The Three Faces of Troupe-Style Play

The term “troupe-style play” is bandied about pretty often at my table. Other role-playing gamers aren’t always familiar with it. But the term may cause confusion even among those who’ve used it, because it can refer to more than one thing.

One meaning of troupe-style play is that players take turns running the game. This can involve assigning most responsibilities to an “Alpha storyteller” who is generally in charge, while still allowing other players to run side stories. Alternatively, it can mean spreading out authority further, so that Storytellers take turns running the game or divide up their responsibilities in other ways—one might run non-player characters in social scenes while another adjudicates combat, for example. This is the definition appearing in Ars Magica, the game that coined the term. It’s also how I run my Basic D&D campaign; I’ve been busy lately with Exalted 3e work, so some of my other players have been running sessions for me. Sometimes I even get to stop by for a couple of hours and play!

Another meaning is that each player runs two or more player characters, choosing which one to run at any given time. Ars Magica also gives explicit rules for this, with each player running one wizard, one skilled non-wizardly “companion,” and any number of the group’s hirelings and henchmen (or “grogs”). Some indie RPGs, such as Capes, go even farther by allowing players to draw all their PCs from a common pool.

Ultima IV NPC dialogueYet a third meaning is that whenever a PC is not in a scene, its player may volunteer, or be assigned by the Storyteller, to run an NPC in the scene. This is ad hoc for one-off NPCs, but a player may repeatedly take on the role of a recurring NPC. (Such recurring NPCs may effectively become secondary PCs, much like in the previous version of troupe-style play, though they arrive there by a different route. My Exalted players fondly recall the demon merchant Makarios and the wandering Dragon-Blooded hero Alec Doren as secondary PCs of this sort.)

This third meaning is the one I personally use when discussing troupe-style play, because it’s the one that I have used—and continue to use—in actual play. Turning responsibility for NPCs over to the players has proved invaluable in keeping my games running smoothly and making them exciting and engaging for the players.

Running NPCs—whether minor characters like gate guards, or major characters like family members, reigning monarchs, or the superpowered rivals of other PCs—keeps players involved in a scene when their own PCs aren’t present. This isn’t an issue in every game; it certainly doesn’t come up often in my Basic D&D campaign, a classic dungeon crawl where splitting the party is a no-no (unless you want your exploring thief to disappear around a corner and never return). But in character-oriented games, splitting up lets you nab the spotlight for your PC’s story. Instead of making players feel guilty for pushing the other players onto the sidelines, troupe-style play ensures that they’re also involved and engaged.

This also improves the game experience on the Storyteller’s side. It reduces the workload to run the game; I know I already have my hands full keeping track of game mechanics, setting details, and plot threads, and letting someone pull the weight of running non-plot-centric NPCs makes things much easier for me. Troupe play also makes it feasible to run interactions between NPCs that would otherwise degenerate into farcical exchanges where the Storyteller plays every part. (“And how are you this fine day, sister Mnemon?” “Quite well, sister V’neef. One sugar or two? Lemon?”)

Planescape: Torment dialogue

Example: During my first Exalted game, the PCs visited a tiny little kingdom called Tul Tuin, where they met various members of the royal family. I made sure that each of the prince’s sons, daughters, and lovers was run by a different player. Then, a few sessions in, I started a scene in which the entire royal family got together for dinner. I didn’t have to explain anything; after a few seconds of perplexity, everyone fell right into character, and we ran a half-hour all-NPC scene that illuminated all the players regarding local politics and the royal family intrigues. It’s not a trick I would use often—certainly, I haven’t tried it since—but it was lots of fun and a great change of pace that couldn’t have been accomplished so smoothly by other means.

On a related note, when players put their own spin on NPCs, this helps avoid the samey-ness that can creep into the Storyteller’s portrayal of background characters. I mean, I could play every NPC member of disgraced military officer Coravan Calan’s entourage, but why would I? We’d lose out on Jon’s sarcastic portrayal of Calan’s manservant, not to mention Conn’s vacuously obnoxious presentation of Calan’s nephew. These are better NPCs than I’d manage, and better NPCs make for a better game!

Troupe-style play also enhances recollection of play, in a way paralleling that of session summaries. Players are more likely to remember a scene if they were in it, and are more likely to remember what an NPC did if they ran that NPC. I’ve certainly noticed less confusion about the events of previous sessions in my games now that I regularly assign players to take on NPC roles! This is especially true of certain players who tune out when their PC is off-camera. (The player in question knows who he is—hey dude, if you’re playing Kashif’s character’s vain brother, you can’t play games on my iPad at the same time! Ha!)

Disgaea dialogueLastly, if you’re a player, playing NPCs can be fun! You get to play characters that you otherwise wouldn’t—obnoxious children! Senile grandparents! Drug-addled gamblers! Bloodthirsty zealots! Unintelligible foreigners! Jaded princesses! Etc.) Plus, you can chew the scenery with a will, secure in the knowledge that soon the NPC will get shuffled offstage and you can get back to playing your PC.

Still, troupe style play is not a perfect tool. It has its problems, and these may make it less than optimal for any given game or gaming group. It takes time to get players up to speed with the NPCs they’ll be running, and players that like to partition in-character and out-of-character information won’t be happy if they gain OOC knowledge from those briefings. It can be difficult to keep some players on track when running NPCs; they may end up chewing the scenery or being inappropriate helpful to the other PCs. And as bad as it is to lose an ongoing PC when a player leaves the group, it’s even more disruptive in a troupe-style game because all the recurring NPCs they ran will have to be adopted by other players or removed from the game.

Have you experimented with this sort of troupe-style play? If so, I’d love to hear how it worked out for you!

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