Sometimes, as a GM, people come to you with a character concept that has you scratching your head. Some guy says “Hey, can I play a character who’s a priest, but he’s also a were-snake and is on the run from the mob?” You want to tell them how silly that sounds to you, because you can’t really wrap your head around the idea of a snake/priest/mobster nor are you certain how on earth you’ll work such a character into your campaign and wish they’d just pick something normal and easy to follow. The thing is, though, that you shouldn’t. Well, almost never, anyway (I did have somebody want to play a character that, given the setting, all the other characters would be morally and legally obligated to kill – I talked them out of it). Let me take a second here and tell you why you should always try to say yes, though. Let me tell you about Cowboy.
Cowboy was (and arguably is – the campaign is just on an extended break) played by my friend Will in a Shadowrun campaign set in Hong Kong. He is a vampire. He is a race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong. He is Texas-born race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong.
Yeah, I know. This is a edge-of-setting character archetype from an out-of-setting locale doing a job that the character archetype isn’t technically suited to do. It sounded…odd. I wondered whether he might not just be happier if he played a physical adept with a focus in car driving. But no – Will wanted to play this character. Sticking to my mantra, I said yes.
Cut to 3 missions later. We’ve already established that Cowboy can turn gaseous but, when he does so, he leaves his clothes behind. All the other PCs at this point have seen Cowboy naked, which is amusing enough, but nobody knows he’s a vampire (as they are illegal persons in Hong Kong and could be murdered for a sizeable bounty). The rest of the team, at this moment, is involved in a dangerous manhunt in Kowloon Walled City, trying to find a man before the HKPD finds him, all while dodging ghouls, gangers, evil spirits, and Knight Errant response teams.
Cowboy and ork grifter Boris are holed up in a building nearby, watching the police perimeter. They notice that the cops are moving out, meaning they’ve got a fix on the target, which means the team is in trouble. The team is out of radio contact and Boris is currently getting high off novacoke, so Cowboy takes matters into his own hands. He goes gaseous, leaving his clothes behind, sneaks across the street, and infiltrates a police cruiser. He then goes corporeal again, starts up the car and, after swinging by to pick up a very-high Boris, proceeds to lead half the Hong Kong Police department on a crazy chase through the alleys and trash-strewn streets of Hong Kong’s meanest slums. He did this while naked, while a very high Boris screamed bloody murder in the seat next to him, and while playing country western music at top volume. The car lost mirrors, had a fender blown off, had bullets put through the windshield. It was magnificent!
Then, in the grandest of finales, Cowboy tried to make it into a mall parking structure before a Thunderbird got a lock on their cruiser with their assault cannon – he failed. The car disintegrated in a ball of fire and high-velocity slugs, sending Cowboy across the pavement at high speed, making a road-pizza of him. Boris, through expenditure of every ounce of luck he had, managed to survive by skipping across the reflecting pool before the mall and smashing through a plate-glass window.
Cowboy? Well, he’s a vampire, son! He just healed himself, stood up, and walked home. All buck naked, all while whistling “Thunder Road.” Good times.
So, yeah – if a player comes to you with something bonkers, say yes. Variety is the spice of life.
A lot of what goes on in a role-playing game is world-building. You, the GM, are trying to create an environment that the players will find themselves swept up by – you want them to feel like they know the place, like they understand it. This principle is essentially the same one as applies to good science fiction or fantasy or, hell, good fiction in general: people can’t get emotionally invested in a world they don’t feel comfortable in or that they cannot understand.
In fiction, the writer has more power over how this happens compared to a role-playing game – he or she can write in a style that evokes the proper feeling, they have greater control over dialogue, description, and exposition, and so on. Even if they screw it up the first time through, they get to go back and revise and adapt and improve. GMs do not have these luxuries. A GM has to make it work on the first try, he isn’t the one talking all the time, he can’t control player dialogue and, no matter how talented an improviser he is, there is realistic limits to the mood he can effectively create. That is why it is a beautiful thing when a player meets the GM halfway and begins to flesh out the world alongside him.
