<I wrote this post back in January and never got around to finishing it. I don’t remember if this was in response to specific forum or blog posts I’ve read or just wool gathering based on various asides. Although it’s not exactly polished, and does not really lead to any particular conclusion, I figured I’d better go ahead and publish this to get it out of the way.>
One fairly controversial column Gary Gygax wrote for his “From the sorcerer’s scroll” series in Dragon Magazine was titled “Books are books, games are games” (it originally appeared in The Dragon #31 but I saw it first in the Best of Dragon, vol. II). Gary wrote at length about why epic fantasy (and a certain book about a ring) did not make an ideal setting for D&D games. I can’t really say much on that topic, as I have not really played in games that attempted to create an epic campaign from the start, or at least not one that lasted long enough to be able to say how successful it was compared to other kinds of games. As a player, the most memorable long-term games I’ve played in have been fairly episodic, or started that way. A pair of swashbuckling/pirates GURPS games and many short fantasy games in D&D, Rolemaster, or GURPS, as well as some Westerns in GURPS, stand out and I’ve kept those character sheets for years, perhaps decades. I can also think of a couple that were slowly revealed to be epic-style games, but this was not necessarily obvious at the beginning. One was a semi-historical fantasy game set in Norman England, which began very much like a medieval/Arthurian romance but grew into a massive story involving a Viking invasion (sadly, the game fell apart before reaching any kind of conclusion). The other was a gonzo but really fun riff on Ultima IV, which started as planetary romance type thing as the players made characters based on themselves (idealized, naturally) and ended with a massive battle that involved most of my miniatures. So I can’t dismiss epic style play out of hand even if I’m more interested in picaresque/episodic play now.
Anyway, what I really have been thinking about is the tendency gamers seem to have to go back to the “sources” to promote, justify, attack, or defend their preferred game styles and their conceptions of various fantasy tropes.
What I want to say is that different media like films and books and games are essentially different — that is: are different at a fundamental or essential level as experiences. Reading a book is a different kind of experience than watching a film or playing a game. (Video and computer games are another, fourth thing; board games a fifth; etc.) People don’t always remember this.
I say this because I’ve seen some comments and discussion about how the pulp fiction of Howard and the others don’t have any of the hallmarks of classic D&D (starting weak, working in medium sized parties, looting dungeons, etc.), and how action movies are more like modern editions of the game (ignoring small details and focusing on the big action sequences, heroes from the start, etc.). People often valorize things that make a game “more cinematic,” as if that were inarguably a goal of RPGs. Likewise I myself have been tearing through old sci-fi and fantasy books looking for signs of D&D tropes, and to some extent that seems misguided to me now.
Novels and movies generally don’t have multiple heroes the way an RPG does because of the way those mediums work. It is an exceptional (perhaps experimental, and certainly more challenging than usual) novel or film that features more than one primary protagonist. Even in the case of literary duos, it seems to me that that one character takes center stage. (For example, in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, I tend to see either Fafhrd or the Grey Mouser as the ‘main’ character, following the narrator’s focus from story to story or scene to scene. In Dumas’ The three musketeers, isn’t D’artangan the protagonist?)
In films, usually it is the hero and some number of sidekicks. Perhaps the hero is not clear at the start but is slowly revealed as in a slasher/horror film where we figure out who is a main character by seeing the others killed off. Ensemble casts in an action or caper film like Ocean’s Ten or the Seven Samurai may be better candidates for exemplifying “parties” of adventurers, but realistically the viewer is unlikely to see them all as equally “main” characters.
In books, there are celebrated examples of rich storytelling where many characters are fully fleshed out, but these are fairly exceptional. The vast majority of novels feature a single main character and editors and publishers encourage this. (JRRT himself thought of Samwise as the central character of LotR, by the way, so don’t point to LotR as an example with multiple “main characters”!)
One suggestion I’ve seen is for DMs to try to make a single PC the “star” of a session, and this seems pretty misguided to me. Among the assumptions you’d need to make for such a suggestion make sense are (1) there needs to be a main character at all; (2) the DM can actually control things sufficiently to keep the spotlight on one PC; and (3) the game is supposed to recreate the cinematic experience. I don’t think any of these assumptions are good ones for a D&D game (although these assumptions could apply to other kinds of games).
I say, play the damn game and let the story emerge from play. Over-planning a story line and assigning a lead character doesn’t sound like the kind of game I’d enjoy at all. I’m not saying you shouldn’t throw in a hook or event that is tied to something a character did or is or which relates to a particular character’s background or goals. You can do that without trying to force the PC in question to take any action about it or to take the lead. Likewise I’ve definitely enjoyed sessions where one PC takes a lead role, but it has to happen naturally.
But unless I’ve been completely deceived, I don’t think I’ve been a player in a game where the DM sets out beforehand to make a certain PC shine in a given session. So I’m curious, for those who use movies or books as the frame of reference for how a game should play out, how do you handle (or circumvent) the issue of a ‘main character’?