Techniques for Genre Characters

by John Kim

         This is one of a series of essays on techniques for emulating common genre conventions in RPGs. My assumption here is that you have a given genre -- such as "superhero comic book" or "period martial arts movie" -- and you want to adapt it from its original medium into the medium of RPGs. This is similar to the problem of adapting a novel into a film, or any other change of medium. For more on the meaning of genre in RPGs, see my essay on "Understanding Genre in Roleplaying".

         Here I will discuss three common aspects of genre characters:

Particular genres may involve only a few of them. For example, period martial arts movies light equipment. However, they don't have terribly unequal PCs: usually all main characters are fairly competant in martial arts, though there are varying degrees of mastery.

Unequal PCs

         Most role-playing games assume a fair-sized group (roughly 3 to 8) of PCs of similar power, who interact as a group of equals. However, there are many genres which this does not fit for. In some genres there is a central commander and his trusted subordinates. In others there is a mix of forthright heroes, lesser allies, and incompetant comic relief. There are many possibilities. I would first look at techniques used by existing games.

         Ars Magica has vastly unequal PCs: super-powerful magi, competant companions, and lowly grogs. It it handles this by allowing each player to create a magi PC, but making the players rotate from session to session who plays their magi PC and who plays grogs. This allows all the players to have their time in the spotlight even though the characters vary enormously in power.

         The Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG uses a different technique to handle having a super-powerful Slayer PC working with ordinary high school students, known as "Scoobies" in the series. The players of Scooby PCs have twice as many Drama Points, which can be used to influence skill rolls, create plot twists, or other effects. This gives the scoobies' player the power to directly effect the game "behind the scenes", even though their PC isn't as powerful.

         The Ghost Dog RPG has a simple solution to its genre having a single powerful protagonist. The rules simply assume the games will have one GM and one player.

         In general, you would like all of the players to be equal participants in the game. However, this does not inherently require that all PCs be equal in effectiveness. There are many possibilities to consider.

Ultra-competant Characters

         Many genres feature characters who are highly competant in a variety of fields. Even if you are writing a novel, these characters are problematic, because it is difficult to write about a character who is more competant than you in a field. This could be a character who is superhumanly intelligent in all ways, but could also be just a character who is a master tactician or master diplomat. An RPG has particular problems with it, however, because the narrative is created spontaneously.

         There are a few ways to address this:

         I should re-emphasize that none of these are a perfect solution, even in combination. This is especially true if there is a huge disparity between player and PC skill. If someone is totally inept socially, then it will always be a strain on believability for her to be playing a master manipulator. You must balance the desire for flexibility of PCs with the believability of portrayal.

Light Equipment

         Many cinematic genres often have main characters be lightly armed and relatively scantily clad, including numerous martial arts, modern action, and fantasy movies. RPGs, even if they aim for these genres, often emphasize the importance of equipment for effectiveness, with the result that PCs tend to constantly go about heavily armed and armored. The most direct solution to this is simply to reduce the importance of equipment to effectiveness.

         Another technique is to not bother with detailed equipment lists. Instead, be generous in allowing PCs to have any vaguely reasonable equipment given what they were expecting.


         The design of PCs and especially the design of PC groups is absolutely critical to an RPG campaign. Details like the weapon damage table are often regarded as pure number-crunching or simulation. However, they have a major affect on how well the game emulates a genre.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sun Apr 20 22:15:55 2003