Inspired by a thread on the ITS forums, I thought I’d write a little bit about designing an RPG around a party of player-controlled characters vs the player controlling only one character.
There are various folks who loudly proclaim that one or the other type is the only pure form of RPG but, in my mind, it really the choice comes down to what type of gameplay you want to be the focus in your game.
Most RPGs are built around a framework of combat and environment-as-puzzle systems, with combat usually getting the lion’s share of the design focus. With that in mind, party-based puts the focus squarely on squad-level tactics and strategies. The fun is in building a squad that works effectively together (figuring out synergistic skills and abilities), devising effective high-level approaches to combat puzzles (strategizing) and working out optimal moment-to-moment maneuvering in combat (tactics).
Single-character roleplaying tends puts the focus more on unique gameplay paths or playstyles. Generally a single character can’t hope to cover every option, skill wise, and the player needs to work out an effective “build” focusing around a few core skillsets. This gives the designer more room to provide really unique paths and playstyles through the game. For example, a path for a talkie character, or a stealthy one. Party-based games tend to have all the basic options covered (frontline fighter, support, healing and direct damage), so there is less emphasis on mechanically distinct paths, though of course you can still have distinct narrative-based paths (moral choices, that sort of thing). The environments are generally built to challenge a broad range of skills, knowing that the player is likely to have a specialist in that skillset in the party.
Some games try for a hybrid approach, single-player-controlled-character plus indirectly-controlled support NPCs. This can work, to a degree. But usually these characters are there to provide combat support for non-combat characters in games where the design doesn’t have enough support for non-combat approaches to problems.
All are valid choices for a roleplaying game, in my opinion. It really just comes down to which type of gameplay framework you want to focus on for your particular game.
* Note, I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, nor am I saying that you can’t design a game where the focus doesn’t fit into the categories I describe here. In general, I’d say this divide tends to reflect the combat bias in RPGs in general. A game with a non-combat design could be fairly different.