One of the most common requests in almost any role-playing game is to import a character – often from sources that have little or nothing to do with the game or setting being played. Other characters are converted by enthusiasts, who think they’re cool, or who want to see how they might “stack up” in comparison to other characters. For that you need some way to measure their abilities, and role-playing games tend to try to measure EVERYTHING.
Given how common that is, it seems a bit odd that there aren’t many guidelines on it. Ergo, here are a few of the ones I use:
The description of a character should be considered in terms of the world he or she comes from.
For example, stating that a character is “the most powerful proven telekinetic in the world” may mean very different things in different settings.
In some comic-book and science-fantasy settings, this might indicate that the character can rip galaxies apart and reshape entire universes at a whim.
In a setting of low-grade psychic espionage, this may mean that the character can manipulate a pound or two of material within a radius of fifty or sixty feet – in the setting, a mighty power that allows the character to open locks, plant microphones, trigger explosives, and induce traceless strokes to eliminate enemies.
In the real world, where there are no proven telekinetics of any kind, it means nothing at all.
So that’s rule one for character conversions: pay attention to the assumptions of the source setting. Being great in a world of heroic humans – even if it does contain modest amounts of magic and psychic powers like the worlds of many heroic fantasies – isn’t much like being a superheroic demigod, which is what many RPG game characters wind up turning into. The tendency of the players to want new rewards all the time is enough to make sure of that.
Characters may have abilities that they didn’t portray in the source material – but you should generally assume that they displayed their best abilities in the story and settle for filling in minor, secondary, abilities.
Why is that?
Well, I could presume that any given character had many more powerful abilities available than they actually displayed. For example, I could assume that Batman is actually a vastly powerful reality manipulator, who could completely transform the world with a thought, rendering it perfect, but that he doesn’t use that power because it wouldn’t be fair to everyone else. Ergo, Batman will never lose because he doesn’t believe that it’s possible – and therefore it isn’t.
There’s no end to that sort of speculation – and hardly anyone but the most rabid fans of a character would consider it reasonable. Worse, the only way you can really stay out of it is not to start. It doesn’t matter what you think the character should have; all that matters is what’s in the source material.
Of course, some characters are specifically noted as not using their full powers, whether that’s due to fear of destroying the world, a need to conceal their true nature, or divine command. Most of the time, any mention of such a thing is an example of Chekov’s Gun; if an author mentions the availability of a big power-up, then – sooner or later – it will find its way into the story.
There’s no need to build that into a character in a role playing game though – or, for that matter, in a comic book or long-running series with multiple contributors. EVERY character can be powered-up at the whim of an author or game master, whether or not that hidden potential was ever actually explicitly mentioned before. It doesn’t matter if it’s the power armor guy hooking up his armor to the national power grid, the evil high priestess being possessed by her dark goddess, the sorcerer channeling the power of a magical nexus, or the energy-blasting superhero going berserk and riding a tidal wave of emotion to push his or her powers to unheard-of peaks; give it a bit of build-up and the readers – or players – will be just fine with it, especially since it’s usually only temporary.
Even secondary powers should be added with caution. If you can think of an instance where it would have been really convenient for the character to use a particular ability, and there would be no apparent downside to doing so – and yet they didn’t use it – then the odds are very ,very high that the character does not have that power.
Pick the most flexible available version of whatever game you’re using. If at all possible, use a point-buy system like the Hero System / Champions or Eclipse The Codex Persona for d20.
Fictional characters generally don’t adhere very well to class or template based package deal systems, since they simply have whatever powers their creators thought they should – and trying to cram them into such systems tends to add all kinds of excess baggage. Ergo, you want a system that’s flexible enough to build a character exactly the way you want it.
Don’t fight your game system.
Fictional characters tend to have their strokes of fortune and success in combat controlled by the plot rather than by dice, to suffer realistic injuries and heal slowly, to have realistic levels of skill and to develop rather slowly – if at all. They often respect upper limits too, realizing that getting better at something becomes harder and harder as you go. In fiction, as in reality, if something is worth having there’s almost always a price. Game systems, on the other hand, tend to have abstract damage and skill systems, use cinematic combat options, deal with characters who wander from the plot and so must be durable enough to survive making many bad decisions, and usually offer the characters superhuman powers (whether those are called magic, psionics, combat maneuvers, or advanced technology) which are flashy and exciting enough to interest the players and still well-defined enough to fit into a game system. They generally have some form of “experience points” to provide an in-game measure of achievement and a prize for the players too.
That means that your converted character is going to involve a fair number of approximations. In particular, unless your chosen game has an unusually option-filled set of systems for producing magical or psychic effects, you may need to make a few compromises. That’s fine; the character isn’t going to be interacting with the exact elements from the source material, so there’s no reason to expect the results to be exactly the same anyway. Games are abstract enough to make them playable – so there’s always some room for “good enough”.
Some characters cannot be converted.
For one of the most blatant examples, quite a few settings have a god-figure – an entity who is truly Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Invulnerable, Indestructible, and Eternal. He, she, or it will exist outside of Time, and is The First and Uncreated Cause, the Creator of All Things.
Characters with attributes like that can’t be converted because there’s nothing TO convert. Those are defined terms in English, not game terms – and there’s only room for one Omnipotent being, or First and Uncreated Cause, or Creator of All Things, in the multiverse. Trying to get around it by saying “but that’s only in THAT universe!” is simply announcing that “I’m going to ignore what those terms mean, create a character with a similar name but differing abilities, and claim that I’m representing the original.”
Terms like “Omni” or “All Things” include the entire multiverse, at any level you care to specify.
The only way to translate characters like that is ignore the infinities and cut them down to finite abilities. Unfortunately, the results of that are pretty much purely arbitrary, even if they can be playable.
As a footnote, d20 is commonly used in some a particularly egregious offences against rule one. To explain why, lets take a quick look at skills:
A third level expert in a field can have a +6 Base, a +4 attribute bonus, a +3 for Skill Focus, and a +2 for masterwork tools, references, or what-have-you (there’s always SOMETHING available). That’s +15. Even barring another boosting feat, or a synergy bonus, such a character can “Take 10” and…
Walk a tightrope or a narrow, ice-covered, branch (Balance).
Climb an ice-covered mountainside or a brick wall (Climb).
Disable a complex, trapped, device – such as a World War II unexploded bomb (Disable Device).
Take a minute or two and reliably escape from almost any binding (Escape Artist).
Cure pretty much any natural disease given a few days (Heal).
Reliably answer many of the toughest questions in an extremely broad field of study (Knowledge). With another +5 (say, +2 aid another assistance from a research assistant, a +2 to +4 circumstance bonus from a good library, and +4 to +6 in further aid another bonuses from consulting a few colleagues) the character can reliably answer the very toughest questions in a field – and do original research.
I could go on here – but the point is obvious. A level three character can be better than almost everyone in the real world. The greatest people in real-world history – and most fictional fantasy heroes – can be represented by characters of levels four or five.
Beyond that, you’re getting into movie-style action heroes – people who are blatantly impossibly tough and skilled and who pull off physically impossible feats. At level eleven or so you start getting into superheroes. At levels sixteen and up, you’re getting into the kind of things that legendary demigods did. At epic levels… many classical gods didn’t have that kind of power.
If you want to convert Chuck Norris, and you’re going past level six or so, you’re probably overdoing it – yet you can just look around online and find, for example, the players in various sports being given level twenty builds. That really doesn’t make any sense.