One of the first things I noticed about the new Defenders show on Netflix was that, by virtue of making an ensemble out of a bunch of established solo characters, it wound up feeling more like an RPG than many TV shows do. And that makes it an excellent example for some GMing techniques that I think it highlights. This post, obviously, may contain SPOILERS for the Defenders (though I’ll try to keep them to minor structural ones), so proceed at your own risk if you didn’t binge it over the weekend.

Splitting the Party

The first thing I noticed about Defenders was that it was using a technique I’ve really only seen in World of Darkness games (and mostly in a subset of WoD games where the GMs all learned it from one another). The group starts out split, doesn’t know one another, and gradually their solo experience compounds into winding up as a team. Importantly, this isn’t just a series of preludes that were all run individually and then the first full session has everyone meet up. Instead, like in Defenders, scenes alternate between PCs (often cutting on a cliffhanger), sometimes two PCs will briefly meet and then continue on separately, and only once the plot is well and truly laid out do they realize they need to work together. Sometimes, it can take multiple sessions. And the other players are all there while this is happening, waiting their turns for the spotlight.

This has several useful effects:

  • The other players get a better sense of your character by watching without being able to interfere when you have spotlight time. Though it’s an entirely metagame experience, it gives everyone a better sense of what you and the GM have agreed is cool about your character.
  • The metagame aspect is also important: it gets the players used to the idea of firewalling what they’ve experienced in and out of play. Inevitably, there’s some slippage as you eventually can’t remember whether you were there for a scene where a crucial detail happened, but the important thing is that you’re trying.
  • It also gets you used to allowing other players to have spotlight time without being disruptive. The social contract is that you’ll get a similar amount of spotlight time where the other players will also keep quiet and let you have your moment.
  • Finally, it establishes that splitting up is a thing that is safe to do.

The adage to never split the party often comes from the idea that you could, at any moment, run into a party-scaled encounter by yourself and lose. Letting the players run around solo for a while gets them used to going off solo or in pairs to do things when the situation demands it, and makes it apparent that this isn’t likely to get anyone killed. Sometimes you’ll run into something that you don’t want to tackle without the whole party, and rarely you’ll get in over your head and have to escape a threat that the party would trounce, but you’re not terrified of being alone.

This technique probably works best in a city-based game, rather than one spread out or in hostile territory.

Recurring Villains

One of the things a lot of games suffer from is insufficiently involved villains. Sure, you might have heard of the guy from his minions and former victims, but you don’t actually meet him until you get to the final room of the final dungeon in the module. Then it’s a fight, maybe after a brief monologue. Boring.

In order for your players to really feel connected to your villains—whether that be total hatred or conflicted aggravation—they need to meet them multiple times. The villains need to do things on screen that drive the players mad, take thing from them, or fail to do things and narrowly escape. The problem is that your players are likely to go nuclear if they’re allowed at all: if they identify the main villain, especially if it’s a combat encounter, all available resources go into putting her down quickly and completely.

The Defenders answer to this is that the bad guys are mostly very experienced ninjas. They go into every fight with the heroes with a cheater’s escape route planned (there are numerous scenes where the “taken out” result for the bad guy becomes “and you knock him offscreen and he’s just gone“). This is a trick you can use for ninjas and teleporting wizards, but it only works so long before the players start planning countermeasures. Other techniques from the Defenders prelude shows are that the bad guy is legally clean, and the law would take a dim view of assaulting him in public, so there can be confrontations in public spaces without either side feeling like it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation. Finally, never underestimate the villain having a conversation, the PCs thinking they have her right where they want her, and then she wanders out after summoning a horde of minions or environmental disaster that keeps the PCs away from her.

Ultimately, the real trick is making sure you’ve designed the villains’ motivations so they don’t necessarily want to commit themselves fully to a fight until the end game. Come up with reasons why they feel their goals can be met without endangering themselves. They should be willing to walk away several times rather than fighting to the death, even if they outclass the PCs.

Constrained Villains

One of the things that’s always in the back of my head as a player is whether it feels like the opposition’s resources are infinite until they’re suddenly not. Will taking out these minions have a measurable impact on the villains’ ability to operate? Is it worth it to strike at a target, or will they just have a similar resource later if we capture this one? Do the villains have to play by the same rules I do, even if they start with more resources?

Defenders does a really good job of constraining the villains (though it’s unclear if those constraints would be totally clear to the PCs if they weren’t seeing the internal bad guy discussion scenes that we’re privy to as the audience). They’ve gambled their most precious resource on obtaining a big payoff, and the time is running out for them to get that payoff.

