For some time now, I’ve been aware of a subtle difference between the advice being dispensed here at Campaign Mastery and what really happened in the games that I run. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure that my perception was accurate; I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the differences were, indicating that it was something very subtle, and even when I became convinced that there was something to it, I was inclined to dismiss it as the difference between a perfect world (the idealized approach offered by these blog posts) and the real world, where compromise is often necessary. And I still couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the difference was.
It was while reading one of the books inherited from my friend, Stephen, that the penny dropped and I figured out what the difference was. The book was “Captain’s Logs Supplemental” by Edward Gross and Mark A Altman, and the text was discussing the differences between ST: The Next Generation and Classic Trek, specifically the differences in the casting process and the dynamic of the cast as viewed on-screen.
Star Trek was always intended to be an ensemble cast, but the triumvirate of McCoy, Spock and Kirk hijacked that to a large extent (according to the book) and turned it into a star vehicle for these three cast members. Thereafter, the rest of the cast struggled to get even a featured moment that didn’t involve one of the big three; while with Next Gen Roddenberry finally got what he had been aiming for all along. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with this assessment or not – or whether you like one or both Star Treks or not – the important point here is the difference between a star vehicle and an ensemble.
The differences are subtle but unexpectedly profound. And exactly the point of departure between the idealized advice that I had been advocating and the real world practice that I was experiencing in my own games.
Now, I’m a firm believer that the more you understand what’s really going on under the hood in your games – whether it be game mechanics, character interactions, or your own through processes – the more control you have over the game and the better you are able to GM that game. You’ll know when to encourage and when to discourage, when to play into and when to step away from, established player behavior patterns. And make no mistake, this is as much about the players as it is the characters that they bring to the table.
So what are the differences?
In an ensemble, there may be one or two featured characters in a plotline but these ‘hats’ get passed around from session to session, adventure to adventure. This week, the featured character might be Narcissus of Thiomipoles and next week Brutus the Barbarian. Those who aren’t wearing that ‘hat’ get only a passing mention unless they are interacting directly with the featured character or with the plotline that has derived from them.
In a star vehicle, there is a small segment of the character population who are consistently at the centre of things, who are the characters driving the show (or, in this case, the game) forwards. In general, this will be one-half or less of the total PC population. The other PCs are supporting cast, present not to star in their own right but to give the stars someone to interact with, to propel the story forwards. They may supply crucial information to the main stars that enable the plot to move forwards, but they rarely have the spotlight all to themselves – and when they do, it’s only a precursor to new complications in the lives of the starring characters.
In an ensemble, you could have an adventure in which a character does nothing except stay in the background and observe or may not appear at all except at the beginning or the end of the adventure, this week, while next week they are the centre of attention; while in a star vehicle, its unthinkable not to have the stars take centre stage for the majority of the adventure.
The differences as applied to RPGs
RPGs are a little different to a television series, or a play, of course – and a lot more complicated. For one thing, we have two distinct modes of play – combat and non-combat – in virtually every game that I can think of. For another, the players decide – to some extent – whether or not their characters are going to take an active role in the plot. It’s entirely possible for combat to be a star vehicle for one or more characters while roleplaying is more of an ensemble. There can be particular phases of non-combat play that are star vehicles and others that are more egalitarian – for example a character or player who always comes to the fore when detective work is called for. And even beyond those, in general “PCs talk to someone / talk amongst themselves” roleplaying, its possible to transition from ensemble to star vehicle and back again with no hard delineation between these very different styles of player-plot interaction.
The only way to make sense of this anarchy is to break the RPG down into sub-activities. Combat, Skill-Focus Activities, Planning and Dialogue are the categories that I’m going to use; while they are very broad, and there can be crossovers amongst them, they will hopefully be sufficient to delineate the different types of circumstances.
