High performance teams

If you’ve haven’t seen the show Leverage, it’s basically a weekly 1-hour heist movie. Someone described this show to me as “competency porn,” since all the team members are the best at what they do and they show it off for the audience each week. The Star Trek Next Generation team was also the same way: they took the best and brightest in the whole galaxy and we watched them roll through any challenge put before them in only 44 minutes.

Contrasting to these shows is Burn Notice, which is a show about a spy going around doing MacGyvery things. While the protagonist has specialist friends that help him into and out of jams, the show is pretty much about the one guy. The single protagonist model, while awesome on TV, fails in a RPG. The main hereo a cool fantasy for an individual to play out, but to do so you need understanding friends that wouldn’t mind being the supporting cast. In a cooperative story telling game, everyone has to share the spotlight. That means as a player you have to encourage others to take their turn and sit back when it’s not.

Let’s go back to the Leverage example. Each character on the show has a unique role due their specialties. While they might all be charming and witty, only one person is the designated grifter. And evne though they can each throw punches, there’s someone dedicated to be the muscle. Sometimes they shake up who is performing a specific role, but each person still has a non-overlapping role. In these examples and “role” refers the the character’s party function and not the combat role (leader, striker, defender, controller). In d&d you can have a party with 5 rogues or where everybody is sneaky, but only one guy should be the cutpurse, wilderness scout, or crossbow back-stabber. Having something uniquely useful a character can do makes him an integral part of a team.

In a general party, one guy should be the history buff, one the trapmaker, one the healer, etc. The best way to ensure uniqueness of roles is to use a “group template” and build the characters together as a team. I think many groups have gotten better about this in terms of having the class roles covered, but not as often with the adventuring roles. Ideally you should talk about your character’s motivations and desires and how those manifest as her skills, feats, and abilities. It’s better to cover what roles the various characters will play at creation time, so you can compromise and adjust if there is an overlap. After all, if one character hogs all the “cool” activities, why bother with an adventuring party?

It’s harder to modify an existing group, but there is plenty of opportunity. If two characters grow into the same role, trouble can ensue when both players try to grab the stage. When that happens there are a few ways out:

  • One player can take the opportunity to stretch his role play imagination and play a unserved role in the party. The interested player can take feats and train skills in the applicable areas or buy specialized equipment, make certain contacts, etc. It’s incumbent on the GM to make sure there then is sufficient game time for that character, and hopefully if you have a good DM he’ll let you retrain more than one thing at once to maximize the character’s usefulness.
  • You can split the role, but agree to be the lead for certain situations. Share the decision with the DM so he can make sure there is ample opportunity for both players to have that spot. It’s not the best situation since it may not work out to 50/50, and put stress on the DM to balance your two egos.
  • The easiest, but least fun option is to be so passive-aggressive about it until you tear apart the campaign, and start all over again with a group template that discusses roles.

This is another case really of communication issues, but I honestly believe there is enough stuff to do in an adventure for 4-5 characters to each have their own niche. There’s a lot of burden on the DM to provide opportunities to express that niche, and patience required on the part of the all the players to wait for their turn and to let the others get theirs. Players can help each other by creating opportunities for each other’s skills to be useful, but that requires knowing what roles each person wants to fill. For those who want to be the single hero, there’s plenty of opportunity to play Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, or Uncharted instead.

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6 thoughts on “High performance teams

  1. You may have gotten CP through me, but due credit goes to John Rogers, the showrunner for Leverage (and also an RPG geek – he wrote the Arcadia section for the recent Manual of the Planes, and posted Parker’s stats for True20 here).

    Another excellent (and old school) example of this is this musketeer game. Every character is a musketeer, and thus can swash and buckle, so with that out of the way, the question is what distinguishes them _outside_ of that.

    One other solution to handling this in a real game is rotating spotlight. This is sort of the inverse of skill-based focus, since it’s much less about what the character can do and more about their background and connections. If your players can handle this (and i think most groups can if they understand what’s happening) then the “lead” character changes every couple of sessions – maybe every session – as the nature of the game changes.

    Thus, for the arc where you’re fighting the slavers, it’s the escaped slave’s story, but for the sessions spent in the imperial capitol, the nobleman is the focus. This can work well provided two things are done very clearly. First, the players need to understand that everyone will get their turn. If they understand that, they will usually be enthusiastic in helping their friends rock the house because they trust that it will come back on them in a good way.

    Second, you still need to give everyone else a good “B” storyline (a term from television & screenwriting). This can sound daunting, but the secret is that these are often the most fun for players and the GM. To understand why, think about TV shows you’ve enjoyed. How often have you been lukewarm on the main plot, but been grabbed up in some side plot that a supporting character is involved in?

    For me, it happens a lot (and is basically the entirety of my experience with “How I Met Your Mother”) because the main plot is often too serious for its own good. B plots tend to be lightly sketched ideas that are easy and fun to explore – things like “Roknar the Barbarian has just woken up in the religious district buck naked. Now what?” Sure, his noble companion is getting some serious play in navigating the vipers nest of imperial politics (the A plot) , and that’s where the meat of the session is, but odds are good that Roknar’s player is going to have a good time of it, and it may be that he’s the one who walks out with more war stories.

    Anyway, I’m rambling, so take it all with a grain of salt. But excellent post, about an excellent idea.

    -Rob D.

  2. Excellent Post. You mention several potential “roles” in your article. I would be interested in seeing a list of disjoint roles for a group of players to choose from they way they pick classes. Perhaps several different sets for variety.

  3. @Rob,

    Well thanks for the phrase. If you have a link to you or John Rogers, I’d be happy to link to that. The rotating spotlight is an interesting idea. If we knew for certain how long and when it would be, that might be bareable, but my group meets too infrequently for me to try that out. I do like the “B” story line idea. I have some long term stuff I’d like my character to get around to, but I think you’re suggesting just something to tackle in a session or two at a time. I may suggest that to my DM and see how it goes, I don’t want to put too much burden on her story.

    @David “Blue”
    I think I could come up with a list of things for a future post. Stay tuned.

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