This gives you a number of really useful plot levers to use as a GM:

  • There’s a natural time pressure: the villains need to do things soon, and aren’t going to wait on the PCs to be ready.
  • There are a number of things that the villains can do that are mistakes to give the PCs an advantage, because they’re out of options.
  • The PCs can capitalize on information to put the villains on the defensive, giving the players an enhanced sense of agency.
  • The PCs can ultimately realize that they have several methods of victory, including taking away a key villain resource and/or just running out the clock on their scheme.

Fighting a group of stressed, worried, and grasping bad guys is ultimately going to make your players feel a lot better about their own options and place in the game world than if every set of bad guys is powerful and secure until the PCs can finally work out a fait accompli to cut off the head.

Supporting Cast

Like a lot of GMs, I’m bad at remembering to use supporting cast. When you’ve got a short session, it can feel like a waste of time to take a minute to have a brief roleplay scene with one PC’s family and friends. But if your player gave you those NPCs in the first place, it was out of hopes that they’d get used for more than damselling or other pathos. Sometimes, you just have to do the groundwork to have them recur enough to feel like part of the fabric of the world, and to give the player an opportunity to express elements of her character that aren’t seen when in full adventurer mode.

This is certainly easier if you’ve started off with a split party, so it’s more usual that there are scenes with one PC off alone dealing with NPCs, playing out what she’s doing when not with the rest of the group.

Defenders does a good job of providing a use for most of the supporting cast. It helps if your system has rules for mental stress that your loved ones can help you remove. Even if it doesn’t, they can be hooked into resources that the PCs don’t have: reporters to get you information you’d missed, cops and lawyers to get you out of legal trouble, doctors and nurses to handle physical ailments, and even less-skilled adventurers that can take some minor threats off your plate so you can focus on the bigger problems.

Also, remember to have the players add their useful NPCs to their character sheets. NPCs immediately become more real to players when tracked as a resource.

Protagonist Plot Glue

The downside of several of these techniques is that it can sometimes be hard to hit the ground running with fully committed protagonists. When you do group character generation, it’s much easier to motivate everyone to follow the plot as a team, as their characters are intimately connected to one another and, usually, the story as a whole. But when the players have made independent, fully realized characters, they may have trouble finding proper motivation to engage. You’ll need to devise the plot to glue the PCs together and to the story.

Some of your players may be like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones: despite their outward complaining about being wrapped up in something that doesn’t truly concern them, they’re at the game to play and will figure out a motivation to dive in. At worst, the GM will need to have an aside with the player and ask what kind of thing would flip the PC from on-the-fence to fully-committed. It may just take a minor incident to convey that the bigger problem will have follow-on problems to things the PC cares about.

Some may be like Matt Murdock: he’s created a deep and robust character, and talked himself into doing less fun things because they’re more true to the character. Without the right motivations, he’ll sit on the sidelines playing lawyer, because he’s convinced himself that the character doesn’t want to risk his mundane life and supporting cast. At best, there are a number of contrived scenes where he gets to play legal counsel to the rest of the team, and maybe secretly help out a little. At worst, you’re spinning your wheels running repeated side scenes where he agonizes over not being able to help while going through the motions of his mundane life. For this type of character, you need to make sure that the plot leaves no escape: the things he cares about are in direct danger, the plot is directly relevant to his backstory, and, what the hell, his ex-girlfriend is back from the dead and deeply enmeshed. The player will thank you for making the decision to engage as easy in character as it is out of character.

Some may be the opposite problem, like Danny Rand: they’re gung ho to go after the plot, but the other players are going to have a really hard time justifying hanging out with this guy. There’s often a Danny Rand in the group, who made a character that just doesn’t fit. Maybe he didn’t understand the memo about, “we’re making down-on-their-luck, street-level heroes,” or maybe there was less direction and everyone else just settled on a theme by happenstance. Maybe he’s a new player who just doesn’t get the social norms of the group. Honestly, modern occult and superheroes games often make “one of us is super wealthy, and the rest of us are broke” an issue with how they price wealth in character creation, and nobody can figure out why they’d hang out with the rich guy as peers, and don’t want to be his de facto minions. This last problem can often be the toughest, and you pretty much have to do what Defenders does: make the odd PC out key to the whole plot, until the party settles into being used to having that guy around.

If you’re lucky, after the first major storyline, the PCs will have gelled well enough that you can be less heavy-handed for the second. But be prepared to keep tabs on where the players are at with their PCs’ emotional lives (possibly through supporting cast), and be ready to keep tuning the game until they’re ready to stick as a group to your satisfaction.