There’s a scene that played out in one of my Star Wars games that I love to talk about. The player characters, accompanied by the mentor of the two Jedi in the group, were returning from a successful mission. They entered the master’s sanctum, only to find a dark Jedi waiting for them. The NPC was someone they’ve met and beaten before, a failed Jedi and a former student of their master.
Their master, Depa Billaba, shook her head sadly. “I’ve told you Mirak,” she sighed. “I cannot teach you. There is too much anger in you.”
“It’s alright, Master,” Mirak said, drawing two lightsabers. “I have a new master now.”
He ignited his sabers, and they sprang forth with red blades. Then, in the darkness behind him, a third blade ignited, bringing into view a tall form in black. As he strode forward, I described that he was accompanied by a strange, mechanical hissing sound, eerie and inhuman.
I then played a sound effect of Darth Vader’s breathing, three times in a row. Around the table, my players’ faces fell into a mixture of disbelief and horror.
And then I told them that I thought that seemed like a good cliff-hanger ending for the session, causing curses, howls of frustration, and a flurry as everyone pulled out their date-books to determine when our next game would be.
Now, there are two lessons anyone running a tabletop RPG can pull from this. Yes, ending a game on a cliff-hanger that’ll have your players biting their nails is a great idea. But that cliff-hanger wouldn’t have been a cliff-hanger at all if one of my players had said, “Maybe I’m not getting this…who is it?”
Dark Vader is an icon of the Star Wars setting. So much so that it’s his image that graces the front cover of the Star Wars Saga Edition rulebook. Why did I decide to include him? Was it to give my players a big challenge? No, not at all. In fact, he mostly ignored the players, who fought Mirak and a number of re-programmed training droids. Instead, Vader tried to tempt them to the Dark Side with words, while simultaneously dueling Depa Billaba. So why did I include him? Simply because he *is* an icon of the Star Wars setting.
Don’t Be Afraid of Icons
I know a lot of GMs who say things like, “Well, I run a game set in the Forgotten Realms, but I don’t use the iconic characters or settings.” When I hear that, I always say, “What’s the point?” If you’re going to divorce the game from these iconic elements, why bother setting it in the Forgotten Realms, or the Star Wars universe, or the DC Comics universe, or what have you? Just run a homebrewed game and be done with it. If your players seemed enthusiastic to play a game set in one of those locales, odds are, they were excited thinking about their wizard striking against the Red Wizards of Thay, or their scoundrel trying to make a reputation to rival that of Han Solo, or their superhero to fight Lex Luthor or the Joker.
As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of using the iconic elements in my stories. My Star Wars characters are part of the Rebellion, and they’ve met Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, Darth Vader, Jabba the Hutt, and others over the course of the game. We’ve had adventures on Hoth, on Tatooine, on Kashyyyk, and the climax of the game is coming up on the Forest Moon of Endor, and in the huge space battle above it. I have some hardcore Star Wars geeks, too, so when I drop a minor character in like Ponda Baba, Tyber Zann, or Charal, a lot of my players grin slyly. Heck, they battled my own version of Darth Traya, an aged and bitter Asajj Ventress from the time period of the Clone Wars.
It’s all about taking what you love from the setting, winnowing out the awfulness, and running a great game.
For example, per continuity, Depa Billaba, an actual character from the Clone Wars time period, was officially “missing, presumed dead” following the Jedi Purge. I took the character, complete with her background as Mace Windu’s student and having fallen to the Dark Side once, and moved her into a new place in the continuity. To the players who recognized the character, it was a cool moment. When she later gave her PC padawan a purple –bladed lightsaber and said, “This used to belong to my Master,” everyone at the table got a little shiver of awe. If I had used a generic Jedi mentor, it wouldn’t have meant as much.
If your game is set in the real world, then you’ve got tons of icons to choose from. One of my Call of Cthulhu games was set in October of 1926, and the death of Harry Houdini, friend and patron to the player characters, was an important event in the story, as was the secret story about Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle’s friendship…one they had to mask in false enmity for years to protect one another.
Pick and Choose Your Icons
Let’s face it; there are some things in the settings we love that we don’t love. I don’t love the three prequel movies…not at all. But they expanded the Star Wars universe, giving new history, new locales, new aliens, and yes, new icons to exploit. I actually used the icon of Jar Jar Binks, not by having Jar Jar show up in my story, but by introducing a very serious young gungan named Anakin Binks. Ani said that his father had named him after a close friend, and he acted like he had a lot to make up for. He wasn’t a major part of my campaign, but discussion of the NPC outside of the game showed that my players liked the idea a lot.
I have never run a game set in the DC Universe, but I’m sure I will someday, especially now that Green Ronin has put out a DCU RPG I would actually want to run. When I do, I’m sure I won’t be setting my story during the time of the Detroit-based Justice League. Oh, no. My League will be the big names, headquartered on the Watchtower, a team to be proud of. The players will likely be rubbing elbows with heroes, villains, and civilians from the comics. Maybe not the big ones at first. Maybe they’ll get a burger at Bibbo’s, or catch an episode of Jack Ryder’s “You Are Wrong!” that focuses on them, or tangle with a villain like Queen Bee and the Hive. But they’ll slowly build up to gain the notice of the big names, both for good and for bad.
That’s one thing that the DCU MMORPG handles well, but differently. You jump right in and fight Brainiac drones, Gorilla Grodd’s minions, and Circe’s bestiamorphs. You feel heroic right off the bar, but where do go once you’ve fought alongside Superman?
Don’t Overuse the Icons
Now, this is important. Don’t go crazy with this idea. If your game is nothing *but* icons, then your players will get bored, and the impact won’t be as high. The trick is to use them sparingly, or to make them part of the background. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t important parts of my story. They’re just people who’re off having their own adventures, intersecting the players’ lives now and then back at whatever dump of a planet the Rebellion is using as a base at the moment.
Likewise, when I play Lord of the Rings online, I’m glad I’m not constantly tripping over the Fellowship all the time. They’re there, and I know I’m helping their cause, but I’m not checking in with them all over the place. I also like that the game has developed into some areas that weren’t specifically important to the Fellowship’s quest, like Angmar, Evendim, Forochel, and Enedwaith. These areas are barely touched on in the books, other than a hint of background. This means that the legends forged in these regions are uniquely mine. Well…as unique as possible when you know hundreds of other players who have also recovered the legendary lost ring Narchuil, almost captured Gollum in the Trollshaws, and slain the terrible turtle Nornegil.
Icons of Your Own
You may be reading this thinking, well, I run a homebrew campaign. I guess this article isn’t for me.
Well, you’d be dead wrong, pally!
I run a homebrew D&D game myself. My game is centered around a town called Seowyn’s Crossing, named for the famous general Seowyn Greenfields who led his armies across the Silver Falls river near where the town was built, thus coming to the aid of the elves of Faerinwold, and…oh, well…you get the point. The players come from a town named for him, the local baron is named Greenfields and is a direct descendent, and there’s a statue of him on the town green. So do you think this fellow’s an icon of my campaign? You betcha. When the players found his tomb, a real sense of reverence came up, and people seemed really awed at the find. They’d touched an icon, and one that really is uniquely theirs and mine.
Share Your Iconic Experiences
Have you ever met an NPC in a campaign and thought, “Aw man! I always wanted to meet this guy”? Or been playing game and came to a locale and thought, “Oh, how cool! I love this place”? Or had some similar experience? Or if you’re a GM, have you used an icon particularly well in your campaigns? Share your story, and maybe you’ll inspire someone else to do the same.