We have all probably played with that guy. The one who has a new character again and last week’s drow priestess is giving to way next week’s half-orc bloodrager already in his eyes. You barely have the name down before its on to the next one. And then four weeks later, all he can mention is how he should have stuck with his priestess and that the party would have done better if he had.
What if he could have?
So what exactly is a Character Tree in an RPG? Popularized in the ancestral system‘s post-apocalyptic savage world, a Character Tree is more or less a group of characters played by the same player, each available to play as needed. Now, this is not (generally) a player that gets to play these characters in a party simultaneously. Each character is rotated in when needed or desired.
There are a lot of reasons that a Character Tree can exist, here are a few:
Reasons to Use a Character Tree
- Story & World Exploration – Sometimes a story is just so big, it needs multiple point-of-views to make sense of it. A setting or world can become much more real when seen from multiple places and perspectives. The same is true for NPCs. A guard who gives your rogue a hassle might be a friend or kinsman to your paladin. Character Trees can greatly aid verisimilitude.
- Portraying an Organization – If you want to give the feeling of characters being part of a larger organization like “Those Who Harp,” “The Mightiest Guild in All the Three Lands,” or “Giantslayer Squad” then a tree might make a moderately sized group seem much larger and formidable.
- Mechanical Needs – If you have a small group and want to explore a broader array of modules or adventures, your GM may not have time to go through and de-trap them for the party’s lack of a rogue. Your bard might have a more difficult time in the shadow of the Blackspike etc… Campaigns using Character Trees can explore broader ranges of challenges without forcing a player to stay committed to a role they don’t enjoy as much.
- Logistical Needs – Maybe your group has an inconsistent play roster. As opposed to kicking out the fighter’s player because of her work schedule, you can have a rotating roster so that role remains covered. It also allows for momentary swells for “mega events” when maybe all the players can make it. Also, if the group is comfortable, a player can “multi-box” if there is a sudden drop in game attendance in response to party needs.
- Dynamic Needs – Sometimes a concept ends up being less fun than expected. Maybe a class has a progression “dead zone” where it is less fun or effective (or both) to play. Or the group just gets stale. A Character Tree can flex in a lot of variety and new party roles. It can also facilitate co-GMing, which will allow for less GM-burnout.
- Death Ready – Sadly, characters sometimes die mid-session. One of the biggest advantages of a healthy Tree system, is that a character is on deck immediately. The tree characters have pre-established relationships with the rest of the group and may already even have played with some of the other characters.
Watch Points for Character Trees
Some specific questions & issues should be considered with a Character Tree style game:
- Experience Tracking – How is experience managed? Do characters in the Tree all gain the experience of every adventure? Do they get only the experience they play? A portion or percent? Generally speaking, at least a portion of experience is shared or “copied” to non-active characters as that it is assumed they are off doing “something”. This keeps characters in closer ranges for be a broader array of groups. “Play only” experience forces character rotation to become more important.
- Loot Management – How is treasure distributed? Do “off-screen” characters get any share? Do they get there own from somewhere else? Make sure your group is clear on how and who the treasure gets divided by or to. Find an awesome holy sword with your mage that you really want your paladin to have? Is that okay? Most groups will be okay with some inter-character exchanges but to avoid negative feelings its best to have these concerns talked out.
- Scale of the Tree – How big is the tree? Games can spiral to cast sizes rivaling serial television or novel series relatively quickly. In our current Mage Guild games players can each have up to ten characters!–Which puts the “cast” over 100! Be aware that the larger the scale the less play time each character can have. Consider how this interacts with experience tracks.
- Rotation Frequency – Are players required to change characters? If so, how often? What in-game reasons are there? If players are not required to change then the Character Tree system can be an “opt-in” selection giving your players their choice of preference. Be careful that low-rotation characters don’t become “the stars” of the game without prior discussion about it (some groups are fine playing the members of the princess’ royal guard and some… aren’t).
- Many Faces, One Voice – Make sure that players are okay with the level or personality distinction and the realities of assuming different roles in the same story. Unequal behavior can end up with some players enforcing single “agendas” from group conformation among their characters. Unless the entire group is very unified of purpose this can be highly damaging to verisimilitude.
- Organizational Systems – Multiple characters can be a lot to handle, and some players are better at it then others. Make sure you have a system in place (or at least a good binder) to keep track of all these things. A few specific lists might also include:
- Who in the tree has this character adventured with? And when?
- Who has the treasure from x encounter? How was it distributed?
- What does this character know that your other characters don’t?
- Where has each character traveled?
Character Trees aren’t for every story, or even every group but can be a fun change of pace for your next (or current?) campaign. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the tree structure, scale and other rules surrounding it and then let the d6s roll (unless you use point buy).