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 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?