Thursday, April 28, 2011

X is for Xander Harris

In today's (hopefully brief) entry in the A to Z Challenge, I bring up an iconic character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who has some relevance to my own gaming and who also raises an interesting question that I'm curious about.

First, for those of you not familiar with the Buffy series, Xander Harris was sort of the show's Jimmy Olsen. While Buffy was obviously a superhero and Giles was clearly a wise mentor and Willow would eventually go on to develop awesome magical powers of her own, Xander remained the powerless support character throughout the series. The character made sense when you considered the whole gender-inversion thing of the show. With a female superhero lead, you needed a male character to fill what was once a traditionally female role. Xander was often the damsel in distress. When he wasn't getting rescued, he was comic relief and an effective stand-in for clueless viewers. With some of the best lines of the show, he also seemed to be a stand-in for the show's creator, but I'm getting way off track.

Anyway, back to gaming. I'm "currently" (if not having played in two months can be current) running a long-running game of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer RPG. Like all successful games based on licensed properties, BtVS: RPG found a way to effectively model key structural elements of the source material. In this case, I'm specifically talking about the vast power differences between characters. Strike that. I don't think that it found an especially effective way to model power differences (that would seem easy in any game), rather it successfully made it cool to have players characters with vast power differences acting side-by-side in the same game, all with equal dramatic importance.

In our game, we of course have our Slayer, who was miles beyond any of the other initial characters in power.   But the rest of the players all created what the game calls "white hat" characters. While some of those white hats would eventually go on to develop varying degrees of supernatural power (just like Willow on the show), I believe the real strength of our game is that we always had at least one white hat who can still be placed in real jeopardy. And it is our chief white hat character who has really served as the emotional core for the whole series.

Anyway, if you've read this far then I have a question for you. Are games that involve characters of vastly different level or power viable in other systems and genres? I have a suspicion that our success with this model says more about our particular gaming group then it does about any particular game or genre. I know this would have never worked with some of the groups that I games with in the distant past.


christian said...

The more we play in the World of Darkness - Changeling in particular - the more we see that relative point values between characters aren't a huge deal. Since combat is a rather minimal facet of our sessions, many different power levels can exist in the same space. Everyone seems to find their role and their voice.

DaveL said...

Sounds like the equivalent of a 1st level MU in D&D, no hit points, no armor, and ONE spell. Of course, I would never play by such stupid rules...


Greg said...

Well, I'm sure it's something to do with our group... but we haven't done anything like it in any of our other campaigns, have we?

m.s. jackson said...

I bet is has to do more with your group. I have ran games before with obvious differences in power levels and it seemed to go well, so long as I still pulled them into the story. If the story of the game makes their inclusion necessary, then it becomes natural for them to be there...regardless of power.

Scott said...

Never had a problem with points differentials in supers games. Just like the Avengers, JLA, and X-Men.

Martin R. Thomas said...

I agree with most of the other comments - it's more of a group dynamic than a system dynamic.

Twenty years ago, my group most likely would not have accepted characters of different power levels. Nowadays, there are still some who would not play a non-powerful character, but I know who they are so I wouldn't ask them to. But, I have other players would be just fine to play a non-powered "white hat", as you call it. They would consider it a role-playing challenge and a fun change-of-pace.

GeneD5 said...

In many of my groups, everybody wanted their characters at the same power level, but a few role-players have been comfortable with a mix, regardless of genre or rules system. As long as each role-player and character has a moment in the spotlight and feels like they contribute to the party's success, everybody should be having fun.

Risus Monkey said...

@christian: Ah, but combat isn't exactly a minimal component of our game either... but I get your drift. I think a well-run WoD game can totally be done with vastly different character "levels".

@DaveL: Yeah, a 1st level MU is pretty Xander-like. Though perhaps it would be be more 2nd-season Willow-like. ;)

@Greg: No, I don't think we really have done it elsewhere. Not intentionally, anyway. Certainly in some games, the effective power level of various characters has varied even though points or levels were mostly constant.
Nothing like Buffy, though.

@Matt: Yep, totally agree.

@Scott: Supers games do come to mind. So long as everyone is still a member of the team, I think we'd be able to pull it off in that genre. But throwing characters lime Jimmy Olsen into the mix? I guess that's sort of what we've got here, but Supers makes the contrast to apparent.

@Martin: Same kind of experience for me. Twenty years ago this would have never worked.

@Gene: I can only speak to your campaigns in NoVa. I'd love to game with you guys in Boston to see your currently player dynamic.

Dyson Logos said...

Really depends on the game. I've seen it work well in Vampire and most non-Werewolf / non-Hunter World of Darkness games (ie: less violent ones), but work very poorly in one of my favourite games - the Elric! / Stormbringer games from Chaosium.

It works poorly in traditional sword & sorcery fantasy RPGs because there is so much fighting - and if you have wildly disparate power levels then you end up with villains who can duke it out with the main character, or accidentally kill two or three supporting characters in a single combat round.

Cinematic Unisystem (the Buffy system for those not in the know) handles it well through the Drama Points which keep the weak characters from being disposable. The reality is that the various characters aren't actually all that different in power level - what the white hats lack in skills and stats they make up for in Drama which affects the game just as much (sometimes more - especially in one-shot games where the White Hats have distinctly more drama to throw around).