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The Play's the Thing

Character Creation Part 5: Even Better than the Real Thing

by David Goodner
Aug 14,2002

 

The Play's the Thing

Character Creation Part 5: Even Better than the Real Thing

By David Goodner

Hi folks. Welcome back. This is the first totally original column I've written for RPG.net. I'm extending my series on character creation one, and just possibly for two more columns.

Today's topic is adapted characters. Almost everybody gets the idea at some point "wouldn't it be cool to play Wolverine?" or Connor McLeod, or Luke Skywalker, or James Bond, or some other literary character. In superhero gaming it's almost expected some times. In other genres, the possibility hovers like the vision of the Holy Grail, beautiful but unattainable (unless you're Galahad, and then you'll die when you get it).

So, for purposes of discussion, let's assume you want to play some literary figure in an upcoming game. My first piece of advice would be "don't." Outside of some fairly specific circumstances, it hardly ever works.

There are some pretty formidable obstacles. First of all, in most RPGs, characters start at a fairly low level of ability. The heroes of novel, comic, and screen, on the other and, start off at or near the apex of their development. One only has to look at Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then watch some Young Indiana Jones to see what I mean. (A fact that will become useful later) Most of the time, starting characters simply don't have the capabilities necessary to totally match their literary counterparts. They often can't be as good, or skilled in as many areas. If all your hopes are set on your grizzled bounty hunter being as cool as Boba Fett, you're doomed to disappointment.

Second, in many cases the worlds are different. Characters are partially a product of their environments. The Highlander needs the game. Otherwise he's just a psychotic antiques dealer. Taken out of context, a lot of characters just don't completely work. I could make a short, Canadian assassin with metal laced bones and hand blades in almost any cyberpunk game, but without all that backstory, he wouldn't really be Wolverine. This is less of an obstacle than the first, but you've still got to consider it. A related problem is that, while the background might support someone very much like the character you have in mind, the game doesn't really translate him very well. Going back to my pseudo-Wolverine, I can come very close to simulating all his abilities, but I can't get it exactly without a "Mutant" healing factor. My simulation can have all the concrete abilities (to some degree), but so can anybody else.

Third, most of us aren't really very good actors. (Not you, you're great, I'm sure. But I have to write this for all those other people) A great deal of what makes a character "cool" is the way he's portrayed, even more than anything he does. Look at Boba Fett. In the original movies he gets about four scenes, and in his one fight he gets knocked off the skiff and swallowed by the Sarlacc. He never does anything really amazing, yet he has tremendous mystique. Unless you can pull off that same quiet menace, your armor-clad, weapon-festooned bounty hunter just isn't going to be as cool as Boba Fett no matter how good a shot he is. Even if you can portray a character you created very well, it can be hard to imitate someone else's character. So much of the performance is personal that your portrayal is likely to be different, and possibly disappointing.

So, if you shouldn't simulate characters then what's the point of this column?

Good question.

I use quite a bit of literary inspiration when I make characters. There are several things you can do that lead to some really interesting characters.

The Early Adventures of...

Remember young Indy? While you probably can't make the fully mature version of a literary character fit into the stats available to a starting PC, you probably can make a younger, less experienced version.

I still don't really recommend this, since it doesn't address the fact that your character doesn't fit into the game world - he belongs in some other world. It would probably work, though. If there's some background element you want to have, just work your way back along the character's life until you get there and see if the less experienced version fits. In some ways, this might be interesting since it lets you play "what if?" Maybe your version will handle a problem better than the original did and go on to an entirely different fate.

I've never done this, but I did once kind of do it the other way around. There was a Vampire Chronicle I played some years ago, troupe style, with vampires who were borderline Elders. I had reason to believe that my current PC was not long for this world, and that it would be a good idea to have one who was a little better at fighting than my Toreador musician.

I had recently seen Lonesome Dove, and read the book. It occurred to me that Agustus McCrea would make a really cool Gangrel. Of course, with an elder's worth of points, I didn't have to make too many adaptations.

Inspired By...

I do this a lot. So do a lot of other people. If you can figure out what it is you like about a literary character, sometimes you can distill out those elements and work them into a new character. I do this in supers games sometimes just for the challenge of figuring out how to make an interesting character's powers work in Champions (or Silver Age Sentinels, these days).

More often, I'll just take one or two elements that I thought were cool and try to work them into a fairly original character. I loved Mick Jagger's bounty hunter character in Freejack, and somehow he turned into a Lone Star Combat Mage in the Shadow Run game I was playing. All I really kept was the cool coat and the attitude. Eventually, I ditched the coat, too.

