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Rotating Alphas

One of the problems, especially with larger groups, in playing in certain genres is that you can’t run the kinds of stories that really only work with a single Alpha player character. It’s hard, for example, to run a battle of wits between Batman and the Joker when Batman always has to bring along Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. Similarly, it’s difficult to run standard Doctor Who adventures with the equivalent of ‘the Five Doctors’ appearing each episode.

Even in games where the players buy into the concept of a single Alpha, you can bet that the Betas are going to be just as capable if not more so. The Doctor isn’t going on an adventure with Martha, Donna, Mickey, and Sarah Jane; he’s going with Judge Dredd, Kroton the Cyberman, Slaine the Ice Warrior and a Leela tricked out with Gallifreyan technology. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to find her companions as capable as the Initiative (assuming the players haven’t used the series ending to justify a team of Vampire Slayers).

In most cases, this is inevitable. As a general rule players don’t like to be second fiddle to anyone; if they play a Beta they often, and rightly so, feel like they aren’t as important as the Alpha, who gets to do all the kewl stuff. Some games, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, acknowledge this by giving the Betas a boost (drama points in this case), while other games simply bow to the inevitable and assume an equally-powered Alpha team. Most superhero games follow this philosophy, while others, such as the various incarnations of Star Wars, mask the Alpha (the Jedi) by creating the illusion of character balance.

So why is this an issue? Throughout my decades of GMing (geez, I feel old), I’ve had stretches where I could only have one or two players at the table. While I prefer sharing adventures with larger groups, I must admit that we had some of the deepest plotting and roleplaying during those ‘solo’ sessions. I wanted to be able to capture that feel with larger groups.

When I ran a Doctor Who campaign in the 90s, one idea I had was to have one Time Lord with many incarnations. Each player would create one incarnation and a companion for each of the others. Each adventure would rotate Time Lords, so everyone had a chance to play the Alpha. At some point, we’d do a special where the various incarnations had to get together to face a threat.

While the game fell apart before we got to that climax, I found that the players were willing to play more standard Betas with the understanding that they’d get their turn in the Alpha chair.

I’ve often wondered if this would work in other genres as well (Ars Magica is perhaps the quintessential example, but I have no experience with it). For example, a group with three players could have three different campaigns running concurrently. Each revolves around a single hero and her associates. If Troupe [1] play is involved then even the GM could take a turn playing Alphas while another player takes the GM chair.

This also allows for a variance in styles. Maybe everyone wants to play a supers game, but one player prefers Batman while another Green Lantern and still another Wonder Woman. Each rotating campaign can be crafted around the Alpha’s desires, with the Beta characters being tailored accordingly. And, every once in a while, a meta-arc can run through all of the campaigns or a superhero team-up could occur to deal with a particularly nasty threat.

So what do you think? Would rotating Alphas work in your groups or would there be open rebellion? Has anyone tried anything similar to this? If so, how did it go?


17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Rotating Alphas"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On August 6, 2012 @ 4:39 am

Would this be a problem in games not based on a pre-existing world? I’ve played many games over the years (I know, big surprise), and the only time I’ve seen this rear it’s head was in a Firefly game, when we were playing the cast of the show. Luckily, there was only me and my pal George (not his real name), who were fans of the show, and we deliberately took the two alphas, Mal and Zoe, and then just gave orders, meaning that the rest of the players got to rock the other characters in the middle of the action while we stayed back, trying to work out which was Inara’s shuttle on the ship schematic.

Outside of that type of game, Alphas seem to be the more experienced gamers, but most of those kind of people know full well how to motivate and drive on the less experienced player so they get a bigger share of the action.

#2 Comment By rabalias On August 6, 2012 @ 5:51 am

Two thoughts on this.

One, Ars Magica is a game that does this as standard. If memory serves, every player has an uber-powerful mage character with some very much less powerful followers. The game rotates between mages (and GMs!). I haven’t actually played it so I can’t comment on how successful this is, though I gather it was pretty popular in its day.

Two, you only get the “alpha” problem when you’re playing in a competitive beat down the GM’s challenge way. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the game). Sure, Buffy kicks the most ass but her “secondary” characters get a lot of personal plot and screentime. It doesn’t feel like a show where she’s the “alpha” and everyone else is left in the dust. So is the answer to focus a bit less on punching the bad guy in the face, and a bit more on the protagonists as characters?

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 6, 2012 @ 7:41 am

I meant to reference Ars Magica, but I have no experience beyond a brief skimming of the rules so it fell off my radar while drafting this article. Thanks for the reminder and I’ve edited the article accordingly as it certainly deserves a mention!