One such player was my friend Josh in my Battlelords campaign from about seven or eight years back. Battlelords is a kind of space opera scifi game
with ridiculous alien species all thrown together in a kind of incredibly fatal melting pot. This game had the highest character fatality rate of any I’ve ever run, and it wasn’t just me – the system demanded such things. The combination of the silliness of the aliens and the society along with the deadliness of the gameplay made a very darkly humorous game and into this environment Josh thrust the evil space-squid, Commodian Phentari.
The Phentari are a species of violent, brutal bipedal, cartilaginous cephalopods. Standing seven feet tall and breathing methane, their favorite dish is human and their favorite activities usually involve a kind of ritual dismemberment ideally after a nasty betrayal. They approach the world with an arrogant, barbaric aggression – they are going to take what they want, kill anyone who gets in the way, and have tons of fun doing it. Commodian fit right into the mold – he was deadly, smart, and cruel. That, though, isn’t what had this character make the list.
The actual background of the Phentari, you see, is a tad bit sketchy from the game material we had. I was improvising rapidly trying to fill them out into something more than just a blatant pander to the violent urges of your average adolescent teen male. I tried to make their society something that made sense, or at least on their terms. Josh, a skilled improviser himself and an experienced gamer, hopped right on board. He created new and interesting behaviors for Commodian, attributing them to ‘Phenatari culture,’ and made controversial in-game decisions sometimes for the sake of maintaining the cultural integrity of his character. If a fellow PC died (or was dying) he would eat their corpse, claim their stuff, and refuse to share (as was proper Phentari etiquette). During the party’s in-game poker nights, Commodian introduced a variant of the game called ‘Phentari Bluff’. It was five card stud, but the point of the game wasn’t to show your cards but rather to physically intimidate the other players into folding before any hands were seen. I believe a particularly heated game resulted in him shooting another player in the hand.
Commodian brought an enormous amount of dark humor to a game that, at its structural base, is an elaborate and indulgent D&D-meets-Shadowrun knockoff. He made the world seem real, detailing everything from Phentari banking (also known as ‘grave robbing’) to Phentari mating practices (don’t ask). These details led to the creation of other details about other species, and the whole thing snowballed into a vibrant and fun world in which to set a game. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible if I was doing it all myself, but with Josh’s contributions (and everyone else’s, too!) the whole thing was a lot of fun.
Have you ever had a friend roleplay a character that was terrifying. I mean deeply, sickeningly evil to the point where you had to laugh? I have.
The character’s name was John Wayne Howell, and he was played by my sweet, kindly friend Melissa. He was a horrible monster.
And it was awesome.
The game was Frontier – my own, homemade hard-scifi game wherein the players portray corporate ‘contractors’ sent to the edges of known space to do things too dangerous or illegal for actual corporate employees. The basic deal is that the corporation takes society’s undesirables off the hands of prison officials, the judicial system, or poor houses and gives them a shot at citizenship. On the character sheet, just below the legalese of the contract itself, is a space for the character’s name and for their crime (the thing that got them kicked out of Hubspace and all the way out to Who Knows Where). There were a variety of con artists, theives, forgers, violent offenders, sexual deviants, and so on in the party for this particular campain.
Beneath JW Howell’s name was written “Crimes Against Humanity.”
See, Howell had been a brigade commander during World War Four (or Interplanetary War Two, depending on how you count). He fought for the US against China and Russia, and committed terrible, terrible acts of brutality upon civilian populations, prisoners of war, and, of course, enemy combatants. He was an unabashed racist, a fascist fanatic, and cruel beyond words. He was also a pitiless, efficient killer with decades of combat experience. He only evaded the Rio War Crime Trials by hopping a slow-ship to distant worlds and spending most of the last century (!) in various forms of hibernation. Nobody knows how XF Inc acquired his contract, but they did, and here he was sharing chow with two-bit thugs and wide-eyed rookies, telling stories about that time he wore a Chinaman’s head like a hat. Melissa based him off of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, but with all elements of humanity and goodness stripped from him.
