(This shouldn’t contain any particular spoilers for Stranger Things 2.)

Watching Stranger Things, like with many large-ensemble sci-fi shows, the first place my brain goes is, if this was an RPG, how are the PCs distributed? That is, traditional ensembles work like traditional RPGs, in that there is a smallish group that often gets together, and even when they split up you feel like it’s one protagonist per player. However, in large ensembles, it can be vanishingly rare for the whole group to do anything together. Instead, the action is constantly flipping between different groups, and you can begin to wonder whether, modeled in an RPG, this would be each player portraying more than one protagonist, with each player swapping PCs as the scene demands it. Why do two protagonists rarely get screen time together? Because they’re being played by the same player, and the GM tries to keep doubling up your own PCs in a scene from happening.

So this is a method for generating a Stranger Things-esque set of PC concepts for troupe-style play. Each player winds up making three PCs from different age brackets, with the intention that the GM will be running several events concurrently that will be handled by different sets of PCs. When something comes up, you play the PC that’s most appropriate or, if that PC is already busy, whichever PC you have remaining that could conceivably participate.

This is purely a character concept-generation method. You can use any system desired once you’ve settled on concepts.

The Brackets and Archetypes

There are four age brackets:

  • Youngest: Adolescent of 11-13
  • Younger: Young teen of 13-15
  • Older: Teen of 15-19
  • Oldest: Grownup of 20+

In the course of concept generation, you’ll pitch a concept for each bracket and then lose one of them, so the age range allows you to adjust the character’s final age to fit in better with the other PCs in the same tier. For example, if two players keep their Youngest and two players only have a Younger character, the middle school characters are probably all around 13.

This should make more sense in a minute.

There are also four archetypes:

  • Charismatic: If you’re still in school, you’re a popular kid. If you’re an adult, you’re socially adept.
  • Athletic: If you’re still in school, you’re a jock. If you’re an adult, you have physical (likely including combat) competence.
  • Smart: If you’re still in school, you’re a nerd. If you’re an adult, you have mental advantages.
  • Talented: If you’re still in school, you’re an arty kid or other performer. If you’re an adult, you have some kind of interesting skill specialty.

As with the brackets, you’ll pitch a concept for each archetype, then lose one of them.

You’ll wind up mixing and matching the brackets and archetypes. For example, you might initially pitch a popular adolescent (Charismatic/Youngest), a jock teen (Athletic/Younger), a nerdy older teen (Smart/Older), and an interestingly-skilled adult (Talented/Oldest).

You can obviously change out the brackets and archetypes to make more sense for your game, but these seem appropriate to me for a directly Stranger Things-inspired game.

The Special Character

You can skip this step if you don’t want to have any of the players with a powered character.

This step is the most significant chance for the players to have input on what type of weirdness is going to be present in the game, as the GM will have to adapt to the final special character chosen.

Each player picks one bracket and archetype combo (if you have four players, you can randomly distribute them if desired), then details a supernatural character concept for that combo. This should be an extremely high concept of around a sentence, just enough to give the other players an idea of what kind of powers and attitude you’d be bringing if you get to play the special character.

For example:

  • Charismatic/Youngest: A young, sidhe-like being that has wandered into the school and quickly used her glamour to become incredibly popular, but who is still learning what it means to be human
  • Athletic/Younger: A mutant that’s gaining strength, invulnerability, and all of that with puberty, and is trying to keep his abilities under wraps while the school sports team increasingly relies on him
  • Smart/Older: A picked-on girl that has been developing psychic powers and is fighting the temptation to use them to punish all the other kids in high school that have done her wrong over the years
  • Talented/Oldest: Despite his business card, nobody really believes that the new private investigator in town is a wizard, but he totally is

Each player votes privately to the GM, ranking the choices starting at 1 (favorite) and going up in order to least favorite. Players should skip their own characters when voting. Total up the numbers for each concept. The one with the lowest total gets to be the Special Character for the game.

The Troupe

Each* player comes up with four non-supernatural concepts, once for each bracket and archetype (combine them however you want).

* The player that got to keep the Special Character uses that character for that bracket/archetype combo.

Your pitch for each character concept should include one sentence each for:

  • Why is this character cool?
  • What’s a rumor going around about this character?
  • What’s the character’s biggest problem?

If you’re playing the Special Character, include it and expand it with the same questions.

