XCOM is a tactical, turn-based game where you maneuver a squad of soldiers to defeat an alien invasion, responding to alien attacks as they appear. Your team can ultimately be up to six members and they level up, becoming more and more effective. But by the end of the game you’ll likely have around a dozen soldiers that are decently leveled, even if you don’t do what I did and try to avoid using characters that can’t get any more exp unless the mission is difficult. This is because whenever any character takes damage during a mission (in excess of points provided by armor) he or she actually has to spend time healing. Alien attacks are happening every few days, particularly early on, so if you have a character healing for a week, that character is going to have to be replaced with your next choice for any given mission. Particularly before you get heavy armors and better healing, you may be having more than half of your squad wounded for at least a couple of days every mission.

This process reminded me of a recent blog post by Tim Kask, once and future TSR employee, about how D&D was played originally. The players didn’t just swap PCs because of high-mortality, but because they had a whole stable of characters each. If someone wanted to start a new character, the other players could play what were effectively their “alts” (in MMO parlance) to adventure with him. And their characters might be unavailable due to time-consuming projects or, in fact, getting wounded with a long recovery time. I suspect the classic “my character died, let me reroll” concept may even be inaccurate, replaced with “my character died, let me bring in my other character who’s already about the right level for this adventure.”

That post probably shouldn’t have been such a revelation to me, given how obvious it is once explained. A lot of the old D&D tropes that have been largely designed away over the years in a world that’s increasingly become one PC per player at a time suddenly make way more sense in this context. Random chargen makes more sense if you can try several different characters at once and stick with the one that’s the most fun (even rather than playing sequentially with high mortality). The concept of level caps and retiring PCs works as a way of encouraging players to spread their focus (just like in most MMOs you’d probably rather bring an alt to play with lower-level friends rather than your high-level PC that doesn’t even get exp from that level of threat).

I’ve heard a lot of OSR folks complain about Dragonlance as the point when D&D began to require an ongoing story about heroes rather than their preferred style of largely amoral adventurers going into dungeons for thrills and treasure. But it’s also potentially a model for how you could maintain the old style of a character stable with an ongoing story. The obvious way to look at the Chronicles is as a party that got so large that the GM eventually forces them to split into two groups on parallel adventures. But if you see it as a much smaller group that gradually adds alts, chooses who to play based on a plot that forks and rejoins, and happily sacrifices an alt now and again for a heroic death, it works just as well. That last point is huge: it’s much more palatable to have that big, impressive death scene that RPGs are always telling us would be awesome if you aren’t just going to have to immediately roll a new character, but actually already have another character you’ve already played a lot and are excited to play more.

All you really need to try this style of play is:

  • A shift from “a band of [Number of Players] heroes who are the only ones to face this task” to “a small organization always looking for more heroes to face this task”
  • A rationale for why only a subset of this group ever goes on missions at once (from a simple “a small group draws less notice than an army” hand wave, to a “too many characters can’t coordinate effectively in combat” hedge, to a detailed system of healing times and downtime actions that conspire to keep alts busy)
  • A base or traveling camp that the adventures stay near so players can explain how they’re swapping characters frequently
  • A tendency for sessions to end on return to base or other rationale for swapping out characters
  • A regular enough game session that players don’t feel like they’re not progressing on any of their characters if they don’t stick to one

That last point is generally the hardest for adult gamers who don’t have time to play every week, but the other points make it easier. A style of play that doesn’t have to skip a session if one or two players can’t make it (because the last session ended mid-adventure with those players PCs unable to exit gracefully) and can easily bring in additional players every now and again is one that can more easily run frequently (as only the GM has to make it to every session).

I’m certainly very likely to try something in this vein, particularly the next time I have more players interested in a game than I’m comfortable hosting at once. Several of my players have traditionally always started game planning with a barrage of character ideas, and if nothing else it will be fun to just tell them, “Go ahead and make ’em all.”

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