There Can Be Only One

While I was first working on Heroes Fall I did the bulk of my writing while I was binge watching the 1990s Highlander TV show. I’ve been a fan of the film series (well, Highlander and Highlander: Endgame) since I was a teenager. This set me to noodling on how I would make a Highlander game. The obvious problem here is the catch phrase: there can be only one. How do I make a game with a single protagonist that isn’t a bore for the rest of the table?

Protagonism in Games

Most RPGs are social activities and are designed to share the spotlight across all the players. In a traditional RPG, this means having a GM and multiple players. Nominally the players are all equal. Many games deal with this by aligning the player characters on a singular goal or quest and they must work together to overcome the challenges on that quest. Fiasco handles this by chopping up the GM role and handing it out across the table while still having all the players be protagonists.

A game with a single protagonist breaks this mold. There are dozens of stories, popular fiction, that work better with a single protagonist than with a team. The James Bond franchise is about the titular spy – his allies, love interests, friends, contacts, and enemies change from film to film. In short it’s not necessary to give those characters as much spotlight as James Bond himself. The same goes for the MacLeods of Highlander: one of the central themes of the property is that the price of immortality is watching your loved ones age, wither, and die. Who wants to make a central cast member character only to have them killed off for a dramatic beat?

The contradiction here is that while the characters do not need as much spotlight time the players should have an equal share of the story. Doing that without a character to call your own can be tricky.

Multiple GMs

The solution I came up with for my imaginary Highlander game is to have one protagonist and multiple GMs.

The game would be for three to five players, with one player taking the role of the central immortal (the protagonist) in the game. The remaining players are GMs and each controls a domain of the world: mortal allies/friends/lovers, mortal authorities, The Watchers, and other immortals. Each GM creates a stable of NPCs they play throughout a season. There can be some overlap or blurring of lines with the stables – a love interest may be another mortal or a Watcher could be an ally. Whenever the protagonist has a scene involving a character from one of the domains, the relevant GM plays that character. This makes things interesting as multiple GMs can get involved in a scene where, for example, mortal authorities are investigating an old immortal friend for murder and the protagonist’s mortal lover wants to interfere.

The structure of an episode would involve a central conflict (presented by one GM at the beginning), the protagonist earns a narrative currency throughout the episode, and then there would be a final conflict. Often the final conflict is a duel till an immortal loses their head but it could be something else. It’s often more interesting to have either the opposing immortal gain the upper hand and let the protagonist escape or have the villain flee.

The interstitial scenes explore relationships, give context with flashback scenes, and offer up B-plot conflicts. The idea here is to explore the themes from Highlander that were prevalent in the show: memory, immortality and the cost thereof, cyclical happenings, and human nature.

Fully GM Fully Player

For Heroes Fall, I’m thinking of borrowing this structure and rewriting the game such that each session follows a single protagonist. At the start of a campaign, each player creates a protagonist and a faction, alliance, or group allied with that character. In a given session, the protagonist’s player gets the spotlight and can explore the character’s needs, wants, and drives as necessary. The other players provide the opposition and obstacles to the protagonist’s goals. If the protagonist comes into contact with another PC, the MC can take that role temporarily. This rotates around the table each session so that each protagonist is never out of the spotlight for too long.

The Apocalypse engine can do this well, I think, because of the structured nature of the MC role and how the game guides the actions of the MC. One thing I would need to do is create rules for advancement when acting as an MC or the whole third tier of advancement goes out the window.

If I can focus each session on a certain protagonist without ignoring the rest of the table, the game opens up plenty of opportunities for me send the characters on adventures and get some really gritty, fun, pulpy action going. This might even give Heroes Fall a nice anthology feel over the course of a campaign. That would be awesome.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Parallel development is neat! I came up with the ideas for multiple GMs in Highlander on my own but I am not alone in my thoughts along those lines. Brian Engard used something very similar for his game Becoming, which casts the GMs as the three Fates. My initial design thoughts on this predate his Becoming Kickstarter by more than a year but I haven’t done anything with it since I jotted down the outline in early 2012. Not that I’m the Liebniz to his Newton or anything. Seeing another designer create a multi-GM single-player RPG was very encouraging.

The structure I’m considering for Heroes Fall mirrors the work Joe J. Prince did on Contenders and Eternal Contenders except I’m aiming for each session to be focused on a single character where those games cycle much faster after each scene.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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