Games with multiple protagonists who aren't in a party?

I’ve been thinking lately about how most ensemble-style games either place the PCs in a group that works together (ie, the classic D&D adventuring party) or in a community where they spend a lot of time together, sometimes in conflict (ie, Apocalypse World or Dream Askew/Dream Apart). Either way, we keep the party together.

But in fiction, it’s very often the opposite. In ensemble stories like Game of Thrones or Lost or Avengers, the protagonists frequently split up and sometimes spend most of the story alone, with secondary characters, or in pairings/small groups. In fact, this is often the reason the story has multiple protagonists in the first place: They allow the storyteller to tell a big sweeping story from multiple angles, to show us different parts of the world, or to tell stories with different arcs that combine to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Are there any games that explicitly explore or capture this idea? I’m more interested in games that have a strong one-to-one player-to-character relationship and less interested in games that capture epic scope in other ways (like, say, Microscope).

If so, how do they handle it?

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I’d say Legacy: Life Among the Ruins which moves between the family and individual scale. When we zoom down to particular characters, anyone who doesn’t have or want their PC in the scene makes up a “quick character” based on the family of the key PC. It’s a great mechanic and one of the best elements of Legacy.

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Amber Diceless Role-Playing Game (and its Zelazny IP-free descendent Lords of Gossamer and Shadow) had that vibe: The PCs were beings of immense cosmic power who generally worked at a very large scale. Most of the time, each PC would be off doing their own thing, or at most teaming up with one other. On rare occasions, all the PCs would be in the same scene, but that usually was for very grand-scale events. (e.g. a coronation, on a battle line during a major war, etc.)

The GM needed to balance cutting between scenes. The best GM I ever had for ADRPG had gone to film school and used movie-direction techniques to tell each PC’s story simultaneously.

Interesting! I have Lords of Gossamer and Shadow but haven’t played it.

What do the other players do when the spotlight is on a given protagonist? Just sit back and enjoy the show?

Pretty much.

Sometimes, the GM will have the other players role-play NPCs in the active player’s scenes.

I’ve heard of ADRPG games where players co-create lower-powered retainers, allies, or henchmen of their PCs for other players to run in their own active scenes. I’ve never been in a game like that, which I’m pretty sure was influenced by Ars Magica.

In Ars Magica, every player creates three characters: A mage and two retainers. Generally, only one mage character will be “on camera” at a given time, so the other players run their retainer characters during scenes starring other PC mages.

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It seems to me that there exists a flourishing tradition of games that are organized in this way. Certainly many/most games created during and after the creation of the Forge, anyway: a large number of RPGs coming from that tradition, starting with Sorcerer, do exactly that.

Here are some games you might be interested in checking out, just as a sampling:

Sorcerer
The Shadow of Yesterday
Trollbabe
In a Wicked Age
Archipelago
Polaris
Contenders
Intrepid
While the World Ends
Remember Tomorrow
Dog Eat Dog

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Gregor Hutton’s Remember Tomorrow, inspired by Crash (2004). A GMless Cyberpunk rpg.

At the start, everyone creates a character and a faction. Characters each have an individual goal and don’t know each other. They’re disparate people in a futuristic city. The structure is unusual: On my turn I get to pick a faction from the pool and throw them at one or more player characters but not my own. Essentially, in Remember Tomorrow, factions dictate conflict. I get to play my character on their terms, likely singled out. So characters face their own problems and are only occasionally forced together by a faction. (The clever exception is that I do get to play my character on my turn if I choose to go after another player character. There’s also a more complicated manoeuvre where I put my character in the pool and play them from there because then they work like a faction, but I’ve never seen anyone do that).

The game certainly doesn’t have a way to pull all that together and doesn’t want to. It just delights in these fleeting characters who brush past each other, oblivious, crash sometimes and seldomly overcome this distance. To me it feels more like Chungking Express than Crash, actually.

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If you’re looking old school, but not D&D, there’s always Gangbusters. It’s a cross between The Untouchables TV show and a very slightly more PG 13 Boardwalk Empire. It assumes players will often be competing or working on their own projects, so the focus is going to bounce around quite a bit.

It came out in 1982, so don’t expect and zany, dirty hippie rules or methods.

I have seen Urban Shadows played this way, though I’m not quite sure if that’s just a conceit of that particular campaign or something the rules encourage (or at least account for).

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From my understanding the rules of Urban Shadows lean the game in this direction. The PCs are all part of the factions in the city and likely will cross paths but its often solo or pair scenes…

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Back in the 90s, I certainly recall playing in plenty of Cyberpunk 2020 games were the PCs weren’t really a party. They maybe crossed paths or knew each other, but they were all up to their own thing. The game text gave some ideas of how to create a “team” but when one player wanted to be a Nomad tied to their family and another was a Yakuza Fixer and another was a lone-wolf Solo, well, yeah.

