I was reading an article on another site that was talking about continuity (more on that in another post) and how tight continuity campaigns could be derailed by scheduling issues. As readers of the blog have seen, my group has been beset by scheduling issues this year, and I’ve been something of a whiny bitch about it.

It got me thinking suddenly — we had similar issues with the long-running Battlestar Galactica campaign, lost players and gained them…why wasn’t this as much of a perceived issue before? Then it hit me: for the Hollow Earth Expedition game, the players only have one character.

To be able to explore other areas of the Galactica universe, all the players had two to three characters, each in their own circle of the rag-tag fleet. (In the abortive campaign prior to that, each had a fleet and a survivor on Caprica character…for the same reason.) One of the benefits of this “troupe-style play”, is that if a character isn’t present, they could easily be handwaved away as “on administrative duties”, or “somewhere on leave in the  fleet”, or I could concentrate on characters and situations that didn’t require all of the players to be present. I had an out.

File under “Duh!”

So how do you use this style of play, and what are the up and downsides? Let’s start with the downsides:

First, it shifts the focus away from one single character the player has. In the Battlestar Galactica campaign, for instance, one of the players was playing the Vice President of the Colonies. While this allowed the player to have high-level influence in the policies of the fleet his other characters did not, he wasn’t a combat guy. He didn’t investigate crimes or fly vipers. That mean he got a lot less time and focus as the other characters — a cop and a viper pilot — and wasn’t of as much interest to the player or the GM. But he was a great trapdoor to play when the other players weren’t present.

A codicil to that — the players may also take an interest in a different character than you anticipated, and push the plot or focus of the campaign in a different direction than the GM expected. This can be frustrating for the GM. If he ignores the B-string character, this can be frustrating for the player.

Secondly, if the various characters eventually have to interact, it can be problematic (or funny) to watch a player trying to effectively roleplay a scene between two of his personas. It can work, trust me, if you have a good player, and it can be a blast, even for the players on the sidelines for the scene; it can also be awkward as hell. We even had one player’s characters have to fight each other.

Third, you still have to explain away why the B characters aren’t wandering the dungeon with you. This is probably not as much an issue in a game that doesn’t have the players in a fixed location or vocation with each other, but if you’re on a dungeon crawl, or traveling as a tight group, B might suddenly be of use.

So now the upsides:

The GM and players can branch out and explore the world around them. An example: if the group were playing the Avengers in a superhero game and someone was Spiderman, you could focus on his crime-fighting in NYC, if there were key players missing that week. Or instead of world-shaking efforts, a few of the team might decide to aid another player in a side quest — finding a friend’s murderer, or looking for a shawarma restaurant.

Secondly, the players can switch it up from time to time and play something different to bust the group out of a rut. Maybe you’ve gotten a bit tired with your 12th level paladin, and playing that 4th level rogue sounds like fun that week… Maybe you can switch up genres a bit: maybe instead of playing a cargo ship crew running around the ‘Verse avoiding the Alliance, you are focused on helping a B-story character clear a neighborhood of a gang that has moved in on a neighborhood by the docks. It lets you get the characters out of their comfort zones — crap, my bad-ass fighter needs to schmooze with the upper crust as a date or escort for the team’s wizard at a Magician’s Guild meeting. Maybe the paladin suddenly has to engage in protecting a thief, engaged in a questionable side heist for a good cause (he hopes!)

Third, you can manage no shows much easier by swapping the stories you pursue with side quests.

But, as always, I could be full of crap…