We’ve been playing a science fiction miniatures campaign with heavy roleplaying game elements for half a dozen games now. I’ve always liked the idea of having a handful of characters to run at the same time and this game is the first instance where I’ve got to really try it with other people. As a much younger man I used to play some RPGs by myself, running a group of characters against myself – I remember playing Earthdawn, Mechwarrior and some edition of Dungeons & Dragons this way.
So played in a group, in this game, it works great. So what do we do and why does it work? Could it be used elsewhere?
1. WHAT WE DO
The campaign, called Utopia, is basically Starship Troopers plus Aliens plus the RPG 3:16. We’re playing pointedly generic space grunts deployed on a variety of missions across the galaxy. The whole campaign is basically an excuse for the gamemaster to get to play with his large collection of scifi miniatures. We’re facing new kinds of enemies every other game, roughly. So far we’ve peered Alien xenomorphs, Terminator cyborgs, Predator… aliens and various human rebels down our sights. For a group consisting of same-aged scifi nerds, it’s pretty much ideal. We’re essentially playing with toys on a playground we all know and love.
Each player – we have three plus GM – has three soldiers they’re playing simultaneously. They’re all on the same sheet. When new soldiers are introduced to replace KIA/MIA soldiers, they’re initially just a name, a role and a rank.
The game always opens with the soldiers lounging in the mess hall. The GM goes around the whole squad, asking questions to bring every soldier into the spotlight in turn. All told we spend around an hour on the roleplaying as we get a new mission and adjust to the changing dynamics of the group. That’s enough time to involve everyone out of the nine guys in the squad, plus their commander and random guest stars, for instance soldiers currently in the infirmary.
Before we move on, we build on a chart of relationships in the squad. This is straight soap opera, just establishing entertaining and interesting connections between the guys. Everyone is linked to someone else, and if characters survive, you build on those links.
Then it’s off to the mission. We break out the miniatures and start playing. We’re using Flying Lead, which is absolutely spot-on for this kind of small units gaming. It’s detailed enough to work with single characters, yet abstract and fast enough to not get in the way. You should check it out if you’ve ever desired a modern or scifi small units tactical game on the character level.
Flying Lead adds to the drama, often resulting in sudden changes in the fight dynamics, especially because of the way the initiative and activation system works. It’s not a straight you move – I move dynamic: there’s always the option of going slow and steady and not accomplishing much, or pushing your luck, rushing it, and sometimes just falling completely dead in the water.
When playing, the roles of the soldiers have started to take more and more center stage. We’re making very questionable choices on the field, just because trooper Lau is a superstitious junkie of an infantryman, or because the medic secretly loves the old sergeant, or because there’s no way the characters could tell what they’re actually facing is zombies, not shell-shocked civilians.
More often than not, all this color results in troopers dying. It’s great! There’s drama in every activation. Every single fallen soldier hurts, not necessarily because of the time invested in them, but because they feel like actual characters thanks to the roleplaying. I would recommend a similar setup in any sort of ongoing miniatures campaign, because it adds so much.
2. WHY IT WORKS
I initially thought that this would be very confusing for a player, but it’s not, thanks to there being so few details about the soldiers available. It’s not a lot to keep track of. Because you need three guys at all times, you use shorthands - “the new sergeant is basically Robert Patrick from The Unit”, “okay, in that case, who’s wife is he sleeping with?”, and so forth. Stereotypes really work!
On the battlefield, it works thanks to Flying Lead. You couldn’t really do this with Warhammer 40K, say, with its unit-level abstraction (unless you went with “hero” characters only, but even in Kill-Team it’s just not as good), or even in a roleplaying game like D&D 4E, with its high level of detail in the characters. The index card sized characters and their fates are perfect for the unit sized drama.
While the losses feel much more painful, the victories are amplified in the same way. The emotional highs and lows of the game far outlie what’s normal for a miniatures game. You love seeing the story of the battle shape, and everyone’s rooting for the guy in the spotlight, despite also controlling their own guys. It’s an experience that could only be done in this fashion, it wouldn’t come through in any other medium.
3. COULD THIS BE APPLIED ELSEWHERE?
It would be interesting to try this with some other setup than a war game. I believe we’re getting a lot of help from our shared experience of similar scenarios, be it Vietnam movies, Battlestar Galactica or Starship Troopers. We know how to make our scenes entertaining and true to the fiction. So what if we take away this useful crutch?
The problem with most typical roleplaying game setups and troupe play is that jumping from deep within a character to another character is very difficult. Instead, you need to adapt to playing on the surface. That doesn’t mean it can’t be meaningful, but it does mean that you need to be able to turn characters on and off immediately.
Consider the game master in any game. He’s effectively playing a large troupe every night. It can be difficult, yes, but it’s something you do learn better at. By using shorthands it’s possible to run a group of strong NPCs in the same scene without being too preoccupied with any one of them.
Things I use to quickly establish characters is figure out a single connection to another character and make that obvious through action, add one or two details about their presence (smell of sea, kind eyes), and use likenesses from the real world when possible – I often use Hollywood actors everybody likely knows as a quick way of borrowing their presence. (Just make sure the character matches with that actor’s or character’s generally expected attributes. You wouldn’t want to cast Daniel Day-Lewis in an inconsequential role. Unless you wanted to say something with that.)
What about a game where every player had a cast of characters like the GM? I think it could work, as long as you give people the room to settle deeper into a single character when they want to, much like a TV show does, typically focusing on a couple of characters per episode even if they have a cast of dozens. The instant when it becomes more work is when you have multiple characters per player in the same scene. In addition to making sense to yourself, portraying the characters, you need to keep in mind the other players, who may have trouble following who’s acting and speaking, if you’re not careful. Again, the miniatures help here.
I would strongly suggest a group scenario, like everybody belonging to the same motorcycle club, criminal gang, police unit, or the like. This gives you room to sidestep some of the motivation issues as you have the group’s shared goals to use.
Suppose you would set up a troupe game. What would you tell your players to follow through with your idea? On the surface it looks like you’re signing up on a lot of extra stress for no gain.
Troupe play is kind of like shooting with a shotgun. Your individual characters may not be as strong, but due to their sheer number, some of them are really going to click with the other players and their characters.
An added bonus is that when you just have one character, it’s common that you need to compromise on your vision or goals for the character to make a good fit with the rest of the group. With a whole cast of characters, you can take more risks and find out quickly what works. Quite literally, you can have a go at the same scene with a bunch of characters. Didn’t work? Try again.
From a game master’s point of view the fact that you have more than one character gives more room to operate. You don’t have to be so careful with the characters. You can really put someone in a tight spot and risk their lives when you’re not ruining that player’s night if their only character would die or be so inconvenienced that he’s effectively written out of the story.
While this may sound like a cop-out, I find it gives more room for high drama. High stakes just tend to work better than playing it safe. And it’s the same for a player – you can take much bigger risks and go for big plays when you know it isn’t such a big deal if some characters suffer.