From Project: Redcap
Troupe Style Play is an approach to role-playing where each player controls multiple characters and changes between them as the story requires, similar to a small repertory company where a single actor plays one character in Act I and then changes costume to play a different character in Act II. This is in contrast to the more typical style of role-playing, in which every player has one character and plays that character exclusively for an entire game session.
In the context of Ars Magica, there are degrees of troupe style play. Some of these involve changing which player acts as storyguide from one session to the next, allowing every player to have a magus character.
Using Troupe Style
Troupe style is optional. Although the Fifth Edition (and earlier) rule books refer to a gaming group as a "troupe," that is not meant to dictate a particular style of play. Thus, while every Ars Magica belongs to a troupe, not every troupe plays in the troupe style.
Aspects of Troupe Style
In Ars Magica, there are two independent aspects to troupe style play.
In troupe style play, each player typically has one primary character who no one else can control. Since Ars Magica is focused on wizards and magic, very often this primary character is the player's magus. Each player may also have exclusive control over one or more secondary characters, such as companions or grogs.
One variation of troupe-style play, called "Pooled Characters" involves the troupe creating a shared "pool" of supporting characters (usually grogs) whom anyone can play. Such characters might be played by one person for the whole session, or even change hands when the scene changes.
Whether or not the troupe uses multiple characters per player, it is also possible to share the responsibilities of the storyguide. The troupe always plays the same characters from the same covenant, but when planning each session, the troupe decides who will be the storyguide for that game. That player's character is then absent for the story (or relegated to a very minor role) and the player runs a story for the other players.
Some troupes prefer to have one person act as storyguide most of the time, with guest appearances by other storyguides. This primary storyguide is called the Alpha storyguide. Other troupes prefer to share the duties of storyguide more equally, so there is no one person who is identifiable as the "Alpha." Another variant is to have an Alpha storyguide who runs the majority of stories, but one or more "Beta" storyguides who pitch in less frequently.
A third aspect of troupe-style play, which was present in ArM1 and ArM2 but not in Third Edition or later, is Whimsy cards. These were randomized cards that invited players to improvise in the story, briefly taking over the job of narrator. Whimsy cards therefore created opportunities for all the players to influence the story, with an emphasis on improving the quality of the narrative rather than gaining an in-game advantage.
Example of Troupe Style
Andrew and John are players. John's magus Prospero is busy with a laboratory project, so the storyguide tells him to play his companion, Friar Matthew, instead for this session. Andrew's magus is not busy so the storyguide tells him he can play either Cyrus, his magus, or Baldwin the Bard, his companion -- but not both. Andrew decides to play Cyrus. Cyrus and Friar Matthew decided to bring one grog with them for protection, and the troupe is using pooled grogs. They pick Edgar the Tough out of the pool. Andrew and John agree that Andrew should play Edgar most of the time, because Cyrus's Gift makes it difficult for him to talk to mundanes and Andrew wants something to do during dialogue-heavy scenes.
Later, the three characters get attacked by highwaymen, and Friar Matthew is a pacifist. Andrew hands Edgar the Tough over to John, who now can play the grog and have something to do during the fight scene. This also relieves Andrew of the burden of trying to run a second character alongside Cyrus, his magus, in the battle. When the fight is over, John gives Edgar the Tough back to Andrew.
Opinion and Commentary
The Fifth Edition rule book points out that troupe style is especially suitable for Ars Magica because, for various reasons, it can be impractical for every player to play his magus at every game session unless the troupe is very small.
Advantages of Troupe Style
The three character types of magus, companion, and grog make Ars Magica very amenable to troupe style play. For example, troupe-style play lets a player who wants to play a warrior run a grog once a while without giving up the chance to also run a magus.
One benefit of troupe style is that there is always something to do for each player, something to get involved in, even if the player's primary character (the magus) has locked himself up in his laboratory for some long-term activity, or is not available due to being away from the covenant for whatever reason.
The role-switching aspect of troupe style play can help make sure everyone stays engaged in the action. If a particular character is especially bad at one kind of action -- magi interacting socially with mundanes, or illiterate warriors trying to find information in the library of a medieval university -- the troupe can add an extra character or two for that session who has complimentary abilities. Players who would otherwise be sidelined can switch over and play someone else for a scene or a session.
Troupe style play is also quite forgiving of troupes where the players have outside obligations. If one player can't make it for the regular Thursday night game, someone else can take over his character, or the troupe can rotate in additional grogs or companions to make up for the missing skills and abilities of the absent player's character.
Disadvantages of Troupe Style
Ars Magica is a game about wizards. If you are using troupe-style play, then probably not all the players are going to get to play their wizards all the time. This might disappoint some players. Make sure you discuss your plans for troupe style play and periodically check in to make sure everyone is happy with the arrangements and the amount of time they get to play their characters.
Troupe style play is challenging. If your troupe includes players without a lot of general role-playing experience, it can be overwhelming to them. Even if your troupe consists of veteran role-players, if they are new to Ars Magica, troupe style play can seem complicated and disorienting at first.
Consider playing a grog and a magus at the same time. The grog can handle the social interactions where the magus, if he has good sense, fades into the background. Likewise, the magus takes center stage during interactions with other magi or when facing intellectual puzzles, where the typical grog would become a spectator.
When designing a companion, don't design the character to accompany your own magus. Design it to accompany someone else's magus. Consider making a companion whose abilities compliment, rather than align with, those of the magus he will accompany.
History of Troupe Style
- "Troupe-Style Roleplaying," Ars Magica Fifth Edition, pages 219-220
- "Pooled Characters," Ars Magica Fifth Edition, page 219
- "Using Whimsy Cards," Ars Magica (First Edition), page 145
- "Using Whimsy Cards," Ars Magica Revised Edition, page 149
- "Role-switching," Ars Magica (First Edition) page 4