In a series of articles written following this post, Mark Filipowich’s articles on Plural Protagonism talk about how in a JRPG game the player plays as a party of heroes, and each of these characters are unique entities and the story is all about how these people came together to achieve a goal.
They are some pretty good reads so I recommend checking them out. However, there was a point I wanted to focus on as I saw it mentioned in two articles and think it could reference an idea for design that I touched on some in Wrestling with Player Interest.
There isn’t really an antagonist in the game, rather there are numerous individuals and factions that keep rooting themselves in the party’s way. The common denominator that bridges these minor villains is selfishness. The enemy of the party at a given time is a vainglorious captain trying to claw his way to major, a ruthless merchant exploiting a situation for a few extra coins, a politician more interested in coming ahead in a treaty than protecting his people. Either that or it’s a faceless, apathetic hive of troops or machines just following orders. The player is constantly thrown off their path to do someone else’s dirty work. Often their efforts are undone, villains escape and innocent people suffer because greed is easier than generosity. Source: Plural Protagonism: Breath of Fire 4
There is no enemy in Chrono Trigger. There is a rotating cast of antagonists to give the player-party henchmen, mini-bosses and a proverbial dragon at the end of each dungeon, but there is not an ultimate enemy with a personal interest in undoing the party’s efforts. Lavos is the world’s big-bad, but Lavos isn’t a person. It isn’t even sentient; Lavos’s presence on the planet is coincidental. It is a purely destructive accident that operates with insectile self-interest rather than out of organized malice. Source: Plural Protagonism: Chrono Trigger
You will see a design approach like this in a number of games, with a shifting sort of ‘in your way’ adversarial approach. The Dead Rising series had many different psychopaths that you had to deal with to achieve what you wanted, Saints Row had the different gangs you had to face, superhero games will do this a lot because of all the great villains who deserve screen time.
The benefit of the multiple antagonists is that especially if you do something like the Breath of Fire IV and Chrono Trigger example, where people are out to achieve something and using the situation to their advantage. They are trying to get to some point in their development and it in some way will impact the players progress, hampering a goal they wish to achieve.
Some GMs will see this as a group of different NPCs all working for the same big baddie, sort of like Dr. X and the ‘Council of Doom’ from Action Man, where different villains would attack to further the goals. This works, and it can be a way to build your world, with multiple antagonists working for an individual head, like a corporation under the CEO. Sometimes that is the enemy like Shinra or OCP. However, I much prefer the idea that there are multiple parties out there and this is their way to make their mark on the world. Just open a newspaper or watch the evening news and you’ll see a ton of different stories from the small and local to the large and worldwide that are all about how these people are trying to further their reach.
The reason I like the idea of different parties is that it allows the PCs to make choices on how to handle the NPCs. They can play off each other from time to time, causing two to go against each other. Make an alliance with group A so you can take down monster from group B. Try to redeem someone from group C, and maybe they’ll help you fight in your cause.
By shifting these people in and out from time to time, not only are you doing essentially product testing to see what villain or villains the players connect with. It also gives it a rich, ever changing landscape of the world for players to experience. You’re not just fighting the same bad guy and their henchmen, like you do in so many RPGs. For example, in Final Fantasy VI you were going around after Kefka and the Empire in everything you do with occasional smaller ‘bosses’ like Ultros, while in Final Fantasy VII you had multiple large scale opponents in Shinra Corp and Sephiroth, so that you were exploring new challenges and new storylines with each encounter.
Of course, with the plural protagonism, the main feature is that it allows you to do a lot of interweaving of plots, so that different people will get some time on screen with a storyline that works for their character, even if they’re working towards something for someone else. Final Fantasy VI had story where each person had some importance to the story, and then you could expand this with their sidequests. However, the end goal each character wanted had, in some way, influenced by choices or actions another player may take in their own questline. And hey, what player wouldn’t promote their own quests for furthering character development in some way if given the chance. Inigo Montoya seeks the six finger man while Wesley seeks to save Buttercup. You even hear him mention his seeking of this six fingered man during the first fight with Wesley, as if a player was saying ‘Hey, here’s my plot hook that makes my character unique’.
In the articles, they talk about the group as a whole unit, seeing the different ways it is seen, from collection of trained military units to a group of untrained civilians. The idea that as a whole the party is a character of equal or greater value than the single player usually does not get discussed a lot in western gaming circles, perhaps why we have singular loner heroes in video games. The individual characters are important as those roles are being assumed by players, the group is the combination of those characters, useful in achieving goals but can be made of interchangeable parts, with only the roleplaying interactions changing. They still slot into the same general spots. Gauntlet, Guardian Heroes, Tower of Doom, Golden Axe, Final Fight, Streets of Rage, etc, all had the strong, the fast and the in between characters. Melee, Ranged, Healer, Jack of All Trades, for example.
Maybe it is time for roleplaying to focus more on the group, and these articles can give us some ideas how. They did for me by looking at how they were used elsewhere. Wild Arms 3 shows how the party as a whole is required for exploration, Shining Force shows that by helping others we can make ourselves stronger as a whole (since the measurement is about does the team pass the challenge, not did you), and so on. I talk about The Knights of the Dinner Table from time to time, but they actually have a group charter which, albeit fictional, explains what to do with dead characters, how to solve disputes, splitting of loot, and so forth. Many groups could learn from that sort of idea on group dynamics.