As to your second point, it could be in some cases. I’ve been meaning to crack open my copy of Smallville and see how they handle it. Primetime Adventures is another game that springs to mind.

#4 Comment By beowuff On August 6, 2012 @ 8:33 am

One thing about Ars Magica is that you don’t just use an Alpha (your mage) and your Beta (your companion), but you also take turns playing grogs. Usually, there is one, maybe two Mages in a group at a single time. The rest play their Companions. Everyone (including the GM!) gets to play Grogs, who are created en mass by both the GM and the players. What happens is that players can take more risks with Grogs, so they have a bit of a turn over rate. I think this has the effect of making a game more dramatic. If the characters don’t think something is dangerous, kill off a few grogs. 🙂 A lot of players LIKE playing grogs because they have less invested in the characters.

The other nice thing about rotating GMs is that the GM gets a character to play as well. Since only one or two mages tend to participate in a game, Ars has a nice system for mages to advance when they are not going on adventures. This also lets the current GM’s mage stay up to date with the rest of the characters when it’s their turn to play.

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 6, 2012 @ 7:46 am

@shortymonster – I shouldn’t think so, but I’ve found that most Alpha-type games are emulating fiction that revolves around a single protagonist. That said I can certainly envision games based on pulp hero or superhero tropes that would work well with a Beta-assisted Alpha, no matter what the game world.

#6 Comment By shortymonster On August 6, 2012 @ 7:49 am

Played and ran a few pulp type games, and the cohorts of the Indiana Jones character all end up being well rounded and way more than supporting characters, not matter how hard Indy tries to take all the fortune and glory.

#7 Comment By Svengaard On August 6, 2012 @ 6:32 am

My first reaction was how I’d be afraid of the drama that could go with having a known alpha or doing a rotation. I’d be worried about players not wanting to show up or be more willing to do other things on their off-nights. I’d also be worried about increasing the number of campaigns to accomodate having one alpha. With four players that’s four different campaigns to run to accomodate everyone.
That being said, as a DM I could see this work if they’re all tied in to the same world or area. Then you could recycle NPCs, maybe change how they’re perceived or something, and that wouldn’t be as much work to prepare or run. I remember someone on this site was running a Star Trek campaign and had a player run another campaign using the lesser known crew on the same ship.
This article has given me some ideas to try out now.

#8 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 6, 2012 @ 7:49 am

One idea I had was to only offer XP to Betas (so a PC’s Alpha couldn’t advance unless the player took her turn as a Beta), but that felt a bit pessimistic. Ideally, you’d have buy-in from your players, and I’d hope they’d enjoy playing Betas and making each campaign as interesting as possible.

#9 Comment By lindevi On August 6, 2012 @ 6:55 am

For whatever reason, this made me think back to another 90’s show with a fairly obvious Alpha and scores of Betas: Sailor Moon. As young girls, my closest friends and I had each adopted one of the Scouts as our alter ego. I guess there was an unspoken rule that nobody could be Sailor Moon because they would be OP, but I just can’t remember whether anyone finally took up that mantle (I think we ended up picking one girl’s older sister because we all idolized her and though she was “worth protecting,” also she didn’t play with us often). We did have someone play as Sailor Saturn, who is canonically more powerful than Moon, but we “nerfed” her abilities to keep her on our level.

Not necessarily pen and paper per se but it shows that we all needed to be on equal power footing. Nobody really wanted to be Sailor Moon, either, because we all identified so strongly with our chosen Scout (I’m fire, you’re time, you’re rebirth, etc). So if you play a character you really believe is “you” it may help dilute the feelings of inferiority when playing with and supporting an Alpha. That, and the Sailor Scouts really were a team and Moon on her own was actually quite weak and ineffective.

You’re welcome for that 90’s nostalgia moment.

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 6, 2012 @ 7:53 am

I never watched it, so the only thing nostalgic for me about Sailor Moon is a reference in a Barenaked Ladies song. 🙂

#11 Comment By daeumling7 On August 6, 2012 @ 9:52 am

Sure, it’s great to be the star. But isn’t your idea about giving every charakter some spotlight? That’s what a GM should try to do in every adventure, I think Also if plot hooks originate from the charakters background, it gives the GM lots of opportunity to center a scene around one charakter. Isn’t that like being the alpha for a moment?

Your idea sounds interesting, but I see a problem for my group: We have about 30-35 gaming sessions a year, each about 3 hours long. Also we have rotating GMs, and every GM has his own campaign. I GM maybe once every year for 8-10 sessions (0one adventure). If I would try to let everybody be an alpha for one adventure, all the others would have to wait for years in real time before they got the chance to be the star.

Sounds as if your players had fun, though, so it must be a good idea.