For example, one player’s pitches might look like:

  • Charismatic/Older: He’s the nicest guy in school, and one of the best looking, so he’s very popular despite being from a low income family. There are always at least half a dozen girls that people think he’s sleeping with. Secretly, though, he’s gay and trying to figure out how to come out.
  • Athletic/Oldest: She’s a former Olympic triathlete that’s in the National Guard, and is also the gym coach. Obviously, the rumor is that she’s a lesbian. Her problem is really, though, that it’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman in this small 80s town anyway that she’s worried dating openly would ruin what cred she’s assembled.
  • Smart/Youngest: He’s a child savant who’s extremely gifted with math. Everyone thinks his parents are some kind of cult, or government agents, or eugenicists that did something weird to get a kid this smart. He’s in a huge fight with his parents where they want him to keep going to school with kids his own age and get socialized properly, and he just wants to skip some grades.
  • Talented/Younger: He’s a comic artist that’s talented beyond his young years, and is just counting the days before he can run off to illustrate for Marvel or DC. Everyone at school calls him Pirate, because the rumor is that he has a wooden leg. Actually, he just has reduced mobility and keeps it covered because of all the nasty scars from the terrible abuse his bio-dad put him through; he lives in constant dread of his father’s return.

As with the Special Character, the other players vote. Rank each other player’s pitches from 1-4 from the one you’re most interested in seeing that player portray to the one that you’re the least interested in. Turn your votes in to the GM, who will add up the totals.

Each player should now have his or her pitches ranked from low to high, based on how the other players ranked the concepts. Discard the one with the most points (most of the other players ranked that one as least interesting). The one with the least points (most interesting) is now your focal character (the one that will get the most initial plots, and which will be called out by later stages in the process). If somehow the Special Character got voted out, vote out that player’s third concept instead.

Linking Characters

Arrange your concepts from youngest remaining to oldest remaining. The youngest you have is your Middle School character. The middle one is your High School character. The oldest is your Adult character.

Compare all the Middle School characters. Are they friends? Just acquaintances? Figure out their ages and relationships to one another. If anyone is outright antagonistic, it should be a superficial problem that can be overcome/put aside as an icebreaker in the first session. These characters will wind up adventuring together a lot early on.

Repeat that process for the High School and Adult characters.

Now go around the table and make ties to each player’s focal character. The first player picks another player’s non-focal character from a different age group (e.g., if your focal character is in Middle School, pick another player’s non-focal character from High School or Adult). Work together to establish a strong tie (probably siblings or parent/child) between the characters. Repeat this for each player around the table.

Go around again, and each player should suggest a concept for an antagonist NPC for his or her focal character. This should be a sentence or two describing why the characters don’t get along and broadly sketching the antagonist. The GM will further flesh this antagonist out (and come up with ways that that character might have further positive or negative relationships to the rest of the group).

The players should have one more general discussion to decide whether any more links make sense (all the characters shouldn’t be incredibly tightly linked, but there might be a couple more family relationships or weird connections that the group wants to establish).

Now work on actually fleshing out each character’s stats and expanded background (as desired). Players should collaborate on anything that reflects their closely linked characters (e.g., if you’re siblings or parent/child, you should work together on last name and home situation).

Running the Game

Overall, the GM should be working to have a lot going on at any one time. Especially early on in a scenario, it should be disconnected enough that the different groups don’t necessarily think to loop the other groups in on it. At other times, it’s obviously all connected, but the whole group needs to split up to tackle multiple problems at once. The natural distrust/dismissal between age groups should serve to keep things naturally firewalled as well (the adults aren’t going to believe the kids about something, and the kids don’t want to have their cool thing taken from them even if they did).

Play should alternate between active groupings with frequent “Meanwhile…” scene changes at good moments (cliffhangers preferred). Players should try to keep good track of what each of their characters knows, and avoid metagaming. Part of the fun of this kind of game is the dramatic irony of feeling like you, as a player, have a better view of the big picture than any of your characters do. Keep in mind, if one of your characters gets screwed, or even killed, by being uninformed, you still have two others to play.

Speaking of which, death can be even more on the table for this type of game than for one-PC-per-player games in the same genre. Killing off or otherwise sidelining a PC leaves the player with plenty of ability to continue to roleplay. The player can look into taking over an NPC or introducing an entirely new character to replace the lost PC at the beginning of the next scenario.