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This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
MONDAY NIGHT. Jeremy Crawford plays Alex von Hyden, a respected wizard who carries within him the spirit of an ancient dragon sorcerer. Peter Schaefer plays a greedy halfling rogue named Oleander, who commands a vast network of spies. Whenever the party is beset by indecision, it's usually Alex or Oleander who pushes the group in a particular direction. Whenever the party faces a new threat, it's usually Alex or Oleander who steers the party's response. Whenever a roleplaying opportunity arises, it's usually one or the other who drives the conversation. Alex and Oleander are actively engaged in the politics of the Dragovar Empire, and their fortunes are tied to the empire's ultimate fate, whereas most of the other characters have no such connection or interest.
When neither Alex nor Oleander is present, things get weirdly interesting, as happened this week when both Jeremy and Peter were absent. Suddenly, player characters accustomed to supporting roles were thrust into the limelight and into an awkward roleplaying situation for which they were sorely underequipped.
The previous session had ended with the party crashing a dragonborn masquerade. The time had come to confront several nobles guilty of conspiring to overthrow the Dragovar government, and both Alex and Oleander had ideas about how to proceed. With neither character present, the torch got passed to the party's quintet of uncouth halfwits (played with great aplomb by Matt Sernett, Nick DiPetrillo, Jeff Alvarez, Shawn Blakeney, and Stan!). They tried using hats of disguise to pass themselves off as agents of the Vost Miraj, the imperial spy agency. However, when their accusations were adroitly deflected back at them, they did what you'd expect them to do. They dropped the charade, gave up the war of words, and turned the masquerade into a bloodbath.
This past Monday night reminded me of one of those episodes of The X-Files where FBI agents Mulder and Scully are, for the most part, completely absent, and instead we get a whole hour of the Lone Gunmen and their wacky hijinks. When the characters who usually drive the plot aren't around, what's a DM to do? Cancel the game? I think not.
Although I try to shine the spotlight on every player character in my campaign, the truth is that not all PCs get equal "screen time." Certain characters become more prominent and crucial to the unfolding story than others. In this respect, the PCs in my campaign are a lot like the adventuring company in The Hobbit, which contains both "lead" characters and supporting characters. Imagine The Hobbit without Bilbo, Thorin, or Gandalf. In the absence of these "leads," the story begins to lose its relevance and impact.
As a D&D campaign unfolds, it gradually becomes clear which PCs are core to the campaign and which ones are tangential. Sometimes the campaign will shift focus in a way that elevates a supporting character to lead status or turns a lead character into a supporting one. This can also happen when a new player joins the group or when a player leaves. Either event can change the party dynamic.
Recently, I started watching The West Wing a show I'd put off for years because I was too busy to allow myself to watch it. The show was supposed to revolve around various members of the presidential staff, in particular the character of Sam Seaborn (a speechwriter played by Rob Lowe). The show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, envisioned that the President would play only a minor role. However, as the series developed, President Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) became the central character, and Sam Seaborn became ancillary until he was eventually written out altogether. The show's other supporting characters are given more-or-less equal attention, moving in and out of the spotlight on a week-to-week basis, but there's no question that Bartlet is the heart of the show. It's no coincidence that the series ends with him leaving office at the end of his second term.
An ensemble TV show features a combination of lead characters and supporting characters. Offhand, I can't think of any show with a large central cast whose characters carry equal weight and relevance; not everyone can play Jean-Luc Picard or Spartacus or King Henry VIII. Your typical D&D campaign is similar in this respect: there are both lead characters without whom the campaign would lose much of its dramatic oomph, and supporting characters without whom the party would be "bland and undermanned."
'Tis the season for awards shows, the Oscars being foremost among them. Were you to hand out nominations for Best Supporting Character in your home campaign, which of your PCs would qualify?
As with characters in episodic TV shows, a D&D character's importance is determined largely by its connection to the story and, to an equally large extent, by the personality of the player portraying it. Players who want their characters to be the fulcrum of the campaign tend to spend more time fleshing out their backgrounds and chasing quests that contribute to their characters' development. Players who don't mind supporting roles tend to be less interested in character development and more interested in having fun at the game table. They see their characters as important contributors to the party, but not necessarily drivers of the story.
The distinction between lead characters and supporting characters is an academic one. While I'm DMing at the game table, I'm too busy to care about such differentiation, and in play, I'm more interested in keeping all of my players entertained. It's something I'm more apt to think about between sessions, when I'm deconstructing the campaign. Which characters are monumentally important to the campaign's survival? Which characters have become peripheral, and to what extent are my players okay with that? I'll talk to my players and solicit their opinions. They like to reflect on the campaign, imagine what might happen next, and talk about what their characters (or the party as a whole) should try to accomplish. It's these sorts of between-session discussions that led to my realization that there are these two kinds of characters in the party.
Here's a question that you, the DM, might try asking your players at some point during your campaign (if you haven't done so already): Do you see your character as more of a "plot driver" or a "supporting character"? I think it's a fair question to ask, and you'll probably get some thought-provoking answers. Also, it's not a loaded question; there isn't a "wrong" answer. In fact, there's nothing wrong with choosing to play a supporting character. I, for one, prefer the supporting character role when I'm not behind the DM screen. As a player, I find it less of a burden. It lets me to do something I'm rarely inclined to do as a DM: relinquish control. When a player tells me that he envisions his current character as more of a "supporting character," I don't need to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of ways to make the character more pivotal to the plot, or the plot more connected to the character.
The truth is, many players are comfortable letting other party members drive the story (for the most part), and it's not the DM's job to push players outside of their comfort zones. While it's satisfying to play a character instrumental to the campaign, some player characters would rather steal the spotlight occasionally than have it shining on them constantly. Besides that, if you look at any ensemble TV show, it's usually the supporting characters that are the most fun to watch and have all the best lines!
Lastly, it's important to remember that your campaign can survive without its leads, at least for a session or two, particularly if you have players who don't mind "stepping up" when the usual plot-drivers are absent. It worked out well in my Monday night game, but don't think for one minute I'm ready to throw my leads by the wayside. After all, the Lone Gunmen worked great as supporting characters on The X-Files, but their spinoff show tanked. I wouldn't want my campaign to suffer the same fate.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,