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The Main Cast Rule

When you’re watching an episodic TV show (think Lost), who does everything happen to? The main cast.

And who drives the action when things aren’t happening to them? The main cast.

The same should be true in your campaign (which, in a lot of cases, resembles an episodic TV show more than most other types of media): Whenever something worth playing out at the table happens, it should happen to your main cast — the player characters.

Here’s the important part: It doesn’t really matter why all the cool shit happens to them.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s nice to have good, well-founded reasons that are neatly grounded in your campaign world and that fit logically into the overarching narrative that you and your players are collaborating to create. That’s an awesome goal.

But if you find yourself going, “Wait, why are the PCs the only ones who can do X?” or “Hang on, the last Massive Weird-Yet-Awesome Event™ happened to the PCs, too…” just stop, take a deep breath and do it anyway.

If it’s cool, go for it — that’s the heart of the main cast rule.

Do you agree with this principle, or do you take a different approach to putting the PCs into the thick of it?

(And on an unrelated note: It’s not too late to boss around the gnomes [1] and tell us what you want to hear about D&D 4e from a GMing perspective.)

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10 Comments To "The Main Cast Rule"

#1 Comment By gospog On June 5, 2008 @ 5:54 am

I agree and would take it a bit farther, in the case of my groups.

Over the years, I’ve had some people who have had chronic problems with being late and missing games.

On the other hand, I have a few Players who are consistently at the table every game, and on time, too!

These punctual Players and their Characters become “the main cast”.

If I need something awesome to happen to a PC, it’s going to have to happen to Mike, because he’s there every game. It can’t happen to Matt, becuase there’s a 50% chance every game that he won’t show.

These “core Players” who show up all the time become the Main Cast in our story.

And when the undependable Players whine about this phenomenom, I always tell them the same thing, “You must be present to win.”

The first table rule that Players in my game learn is called The Rule of Three. If I have three Players, no matter how big the whole group is, I am running.

So far, it’s worked out great for my Main Cast.

#2 Comment By Fnor On June 5, 2008 @ 6:30 am

I actually disagree that everything should happen to the party. I think that most of the action should focus on them, but there are a lot of things that you can do with others (party NPCs are a favorite of mine) to heighten tension, create confusion, and set the scene. If everything happens to the players, then in order for it to really have effect, they must understand what is going on, and that is frequently not desirable.

A particularly useful way of doing this is The Worf Effect. I had a group of rank 8 Dragon (clanmembers. L5R.) that the party was familiar with, and more than a bit scared of. They had just come from a big battle where these 6 Dragon essentially replaced an entire unit of troops, yet the party left the celebration to find half of them dead, just in time to see some sort of shapeshifted skewer the last one standing. I didn’t do anything to the PCs, but the consequences were huge, because not only did one of my players have this ridiculously powerful monster loose in his town, but another had to find a way to heal the daimyo of a great clan vassal family or else risk a war.

Military campaigns are the same kind of thing. While things do happen to the PCs, they are always in support. Rather than going in and attacking the general’s camp, they’re engaging the enemy’s flank to keep the army off-balance.

I think it’s fine to have the big stuff happen to people off-screen (or at least out of the party) so long as the play is satisfying. This does lead to a slightly more coherent world (the world doesn’t revolve around them) and keeps the potency of your NPCs well into the stage when a purely party-centric campaign views them as either demigods are fodder.

#3 Comment By brcarl On June 5, 2008 @ 9:59 am

I think the plot should always focus on the main cast, but the environment should have stuff happening to both the PCs and NPCs. This helps with immersion, as the world will feel more real if it is changing despite their non-presence.

#4 Comment By Idran On June 5, 2008 @ 11:43 am

Speaking from a player’s perspective, I wouldn’t want this to happen without a well-grounded reason, honestly. I’m perfectly fine with it happening with a reason, as it is a game and we should be the center of events. But that doesn’t mean I want it to happen _without_ any reason at all. I want there to be an answer when the GM tells me “you’re the only ones that can save us” and I ask “why?”

To go for a Star Trek metaphor, the Enterprise is usually the only ship in the sector and they’re the only ones that can head out and solve the problem. Even when the problem is occurring right next to Earth. And many, many Trek fans mock that tendency, including me.

So make the PCs the center of things, sure. But you should give a reason why they’re the center. Or at least have one. I can’t be the only player for which the lack of one would break my suspension of disbelief.