Howell was a terrifying character in the basic sense – he was a villain, a reprehensible monster. The thing that made him work, though, was that Melissa played him to the hilt. She didn’t shy away from how ugly he was. She left other PCs to die rather than risk the mission. She shot *through* allies to hit the enemy (in this instance through a character played by her husband). She tortured adolescent prisoners. She went back on her word and killed people she had promised to save. It was both horrifying and incredible to watch. We all could scarcely believe such terrible things would ever come out of Melissa’s mouth (believe me, she’s a really sweet, kind person with no kind of evil in her soul at all).
Between Russ Carmady and JW Howell, the tone of the Frontier game was set. We orbited between two poles – Catch 22 absurdity and Platoon-esque horror. When the two of them were playing (and, given that the two players are married, this happened a lot), the game sort of glowed with a kind of unique, gritty pathos. It was really awesome, and it wouldn’t have been possible if Melissa shyed away from playing the monster that she had created.
This past year I ran a homemade RPG set in my ‘Frontier: 2280’ universe that was, on some level, a reboot of a Battlelords campaign I had run a few years before, though different in most essential ways. It was a gritty, darkly humorous, hard science fiction game in which the PCs were essentially indentured servants of a large extra-planetary corporation that used them as scouts, guinea pigs, and black-ops troopers. It was a great campaign full of wonderfully fatal events and lots of explosions and ridiculous happenings. There are a lot of characters worth discussing, but the most interesting in, perhaps, one Major Russ Carmady, played by my friend John.
Unlike the rest of the ne’er do-wells, felons, and criminal miscreants that made up the ranks of the XF CFC corps, Russ Carmady was a company man. He cut his teeth with SPIT-NET, joined the private sector as a junior executive on the frontier, and then screwed up so incredibly badly that the company said they could either hand him over to SPIT-NET for criminal prosecution, or he could descend into the ranks of the CFCs and work off his five years. Carmady, of course, chose the latter option.
Carmady was a character that lacked the capacity for self-reflection. He did not see himself as ‘demoted’ or ‘shamed’ so much as ‘transferred’. He had an eternally sunny disposition, a high opinion of himself despite all outward evidence to the contrary, and was constantly thankful for what he saw as ‘opportunities’ that everyone else saw as ‘deathtraps’. He kept the title ‘major’ even though he was in no way entitled to it. He set himself up an ‘office’, which happened to be in the bathroom of the CFC barracks. He had a desk with a nameplate and everything. He was a font of wisdom, in his eyes, but in reality he was mostly making things up. He was a pathological liar, but a very good one. Everyone else on the team either loathed him or thought he was their best chance for survival.
He was absolutely hilarious.
I could list off the magical, almost superhuman snafus Carmady managed to orchestrate, but I won’t. I will simply relate how he, eventually, died. Carmady, due to his mediocre planning, bad luck, and willful ignorance, found himself in a crashed bounce pod on an alien planet surrounded by deadly radiation in the center of a minefield and discovered he was about to be overrun by unidentified forces and possibly taken captive. There was the distinct likelihood that these forces weren’t even human (a first in that world). I gave Carmady three options:
- Stay here and play dead and maybe they leave you be.
- Surrender to unknown hostiles for unknown consequences.
- Run for it through the radiation soaked minefield.
John, his player, asked me one question: “If I’m captured, do I get a black mark on my record?”
“Yes.” I said.
He ran for it. The mine blew his body in half. The table all nodded solemnly – it was the death Carmady deserved. Courageous, ill-considered, and cartoonishly ridiculous, especially since he had ordered the minefield set up in the first place.
I’ve had a lot of silly characters in campaigns before, but Carmady was something special. John, more than a lot of other players, really understood the tone of the campaign. He knew we were, essentially, doing a Catch-22 in Space type thing, and he was totally on board. He was going to showcase the institutional absurdity of Man on a galactic scale. He made a character to fit the moment and embody the feel of what I was trying to do in that game. He, in a very real sense, made the game what it was. He was the compass by which I judged my success or failure in any given session. That, it must be said, is a great compliment. I would encourage players everywhere to follow John’s example: figure out how this game is going to work, and find a spot where you can fit right in. Where not only can you have fun, but you can make the entire game magnificent along with it.
Ah, Major, what will we ever do without you?