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Dealing with Marquee Characters

By default, players generally assume that all characters are created equal and that no one character is more important than the others. There are, however, many situations in which one character emerges as more important than the others within the context of a campaign. Lacking a cool Gnomenclature definition, I’ve tagged such characters as “marquee characters.”

Marquee characters shine a little brighter than the other characters in terms of story, power, and/or spotlight time. A story example would be the “fated noble” in a fantasy game. This character is a cousin of the current evil queen and the other characters must protect her as she goes on her quest to get the magical doohickey and overthrow her devil-worshipping relative. A power example would be the starship captain, who not only has access to more resources and authority than the other characters, but also has the power to regulate the other characters’ access to those same resources. The archetypal spotlight marquee character is the computer hacker (also known as the console cowboy or decker) in a cyberpunk campaign. Whenever the hacker acts, the game gets put on hold while she runs through a solo mini-adventure.

I’m sure some of you are asking “what about the Jedi Knight?” Well, in truth the Jedi Knight encompasses all three. He is usually more important in terms of story, wields much more power than his buddies, and can hog spotlight time as he confronts Darksiders on his own.

So how how can you incorporate marquee characters? Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned over the decades (okay, shut up…I never used chits. I’m not that old!).

Sometimes it’s easier just to remove marquee elements from a campaign. Don’t design a fantasy quest around a character’s heritage. Ban Jedi PCs from the Star Wars campaign. Make the starship captain an NPC and give all the players the rank of Lt. Commander and heads of their respective fields.

In my experience, Removal has been the usual way to handle computer hackers in most cyberpunk campaigns. Computer hackers are either NPCed or hacking is reduced to a single skill roll. This has been surprisingly effective, as most players would rather “cyber-up” their mercenaries (or build mages in a Shadowrun game). I’ve no idea if the latest versions of cyberpunk games have done a better job of hacking, but traditionally most cyberpunk games have clunky, time-consuming rules for cyberspace, which generally only involve one PC.

One downside to this is that removal of marquee characters can dilute the feel of the setting. Not long ago, a buddy told me that his GM banned Jedi characters from their Star Wars campaign. My response was “So why aren’t you playing Traveller instead? While it was a bit of a flip response, my point was that the Jedi were such an essential part of the Star Wars setting that removing them from play effectively changed the game to generic space opera.

Equal Stats
It stands to reason that if one PC is given more importance or authority, then that must be worth something. As such, the “fated PC” should be at a lower power level than the other PCs. This gives the other PCs a motivation to protect their friend and allows them a chance to shine during the actual adventure. Game systems with point-based character generation, such as GURPS, take this into account by assigning costs to such things as military rank or epic destinies.

This allows the player to have more “intangibles,” but lacking in the crunch department. Often, a marquee character in this situation would go to a player that doesn’t mind losing a bit of tangible power for a character that offers meaty roleplay.

There are some problems with Equal Stats. First, some games rely on a balanced party and having a weaker member could make it difficult for the character to survive or be an effective participating member. Also, the “license to be overly dramatic” can quickly wear thin in some groups. Finally, the other players may feel that all of the good scenes are going to the marquee character, leaving them as nothing but extra muscle.

Group Fate
Sometimes you think you need a marquee character, but you don’t. Not all fantasy cultures need to be ruled by hereditary monarchies. Perhaps the wielder of a particular item can claim the throne, as the current ruler is only a steward. This allows all PCs to go on the quest and perhaps argue with each other along the way as to who should claim the item. If a character dies, then he is easily replaced with another that can go for the same brass ring.

Similarly, all of the PCs could be Jedi Apprentices (either before or after the Rebellion…or during if you want to break with canon). If you want to spin things around, the PCs could actually be bounty hunters, hired by Darth Vader to hunt down the remaining Jedi.

The biggest flaw with Group Fate is that it dilutes the “specialness” of a marquee character. Gandalf is interesting because he is one of the few people in Middle-Earth with true magical power, while Harry Potter is just one wizard in a school full of them. Coupled with this is that, depending on the number of chargen options, you can effectively have the entire party playing the same character with little variation.

Marquee characters can be used to neutralize other marquee characters. I’ve used this to great effect in Star Wars campaigns. While the rest of the party completes the actual mission, the Jedi PC has to confront the Dark Jedi/Sith Lord that stands in the way (it also helps if your players buy into the Highlander-esque philosophy that the Force duel will be uninterrupted by non-Force users). The starship captain may have to negotiate with the Romulan Commander to keep them at Bay while the other PCs are investigating an abandoned Klingon outpost.

Typical superhero campaigns actually use the neutralizer concept in the background. The reason why the modern superhero world looks similar to our own is because superheroes and supervillains tend to cancel each other out. Superheroes aren’t so much trying to change the world as to maintain the status quo.

