Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi by Tyler Stout
Remember the end of Return of the Jedi? Multiple scenes were playing out at once: Han and Leia were battling to knock out the ground-based shield generator, Lando and Chewie were attacking the Death Star, and Luke was confronting Darth Vader and the Emperor. Every leg of the tripod had to lock in place for their mission to succeed and bring down the Empire. Tense stuff.

Scenes like that almost never happen in RPGs because players are drilled to never, ever, under any circumstance, split the party. If the DM does pry them apart, he faces the prospect of half the table rolling dice and having fun while the other half spectates. Eventually the spectators will get their turn, but that just means the table flips and someone else watches the party through the window.

Some GMs can handle this situation with flair, but most would rather not try. It's a road fraught with peril. Here's an alternative worth considering.

Instead of splitting the party, create a second party of NPC allies to complement the first. At some point, the allies must be sent off to capture and open the castle gate while the heroes seek out and neutralize the enemy necromancer. Just as the characters are about to confront the villain, hand out new character sheets for the NPCs assaulting the gate. The players take over those NPCs until they've cut their way into the guardhouse, then the action jumps back to the palace, where the necromancer's undead servants are swarming to the attack. The necromancer slips through a secret door as characters hack their way through the last flaming skeleton, then bam! They're back in the guardhouse, fighting a desperate battle up the winding stairs to the winch that lifts the portcullis. Just as they seize the control room, kapow! The necromancer is casting his last, most potent summonings to save his life ...

And so on, back and forth, until both scenes hit a climax.

Besides the obvious advantage that everyone is always in the action, players also get a chance to step out of their usual roles and be a different type of hero for a while. Better yet, because they have nothing invested in the NPCs, players can take insane risks in the name of heroism.

"It's a suicide mission, but someone needs to delay a dozen ogres at this gate!"

"I'll do it, Captain. No need for thanks; you can buy me a drink when we meet in Hell!"

Players get the emotional involvement of a story that they're invested in with treasured characters plus the wild abandon of a one-shot game with disposable heroes. It can even be structured so the NPCs must sacrifice themselves to achieve victory, though that path isn't for everyone.

One set of characters can't be everywhere at once, but the players can be, at least for a while, with a bit of planning by the DM.


  1. I've done this a few times and it works great. A variant i'd recommend is split the PCs up between the 2 (or more) groups and give the other players stand ins as outlined above. This gives the benefit that the player or players in each group get more spotlight and also gives more of the Return of the Jedi feel.

    1. Splitting the party and filling the missing roles with NPCs is a nice twist.

  2. I recently achieved this system with startling good results in a high seas campaign. On a ship you have many lesser cast members who can fill in while others are ashore or are boarding the enemy ship, etc. Then like in my game some characters get marooned or captured adding to the number of subplots. Good times!

  3. Great idea. I have struggled with this before.

  4. I wonder if this might also lend the GM a bonus element. He can use the NPC party's actions to foreshadow to the PCs what is coming, and use their fate to up the "pucker factor" for the players. To wit, if the PC party is sneaking around the back while the NPCs are assaulting the front gate, the NPCs will run into stuff the PCs didn't know about. Wipe out the NPCs, or hammer them really hard, with a batch of trolls, and the PC will start thinking about fire. "They have a cave troll."

    1. That's a perfect dramatic use for a device like this.