I also recall plenty of Vampire the Masquerade games where the “party” didn’t really exist. PCs were part of a small community and everyone knew each other, maybe a couple were friends, but it was mostly a bunch of personal stories that overlapped and interacted with the bigger plots of the city.

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The Smallville RPG does this quite well, the majority of scenes focus on a pair of characters (often in conflict with one another) and it is quite rare for the entire group to be brought together. It helps that the game encourages jumping between scenes and setting them up as already in motion. During a normal session you can easily find yourself sharing the spotlight with everybody else during a series of short scenes.

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Wow, you all have given me quite the reading list. And I’m surprised to learn how many of you have played games that are sort of agnostic to party dynamics in this way. In my experience, games tend to drift toward bigger scenes/groups unless the game specifically encourages something else. People wanna play.

As a follow-up, I’m curious if anyone’s had any particularly good experiences—especially ones that were generated by the system, rather than improvised—with incorporating the players who weren’t the current spotlighted (spotlit?) protagonist. Things like Legacy’s Quick Characters, or Ars Magica’s retainers, or Dream Askew/Dream Apart’s setting elements.

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Fiasco
Dramasystem
A Taste for Murder
Perfect Unrevised
Love in the Time of Seiðr and Love in the Time of Khvareneh
In a Wicked Age
The Shab Al-hiri Roach
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
A Penny for My Thoughts
a whole lot of larps

Maybe: Ganakagok and Sig: Manual of the Primes and Itras By and The Fifth World all sometimes have the PCs get together s a party, but it isn’t assumed and it doesn’t always happen.

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I remember hearing an actual play podcast of a game called Everyone Is John. Each player was a voice in the character’s (John’s) head. I heard it on the One Shot podcast.
http://oneshotpodcast.com/tag/everyone-is-john/

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Archipelago 3 mentions this could happen/is likely to happen in a game, even though (perhaps because)characters have indirect contections.

Forged in the Dark games is my immediate answer. Specifically Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy as those are the ones I’ve played.

Your protagonists are rarely all in the same place, but they are all working on the same mission/job.

The abstraction of clocks and complications, and the flashback mechanic - allow interactivity amongst the players without their characters needing to be physically nearby.

e.g. you have a clock for “get into the vault”

  • Person A disables the door alarm in the basement, fill in a segment.
  • Person B does a flashback to bribe a guard, but is actually being a lookout during the heist, fill in a segment
  • Person C attempting to get into the vault sneaks past a guard, fill in a segment
  • Person D in a sniper position takes out a guard patrol, fill in a segment
  • Person E is in the getaway vehicle, but does a flashback to place their safecracking tools while pretending to be a janitor, so person C can get past the metal detectors.

Complications can mean any of these people, on a bad roll, can have something crop up for any other person. You don’t have to give the complication to the person making the roll.

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Our home game, variously referred to as The Well, ex.nihilo, or more accurately, Polyoculi is premised on this. Each of us players has about a half-dozen characters in a “stack” of “main characters” - plus emergent ones that just need to exist long enough for a scene. Some are part of the current timeline and directly involved, some are peripheral and just used to show something on camera without having to drag a main character in, some will be part of the past. If we find ourselves returning to an ephemeral character more than once (or want to bring them back later) we add them to our “stack” with some quick stats.

Mechanics aside, we throw some ideas out in chat beforehand about scenes & character pairings. “Magic disappeared about 1919… can we flash back to something happening during WWI - I bet the occult guy with the orange goggles shows up there for some reason. How about the middle of the century when people were still trying to make magic work again, how were they preparing?” That gets interspersed with the main 2019 storyline where magic returned, unexpectedly, in the middle of a blockbuster larp, and turned into a sort of Psi*Run escapade for the characters involved there.

We’ve ended up with a few character nodes in the present (the 20-somethings who found magic, the people who work in buildings above a magically sealed bunker downtown, the crew of the ISS) and all are bubbling up into their own storylines.

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Wow this game sounds wild . How are you handling all of this mechanically? Are you using one consistent system?

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I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for, but I’ve occasionally ran Ars Magica stories where multiple groups were doing things simultaneously - entering the dungeon & rescuing the hostages; or accompanying the armies on both sides of a conflict.

But my players like having many characters, not just one mage, one companion and a grog pool, but - at times - one mage, one apprentice, one to three companions, one shield grog and one “other” grog. That allows us to create multiple character groups to go out and do stuff.

Of course, this is a long-running campaign where we have time for all these arcs.

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