is a real thing and players can get tired of playing the same characters too. Troupe play is a way to keep things fresh. It is much easier just to whip out some follower character sheets and have a mini-adventure to rejuvenate everyone’s interest in the original main characters.
Third, Troupe Play allows that players to be invested in something other than their character. They invest themselves, instead, in the organization that unites the characters. So if one character dies, it’s not such a traumatic thing for the player. They just start playing one of the other characters on tap. I’m going to pursue this line of thinking more in some future articles about My Guy Syndrome and Character Death, so I’ll hold off expounding on these ideas for now and just end with this: Troupe Play allows you to have more throw-away characters so that character death can be a part of play without sidelining the player for long periods of time.
With the next incarnation of D&D purportedly having a modular bent, we may see a return to Troupe Play in that game. Also, I think Dungeon World could potentially support it as well. I don’t think that’s where Sage wants to go, but how hard is it to hack a hack? What I would really like to see, though, is a game where Troupe Play isn’t an option, but a focus. There’s a lot of material to mine in Troupe Style. It’s a shame it’s laid dormant all these years.