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.
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.
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.
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?