(Then again, going by a lot of the GMing advice for players I’ve seen, sometimes I think I might be the only player with my playstyle, in this and other areas. :D)

#5 Comment By Swordgleam On June 5, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

I’d have to agree with Idran that there should be some kind of semi-plausible reason for the players to be the center of attention. Yeah, the players should be the center of attention almost all the time, but it loses a lot of the affect if the players have to spend as much effort on suspending disbelief as in dealing with the crisis.

This probably does come down to playstyle, though. Games that are okay with aluminium dragons (don’t ask) are likely going to be okay with the king specifically asking this group of low-level adventurers to save the kingdom. Games with a more realistic feel are going to have to come up with credible reasons to put the party in the spotlight.

#6 Comment By Dire Emu On June 5, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

I have not used the “central cast” in a long time. I have used it in some settings like my Pulp and Superhero genre games. In fantasy settings I tend to use more of a “living world” approach where the world continues on regardless, in spite of, or as a result of the character’s actions.

In these settings, the players seem to appreciate the knowledge that they are always part of somethign bigger and that in the world their character live in consequences are consequences and that things happen for a reason. This helps them build character and story. They are still central to the story of course, but there is always a good reason for things happening to the characters, Of course sometimes, shit happens and the players may find themselves wondering “what the?”.

#7 Comment By JuanNavarro On June 7, 2008 @ 9:27 am

In the campaign I ran, I tried to make the characters feel like there is a world going on around them, at the same time, they are affecting the world.
They were part of a religious sect/small country in a city that housed races and beings from many places and planes, all refugees of horrible war. Like the rest of the city, they sought shelter there and were trying to make a living while a “great evil” scourged the world and the a war between the last free nations and this huge superpower were happening.
So as for the 2 clerics of the group had to tend to the masses of their people finding them housing and even jobs they also had to contend with a serial killer out to get foreign women in the city, Local Gangs trying to muscle the community, they had to also perform duties like hosting marriages and such.
Other times events happened like a War hero coming home, or King’s Son making an appearance and the characters would find the streets abandoned. Now if they participated or not, that was up to them.
All th while they would hear news about the war, and heroes and what was going on in the front lines.
Soon at higher levels they met these heroes, and it helped the players be astonished.
I don’t think the heroes need to be the center of the world but that they feel they are part of an ever evolving world that is changing with them and with out them, makes the whole thing seems bigger.
At least thats what I tried.

#8 Comment By robosnake On June 9, 2008 @ 1:25 am

What I shoot for is putting the PCs at the center of the major story, but deepening and broadening that story as the game progresses. Low-level characters are at the center of local, parochial concerns, whereas high-level characters are at the center of epic conflicts. Putting low-level characters in epic conflicts swallows them whole and makes them feel irrelevant, while keeping high-level characters local normally doesn’t make much sense. If this village needs epic heroes to save it, why isn’t the world ending elsewhere?

All of this is learned through error, in my case.

#9 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 9, 2008 @ 6:43 am

I like to keep the focus on the PCs during the sessions, then write up between-game “interludes” about the NPCs. Sometimes the NPCs in these interludes talk about the PCs and the plot, sometimes no. It’s a good way to reinforce the idea that the world is “bigger” than what the PCs see, while still making them the stars.

Regarding the Lost analogy, if your players ask too many questions about your world, and you spend too much time answering them, you can end up with a Nikki and Paolo situation, and nobody wants that. ; )

#10 Comment By Omnus On June 9, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

I agree with the “living world” but I think a balance must be struck. For instance, if the party is presented with a situation like the kingdom they’re in becoming under siege by the shambling undead, but they decide to teleport off to find the Jewelled Girdle of the Goddess (which has nothing to do with the undead), they shouldn’t be surprised that the undead horde ate the entire kingdom in their absence. After all, they did nothing to help. The problem with this is the possibility of railroading, via the plot stick, or the party becoming a cliche, as “the Chosen Ones”.

What I do with more-realistic, modern games like Werewolf: the Apocalypse (a favorite of my groups’) is to make an agenda for all kinds of things to happen. Then I let the party loose. After every session, I take into account how the interactions of the PCs has affected the timetable, make notes and adjustments, and prepare the next session with those new adjustments in mind. This lends the game a much more mysterious feel to it, as the party tries to understand not only what’s happening, but why it’s happening, and how they can come out with the best ending possible. How kind you are with hints and leads is up to you, of course…but I always err on the side of kindness to my players, as they ARE the heroes of the story.

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