Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Roll For Initiative

One of my favourite techniques for livening up a campaign is to hand out a bunch of disposable characters for the players to play for a single session. It’s certainly not original to me: Ken’s often spoken of the genius of the Raid on Innsmouth scenario for Call of Cthulhu, which gives the players command of squads of federal agents and basically says “go die in entertaining ways”.

Introduce temporary characters of this sort:

  • As a prologue or side story to the main adventure. In The Wreck, for example, the players start out playing the crew of a doomed ship who get eaten by Deep Ones. After that bloody scene, the players switch to their regular investigators, called in to examine the wreck of the ship and find out what happened.
  • As a change of pace or chapter break; for example, in a 13th Age campaign, you might mark the transition from Adventurer to Heroic tier by having the players play a bunch of 0th level town guards in a town that’s about to get eaten by the Stone Thief. Use this to comment on the main characters and show how they’ve become major figures in the setting.
  • When the group splits up for a protracted period of time, and you have some players switch to playing the hirelings/support crew/temporary contacts for the other main characters. This keeps everyone involved in the game without having to cut back and forth between plotlines.
  • To convey lengthy backstory. Rather than summarising the contents of a Mythos diary, play through the events of the diary as a (likely somewhat linear) one-shot. We pull this trick a lot in the Dracula Dossier, where Directors are encouraged to use the Edom Files scenario in this manner.

Tips for effective temporary characters:

  • Don’t sweat the rules. You don’t need to create fully rounded characters. Just the most basic stats are fine. These characters don’t need to be played for long. Obviously, in a combat-heavy game, there’s a requisite amount of rules compliance, but don’t make too much work for yourself.
  • A change is as good as a rest: Playing temporary characters should be an invigorating change. Use temporary characters to explore very different facets of the game world. If the regular characters are epic fantasy heroes, the temporary characters might be simple superstitious peasants. If the regular group are mutant cops, switch up by playing the temporary characters as unpowered citizens, or mutant criminals hiding from the cops.
  • Play them as foils: Keep the regular characters in mind when designing the temporary characters. If a regular character’s gimmick is that they’re a control freak, then make one of the temps rebellious and chaotic. If a regular character’s devoted to the ancient faith of their alien species, then make the temp a heretic who loudly rejects the old ways. Temporary characters offer a great opportunity for clashing personalities that would never be viable in a long-term group.
  • Play them to destruction: Temporary characters are temporary, so build them with one eye on the exit. Kill them off, drive them insane, make them secretly working for the bad guys. Build dramatic situations into their backstories and then trigger them right away. They’re brief candles, so let them burn brightly.
  • Get back to the main characters promptly: Not all players enjoy having to spend time and effort on temporary characters, so always have an endpoint in mind. One to three sessions is about the maximum lifespan of a temporary character; after that, get back to the main storyline (although, of course, really memorable temps can stick around as supporting cast or even replacement player characters…)
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