Lately I have seen a great many PBEMs that lack, well, creativity. There are the numerous X-Men games out there and most of them encourage people playing canon characters, and more recently an Avengers game was advertised that will start on 5/5/2012, the day after the motion picture gets released. Again, it is a canon character game.
Canon characters are fine for some but I find role playing one is not much fun. You are constricted by what other people have written and sometimes bound by what is still going on in comics and movies. And I think GMs who want canon characters can arguably be called lazy because they want to use established relationships between characters rather than going out of their way to form new ones (i.e. Cyclops/Emma Frost, Storm/Black Panther, Rogue/Gambit, etc.) as well as use pre generated villains and villainous organizations. The X-Men games, for example, almost always have the Federal government and society itself as the bad guy. And often "moderators" will have players run both the bad mutants and the good mutants, relieving them of a large part of the duties of actually creating plots.
Really, is it so hard to come up with your own character? I never thought so. Perhaps it is just easy for me. So I thought for this week's article I would write about the creative process I go through to construct a GMPC. In a later post I will go further into how I come up with other NPCs, primarily super villains and super villain groups.
As I said in an earlier post, a GMPC should played for more than simply a desire on a GM’s part to be more involved in the game. A GMPC should provide the PCs with some sort of useful ability, power or skill that the team lacks. For some of the older players out there back when table top was the way to go often a GM might role play a cleric in a Dungeons & Dragons game to provide healing, undead turning, etc. This is a classic example of the GM providing a party with a useful NPC to insure their survival (Because really no player should ever feel compelled to run a character they do not want to.) Two examples of this in my game are Doc Atomica, who is a geneticist and now possesses a background in hard sciences, and Valiant, who is a gadgeteer and whose powers provided a quick an easy means of transport for non fliers. My game is currently going through a major shake up and I am strongly considering retiring one of these characters, but if I do so I must be careful and replace them with someone the players will like and who will also be useful to them.
So I went through my collection of images I have collected over the years from the internet…
No, I am not talking about porn.
…and I come across this piece of Tomb Raider concept art:
And right away I am thinking about characters with the ability to make duplicates of themselves. There is Marvel’s Jamie Madrox and DC’s Multiplex. And then there is The Collective Man who I thought was pretty cool when I read Contest of Champions back in the day (Not crazy about the power upgrades, though. That is how they ruined Captain Britain and Luke Cage, IMO). Okay, I am thinking to myself, this could be cool. Only…it feels a little flat, like I am just taking an established fictional character and switching genders. And if I went the route of seven sisters forming into one character that would mean I have to make seven personalities and role play them all. What a pain in the ass that would be!
But this picture, it still inspires me. What if the character possesses more than simply turning into multiple bodies? What if she can control her mass, grow and shrink and become intangible as well? That would make her sufficiently different from the DC and Marvel characters. Only the problem there is there is already a PC out there named Extreme, who can grow and shrink. And while Extreme is retired (and heck, I can’t even remember who played her.) it again feels like I am borrowing from someone else too closely related to my game.
Okay, so no shrinking and growing and desolidification. What then? Ah ha! Years ago, before I realized how badly X-Men PBEMs sucked, I role played a teenage boy who created “imaginary friends” psychic constructs with their own personalities (There are X-Men games out there where you can play original characters. They suck no less than other X-Men games.) And later I played a character called The Grenadier, an Army trained vigilante with a psychic female alter ego who went around in the guise of his partner. Why not dust that concept off?
I am bouncing the idea off of Dave Zyn, I ask him if the idea sounds familiar. He points out The New Mutant’s Legion and that reminds me of the Doom Patrol’s Crazy Jane (One of my favorite characters, btw. Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol run is one of the absolutely weirdest things I have ever read, but it was highly entertaining. The Doom Patrol was supposed to be weird and for the longest time comic book writers had penned very basic super hero stories that could have fit in almost any other team boo. Morrison changed that.). Both characters possessed multiple personalities, each one having their own power. But the difference between them and my characters is mine can manifest in the real world apart from the core personality so I am not too bothered. To my knowledge this is unique…
Oh. Wait. The Marvel Comics character Sentry’s arch nemesis, The Void is really his evil alter ego (I hate this character, by the way. I am so very glad they killed him and I am hoping they never, ever bring him back. Lots of tangents in this post, I know.). Same goes for Adam Warlock and TheMagus. And Professor X manifested an evil psychic twin on at least two separate occasions...
Screw it. At this point I am so psyched to follow this creative train of thought I am willing to overlook similarities. Besides, these psychic manifestations are not going to be bad guys.
Well, not bad guys yet. Never say never.
But heck, seven characters! That is still a lot. That would be the primary personality and six alternates, and each one needs to somehow be unique. So I drop two..
Four psychic alternate personalities I can do. I think back to the purpose of this GMPC, how she should fill the team’s needs…
Not those needs. Jeez, what a bunch of pervs.
…should have powers and skills they are lacking. So one alter has telepathic powers, another is a researcher, a third can heal and the fourth is the principle’s protector. Personalities? The first is an extrovert with impulse control problems, the other coldly intellectual, the third emotionally sensitive and caring and the fourth a borderline sociopath. Great! Now, what does she do for a living? How about a paranormal private eye? Give her a name, a back story, and we have…
Molly McLoughlin, Private Psi.
I’m cooking now. I give her a best friend and after watching a Nostalgia Critic video I am thinking this is what the pair do in their spare time. Molly has an office underneath a comic book store. Now all I have to do is make a logo...
...and we are all set!
Only…I was having Sunday dinner with my parents and brothers and something about the character was starting to bother me a bit. There was something…familiar about her. A primary personality, four aspects of the prime given form. A disturbing thought came to mind, and driving on the way from the restaurant I ask my brother Jon if he remembered a series called Herman’s Head?
“Sure,” he said.
“What were the four personalities?” I asked.
And Jon rattles them off, “Lust, Sensitivity, Intellect and Anxiety.”
Holy shit, I thought. I just copied Herman’s Head. Sociopathic behavior could arguably be anxiety turned up to eleven.
It was at that point that I came to a realization; there is nothing truly new under the sun. Anything someone might come up with likely in some way, shape or form has been done by someone else, most likely Stan Lee. The key is how you put your own spin on things, how you drop different elements into a literary blender, try to add your own spice, and see what you come up with.
So Molly has some things in common with other comic book characters, what makes her unique is she is a private eye and-
Wait. Isn’t the comic book X-Factor about Jamie Madrox’s mutant team working as private investigators taking on unusual jobs?
God damn it!