Another Place, Another Time...

This option is really cool, and actually feigns creativity if you don't tell anybody what you've done.

Take a character that really inspires you, then translate him to a totally different environment. Change the details so that they fit the new setting. Depending on how much the backgrounds differ, you might have to change things quite a bit. Find the key points of the character's background, personality, and cababilities, and figure out what those elements do.

Wolverine is a good example. His background is somewhat mysterious (unless you've read Origin, which I haven't). He's a mutant who was forcibly recruited into a secret super-soldier program. We don't know why, how, or by whom. Later on, he was heavily involved in the Yakuza, and is sort of a Ronin. He's got powers that make him a devastating tracker and fighter, almost impossible to kill in human scale combat. He's cynical, violent, and loyal.

So, since I've always liked Wolverine, I want to translate him to some new environment. Cyberpunk is too easy, as I already said. Fantasy is tempting, but I can't think of a system to which he would adapt well for purposes of this example. I love Eden Studios' Witchcraft game, so let's do that one.

Witchcraft has the Combine and various other nasty groups, any of whom would be likely to try to build a cadre of sociopathic, superpowered ninja death warriors. One of them will easily stand in for Weapon: X.

Capabilities are a little harder. Right off the bat, I think Wolverine would do well as a Feral, or with the Disciplines of the Flesh (psychological trauma based shapeshifting, for those not in the know). Either one will give him the raw combat ability. Neither are quite the same as low-end cybernetics and a mutant healing factor, but they have similar effects. Divine Inspiration and Tao Chi won't really work because they require too much willing participation. I'm more familiar with the Disciplines (since my copy of the Abomination Codex never materialized after I ordered it). They also lend themselves more to the kind of torturous process that Weapon: X seemed to be. I can see Combine agents kidnapping likely kids from the streets and subjecting them to horrors just to see if they develop superpowers quite easily.

My Witchcraft-Wolverine isn't likely to be as skilled as the real thing unless we're playing characters built on a lot more points than usual. Wolverine has 50 years or so of experience that I just can't simulate, particularly after I blow all my points on cool magic powers. I could do the longevity thing, (and might buy the increased lifespan just for the heck of it) but I would probably start my Wolvie off fairly soon after his transformation. As a nod to the Samurai part of the original's background, I'd probably make my character have an interest in the martial arts. Maybe he doesn't like the terrible rage inside him, and wants some way to control it. I might say he'd had some kind of ties with the Storm Dragons in the past.

That covers the basics. We've got a rough background, a pretty good idea of where to put the numbers, and, what the personality would be like.

Let's give him a name. Billy Logan. Normally, I wouldn't use a name remotely related to the character I was stealing for one of these things. Doing that kind of rubs everybody's nose in my lack of creativity and runs the risk of turning an otherwise serious character into a joke. But hey, this is just an article, not a real character. (That might be next month, if I'm lucky)

Billy Logan was a kid in trouble. Home was no shelter, so he ended up on the streets, in gangs, and eventually in a Combine laboratory. Somehow, he escaped, or maybe they let him go. His memories of the past are hazy. He knew he had power, and a very strong urge to hurt people who seemed to deserve being hurt.

Since then, he's wandered the country, mostly in the area around wherever the game takes place. Mostly he's been a fighter, and sometimes the line between fighter and assassin has been very thin. Deep down, he wants something better. He wants to find peace. He also wants to find a home.

I'd give him high physical stats, and in deference to his background, I'd make sure he could have claws. He wouldn't have a lot of high skills, other than hand to hand fighting ability - which would be as high as I could possibly make it. I'd also want to be sure to assign a Flaw of an personal nemesis, another survivor of the Combine project who's bigger and stronger, but maybe not quite as skilled. I absolutely wouldn't call Billy's nemesis "Victor Creed." (But I wouldn't resist the urge to use the first and last names of two different members of Creed for his name)

In one way, Billy sort of breaks the rules. Normal Disciples of the Flesh have to dredge up memories of past trauma to activate their shapeshifting powers. Since Billy doesn't really have any clear memories, I'd want to get permission from the GM to say that Billy's memories are disconnected flashbacks that he doesn't really understand. If I was the GM, I'd let me do it.

The end result doesn't look a whole lot like Wolverine, but you can see the resemblances if you know where to look.

Next month is in a bit of a flux. I hope to do the last piece of this series "The Sordid Truth," which will be a more or less step-by-step rendition of me really making a character, along with observations from the other people in the group. That's totally dependent on me getting into a game before the next deadline.

Failing that, we'll be starting a short series on group dynamics.

See ya' then.

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What do you think?

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg