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ESTABLISHED MEDIA CHARACTERS: PROS AND CONS

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When playing pretend as a kid, we always played established media characters. We were Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, Batman and Robin. We were never “generic Rebel soldier” or “Superhero who’s kinda like Superman.” However, in my experience, playing established characters is much rarer in roleplaying games. Perhaps people want to create their own heroes, or perhaps feel that an existing character’s traits will tie their hands during play.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the advantages and concerns with playing established characters. The lists won’t be exhaustive, but hopefully will provide you with some food for thought for your own future games. Let’s look at the advantages first.

ADVANTAGES

FAMILIARITY— When introducing new players to roleplaying games (or even a new system), you might consider established characters. People know how Mr. Spock or Agent Scully behaves, so they can focus on learning the rules rather than deeply considering how their character might act. Plus many people would consider trying a roleplaying game if they are really into a book, movie, or TV series. Media franchises can be one way to get people interested in the hobby in general.

FUN – This is the best reason of all. Who doesn’t want to say “Because I’m Batman,” or to make the Six Million Dollar Man “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch” sound? Outside of getting out your collectible figures (not dolls, never dolls) and playing on the carpet, when are you going to get to do this? Is it silly? Maybe. But it’s also stress relief, and I’ll take it.

GET TO PLAY FASTER – Gamemasters (GM’s) can prepare pregens before the game, reducing start-up time. Spending an entire session creating characters without ever playing them can be a deal-breaker for many new players. If you are playing in a large universe, you may want to ask players who they would like to be so that you can have character sheets prepared and ready to go.

CONCERNS

POWER DISPARITY – There is often a power disparity between characters appearing in the same media. For example, Batman is much stronger and wiser than Robin. In terms of superpowers, Superman outclasses them both. As another example, in a Star Wars game, Chewie won’t get to do as much roleplaying as Han Solo because of language issues (and he can’t rip everyone’s arms off!). This is not an insurmountable problem. Some systems are more cinematic and can handle power disparity quite well. Also the GM can provide alternate paths to accomplishing the same goal. Still, it is something to consider for your media-based game.

MISSING ROLES – If you are using media characters, you may find yourself missing some of the traditional (and perhaps needed) party roles. For example, there was no clear rogue among the Fellowship of the Ring. This can be a problem in any game, especially if you have a small number of players. GM’s may wish to consider rounding out the party with NPC’s or having some friendly allies available from time to time.

BUT I WANT TO BE BATMAN – Everyone can’t be Batman. Some players may be disappointed if they can’t play their favorite hero. There are some ways around this. If you are running a time travel game, include different versions of the main character from different timelines (Batman of Zur-En-Arrh anyone?). You might ask players to list a backup favorite in case their first choice is taken. Lastly, you can always rotate the characters if you run the game more than once.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Using media characters might be a nice diversion for a one-shot or short campaign. It may encourage players to stretch themselves beyond their usual roles. Who knows, it may blossom into a full grown campaign (Six Million Dollar Man Campaign, I still pine for you). As a final thought, consider talking to your players first. You might be surprised at their level of interest, and it fosters buy-in for the eventual session if they have a voice.

Have you used media characters for a one-shot or campaign? Do you recommend it? What other pitfalls or concerns should we consider? Let us know below.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "ESTABLISHED MEDIA CHARACTERS: PROS AND CONS"

#1 Comment By Solomon Foster On July 15, 2016 @ 8:55 am

“You might ask players to list a backup favorite in case their first choice is taken.” — The standard trick I’ve usually seen (and used) is to ask players to list their top three choices.

Not just for specific characters, this also works for character types — in a Firefly-esque game, my top three desired roles were

“public relations” (eg muscle)
Shepherd
first mate

I got to be the Shepherd. 🙂

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On July 21, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

Good idea on the “top three.” Thanks for the input.

#3 Comment By Silveressa On July 20, 2016 @ 3:32 am

I remember in Palladiums Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangness RPG, (from the late 80’s/early 90’s) they included the Ninja Turtles as optional chars and suggested they be used as PC’s for players & Gm to learn the game rules with. It did make it a lot easier as a GM to know the exact balance/niches of the PC’s before running the first few adventures, and I can see the same holding true for other settings from the GM’s side of the table.

This same technique worked amazingly well when I first GM’d Serenity, since letting the group slip into the roles of the Fire Fly crew allowed them to still have a great deal of fun without trying to sort out rules on top of character personality. (and admittedly who wouldn’t want to be Malcom Renoylds and co. for a few hours?)

As we get more comfortable with a particular ruleset however I think many players find the idea of taking on the role of a established character to be too confining, and are afraid of being called out if they make an in char choice another player who is a fan of said established char thinks is “too out of character for them to ever do.”

There’s also a bit of a jaded feeling to GMing a group of established characters, in that you an already predict exactly how an iconic hero like The Punisher will go about combating a villain, or how the crew of the Firefly will likely respond to a moral dilemma, compared to a unique set of PC’s that may very well have character defining moments from the same encounter. (This holds true for players too I imagine in that they can’t really “react” to events as they may desire, but are confined to reacting how the established character would be expected to for the sake of playing true to that character.)

The one exception to this is con gaming, where Pregens are usually the order of the day already, and nothing lets a group get to playing faster (and with less unexpected inter party conflicts) than letting them jump into the roles of characters everyone at the table already knows by heart. (or is at least passingly familiar with.)

#4 Comment By John Fredericks On July 21, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

Thanks Silveressa. Boy, Firefly sure got some love in these postings!

#5 Comment By Wesley Street On July 29, 2016 @ 9:36 am

Thanks to the Multiverse and Hypertime, everyone can be Batman! Someone can be ‘Red Son’ Batman, someone else can be ‘Blood Rain’ Batman, someone can be Nazi Batman…