So, the Teen Super Heroes game I've been running every other friday for the last few months came to an end a bit earlier than expected. Nothing went wrong, the players just chose a path through the various plot points that was more akin to a straight drop through rather than the usual path you get of hitting various bumps and trails like in a pachinko machine. It's not a bad thing, everyone had fun, and the game came to a natural conclusion with an ending that I think was simultaneously satisfying and unexpected. It does however leave the group with what are we going to do next game session (tomorrow in fact). After some discussion we decided we wanted to do a bit of an experiment. Everyone has heard of stories like DragonLance Chronicles where the story is based off a campaign that was ran. Others have used games they were writing as a basis for other stories they want to run. Basically, to make a long story short, numerous gamers at numerous times have tried making a connection between a game and a novel. We have decided as a group to try and go for that as well, but this isn't a game we are going to try and write a story about after, this is a game where we are trying to capture the feel of a novel in the actual playing.
So what does this mean that warrants a post in game design? Well first of all, a story needs a main character. Even if it has multiple main characters, there is one true main character. As important as Ron and Hermione are in Harry Potter, Harry is the actual main character. In Wheel of Time for all the importance given (at least early on) that Rand, Matt, and Perrin are all Ta'veren ultimately the number one main character is Rand Al'Thor, and the books are the story of him becoming the Dragon Reborn. So this was the first problem we, as a group, had to tackle. If we are doing a game based on the feel of a book, that means it needs to be about someone in specific. The person who will go through the Hero's Journey and become either the savior or damner of the whole world. This is important to be a group decision because it means that everyone who is not the main character has to be comfortable with the fact that in the end of the game they will not have all the toys or opportunities that the main character will have. It also means that the person who IS the main character has pressures on him as well. If his character dies, the game ends. If he isn't having fun with his character and wants to abandon it, the game ends. If the Hero goes away, there is no longer a Hero's Journey and as such the telling of it goes away.
This means that we have one player, who has to deal with the fact that if he dies the game dies with it, and that is locked into his character more firmly than anyone else at the table. We also have four (possibly five, but four for now) people who are making characters that are support. They are the other main characters, the people who will ensure the hero gets to his destiny, and in the process they will all have their own challenges and hurdles to traverse, but they will never be the true Hero. No matter what they do, how hard they try, or what position they get themselves into, someone else is going to be the one to save the day. Even if they only save it indirectly, the Hero gets the credit, not the friend. If more than one person wants to be The Hero, unwilling to give up that main role in a game, well then you either need to find a way to accommodate it, or more likely, this isn't the kind of game your group can run.
The main character is however only one of the problems faced when it comes to the characters in the game. The other comes in terms of starting power level. Reading any fantasy or sci-fi novel with a group of main characters, everyone isn't at the same power level like you have in an RPG. Most RPGs are simple when it comes to character balance, you simply start everyone off at the same level, with the same number of points, or however your system works. With this game though, the problem is that generally the (for ease of reference) Non-Heroes are more powerful to start out. Each one at their own respective level of power and ability which The Hero will catch up to, and ultimately, surpass on their way to the completion of the Hero's Journey. So the second problem faced is finding the levels for the other characters to start off at. This is easily done with a point buy system, ask the player to explain the character that they're making in words,and then work with them in spending points to get to where you both agree represents the ability of the character, while not completely dominating other people's areas in the game. Ask each player individually, and build them separately, it doesn't matter if you have level fluctuation among the Non heroes, you already have to cope with it anyhow so what is a little bit more?
The third problem, like the fourth, is a direct effect of the second problem. With five characters each with their own power level, challenging the group as a group is going to be hard. You need to find a way to challenge the higher power characters, while simultaneously not over-powering the lower level characters. This is going to be crucial in combat, where a bad match up could wipe the entire party, and thus the game, which isn't something anyone wants. At least, not at this point in time. Outside of combat, things can be balanced by simply matching the challenge to the character, but combat is one of gaming's "team sports" that almost every game can not escape. I don't have a fully effective solution in mind for this right now, aside from keeping the dangerous people focused on the more statistically dangerous players for the start of combat, and trusting my characters to protect the weaker members.
The fourth problem is also a direct effect of the different levels, but also inherited from the fact that we have a main character, someone whose job description is "The Hero". That problem is Experience gains. For this there are two things to keep in mind, one is that everyone is at a different level, meaning challenges will be harder or weaker for them based on that, and two is that in the progression of the story The Hero must catch up to and surpass the rest of the group when it comes to raw ability. Now maybe The Hero won't be better than his friends at everything, but he should be starting as one of the weakest characters and ending as the one with the most experience points. Meanwhile, those characters who started off significantly higher in level, characters that are beginning the story after their prime years of development, should be getting less experience, the pay off for starting so far ahead. Between the two, we are keeping true to the novel feel that is being sought after, those who start off weaker generally show the most development as they grow up and gain skills during the tumultuous times of their journey. While those who start off better prepared for those times, develop less, staying as a stable bench mark for others to be compared against. Consider, again, the Wheel of Time where we can tell how good of a swordsman that Rand has become when Lan says that Rand is about as good as him now, or even if we look to the east with something like Naruto where we get more respect for how much Naruto has developed when Kakashi has to use the sharingan to keep a training exercise from getting dangerous.
These four problems are very likely just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to doing this kind of game. Story structure, villains, keeping things moving, and ensuring the main character actually hits the various stages on the Hero's Journey are all going to be their own little hurdles. The solution to the four problems here though are all one in the same, and that is namely communication. A group that you trust should be doing this anyhow, but either way communication is key. Also, despite the fact that everyone has agreed to play a game with a Main Character, that doesn't mean you should neglect the other players. Even if the main character is The Hero for the big show, that doesn't mean the other characters don't get their time to shine. This means running threaded plot lines around the main thread for the other characters to develop through, which makes things a bit trickier for the GM but done well should ensure a good time for everyone.
As I said, I'm not sure of what all the problems that will be faced with running this kind of game are, but I am looking forward to finding out. If you are trying this sort of game yourself, or are interested in it, be sure to keep these things in mind as they are the four initial problems you will have just with handling character generation.