Thursday, April 8, 2010

Firing Characters (Out of a Canon!)

No, that's not a misspelling.

One thing I've always liked about RPGs is that you get to make your own character and have your own adventures and make your own mark on the game world. But when you're dealing with an RPG based on an established property (let's say, to pick a random example, Oz) you've already got a cast of protagonists who have all of the important adventures. Dorothy and company have melted Wicked Witches and saved Oz in a number of other ways throughout the stories. So if you wanted to roleplay in Oz, you've got to be Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman or Cowardly Lion, right?


When Wizards of the Coast launched their Star Wars RPG their ads featured stills from the Star Wars movies with multiple characters gathered. Even if a major character was in the frame, the ad instead drew a circle around the head of a minor character or an extra and asked the question "What's his story?" Sure, Luke Skywalker was the guy who blew up the Death Star, but he's not the only person in the Star Wars universe. And those other stories have the ability to be just as interesting and compelling as Luke's.

A lot of people seem to agree with me, because RPGs that focus solely on the main characters of the franchise are generally unsuccessful. The original Indiana Jones RPG from TSR focused solely on Indiana Jones and his compatriots. An old Doctor Who RPG (namely Time Lord) has an astonishingly complete list of stats for every Doctor and every companion to enter the TARDIS with the assumption that you are going to be playing those established characters. Neither of these games were successful, especially compared to other RPGs based on those properties that did allow original characters (such as the new game Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space)

Another problem that comes up when dealing with established characters has to do with expectations. Once a character gets a certain body of lore built up, especially if it's written by different people. Suppose that in a superhero game, someone decides to play Batman. Not just some guy who's kind of like Batman, but Bruce Wayne Batman. As a character who's appeared in thousands (if not millions) of comic books, several films and a number of TV shows, he's got a lot of background. Which means that every time somebody says "Batman would never do that!" someone else can come up with some instance in some media where Batman did just that. Suddenly, you've got everyone at the gaming table telling you how to play your character and no one agrees on what to do and, most importantly, no one's having fun.

But what about those characters that I've been putting up on the blog for the last few months? Am I suggesting that you completely ignore them?

No. My primary motivation in posting them is to show you what a character looks like and to demonstrate that my system can handle the majority of Oz character types. If someone decides to use them as their character in a game, I don't mind. Sometimes, just starting out, it's useful to have a character you're already familiar with. But I think you'll have more fun by putting your imagination to work on creating your own characters.


Unknown said...

I totally agree with you on this idea. I've seen many games that include all these stats for known characters and noticed it seems like the writing indicates how to play them - I always assumed it was for the GM, which would make sense, as what GM wouldn't want to throw Admiral/Captain Picard into a Star Trek game to give everybody a geek out?

But I've noticed that, though it usually isn't directly specified, it's obvious that the notes are for PLAYERS to play these famous characters - while I can see this as maybe rare opportunities for one shots or convention opportunities or maybe to introduce people to a system, I never cobbed to the idea of playing an existing franchise character.

Now playing variations? I'm ALL ABOUT that. Owen Wilson, Indiana Jones, Conan, Jet Li, The Tick? You can even use similar names, like a friend made a Wolverine clone named "Furious Claw Guy" who also included elements of Mystery Men's Mr. Furious. I had Armadillo Enforcer - my Tick clone with his own spin.

I think that's what RPG classes and types are based on anyway, RPGs themselves even - we play "templates" of well-known characters from novels and movies - the Tin Man, Scarecrow - these are representative general types of people, "races" if you will, not necessarily individuals themselves - those are personalities, provided by the players - it's when the two meet that you get uniquity.

Good post.

ECG said...

I'd say it is not an inherent drawback of choosing canonic heroes, but a concequence of the difference between the two sorts of activity which are both called "roleplaying". There is a roleplaying community, which concentrates on creating totally new stories and only needs a world for their characters to live in and a set of rules to consult - and there is a fanfiction community, which concentrates on adding something to an existing story to their taste, maybe with a new plot, but with the same characters, because it is the characters, not the exploration of the world which they are interested it. And folks from the second group often play, too, but they tend to reserve canonic roles rather than invent new characters from the same world. The can have fun this way, can manage without other players telling them what they can do, can keep their charecters at any level of adherence to the canon... They were "raised" in games of this sort, so it is all natural for them. It is just another tradition of roleplaying.
So some people who know about both traditions can mix them up. A "fanfic roleplayer" can want to have their character described in stats and feats like characters of some "real RPG", an "adventure roleplayer" can want to have their character recognizable like characters of some "RP-like on that forum next door to ours". Canon-based universes make this confusion almost inevitable. So a GM of such a game has to take some measures against it, not because taking a canonic character is "bad", but because every particular game must be designed for only one tradition, otherwise the players would just exasperate each other with misunderstanding of their motives.

F. Douglas Wall said...

I'm certainly not trying to tell the "fanfic roleplayers" that they're doing it wrong. In fact, I took pains to make sure that nearly every Oz protagonist could be modeled in the rules.

While I agree that they are two different gaming styles, I don't think that they are necessarily incompatible. The only real conflict I can see is if the fanfic roleplayer insists on restricting adventures to sequels of existing stories. While Baum did create a pretty big world to adventure in, he never really did "follow-ups", preferring to invent something new for the characters to do in the next story.

I'd like to see the people who play my game continue that tradition, adding new places to explore and things to do, rather than having Oz "freeze" in one particular configuration.

Of course, once you buy the game and gather your friends to play, it stops being my game and starts being Your Game, for you to do with as you please.

ECG said...

Funny thing, though I've played both types and though I like to systemaize everything I do, I never noted _this_ difference. But this is really true... Roleplayers like to explore something absolutely new, adding to the game world not only new characters, but new places and phenomena, while fanfic players prefer to keep to subjects already described and to show their in-depth knowledge of canonic facts... While in case of Oz this canon-sticking attidude magically becomes out-of-canon in its spirit )))
But it's difficult to say if such an unusual base can reconsile the two types of roleplayers or make their discrepancy even more profound and evident...

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