While this can be a great solution, there are a few problems with Neutralizers. First, you’ll effectively be writing two encounters for every scene, as you need to occupy the marquee character’s time.  You’ll also need to establish a good rhythm of cutting back and forth between scenes. Second, the Neutralizer won’t work for all marquee characters. If the PCs need to get through a secure door, you can’t cut between the hacker working to overcome the lock with the PCs anxiously twiddling their thumbs (although you could build tension). Finally, it’s easy to fall into a habit of “sameness.” If every mission involves the Jedi fighting the Sith Apprentice-of-the-week, then it’s going to get old quickly.


Marquee characters can also be used for support. Instead of coming on the mission, the hacker could be sitting at home (or even wandering elsewhere, assuming his PDA is advanced enough) communicating to the others through cams and radio. Perhaps he can fly the team jet remotely or do his hack magic in advance (for example, if the hacker knows that the PCs are going to infiltrate a building, then he can start taking down the systems before they arrive).

It could also be fun to give the marquee character some complications unrelated to the adventure. For example, maybe the hacker is a telemarketer and has to keep the manager off his back while he aids the PCs. Maybe the occult expert is trying to have a quiet dinner with a date that claims “she never has time for him” when the PCs call her cell phone for advice on how to stop the wrath demon.

The problem with Support is that it tends to sideline the marquee character for long stretches. The only way to combat this is to constantly add encounters that need her support, but if that’s the case, why isn’t she physically along for the ride. Also, the “fun, unrelated complications” may simply act as a new coat of paint on the old “the hacker is doing something, so we get to watch for half an hour” problem.

Summing Up

Hopefully, I’ve provided some help (and pointed out some potential pitfalls) with integrating marquee characters. There is no universal solution; some will work better than others based on the type of marquee character involved and your group’s style.

How about you? How do you handle marquee characters? Is it a struggle, or have you found a way that works well for you?

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Dealing with Marquee Characters"

#1 Comment By DNAphil On September 23, 2008 @ 8:38 am

I have run two games with Marquee characters in the party, and in both cases, my solution for how to deal with it has been to keep the Marquee character, but have the other characters provide pieces that the Marquee needs to complete their quest.

An example. In a Vampire campaign that I was running, one of the players really stood out, and through the course of the game slowly evolved into the Marquee character. At that point, when I realized that he would be key to the major story arc, I planned out the adventures such that, the only way the Marquee could advance to the final scene, was through the successful completion of a number of side tasks that the rest of the group needed to complete.

Thus, each player played a very important role for the Marquee character, and each player got his time in the spotlight. When the time came for the Marquee character to reach the climax of the arc, the other players knew he got there, because of their help. No one felt slighted about the experience, since every player was invested in its success.

The other thing you can do is to shift the Marquee character in the middle of the campaign. In my current Iron Heroes campaign, the early arcs of the campaign focused around the lost heir of the King, and his rise to power, and founding of a new nation to lead a war on the demons that occupied their lands. But in the middle of his arc, I began to seed hints that one of the other characters, the one with the mysterious religious past, would be key in the eventual defeat of the Demon King. As the game progressed, the King’s story arc began to wind down, as the Vessel’s (as he is known) began to heat up. It was totally obvious to the players, in fact the King said to the Vessel on day, “In time history will not say that the Vessel road with the King, but rather the King road with the Vessel.”

In this way, two of my three players, have gotten to be the Marquee player. The third, who I talked to at length, was fine being a supporting character for both Marquee’s.

I don’t think you have to fear the Marquee, especially if you work it into the social contract, that a there will be a Marquee character. I also think it works best, if you rotate the Marquee character, as well, giving each player a shining moment in the game.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 23, 2008 @ 8:51 am

DNAPhil – You reminded me of a Doctor Who game I planned (but never got a chance to run). Essentially, each player would create a Time Lord and a number of companions (one for each of the other Time Lords).

I’d then rotate the Time Lords between adventures, giving each player a chance to shine. As a twist, I’d have each Time Lord PC be a different incarnation of the same Time Lord. If one of the Time Lord PCs ever “died,” he’d simply regenerate into one of the others (instant regeneration story).

#3 Comment By Sarlax On September 23, 2008 @ 9:40 am

I haven’t run this kind of game, but it occurs to me that there’s no reason why the marquee character should diminish the other PCs.

Think of Star Wars – sure, Luke is the star who ends up with overwhelming power, but everyone has great moments and their own scenes. Han becomes the true ace (IE, they start with the same ranks in Pilot, but Luke multiclasses to jedi while Han stays a scoundrel), Chewie gets to smash around and even ends the campaign with a crazy Tarzan move and stealing the walker. Even C3P0 gets to earn the alliance of the ewoks with his storytelling.

