Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Multi-Strand Game

I promised I'd talk about this at the beginning of the week and then got distracted by other things. That said, today I want to actually talk about it before I break my promise.

Now, I don't know if this kind of game is actually called a "Multi-Strand Game" or not, but it is what I call it. Essentially what it means is that the PCs are not a group or party. Some of them know each other, sure. Most of them do in fact, but they're not a unified front. Each one has their own plots, their own strands, and the game is about how those strands are woven together. So, let's go.

The Concept
The concept is just what I said above. I figured this would be an ideal format, especially for the beginning, for an intended to be long run game centered on a specific location. The goal of the game wasn't to tell an epic story about a group of heroes, but rather to tell the stories of certain people within rokugan, and more specifically within the City of the Webs.

To this end, each PC made a character that started off with no ties to each other. The game is then spent as an exercise in time management with each PC going through their lives and handling their own obstacles. Sometimes, more now, two or more PCs interact over an obstacle - or are opposed on a point and have to go against each other. Sometimes it is just one PC working solo. You get the idea, right?

If not, think of it like a show or book such as the Game of Thrones series. Lots of characters, some allied and some opposed. Sometimes those alliances shift. The story isn't following any one direction but showing all sides at once.

Opinion So Far
So far I think the game is going well. This is mostly due to the players. they've made rich and interesting characters with varying wants. One player is making a bid to be a major player in the underworld. Another has become a huge player in the courts. Two of the new PCs are entry level PCs into the realm of the courts and are trying to find their way while not necessarily on the side of the earlier mentioned PC. You see how it goes.

That said, and while the game is going well, it does have its strengths and weaknesses.

The Strengths
to start with the positive, one of the core strengths that the game style brings is the ability to sell a setting. The PCs have a much broader picture of the city they're in because they've seen more of it, even if only from an OOC perspective. They see the highs of the host family's opulence. they see the lows of the criminal and poor areas of town. They've even seen the in between with other characters. Ronin PCs have had their first sessions dominated with  a need to secure shelter and food. Clan samurai have laughed that off with IOU writs and rooms in a cushy embassy.

Beyond this, the game also lets me - and the players - tell multiple stories at once. Each character gets to be center stage for their tale, and those tales can be heavily varied. Is it the Romantic Tragedy of the bodyguard who has fallen in love with his ward and is being blackmailed by an actress at a playhouse he favors? The crime-drama of the man who wishes to control the underworld to better serve his clan and the empire? The tale of discovery as the amnesiac ronin finds out who she really is, and what horrible things she did in her life before being given a clean slate? All of these tales, and more, are being told around the table every time this game meets. I haven't seen another structure able to do this either, without trading off seriously on how important any one PC can be in each arc because the PCs work as a group.

The Weaknesses
the weaknesses come in a few other forms. Also, while the strengths are almost all IC boons, the weaknesses are primarily OOC ones. For one, time management is key. It is very easy to get hung up on the interesting part of one PC's story segment, and forget that 2-4 other players are sitting and watching, but not playing. Sometimes this is fine for everyone, but sometimes you need to make a hasty cut.

Second, the games take a lot more prep work. this isn't like some games where you go into a session knowing that the party will be entering the elven city and so you prep the city. This is a game where all 5 PCs are aimed in their own unique directions, and so you need to have all 5 directions planned out...and then plan for the stuff you know they'll do that you can't expect.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the one I noticed recently. Each session ends up having a focus. One session the focus was on a combat tournament two PCs were in. Recently the focus was on a party that the Scorpion clan were hosting that served as a gentle introduction to the political scene. Earlier in the session the underworld maneuverings had center stage. The point is, each session will hinge on one thing (think of it like an episode focused on one character, while the other characters just do side movement towards their goal.) Where the problem lies with this is that generally over half the group can fit in with any individual. So when that individual gets focused, most of the group can participate in the emphasis. However, not everyone can. So every week one person seems to get less screen time.

The third issue I mentioned needs to be resolved. Sometimes it isn't aproblem. You can throw the player into the shoes of an NPC and get them involved. Sometimes my players just enjoy watching the carnage. Still, it is an issue and one I'd like to address.

Would I recommend running a game like this? Absolutely. It is a great way to work on time management, and you can approach a world and game from so many angles that it is easy to stay motivated.

Would I do it again? Maybe after a break and doing something more normal. We'll see though. So far, my plan is to work up to a generational shift and run that a bit shorter, but also more focused and traditional. then open the game up again for the next big setup sequence.

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