Experience Talks: Good Characters

Heroes

Playing good characters is another important aspect of role-playing games. Although a good GM and good players can have a good game with bad characters, it’s much easier to have a good game when the characters are good. When players create heroes, it is far easier to have fun and eliminate many of the conflicts that often arise as a result of good role-playing. A group should be well rounded with well thought out backgrounds and personalities.

Heroes often have good powers. For superheroes, this could be anything, but there are a few archetypes that show up pretty often. Bricks, Martial Artists, Energy Projectors, Mentalists, Gadgeteers, and Speedsters comprise the bulk of superhero character conceptions. Fantasy RPGs also follow this basic pattern with fighters, magic users, priests, and rogue characters. This article will focus on examples from the Hero System, a superhero RPG.

For other game genres, these character archetypes may have analogies. In the B-Movie genre, for example, common archetypes might be jock (brick), gang member (martial artist), cop (energy projector qua ranged attacker), whiz kid (mentalist), rich brat (gadgeteer), and track star (speedster).

Some of the more interesting powers, though, often come from combining or avoiding the more common archetypes. A B-Movie boxer (martial brick) and a psychic inventor (mental gadgeteer) are examples of cross-archetypes (a combination of two or more archetypes). A living Nerf™ ball (idea by Tom Stevens) and a duplicating clawed shrinker are examples of non-archetypes (oddballs). These make interesting and memorable characters that are fun to role-play.

Whatever their powers, good heroes often have good backgrounds. “Mutant” alone is a weak background. If, however, the character was a disfigured mutant from birth that was buried alive as an infant but survived due to his developing shapeshifting powers, he’s off to a more interesting start. This morbid background seed could lead to either a strong independence, or a fear of abandonment, or sensitivity to light, or unfamiliarity with modern culture, or many other character quirks.

Characters potentially have interesting and different abilities. In a multiplayer game, each character should get to shine periodically. Let the scientist predict the epicenter of an earthquake; let the brick move the rubble to save a child; let the speedster get all the wounded to the hospital just in time; etc. Each character on the team should have something that they’re the best at.

Now that you have a fantastic idea for a truly fantastic and unique character, it is important to make sure that they are easy for the GM to plug into his game. For example, a friend is running a paranormal detective agency game. Since I knew in advance that I could only be involved in the game for three to four months because of other commitments, I wanted a character that was easy to put in and take out. So I play a ghost who asks them to solve his murder.

Apu Rao is an Indian medical researcher who was killed in his lab. He had been working on several advanced genetic projects (cloning, cybernetics, toxins, RNA memory transference, etc.)
and doesn’t know which of those projects might have gotten him killed, if any. His projects also tie in with two of the other characters, who are animals imbued with human intelligence.

Good characters often have personalities that are either very similar to or very different from the player or the overall group. Personalities that are very similar to the player (such as a geek player with an inventor character) make the character a natural fit and easy to play. Those that are very different (such as an agnostic player with a devout Hindu character) make it
easier for the player to see and act out the differences that should be played up, maybe even to the level of caricature.

Personalities that closely match the other personalities in a group (such as Superman teaming up with a Boy Scout troop) give the overall group a more cohesive purpose, and serve to increase teamwork. Those that are very different (such as Wolverine joining the same Scouts) can serve to counterpoint the rest of the group, and provide opportunity for the rest of the group to really exercise their psychological differences.

Teams

Since very few games are played with solo heroes, hero teams need to be formed. There are three different types of teams that can be formed. The archetypal team is a well-rounded group where all the angles are covered. Oddball teams tend to be missing key members or consist of only one type of character. Mixed level teams consist of different levels of characters working together.

The Champions, an example of a well-rounded team from Hero System.
An example of a well-rounded team from Hero System.

An archetypal team is a team that  usually contains one of each archetype. A minimum of one Brick, Martial Artist, Mentalist, and Energy Projector are usually members. Quite possibly one speedster, gadgeteer, spellcaster, or some other minor archetype is included. Each member sticks to his own archetype – the brick does not know martial arts, for example. This gives the team a good pool of heroes to  pull from. An archetypal team covers all its bases. For example, the Champions include Obsidian (brick), Seeker (martial artist), Quantum (energy projector), Solitaire (mentalist), and Jaguar (token oddball).

Oddball teams are not archetypal. Either it leans heavily toward one archetype (one brick and five mentalists), or it is conspicuously missing an archetype (three bricks, four martial artists, and five energy projectors, but no mentalists to be found), or it contains many cross- or non-archetypes. Mixed level teams have members at differing power levels. Thorn, the god of rainforests, fights alongside the White Widow, a trained normal with some minor gadgets, as members of The Averagers. As long as each member has their unique shtick (Widow is the best on the team at spy stuff and Thorn is the best at nature stuff), there shouldn’t be a problem. If problems arise, the players should be willing to adjust their characters to suit the demands of the campaign.

Villains

The GM should be concerned with creating “good” villains. All of the good hero tips apply to villains as well, but as a GM-run NPC, villains have a few other features that come into play which make them “good.” Good villains recur throughout the campaign and are evil enough to be worthy of the characters’ attention.

Good villains come back. One-shot villains of the week are okay, of course, but a persistent individual or organization really adds spice to the game. Not only do they keep appearing throughout the campaign, but they also become smarter and tougher. Villains shouldn’t behave completely differently from the last time they were encountered (unless, of course, that’s part of their shtick). By having villains act consistently, the heroes begin to develop a kind of relationship with them that will give them a deeper understanding of the villain.

It is important that all Good villains  be evil—completely or partially. Many people consider Darth Vader to be a better villain in the first two Star Wars movies than he was in the third. He was entirely evil, with no redeeming qualities. The heroes and the audience could feel satisfied in seeking his destruction. In Return of the Jedi, he wasn’t purely evil, which gave the heroes a different problem—instead of how to destroy him, they now had to worry about whether they should destroy him. This can be a very effective way to keep players interested in the villain and also creates some interesting campaign objectives.

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