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Metagame Mechanics: On the Bench

Metagame Mechanics: On the Bench

CogsI don’t know what happened on Primus, but it changed him. Doc used to blanch when the topic of killing came up, and now it don’t seem to phase him. I asked about it a few times, but it’s become something dark deep inside him. Something he don’t want to let out.

We like to think that our fictional counterparts in tabletop roleplaying lead exciting lives beyond what we see at the game table. Yet, our suspension of disbelief strains somewhat when we see fictional lives that revolve around the same small group of people. When you only pay attention to characters at the table, it can feel like our 18 Charisma bard spends all his time mucking through sewers with a slovenly group of mercenaries.

That sounds like a missed opportunity for narrative.

Thus, let’s look at benching. “Benching” is an optional house rule that addresses this issue by giving players explicit permission to put their main character on the sideline. Perhaps they go on vacation, perform an undercover operation, have their brains defragged, or take a mercenary contract with another group. Whatever the case, they are now “on the bench.”


A player can bench their character up to one week before a session. While benched, the character receives 1 XP* per session until taken off the bench—roughly one third of the average XP of a session. They can be taken off the bench and put back into active play as long as the GM has a week’s notice to help with game prep. A player with a benched character can opt out of the next game session with their seat held in reserve or roll up a new, entry-level character. A player can bench more than one character.

The first option is a decision that all gaming groups have to make at some point or another—we have lives and spouses and siblings and surgeries, and sometimes a gamer just can’t afford the time commitment that gaming can require. Thus, having benching in your list of house rules is a way to say from the get-go that, yes, we understand you have a life, and you’re still with us in spirit. Here, have an XP.

The second option is for certain kinds of gamers—those who like to fiddle with mechanics or just come up with lots of dramatic personalities to try. With this house rule in place, this sort of gamer might want to bench early and bench often, perhaps grooming a portfolio of highly specialized side characters: a merman sorcerer, a tomb robber, a wilderness scout, a grizzled soldier of the empire, an evil hunter of the undead who tolerates the party when their quarry is the same. And why not? Stories and premade adventures often use characters such as these to help explore a setting or conflict. Though behind the party in terms of XP, their specialized natures help them to stay useful in their own way**.

Benching can also be used in tandem with major campaign events. Benched characters could be kidnapped, completing an important ritual, assassinating a CEO, or going deep undercover. Their actions become a part of the greater story as they provide a stream of intel or ransom notes to push the plot forward—a plot that is all the more engaging because it uses a character that the party is familiar with.

And if a player gets attached to the new character, no harm done. Just as novels and television shows see characters move in and out of narrative attention, so too is it natural for characters to move in and out. In most games, these transitions only happen due to character death, and often at times that are inconvenient for the story. When players can bench their characters, a game can enjoy the dynamics of a shifting cast without having to rely on unlucky battles.

* Or 1 karma, or 100[party level] XP, or whatever other figure works for the game in question.

** To a point. Rules-light systems sometimes don’t allow for specialization.

Reasons to Bench

Best friend’s wedding

Vacation to a pleasure planet

Incredibly boring family reunion

Going undercover behind enemy lines

Heart surgery

Cybernetic maintenance

Conducting a lengthy magic ritual

Academic conference

Mercenary contract

Mercy killing an old friend who has succumbed to lycanthropy

Renewing star drive certification

Honor-bound to slay a monster single-handedly

Grounded by parents

Getting sued for collateral damages

Forging nine magic axes for a dwarf king

Mysteriously absent

Bound by magic to perform three tasks

Training an army

Working on memoirs

Competing at the Olympics

Repairing Mom’s roof

Gone fishin’

Helping thieves’ guild with a heist

Attending the party of the century

About the Author

Mario Podeschi is a veteran freelancer from the days of Kobold Quarterly magazine, winner of the 2011 “Relics of Power Contest,” and co-author of Fourthcore Armory along with Sersa Victory. He currently works as a curriculum developer for a private English school in Anyang, South Korea.

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