The more combatants there are, the more Ensemble in nature the treatment of PCs will be. Even so, there are potentials for individuals to star more prominently on a regular basis. To some extent this is a function of character abilities – in a D&D encounter with undead, you would expect the Cleric to star. At other times, a more traditional combat-monster PC might take centre-stage. In general, though, we aim for egalitarianism in combat.
Your Combats might be a star vehicle if:
- one specific character usually strikes the final blow;
- there is one specific character whose combat capabilities you always have to take into account when designing encounters;
- you have to deliberately design encounters to give a character spotlight time; or,
- one specific character is designed to take large numbers of low-level “supporting” enemies (ie flunkies) out of the combat quickly.
For example, in my Fumanor campaign Seeds Of Empire we have one PC, Eubani, who is unapologetically the star; everyone else fights a holding battle until Eubani is free to dispatch the enemy. There are exceptions, but they occur only when an encounter has been specifically designed to make another PC the star.
In the One Faith Fumanor Campaign, the entire campaign was designed from the start to be a star vehicle for one particular PC (it started out as a solo campaign) – but Combat is the one time when that character is potentially overshadowed, or at least no more prominent than any other character.
In Shards Of Divinity, we once again have a deliberate star vehicle for one specific character, but that character is not a combat monster by any stretch of the imagination, and it usually falls to the other PCs to try and keep the star alive! These three campaigns cover the full spectrum of possibilities.
It’s entirely normal for one character to be the focus of attention when a question involving a particular skillset arises. You wouldn’t expect a rogue to be able to answer a question on arcane theory or a physicist to be great at criminal investigation (no matter how used to working logically they might be). But even here, it’s possible for a character to steal the spotlight more often than others do, depending on their skills and the adventures that you are running. One of the ongoing challenges every GM faces in every game (regardless of game system) is creating situations in which two disparate fields of expertise, held by two separate characters, are required in order to answer the question at hand. You can liken the objective to the solving of a jigsaw in which different characters each have one or two pieces of the puzzle but can’t see quite how they fit together.
Even within this type of scene, subdivisions are possible, because its possible to group skills and expertise into practical skills and theoretical knowledge. It’s entirely possible for one character to monopolize the theoretical knowledge “skills” while the practical skills are more evenly divided – and possibly exclude that “expert” character entirely.
Your Skill-oriented scenes might be a star vehicle if:
- one specific character (as opposed to the player) seems to know more about the world than anyone else;
- a single player is always asking to make a skill roll;
- only one character has an academic background;
- characters with high skill levels don’t have sharp boundaries to their knowledge; or,
- you have difficulty posing a mystery or surprising the players with a world background revelation.
In general, one of these being true might not be enough to definitively consider these scenes as a star vehicle, but the more of them that ring true, the more likely it is.
It’s relevant at this point to mention Lucius, the starring character (quite deliberately) of the Shards Of Divinity campaign. This character has exceptionally high theoretical knowledge – but with some very firm limits as to what his expertise covers and what it doesn’t. In general, if it isn’t a key moment in human activity, he doesn’t know anything esoteric; for example, he has a very high skill in architecture – but his practical knowledge of the field is virtually non-existent, and he has very limited awareness of non-human architecture. He might be able to grasp something about the latter working from the general principles of the field, but that’s about as far as it goes. This means that there are times when – as intended – the campaign is a star vehicle for the character, but there other occasions when an everyman with a skill roll 10 or 12 ranks lower than Lucius’ actually knows more about the subject than he does.
Or, to take another skill from the same campaign setting, two characters can have an equally high “Spellcraft” check – but it means entirely different things to them. In terms of its most practical function, the identification of spells being cast, it is exactly the same; but to the cleric in the party, that aspect of the ability is rote learning of certain key phrases and gestures, while the theoretical aspects of the skill relate to the proper formulation of prayers, the relationships between deity and worshipper, and so on, while to the mage the gestures are secondary; his theoretical spellcraft relates to the relationships between energy fields and matter and the ways in which they can be manipulated. Druids would have still a third, subtly different perspective on the subject, which includes some things the mage and cleric don’t while excluding others, and a sorcerer would have a fourth interpretation.