In the final battle, Luke might be the one who seems to have his own encounter, but that’s not really true. In fact, every PC is doing his own thing in the final fight, whether that’s stealing the walker, cracking open the door to the shield generator, beating on storm troopers, or dicing Vader.

#4 Comment By Target On September 23, 2008 @ 9:56 am

One can also find inspiration in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (tv show, I haven’t played the game, though I flipped through the rule book). It’s clear some characters are more powerful, but different episodes highlight the supporting cast. And everybody gets a chance to be a big hero from time to time.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On September 23, 2008 @ 10:17 am

I’ve tried a lot of the variations you mentioned above– that’s a nice summation above. I use removal when the marquee character’s play doesn’t interact with the other PCs’– just like your example, hackers are NPCs in my game because who routinely wants everyone to sit around waiting for one person to play?

Equal stats rarely works; often you’re buying spotlight with character points, which doesn’t work at all. It’s very hard to make the tradeoffs work in a similar spotlight tradeoff way– instead, the flaws to pay for the rank/coolness often drive even more attention to the character.

Group Fate sounds interesting– I don’t think I’ve really done it before.

Neutralizers often make things worse– they amplify the spotlight for the key PC. “No one else could do X, but Fred,” is a great line once, but not consistently. (Plus you get metagame considerations, where the PC could start the fight by slaughtering the small fry in the first round, but doesn’t so everyone will have something to fight. Sometimes players don’t pick up on that– sometimes you’ll have the smallfry try to mob the neutralizer with painful results.)

Support sounds like it amplifies the problems of PCs who don’t interact with the others– you’ve extended it even further. At that point, if they aren’t going to share scenes, why pretend they are in the same campaign?

In the end, any of them can work– but more than “equality” of any specific kind, most people want equality of spotlight. As mentioned by DNAphil, turn the spotlight from one star to another to another, and most players will be happy. If they doubt they’ll ever get their chance at the spotlight, then you’ve got a bucket of trouble.

#6 Comment By Gregory On September 23, 2008 @ 10:26 am

Shadowrun Fourth Edition does a good job of dealing with the hacker problem. In that world, hacking into a system remotely is very hard. The easiest way to crack something is to access it through short-range wireless, which means the hacker needs to come along with the group and can only tackle each obstacle as it comes up. The hacker’s still a specialist, like the mage, but she can no longer take an hour to get all her work done before the party steps inside the target.

Also, having to register to comment is annoying. I highly recommend the Akismet anti-spam plugin if you haven’t tried it.

#7 Comment By gomi no sensei On September 23, 2008 @ 10:53 am

Whether a marquee character is a problem depends on the players in the game.

I’m currently playing in two games and was recently running one. One of the games I play in now has a marquee character — not mine — and I love it. It takes a lot of pressure off of me, since my character is basically backup for his. While I certainly wouldn’t want that in every game, it’s a nice break now and then.

I’ve definitely played with people who didn’t like the spotlight. They enjoyed coming out, hanging out with their friends, and rolling some dice. Having someone else be the center of attention is A-OK as far as they’re concerned.

As with all things, you need to gauge your players and do what’s right for them.

#8 Comment By BryanB On September 23, 2008 @ 11:02 am

As a GM, I try to make sure that everyone shares the spotlight. In my Star Wars game, I’m trying really hard not to make everything about any one particular character. So far, I think we have succeeded in sharing the spotlight. Indeed, everyone was needed to take down the big bad Sith Apprentice at the conclusion.

One terrific thing about Saga Edition Star Wars is that all of the classes have talents that make them unique. The characters were able to combine their abilities in order to take on challenges and overcome situations that they might not have managed by themselves. It has been a good team effort.

The biggest challenge in spotlight sharing that I have seen, as a GM, is when you have a player that is shy about taking the spotlight. One has to push the shy player onto the stage sometimes. It is challenging because I want the player to want his PC to have their turn in the spotlight, but I don’t want to make it seem as though I am picking on them specifically in order to have that happen.

One thing about Spirit of the Century (there is that game again) that I really like is the mechanic of compelling aspects. When a GM feels that a player needs some more screen time, he can go to their aspects and compell one of them to enhance the story. At least he can reward the player/character with a Fate point when he pushes them into that light. The GM gets to help the shy player by doing that and he is rewarding the PC from a mechanical standpoint. It is Win-Win.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 23, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

Well written, Walt. I’ve backed my way into this situation a few times.

If you’re going to use a Marquee (Marquis?) character, I’d say that it really depends on the players. There are a few I wouldn’t trust with a Marquee, and others that would do fine with it.

I’m partial to the NPC/Removal method, with a twist: make the NPC a pain in the ass. Captain Picard never shoots anyone (well, hardly ever), but he creates all kinds of situations for his team to deal with. Captain Malcolm Reynolds is an active participant, but he’s no better than anyone else at anything, and his stubbornness also creates all kinds of stress for his crew.

