Once upon a time, I took a course in playwriting. I got a lot out of that course, but one thing in particular that stuck with me was the exhortation to stick with two characters, the two that the play is about. Add other characters only as they are necessary.
Obviously, this is more a thing about plays than any other medium; you don’t want a cast of thousands on your stage, because actors are troublesome and take up space and demand payment. But it does apply to a degree to any story.
Many of the best stories in Western culture are, at their core, about two people, and the effect one has on the other. Other characters come in and out, complicating the situation or allowing the writer to externalize some of the protagonist’s internal processes or otherwise serving the story of the two main characters.
And then there are the stories that aren’t like this: ensemble pieces, like many TV shows. There’s something really compelling, in a serial drama, about rotating the main characters and giving everyone some time to start off this way, get their peripeteia, and come out changed.
And most RPGs are like this, too. Everyone at the table wants to be a protagonist a bit, to get their moment to reveal how their history shapes them, their moment to face a dilemma and come out of it changed, their moment to shine.
Now what about when that’s not the case?
One of my biggest problems with our game Becoming Heroes is that it is damned hard to play a purely supporting character. So much about the game pushes you into spotlight time, and spotlight time that changes your character through their experience of the world. But, sometimes, I just want to be the sidekick.1
I think that this is related to stage fright and creative exhaustion, too. When you’re the main character—even when you’re not in the spotlight—you’re thinking about how you are changed and affected by what happens. When you get to be a supporting character (a flat character, as opposed to a round character, in E.M. Forster’s words), you don’t have to worry about any of that—you can just think about what you do. And when you’re not in the spotlight, it’s even better—you can just be the audience for a bit.
Some games let you rotate the main-character role, like Primetime Adventures. Some push you into it just as much as they can, like Becoming Heroes. Some games let you shift your main-character-ness very organically, like Apocalypse World, which mechanism I’m still trying to figure out.
In as much as we play games that are about characters, and not just actions, this is important to consider. It’s good to have a design that lets you shift between these stances, catch your breath, let your mind wander and come back.