Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making Iconic Characters

Yesterday we talked about how you want to handle the iconic/established characters in a defined universe in your game. Today, I want to talk about something similar. How to make those iconic characters. Why would you need to know how to make them? Well, because sometimes you want to do your own universe, but you still want to pull on some of the benefits these established characters can give you. So, let's take a look at a few ways to do just that.

Know Your World
The first thing you need to do is know your world. This is a bit more than just the setting and genre, you need to know how things work. These iconic characters need to reflect that, or define it in some way, and they can't do that if you don't know the world. So, learn your world and know it. The iconic characters for a pulp adventure are going to be different from a sci-fi world, which will also differ from the epic high fantasy world. So, know it, love it, and be ready to know how to apply it.

Embrace Genre Tropes
Let's face it, one of the reasons iconic characters are so iconic is because in a very large way they embrace the genre tropes they are meant to represent. Superman is a boyscout powerhouse. Batman is the original dark knight detective (hell, it's even called a Dark Knight). Luke Skywalker is the farm boy "prophecised" one, even if there is no prophecy mentioned in the original trilogy. Han Solo is the rogue with the heart of gold.  Finally, to go into more modern references, the Master Chief is the ultimate Super Soldier and Commander Shepard is the ultimate battle commander.

These are all tropes, and the characters get mileage by embracing the trope that they represent. It helps make them larger than life, and also gives us a common ground to look at them from. Yes, each character also has personal stuff that adds depth to them, but these facts don't really get in the way of the trope they represent. Sometimes a simple element like this can be a great thing, and this is one of those times.

Give a History
Alright, you want to have these characters be a big deal, than you need to make them a big deal. Superman isn't a big deal just because of the S on his chest; the S on the chest is a big deal because of superman. So, make a history for your world, give it to your players, and make sure you point out where these established characters interacted with it and what they did. Bold their names too, that way the players know that it is important and their eyes are drawn to it.

Even if the events aren't fully known to the public, you want the players knowing about it. This way, when the person shows up in game, the player knows who they're fucking with. Unfortunately, histories can be a pain for some people. Still, they're the best way to actually establish a character's importance to the world before they come into play, or before the game even gets started.

Using these kinds of iconic characters is a bit different - but mostly the same - to what I talked about yesterday. You still want to keep interactions to brushes and small meetings. After all, the idea isn't to upstage your PCs all the time. However, when doing a made up world, you also want (or probably want) to have the PCs eventually bypass and take over as the big deal characters. This means that the icons will show up a bit more, and you may want to play up the difference in power early on. That way, when the PCs catch up, it will be significant for them.

Ultimately though, you want to have fun and make sure your players do too. So keep that in mind.

As always, if you have further advice on this, be sure to share it in the comments below.


  1. The problem, from experience, is that the players really need to have experienced these characters in order for the character to have that iconic feel to them. To use your Superman/Batman example, if I'm not an avid comic book/movie fan and have not experienced the actual stories where I get to see the human side of these two characters, a quick written blurb about them in a campaign primer aren't going to put me in awe of them - much less so for Lothar the Barbarian Lord that my DM recently invented for his homebrew world.

    Trust me, as I writer, it is a real pain to set up the world and populate it with these "awesome iconic personalities" and then watch the PCs not really care when they meet them. It took me years to realize that it is because they have no buy-in. I can tell them what so-and-so has done all day long, but until they actually get the chance to experience it first hand (whether it is by becoming engrossed with the character in their favorite novel, being a fan of the movie, or simply having actual experience with the NPC from previous games/sessions) it won't really matter.

  2. I think an important element of making an iconic character is to keep them out of reach. Superman is out of reach to the PCs because of his power. Darth Vader is out of reach because of his storm troopers. If the players keep trying to get to the character and can't even really get his (or her) attention, they notice. I've used this tactic quite a few times. Have the NPC treat the players as inconsequential and back up the attitude with action.

  3. JM: Could be a time to use show and not tell. Show the PCs why the person is a big deal in some action things. Give the PCs a chance to help/do something, but have the day saved by the big guy. Maybe they'll not like him (especially for stealing the glory) but how that gets played out can really change the dyanmic. If nothing else, they'll notice that person.

    Emmett: A good idea. I'd add "until the right time" with the distance. But nothing tends to get PCs attention like being ignored.

  4. A.L. yes, that is kind of what I was trying to say, though, admitedly, I did a poor job of it. The players have got to see the NPC in action -doing- something in order to really take notice. Either they need to see it in their game or in their books, movies, video games prior to gaming, but one way or another it's got to be Show, not Tell, if you want the Players (not necesarrily the PCs) to care.

  5. you're right, and I didn't cover that properly above. The history gives a base line, but you also need to show WHY they're the awesome guy.