Sunday, November 20, 2011

Individual vs Collective

When running campaigns, there is often a tension between individual character spotlight time, and the needs of a group to work together and accomplish the broader strokes of the plot. In the simple terms of a traditional game this tension often reflects the difficulty between one player dominating the focus of the GM while others sit idle, and all the players interacting and being involved (to a greater or lesser extent).

As a player I’m not a fan of sitting idle – I do enjoy watching others play, but if the periods of inactivity are too pronounced, then I’ll start thinking of things I’d rather be doing. As a consequence I try and avoid too much downtime for people who play in my games, while trying to balance this against the need to maintain an element of realism for individual characters.

In the two campaigns I’m currently running, I recently noted two, fairly extreme, completely divergent examples.

Rogue Trader
In this game the system actually proscribes the formation of the group. There is one character - a Rogue Trader - who is commander of the spaceship, and who holds a warrant to trade, plunder and profit. The other characters are the executive officers, specialists who each have unique functions to support these aims. The published adventures for Rogue Trader are an interesting mix of challenges which allow each of these characters to shine, while maintaining the overall structure – with the specified aim of all characters seeking to increase the Rogue Trader’s Profit (which they can use to obtain goods and services). It’s an odd mix of capitalism in space, crossed with Pirates of the Caribbean.

The game has gone very well so far – although it’s still early days (4 sessions including an intro adventure with pre-generated characters). The players seem to have embraced their unique roles and advocate, in character, for their individual preferences, effectively accepting the construct of the setup. They must manage their crew and ship, and mutiny remains an ever-present challenge (as the crew number 20,000 NPC’s, the executive officers are perceived as the collective authority – regardless of their individual differences). The play, thus far, may have been influenced by the very colourful nature of the setting (while a little clich├ęd the pre-written material has been a lot of fun) and their previous player relationships, having spent several months together playing my pulp version of Masks of Nyarlathotep, but it seems that there is a sustainable basis for a solid campaign arc with this arrangement.

This is my own superhero campaign which has run for around 12 sessions. After having experienced setbacks I discussed previously in this genre, with divergent character play detracting from collective play in Canberra Mayhem, I had tried to structure a background which bonded the characters together through their superpowers, with the proviso that as the characters had limited recollection of the previous arrangements, they were effectively ‘different people’ now and thus free to take whatever action they wished. I also foreshadowed this, and allowed a degree of influence over the shape of this historical background through using active ‘flashback’ scenes for individuals.

While this game has been fun, it has highlighted the fact that few of the players were willing to sacrifice their individual autonomy to any significant extent in exchange for a collective arrangement. The characters sometimes united to fight common enemies, but this was often not an easy arrangement, and as soon as the danger has passed they return to their own individual concerns. This was most evident in the last session, where the players had agreed out-of-character before the game that they would spend some time in-character discussing their future arrangements. Accordingly, I made sure that there were no major threats to detract from this dicusssion, and no urgent matters which would require the group to split up.

However, what eventuated was a series of unfortunate events which led one character to kill another, and two others to travel overseas. While dramatic, and perhaps appropriate to the style of the game, it seems likey that further play will be fragmentary and continue to involve a significant degree of player downtime.

Obviously two instances do not make a rule – but what I conclude from these examples, is that the balance between individual and group play should ideally be established early, and transparently, as attempting to introduce it later is likely to cause friction between the players perception of the character as an individual, and their willingness to sacrifice a degree of autonomy for the collective.

Equally, it's possible that some players simply prefer a specific style of interaction with a game, and you must carefully consider this when forming a group, or when having having initial discussions about the shape and arranagments of a campaign.


  1. Yeah, good points and all that... but this strikes me as not exactly news, if you know what I mean. This is a problem as old as gaming, pretty much, and this kind of problem is partially what ground your WHFRP game that I played in to a halt briefly nearly 5 years ago.

    I guess my question is: what's new about this version of this mistake that we all didn't see the first time we encountered V:TM's factionalism or similar 20 years ago?

