This is RPG-ology #72: Multiple Staging, for November 2023.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Multiple Staging, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
Ever read The Lord of the Rings? In case that’s not a silly question, what about Dune? Well, I know you’ve seen Star Wars. There’s a big lesson about drama in those stories. I didn’t see it right away, but once you know it, you can use it.
As The Fellowship of the Ring begins, Frodo is set on a quest; Gandalf is supposed to join him, but doesn’t appear. We pick up a few other characters, and we get hints along the way, but all the while we wonder where Gandalf is. Then he meets them in Rivendell. There more characters are added to the quest, and it resumes. Gandalf falls to certain death in Moria, Aragorn leads them through Lothlorien, and then on the shores of the Rauros River, character motivations (remember those?) collide. Frodo, accompanied by Samwise, breaks off to complete his mission to Mordor, leaving his six remaining companions behind.
Unbeknownst to Frodo, orcs attack. Boromir is killed, and Merry and Pippin are captured. Aragorn arrives too late to help, but works out that Frodo and Sam took a boat. With Legalos and Gimli, he pursues the orcs to rescue his friends. Merry and Pippin escape into Fanghorn Forest, where they meet Fanghorn; Aragorn and company follow them, but are reunited with the new Gandalf and go with him to Rohan. Eventually all of these are headed for Gondor; but even in this, Pippin goes with Gandalf while Merry joins the Riders of Rohan.
And through all of this, we wonder what has become of Frodo and Samwise.
And when finally we get back to them, we are wondering what is happening to the others.
All of this drives the story forward; but I didn’t realize what a useful device it was until I read Dune. Here, too, we have action dividing onto several stages. Things are happening with Paul Atriedes, events are unfolding in the Harkonen court, and as each chapter ends we are left wondering what will happen to those characters next, even as we discover what happened to those other characters whose fate has kept us glued to these pages. I saw it then. A great epic story holds your attention in part by dividing the action and asking you to follow several lines, one at a time, as each advances toward the conclusion.
I mentioned Star Wars. A New Hope does this briefly, when Obi-wan leaves his friends behind on the Death Star and they rescue Leia and then get divided as they try to return. The Empire Strikes Back almost immediately splits Luke away from the others, and each time his story advances we are waiting to learn the fate of his companions. Return of the Jedi finally brings them back together, but then divides them again, sending Lando to attack the Death Star, taking Leia away from the others and then, as they recover her, letting Luke go to face Vader and the Emperor. Phantom Menace is similar in its battle, with Queen Amidala’s people closing in on the throne room, the Jedi fighting Darth Maul, Anakin Skywalker and the pilots going for the droid control ship, and the Gungins on the battlefield. Each thread of the story advances a piece of the action, but it does something more: it delays the unfolding of events in the others. Our attention is held not merely because we are discovering what we have waited to learn, but because we are also waiting to learn something else.
This dramatic device is a wonderful tool for holding player attention, driving stories forward, building game tension. But it’s not easy to see how to use it in a game.
Well, it’s easy for me, of course, because I run Multiverser more than any other game. Multiple staging is such a core part of the game that it has its own section in the introduction chapter of the rules. Few things are as notable about Multiverser games as this. It inherently and constantly divides players, sending them to different places, different stories, different worlds. Getting them into these different threads is easy; it’s actually more work to keep the player characters together than to split them up. This seems to reflect life. Ask yourself where your friends of a decade ago are today. If you were characters in a game, your stories by now would have diverged greatly. Linear stories for multiple characters are artificial. If your characters are always together, you’ve lost some part of reality. Yet people constantly ask me whether there isn’t some way to keep the player characters together, and isn’t it terribly difficult to run so many stories at once. I tell them that there are ways to keep player characters together; that referees can keep them together if they desire, and players have the power to stick their characters to each other so that they will stay together. But I also tell them that there really isn’t much difficulty in running these multiple story lines, and you don’t lose player interest. If you’ve read those books or seen those movies, maybe you can begin to understand why. Of course if I’m playing I want to know what happens to me next; but if someone else is playing in another story at the same time, and I know him, I want to know what happens to him next, too. Moving from story to story becomes the simplest thing in the world, once you realize that everyone is interested in all the stories, and all of them have to move forward–particularly if you can cultivate the habit of leaving them hanging on places where a choice must be made, or an outcome has not yet been revealed, one of those spots where you really must find out what happens next, where you won’t run out during the commercial or the other player’s story because you don’t want to miss this.
So the first question is how do you divide your player characters into different groups diverse enough that they would be story threads? There are many techniques that work; here are a few.
Of course, the easiest of these are traps which split up the group. Whether it’s as simple as a collapsing floor that dumps them down different chutes or as sophisticated as teleportation to distant destinations, if your players walk into such a trap they are immediately on separate adventures, trying to find their independent ways back to each other.
A more blatant application of referee fiat is conflicting orders. Player characters often have non-player bosses, whether they be mentors, liege lords, governors, daimyos, superiors, or employers. If one is told, “You must take this message to the general in charge of my troops at once,” and another is summoned and ordered to answer questions about his conduct in two days, the party is split; other party members will have to decide with which of their companions they will stay.
But there are more natural ways to split up the group. In fact, we can see these at work in some of those stories we’ve already mentioned.
Why does Frodo leave the others behind and head for Mordor on his own? Conflicting motivations: he wants to destroy the ring, Boromir wants to use it as a weapon, and Aragorn is considering whether to take it to Gondor first and then decide. If you can build into the characters goals and attitudes that will ultimately bring them into conflict, eventually a situation can cause them to choose to divide.
With Boromir dead, why doesn’t Aragorn rejoin Frodo? Urgent responsibilities: Merry and Pippin have been taken, and must be rescued. Frodo doesn’t know and can’t be told. By tossing an emergency into the lap of one player character which doesn’t give him the opportunity to let the others know there’s a problem, you split the party.
Why doesn’t Lando go with the others to the moon of Endor? Concurrent objectives: the force field must be destroyed on the surface of the moon, and the death star attacked before it can be restored. If you can force the player characters into a situation in which two things are urgent–even if one of them is little more than that someone must go back to get something they are going to need–you have action on two stages. Putting one character on a personal or individual mission on which so much else depends can achieve that admirably.
Why does Luke leave the others and face Vader? That might be a bit difficult to see; but I think it’s individual sacrifice: he believes that by leaving the group, he will save them. In writing Verse Three, Chapter One, I more than once had one of the characters choose to do something which would allow the other characters to do something else. When two of them are on a rescue mission, they come to a place where they realize that one of them must go forward to rescue the girl while the other stays behind to delay the enemy reinforcements.
In all these things, what separates the characters is that each of them has something that he must do right now, and it is clear that they cannot stay together and do what they must. Separate the characters, and divide your attention between them. Move each story forward a bit, and then the next, keeping everyone waiting, wondering what will happen next to them, to their companions, to the world. Linear stories can be wonderful; but truly epic stories reach that level by becoming non-linear, by moving to multiple stages, showing us what is happening to each character individually as they contribute to the total picture that is the adventure of the game.
Next week, something different.
Previous article: Time.
Next article: Sense.