One character or many: an old-school turning point?

When I started playing D&D in the early ’80s, it wasn’t uncommon for players to play several characters simultaneously.

It wasn’t the way we played in my first game; there we each had one character, but I certainly played entire parties in subsequent games. At one stage it was almost as common to hear a player asking a DM to run an adventure for ‘my party’ as it was to hear a player asking of there was room for ‘his character’ (the male pronoun is not wilful sexism; I went to an all-boys school and knew no female gamers until later).

As I study some of the older games in my collection, I’m coming to believe that there is a correlation, however loose, between the decline in playing multiple characters and the move from the Golden Age of D&D to the Silver Age – or perhaps from the Golden Age to the Electrum Age (the beginning of the end, as purist old-schoolers may see it – though I’m guessing, because I’m far from being a purist old-schooler).

My thinking is this: in skirmish wargaming, players control small units of figures and regard them as playing pieces. In roleplaying games, players control one character that they identify with to greater or lesser degree.

I think it’s reasonably well established that one of the key innovations of OD&D was that playing pieces could gain experience, abilities and loot they could carry from one game to another.

This works whether you’re playing one character or several.

Playing multiple characters has certain advantages. You need fewer players, for a start. The game becomes, well, more gamelike. The emotional commitment is to the party, not an individual character. Your party becomes more like your deck of Magic cards – except they get better with experience.

If I’m right – and my thoughts on this are only partly formed – the move to one player/one character as the standard is a cultural one within the RPG world, not directly a rules one – although character generation became more complex, the appeal in playing many characters diminished. I don’t know what came first: the move to individual characters, or the rules that encouraged it.

There’s another big difference in skirmish wargaming, of course. Even with a referee, skirmishes are generaly between one player and another. Without a referee, the two opposing players must referee the game themselves, by reference to rules and by consensus.

I shall think more on this.

 

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