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I guess at the heart of my examples is a question - to what extent is the individual or collective approach a factor of system, player personality, GM style or group dynamic?
    Or, is it a combination of all of these things?

    You suggest that V:TM promoted this approach - which suggests you believe it to be a factor of system? In the case of the WFRP example, in your view, what was the cause of the individual focus of that group in that game?

    Also, what approach do you take to this issue when seting up a campaign with people you don't game with regularly?

  3. With names like 'Feckward' in Rouge Trader, the game practically runs itself...

  4. Yeah.. sorry about that whole killing Thomas thing. Cat will be doing some serious thinking in the downtime which I'll be emailing you about. Great game though :D

  5. This is a good post. Its something that I think has been bothering Mash and myself for a while know.

    As crusty as it may seem today, I think there is a reason why D&D's use of classes have proved successful. Like in your Rogue Trader example, by delgating roles to each PC you give everyone something to do in a greater team. Effectively the PCs are aspects of a zeitgeist PC called the party.

    However, this approach has its limits. Not only can it pigeonhole PCs making interaction between them limited, its also makes it harder for each PC to reach their full dramatic height by treating each PC as a complete individual with their own story.

    In other storytelling media, we tend to see more of the later than the former (which may be more a derivative of RPGs gaming aspect).

    Personally, I am in favour of the approach that Mash has recently explored and which your Reverie game seems to as well. Essentially, allow each PC to be complete in and of themselves but have them overlap over a common ground with the other PCs.

    The difficult with this IMO is maintaining that common ground. It is very easy over the short term as you can set it up at the start of the game through a kicker and premise. It is much harder over the long term as you often can't reestablish that common ground for every PC through play.

    There seems to be two ways to do this, other than sheer management skill. The first is to break the game down into smaller chunks and reestablish that common ground between each break. This is perhaps the easiest method IMO and works best for those who find using mechanics to break play.

    The second is some form of additional layer of play that deals direct with the common ground, most commonly given a mechanical structure. This works too as players are able to directly influence this layer of play, but IME it also suffers over time unless the players are on the same page and the game has a clearly communicated focus. I can't think of any game that I would consider entirely successful in this second approach, though there are some (like The One Ring, REIGN, Mouse Guard) that I still want to explore further.

  6. Great comment Luke. :)


    I don't see this as a system or setting issue particularly, though different games call out this issue in different ways. 4e, for example, provides a party structure. WFRP and CoC with their high PC turnover and random character creation aspects push the onus back onto the players to work together. Most games aren't so usefully clear (what's the group paradigm for Deadlands, say? There really isn't an inherent position in the game for that.)

    The "innovation" of V:TM was just simply dispensing with the idea of the characters as mutually members of what Luke calls a "Zeitgeisgt PC".

    So, like I say, you calling out "Rogue Trader" as a group game and "BASH" as an individualist game sounds just a bit like the kind of divide that we saw being raised by the emergence of V:TM's highly individual characters compared to D&D's "zeitgeist PC" - what's changed in 20 years?

  7. BTW Zeitgeist was such the wrong word. I meant Gestalt. I feel stupid. German words suck. Let's move on :)

  8. "- what's changed in 20 years?"

    I am not going list all the changes but my bet is that the first few major ones were:

    1. The responsibility of forming the "PC group" fell almost solely on the GM as the actual game structure bowed out of the equation.

    2. Prewritten long term campaigns stopped being popular.

    3. Hilarity ensued.

  9. Mash,

    You reject the system or setting vs group argument, yet I'd argue that the devices and arrangments of characters are central in shaping thr experience of the game (unless, perhaps, you play with people who you regularly game with and thus have an experience which transcends the setup of the actual game).

    My argument (such as it is) is that games which are silent on group roles or structure fall prey to whatever currents exisit within a group. Games which proscribe this to some extent are less likely to be subsumed by such influences.

    I have to say, as far as anything 'new' goes - I cannot agree that your experiences of V:TM or D&D seem reflective of mine, or agree that there was any collective learning - so I really can't say what's new for you - only ask, if you have already experienced these issues, could you share your learnings?