The only complaint I can see against Removal is the “necessary to the genre” example (no Jedi in Star Wars). The simple answer is to either adopt rules that allow for it to work (Saga rules apparently do this well), or to just allow everyone to be one (a Jedi Academy game).

My problem is the “unexpected Marquee character”. I use a character’s background in a plot, and then the player stops showing up, the character dies, or some such event. Other than not weaving player background into the plot (which is not an option), does anyone have any ideas for this?

#10 Comment By Target On September 23, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

Assuming, of course, that the party can’t just pick up the fallen standard and carry on (ie, they still want to dethrone the evil queen, even if their own personal princess is MIA), I don’t see why the Nemesis may not want revenge on the party for being a nuissance. Going back to the evil queen, she may have eliminated one princess but there are certainly other claimants to the throne. She must elimnate the troublesome party before they find some other candidate (NPC) to throw their wait behind. Or maybe she wants to elimate them solely because they dared try to thwart her.

#11 Comment By Swordgleam On September 23, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

Good article. I think there’s one good option for marquees that hasn’t really been considered – a mix of neutralizer and group fate. That is, have another PC in the party that interferes in some way with the goals of the marquee character, or at least causes tension.

In my upcoming 4e campaign dragonborn are very rare, and the ones that exist are outcasts. One of my players really wanted to be a dragonborn, mostly for this reason. His plan was to turn all of the party’s successes into reasons why dragonborn should be accepted, and eventually found a race of dragonborn that cooperate with the other civilized races. Needless to say, he was planning spend a lot of social encounters trying to overcome prejudices.

I didn’t want the rest of the party to fall into the shadow of this, or to just ignore it, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Then another player said he wanted to play a dragonborn. We worked it out so that his character, a cleric, is always entirely concealed by heavy cloaks. He claims it is for religious reasons, but the real reason is to hide the fact that his god has changed him from a human into a dragonborn. He used to be accepted in the community, and in his new guise, he still is; and he really doesn’t want to lose that. He could help the other dragonborn character become accepted by revealing himself, but he also risks losing all he’s worked for.

The other dragonborn’s quest for acceptance now directly involves at least one other character, and will very likely be a source of tension between them as soon as he finds out what the cleric really is. If another party member finds out first, they’ll have to choose whether to keep the cleric’s secret, or tell the other dragonborn. It’s not something either of the characters involved will kill over, so I think it’ll be a fun source of non-violent party tension that will get everyone involved in the quest to gain acceptance for the dragonborn… whether they like it or not.

#12 Comment By justchuck On September 23, 2008 @ 6:40 pm

[1] – That’s a great idea. I might just have to borrow it……Now I just have to come up with a Doctor Who type adventure.

#13 Comment By Patrigan On September 24, 2008 @ 1:23 am

I saw neutralizers more like target does. Having an NPC be the neutralizer still forces a spotlight on the marquee, no matter how you handle it.

If however, you use other characters as neutralizers, this problem is solved. In my current DnD 4E campaign, I have Der, a character who lost his powers and gathered a group of persons to aid him in the search of an artefact, he is guided by a godess who also grants hi; a few new pozers. Everywhere they go, will resolve around this artifact. Then there’s Akiasah, an evil wizard with a lust for power, he simply wants more. Bregwin, a rogue who urgently needs money, no matter what it takes, such an artifact could be interesting for him. There’s also Mal, a devil who due to a ritual got sucked into a silly apprentice of a wizard. He lost nearly all of his powers and thus, acting as if he’s a warlock with a devillish pact, he goes after this artifact.

The last character is a bit of an outsider. He wants to rescue a friend who got kidnapped by a bunch of undeath. While attempting this, he meets the above group and he feels that if he follows them, he might see his friend back. His future is still shrouded, for himself. The rest has an agenda, but this player gave me full control over where his character should go, by playing out cards like the boss telling him thatt he’s moved and other similar plans.

Each character is marqee in regards to the story. If the stories all have a certain omg-effect, no character can’t be marqee…

#14 Comment By Adam On September 25, 2008 @ 9:22 am

I do not hold my players’ hands. If one or two players work hard to increase their characters’ visibility in the campaign then they deserve to reap the attention and other rewards that come with it. Fortunately, I have a lot of good players and don’t have to worry too much about other players balking at the idea that somebody’s made themselves “more important”.

Besides, I remind them that everybody has hit points that are just aching to be pared away. High-profile PCs are far more likely to raise the ire of a BBEG.

#15 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 25, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

Adam – I agree wholeheartedly with you. Players that build “street cred” should reap the benefits of doing so, but that’s a different situation than what I’m referring to here. Marquee characters are special by their nature, which is built into the campaign premise.