#12 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 6, 2012 @ 9:56 am

As with all things, YMMV. It sounds like a bad fit for your group unless every GM was on the same page.

It happened to work once with my group. I’m unsure of the sustainability over the long run. Presuming that you’d rotate each session, longer adventures could be troublesome (‘my turn again? Crap, what did we discover 4 weeks ago?’).

#13 Comment By Razjah On August 6, 2012 @ 10:08 am

The alphas thing doesn’t work so bad when you set it up from the beginning. I ran a campaign (E6 Pathfinder) where everyone started at level 3. One player started at level 4 as the mentor to the “hero”. Another player was the mentor’s assistant who had contacts and methods the others didn’t and the final character was introduced during a meeting with a Jotunn and the Jotunn instructed the player to accompany them and learn more of the world, his destiny was not in the mead hall. I told the group that this would be more like a work of fiction/video game RPG where one character was the main character and the others were friends and help to see him through his trials.

I made sure to do my best passing the spotlight, and the game was a lot more story oriented than others. Even though the on PC was more powerful, the others all had special gear, abilities, and tactics to aid the hero- who wasn’t even more powerful until part way into the game where his wizard class levels basically all become Mage-Knight class levels. Narrative combat and players very willing to improvise everything helped keep the “combat math” from mattering as much.

#14 Comment By Rickard Elimää On August 6, 2012 @ 11:36 am

This last year I’ve been playing a lot of games where everyone are playing a significant faction in an area. Games like Polaris, Dogs in the Vineyard, the Finnish Zombie Cinema, the French Psychodrame and the Swedish Svart av kval (eng: Black of Dispair). It’s usually GM less (you take turns setting the scenes) and usually with perfect information (no secrets!).

I could talk a about how the set-up works for those games, but there is one key element in those games that I really want to high-light: the mechanic for active listening.

It’s pretty simple actually, and it can work in different kind of ways but one of the most commonly used mechanic is that you as a player can support someone else’s role in a conflict, without having your character being in the scene. Note that in these kind of games, the PCs aren’t in a group. They are different faction with different agendas. Perhaps everyone wants the same thing, but for different purposes?

Anyway, back to active listening. By having that kind of rule mechanic, the players that aren’t in the scene with their characters will still listen, because they can always support in what way the story will go (“I want you to win the conflict, so here’s one die from me”). So, having Beta characters works fine, but you can also have rules that supports active listening.

#15 Comment By BishopOfBattle On August 7, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

I’ve done something similar to this with my party for one off, side adventures, but not for an entire campaign. Typically it comes up when one player mentions they want to investigate something and it makes sense that they would go out exploring on their own. Typically I roll up new characters for the rest of the party (sometimes based on a character type I know they want to try out, sometimes based on a character type they haven’t played with much to force them to stretch a little bit as players) and they end up being supporting cast in whatever adventure the player finds themselves in. All players earn experience (karma in our case, as we play Shadowrun) towards their main characters, giving them an incentive to show up.

I’ve actually recently been thinking about running a Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now / Spec Ops: The Line inspired session for one of my players that would have characters who fall more into the Alpha / Beta roles, with the Betas being much more expendable characters. You mentioned giving them “drama points” in the article which I think would be a great way to get them to more greatly interact with and impact the story in a meaningful way.

#16 Comment By Asparagus Jumpsuit On August 8, 2012 @ 8:55 am

There are two methods that I have used to handle this:

1. Adapt the “spotlight episode” mechanic from Primetime Adventures. Dungeon crawls and and such can go on as normal, but everyone knows that their character will be the focus of a plot or subplot on a regular basis. Make a schedule to do so, so everyone knows when it’s going to be their turn. I have found that the alphas are willing to back down and give others the spotlight as long as they know they get a turn too. It also helps me plot storylines in a campaign, because I can build a story arc toward one character’s spotlight session.

2. Turn the alphas into gamemasters. We do a “shared world” Pathfinder campaign with three gamemasters. When it’s your turn to GM, your player character goes off somewhere and does not get used as an NPC (but the character levels up with the rest of the party, based on off-screen adventures, so the GM is not penalized). This lets the alphas be alpha in another role, and allows other players a chance to shine.

#17 Comment By Nojo On August 17, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

A few years back, when I was running Dark Heresy at Beer & Pizza night at a game store, I tried my hand at a rotating alpha. During the game, players would get tokens when they played well, met objectives, and so on.

When it came to the boss fight, the player with the most tokens got to play the Inquisitor.

Apparently, this had been discussed during the design of Dark Heresy, but thrown out for more standard role play.

The problem with this was since you only got to play the Inquisitor for one battle, you didn’t get to know him and his powers. Eventually I gave up on this experiment.