So what's the Prime Directive when you sit down to roll up a character for an RPG? Do you enjoy making up characters totally unlike your 'real' self and playing them to the hilt? Do you just make whatever the party needs, placing more value on moving the story forward than on playing a specific role? Or are you one of the rare few who truly like the complexity of a rules set, lawyering every last +2 bonus you can get and figuring out probability and power curves for every min-maxed build?
Me, I'm a fan-boy. When I roll a fantasy rogue, I'm seeing Fritz Leiber's Grey Mouser. When I make a Traveler character (that actually survives character creation), I'm thinking Ellen Ripley or Honor Harrington. Cyberpunk? Yeah, maybe I've copied Case from William Gibson's Neuromancer once. Or twice. Or every damned time.
It's a natural urge to put yourself in your hero's shoes. You read the books, you watch the movies, you maybe write the fan-fiction (The serious kind, or maybe even the slash kind, whatever soaps your rope). It's comfortable and it's natural, but it's also limiting. The point of an RPG is to cut loose with the imagination. Nobody wants to hear how well you can shoehorn Sindarin Elvish into a straight-up, kick-in-the-door dungeon crawl. When your character never goes beyond the inspiration material, the game becomes a fan-fic centered around you, and that's not fun for anybody.
It's hard enough to leash your inner fan-boy/girl in a normal RPG, but what about when an entire game system is specifically based on an existing Intellectual Property, a big-name world that gets its own exhibit hall at ComiCon? How do you play that kind of system without falling mechanically into the existing plot? Can it be more than group fan-fiction?
Well, I've been to the mountain top, and the answer is yes: you can make a popular fictional world into more than a long string of script-quoting and inside jokes, but it ain't easy. It takes conscious effort and mutual support from the whole table.
1. You WILL play Han Solo...
Or Malcolm Reynolds. Or Angel. Or Jaime Lannister. No matter how hard you try, you will end up with a character carbon-copied from the Hallowed Source Material.
Look, it's not really your fault. Look at the Serenity/Firefly RPG: I really like it. The Cortex system is close enough to Savage Worlds to be comfortable, and the books themselves are gorgeous: full color art, stills from the show, quotes from the original script liberally scattered throughout. The book really evokes the spirit of the show, and that's the whole point. But it also makes it damned near impossible to roll up a ship that's much different from Serenity or a crew that doesn't have a plucky mechanic, a smart-ass pilot and a dogged, heroic Captain with a moral code. We love the world, and want to play in it; but, even more, we love the gorram characters, right? And when the rules plaster those characters on every page, it's hard to avoid the influence.
2. ...and That's Perfectly Okay
Of course you're going to play an iconic character, thinly re-skinned (What? My smuggler is named Wan Single, and his copilot is a Bothan, not a Wookie, so it's totes original). And, when you're first starting out, that's entirely cool. What better way to get a feel for playing in the Star Wars universe than playing a version of a known character? You already know what Han would do in a given situation (shoot first, duh) and that serves as a great set of training wheels for getting into the swing of things. So go ahead and roll up a Jaime Lannister. Have him “pay his debts”. Spend a few dice throws being a cocky ass and making out with your sister (maybe). Use the familiarity of the character to really get into the world.
3. Then Let It Go.
Annoying biographical example: I recently got into a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign. We were all starting fresh, so we used the pre-gen characters in the starting set. My pre-gen boy Pash? Well, let's just say the folks at Fantasy Flight Games wanted the Han Solo fans to be represented. We played the introductory adventure, and I played Pash pretty much like Han: smart mouth, fast blaster, shoot first. But, towards the end of the session, I'll be damned if the guy didn't start to develop a personality of his own. He started to veer into Lando territory, a bullshit artist with a true criminal streak, the kind of guy who will fight the Empire, but only if Leia wears the bikini. He was kind of a dick, and he was fun to play, and he wasn't Han Solo. By the third night we played, I had him a whole back-story, and the only way he resembled Han Solo was that he was flying a Corellian YT-1300 freighter.
When you dig right down into it, no RPG character survives the first session. Whatever idea you had, rolling all those d6's and dog-earing pages in your player's guide, it morphs the minute you bring other players into the situation. With a decent GM behind the screen, you'll soon find your cardboard-cutout character becoming a stand-alone person: sure the basic inspiration is always there, but your own personality and the influence of the other players will make your character one that can stand alone, even in a world-famous setting. And when that happens, you'll find your inner fan-person skweeee-ing like crazy, because, in an obscure way, you've truly put yourself into that world. It's no longer just George Lucas, or Joss Whedon, or GRRM's world; now you've written your own little piece of it.
Jack Benner is a back-sliding follower of St. Cuthbert. He writes about all kinds of things for Stick in the Mud Press (stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com)
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.