The theme of this month’s RPG Blog Carnival, hosted by Dungeon’s Master, is “Memorable Characters Inspired From Real Life”. Now, I’m sure a lot of people are going to offer up good techniques for translating real people into your game, ways they can be used as supporting characters, and even a lot of examples of real people ripe to be exploited as RPG characters. I’ve decided to take a different tack. I want to issue you a warning: there are dangers in using real people as supporting characters.
The player characters are the stars of the show, not the NPCs
Having a famous person appear in a cameo is cool. Having a famous person linger around is a buzzkill. The assumption is that the famous person is showing up in the game because they’re somehow awesome. So the person will naturally appear in the game doing awesome stuff, thus upstaging the player character. The other risk is that the player characters do everything and the famous NPC sits back, does nothing, and comes across as lame. You can’t win here, unless you’re incredibly deft.
Your player character version won’t be as cool
Unless you’re playing a game that allows you to create a character to spec, you’re probably not going to be able to match the level or number of build points needed to give that real person all of the abilities they need to, you know, be that person. I’ve had a player who insisted on creating a real person as a character. I regret it. But he should be able to do that because he’s HIM! Not if it isn’t on the character sheet. But he should be better at that! I agree, but you only have so many resources to create a character with. Don’t use a real person as a means to an end-run around the limitations of character creation.
Feelings about the real person may vary within the group
Once I was in a superhero game where the GM introduced his favorite real politician as an NPC. Not everyone in the group thought this person was awesome. We were placed in the position of having to protect this person. We failed, not for a lack of trying. If, within the game, the authorities or the media accused the team of “letting” the politician get killed due to partisan politics, it might be an interesting storyline. Having the gamemaster make this accusation of the players was decidedly not fun.
You don’t play the real person the way others see him (or her)
Let’s say everyone agrees that the real person is cool, and they think it’s fun to have him as part of the game. Even if you’re the undisputed authority on how that person thinks, speaks, and acts, someone’s going to disagree. Would he do that? Would he do this instead? You get a lot less push back on this with original NPCs. This is where just changing the name and a few details and making a character that’s merely inspired by the real person gives you an out.
Jokes and gimmicks usually suck
If the main purpose for having a real person appear in the game is as a joke, or a gimmick, or to otherwise get a little rise out of the players, make it quick and then get right back to the plot. Hah hah, look, it’s so-and-so, great, can I get back to what I was doing? Did that really serve any purpose and move the story forward? Okay, it was cute, it was funny, don’t drag it out.
All game settings are alternate realities
This should go without saying, but based on 30+ years of tabletop roleplaying experiences, it bears repeating. The famous person in your game is not the same as the famous person in the real world. They’re going to make different choices before your game starts, and during the game itself. Embrace this as a strength. Don’t try to hold onto how history actually played out. As with any other supporting character, remember what role they’re supposed to fill in the story and adapt them to fill that role.
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