Should a TTRPG be run as one character per player, or can players have multiple characters? I’ve done it both ways over 30 years of gaming, but I now have my players use multiple characters.
When I first began running game regularly during AD&D 2nd edition, I only had three players and to have a full group they each had 2-3 characters each, plus I used an NPC or two. Our adventuring groups were roughly 10 characters (keep in mind that many older D&D adventures were designed for 6-9 characters). There were multiples of rogues, clerics, mages, warriors, etc. We had a lot of fun. Once 3E appeared and all the way up through my time with 5E, there was one character per player, and our groups were down to 4-5 characters. This worked to some degree since modern D&D characters are substantially more powerful than older versions of D&D (everyone has more hit points, it is incredibly easy to heal, you rarely run out of spells, and character death is rare). I now run Castles & Crusades and have returned in part to the multiple characters approach of the past, but with some modifications. Below I will lay out my reasons for doing so and why I enjoy it so much.
Reason 1: Old-school gaming – dangerous and less complicated
The Barrowmaze campaign I run on Tuesday’s is particularly challenging and you need as many people skilled in arms, spells, and problem solving as you can get. Being an old school game, I think using an extra character is more fun than just making use of henchmen, hirelings, or retainers, to accompany the group. In old-school games spellcasters run out of spells, hit points are lower, and healing is slower. In my days playing AD&D 1st edition, my magic-user had one or two spells per day. He used them for one or two encounters and the rest of the time he sat in the back of the party (or the middle, whichever was safer), and used his intelligence to solve puzzles that might arise. If you just use one character, that player could get bored. Whereas, if they were to have a wizard and a fighter, for example, they will always have someone they can use in most situations.
Old-school characters are also less complicated than modern D&D characters (there are a lot less special class abilities to manage in most old-school games), so it is much easier to manage them. Finally, whereas modern D&D and Pathfinder focuses on cramming a lot into one round (move action, attack action, bonus action, reaction), which necessitates the need for players to feel that their characters must always do something. Old-school games shift the focus from doing up to four things in a single round, to (sometimes) doing four things in an entire combat. This leaves plenty of room for players to have multiple characters with multiple things to do and not feel overburdened.
Reason 2: Expanded options allows players get more done
Each of my players are urged to create up to four characters and then swap them in and out based on:
1) What they are interested in playing that session.
2) Meeting the needs of the adventuring party for that session.
3) Some characters may be out training for new abilities (see this post for more information on that).
In my C&C games I encourage my players to bring up to two of their four characters on an adventure, or to have 10 characters go on any given adventure. So on days when five players show up to game, they usually bring two characters each, and if seven players are available to play, then only three of them will bring an extra character.
I like this because every player is not just invested in one character, they are far more involved with the adventuring company overall. In my Tuesday Barrowmaze campaign, there are 7 players with roughly 4 characters each, giving us 28 characters (and keep in mind that some characters are dual-classed, so there are actually well over 30 character classes represented). In the town where they reside – Ironguard Motte – they have their own building the size of a multistory tavern. At any given time when 10 characters are out adventuring, the other 18 are making or repairing weapons and armor, creating scrolls or potions, learning spells, identifying magic items, practicing their trade or profession, training lower level characters, connecting with local people of importance, and keeping the long-term interests of the adventuring company going on in the background. On any given four hour game session with the adventurers fighting their way through the Barrowmaze, I sometimes – in a lull or slow spot – throw in a 5-10 minute interlude when we return to Ironguard Motte for someone to knock on the door of their establishment and in a brief conversation set the stage for a future adventure. I think it is quite successful in conveying the feeling that there is always something going on in the world.
Reason 3: A Total Party Kill (TPK) is not the end of a campaign
In most D&D-type games, if everyone dies in an encounter, the campaign may be over. I ran Dragon Mountain in 1993-94 and there was a TPK. After two years of committed adventuring everyone died. It was a letdown. I also ran a Tomb of Horrors campaign over the period of a year. Everyone died in an encounter. But the way I run games now, if there were to ever be a TPK, the campaign would not end, since the other adventurers could avenge their friend’s deaths, and may even retrieve their bodies and equipment. It could add renewed vigor and more passion for the campaign (although obviously one does not want that to happen).
Games like D&D 5E focus on one character. Many players will purchase a new set of dice to represent their new character. There is an array cool material on Kickstarter and Etsy for players wanting to purchase a journal for their character, or a unique token or miniature to represent the character. That is perfectly fine if that is the style of game you are aiming for. But my games are more dangerous and I aim for more group flexibility, and rather than focus on the beliefs and goals of a single individual, I’d rather focus on a family group dynamic, both a small family group that a player will have if they rotate four characters in and out of adventures, and a larger family dynamic which encompasses all the other player’s characters combined. This can also work more positively in keeping the focus on the overall arc of the campaign instead of on a particular character (although obviously individual characters will shine and stand out. That has happened in my Barrowmaze campaign, where the highest level characters have taken on leadership roles, and the younger, lower level adventurers, view them more as veterans, or parental figures and seek them out for their experiences and insights).
There are other ways in which this could be done. D&D 5E recently introduced the idea of a side kick. Older editions of D&D encouraged the use of hirelings, henchmen, and retainers. The game Ars Magica makes use of a “troupe system” style of play. And Dungeon Crawl Classics has the 0-level funnel where a player uses four characters in an adventure and whoever survives by the end makes it to 1st level. The approach I take seems to be a bit different.
What do you think? Would having players use multiple characters and rotate others in and out of adventures work in your game?