These examples show that there is a balancing mechanism between ubiquity of skill application and level of expertise that is always possible, which can give a little spotlight time to a relative “non-expert” by virtue of that character’s background even in the presence of an apparent “expert”. It’s subtle, but this is something that I always try to take into account when setting difficulty scores for skill rolls.
It also shows that just because a campaign or scene is nominally a star vehicle for a particular character, that character doesn’t have to be the prime mover in every respect.
Who makes the decisions in your games? Who decides who is going to do what – and who has to be convinced of a plan before the other characters can get started? This type of scene is the one most frequently turned into a star vehicle whether the GM wants it to or not. There’s not a lot that can be done to make an introverted player into an extraverted character effectively – they generally either do it themselves or they don’t. The best you can do is throw the occasional opportunity to make a decision their way and hope they take the bait.
It’s also true that star vehicle behavior is at its most obvious in this type of scene – so much so that a “Your planning scenes might be a star vehicle if” section would be redundant.
In contrast to Planning scenes, dialogue scenes are the hardest ones in which to detect star vehicle symptoms. Outside of combat, this is one area where most GMs strive to give everyone screen time, and this is arguably where it is most important to spread the spotlight.
Your Dialogue scenes might be a star vehicle if:
- one particular character takes the lead in speaking for the group on a regular basis;
- one player seems to make all the decisions;
- one character regularly interrupts dialogue between one or more of the others either between themselves or with an NPC; or
- one character or player seems to be involved in all the consequential dialogues.
Is A Star Vehicle A Bad Thing?
Not necessarily. If a campaign is designed from the start to be a star vehicle for one character or player, the GM knows the fact, and can make sure that any others involved get a share of the spotlight along the way, can make allowances in other words. Things only become a problem when this was not the GMs intent, and one character or player is effectively hijacking the campaign in certain situations or types of scenes.
Even then, it’s not necessarily a problem. It’s entirely possible to have a campaign which is a star vehicle for all the PCs, simply by making sure that different characters are dominant in each of the types of scene. Spotlight roles can even be traded off – if the character who normally dominates combat is to take a leading role in the key dialogue moment of an adventure, the character who normally dominates dialogue can take the lead in the combat of that adventure – if it is designed appropriately. It’s even possible to balance things out over multiple sessions by having one “spotlight” character in an adventure or series of encounters.
Ultimately, that’s the point of this article – that appropriate measures can be taken if the GM is aware of the situation, but is likely to run into trouble (eventually) if he blunders his way through, blindly.
This leads me back to the comments made at the start of this article. For some time now, the ideal presented here at Campaign Mastery has been that of “the Ensemble”, where everyone gets a fair slice of the pie; but that’s not the only approach, and may not even be the best approach – if implemented poorly, it can seem artificial and forced. The sore spot tickling my subconscious was that my instincts, when it came to my own campaigns, had led me to solutions that were not in keeping with the idealized recommendations that I had been advocating in writing.
Does that mean that I’m repudiating part or all of the advice offered here in the past? Not at all. I’m simply recognizing that the real world is more complex than some of those solutions might suggest, and that some compromises may need to be in order.
When one character is dominant in more than one sphere of game activity – Dialogue, Combat, Planning, or Skill-focused scenes – this becomes much harder to do, and that’s when a campaign is likely to run into trouble, usually in the form of frustrated players who are demanding a greater share of the spotlight. This can also occur when one sphere of game activity is excessively dominant.- when there is too much combat, the combat monster dominates. Something to watch for particularly closely is a character who dominates one sphere of activity and who continually tries to push the players, as a group, in the direction of more of that scene. They can either be trying to grab the spotlight because they haven’t been getting their fair share lately, or because they are trying to get more than their share. Either is an indication of the same problem, but the responsibility – and the remedial action required – is different.
