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.
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 clichéd 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.