The first remedial action is to discuss the problem with the players – all of them, at the same time. It might be that the player concerned doesn’t realize that he’s hogging the spotlight, or that the other players are being sufficiently entertained just sitting back and watching.
The second remedial recourse is to introduce some house rules to cope with the problem – something like “Skill Ranks can only be used once per day”, though that might be going a bit far. Simply having NPCs who react more favorably on things said by one of the non-dominant PC might be enough. These should be kept as light as possible. Ultimately, it might be better to skip straight to the third course of remedy, reserving this as something that the GM can come back to if the third solution doesn’t seem to quite go far enough.
The third remedy that I recommend is changing the adventures that the GM is coming up with in order to emphasize anyone and everyone other than the dominant character, operating on the premise that by virtue of their dominance they will still get their fair share of the spotlight. It’s when you reach this point that the GM should be aware that his campaign is in serious trouble, and it’s going to take drastic action to fix it.
The fourth remedy is to ask the player to retire the dominant character. I’ve had to do this once, resulting in the Warcry campaign. But what happens if the player says no? What’s more, this might not fix the root cause of the problem, if one player is simply better at gaming the game mechanics to extract what he wants from them. It can even make things worse if you aren’t careful.
The fifth remedy is to completely change the game system of the campaign. Switching from Champions to Mutants & Masterminds, or to BESM from Pathfinder, or whatever, and converting the characters, can eliminate any rules loopholes that have been exploited by the player. This may not solve the problem, and may give (correctly) the impression that the GM is actively discriminating against the player / dominant character. It can also upset the other players. It also exposes all the headaches of investing in, and learning, a new game system. In fact, it’s so fraught with difficulty that a lot of GMs don’t, or won’t, even contemplate it.
That leaves only one remedy, the harshest and most extreme of the lot: asking the player to leave the campaign altogether. The only more extreme step is winding the campaign up altogether.
It must be emphasized that it is rare for this problem to reach these extremes. To contemplate anything beyond remedy #2 or perhaps #3, the campaign must be at the point of imploding. These are all desperate attempts to salvage something from the imminent train-wreck. If you aren’t at that extreme yet, look for variations on an earlier solution.
Quite often, when one character so totally dominates a campaign that the GM is forced to consider any action whatsoever, at least some of the blame can be put down to laziness or mélange on the part of the GM. At the same time, a case of GM lassitude can also result from one character dominating excessively, because it can get as dull and frustrating for the GM as it is for anyone else at the game table. In the second article I ever wrote here at Campaign Mastery, I made the point that Lassitude Is Not Burnout, and the principle of that (rather short) article still holds. If you feel like you’re burned out, if it all seems more like work than fun, try the remedy contained in that article. Once you’re back to feeling inspired, you can examine the situation at your game table with a clearer head and a sharper perspective. That can reveal causes and solutions that are completely beyond you at the moment.
Take Inventory Of Your Campaign
It’s extremely rare for things to grow so dark and grim, at least from this cause. More often, this problem causes the occasional niggle or frustration, and that can be eased by the remedial action suggested in “Is it such a bad thing”. The first step is always to be aware of what’s going on at your game table – and the subtexts and contexts that surround those events. Then you can do something about it if something needs doing.
So, every GM reading this should take inventory of their campaigns. Think over the last three or four game sessions, break each down according to the type of activity and look for any character dominating. Every player reading this should take an honest look at their actions over the last three or four game sessions of each campaign they play in – have they been causing a problem without realizing it? Might another player be simmering in his juices over not getting his fair share of screen time, or over his toes being trodden on (for what no doubt seemed good reasons at the time)?
You have to know something’s wrong before you can fix it. The sooner a problem is discovered, the easier it is to fix; don’t let it become ingrained behavior. You might just make the game more fun for everybody – yourself included.