And then she said, “Wait, Professor Jones can help us with this one!”

Have you said that in a game? For the longest time that was taboo in my games, but these days I’m willing to consider it. I’m not talking about Professor Jones per se, but famous characters from novels, movies or TV in general appearing in my games.

I’ve talked about names in games before but this time around I’m not talking about name dropping, but actually introducing NPCs inspired by well known characters. Let me tell you my rationale…

I always want to create my own worlds, filled with character of my own making and felt that dropping NPCs either thinly disguised (Doctor Joneses the adventuring Anthropologist) or simply using them outright (“Yes the wealthy industrialist in called Mister Warbucks, and don’t call him Daddy!”) broke the magic, the internal consistency, call it what you may, of the campaign.

However my perception has changed somewhat over time. I have a good friend, Mario, who is also a long time GM and he peppers his campaigns with famous NPCs, his players even play some of those iconic characters of literature, cinema or television. At first I thought that would not work for me and my knee jerk reaction was “No way!” And then I got to play with him and saw it in action. It actually worked. He runs a large group with players of all ages and the use of these characters as archetypes creates a shared experience that allows everybody in the group to know who that person is and what to expect.

I tend to run long campaigns so character, and non-player character, development is common and desired, so I don’t think I’ll be using famous NPCs in my campaign regularly unless it’s for a laugh. But if I’m going to play a short pickup game or a short campaign that will only last a few sessions using archetypal NPCs can be an effective form of shorthand.

I have also always played with the idea of casting a game, having all important NPCs be well known actors or entertainers, that way players will immediately know what the character looks or sounds like, even casting some of the actors in stereotypical roles so they fit the expectations of the players and throwing in a few curveballs along the way. That’s another in my long list of campaigns to run… Will I ever get to play them all?

So what do you think about the use of famous NPCS? Does it affect your suspension of disbelief? Do you like it? Have you ever done it? I’d sure like to know…

PS – I got that AWESOME image from a post on OverthinkingIt.com, about a mash up of all the 2007 summer movies! A hilarious read BTW!

11 thoughts on “And then she said, “Wait, Professor Jones can help us with this one!””

  1. I think that anything that helps give the players a solid grounding into who an NPC is is good. If that means making Harry Potter and Indiana Jones references in the game with NPCs, so be it. I also think that a good character can always find a place in a similar story, and there’s no shame in recognizing a good character and borrowing some of their traits.

    Your Doctor Jones is always going to be different than my Doctor Jones, and we’re both going to be a good bit off of the actual movie’s version of him, but we can still use the basis for giving the players a solid idea as to who the character is. When you say “Doctor Jones gives his trademark sardonic grin” your players all have a reference point to go to, they know what that grin looks like, and furthermore, they know what it can mean, the atmosphere it can generate in a room. That can be hard to generate with an original NPC in an RPG, afterall, you don’t have professional actors, directors, screen writers, and special effects teams to help push that energy forward and into the subconscious, but Doctor Jones’s source material does.

  2. I can't say I ever had. Thre reason: I had Cloud, from FF7, show up in a book I wrote once as a kid. I will never live that down and probably won't be having too many Celeb Pc's showing up any time soon.

  3. I can’t say I ever had. Thre reason: I had Cloud, from FF7, show up in a book I wrote once as a kid. I will never live that down and probably won’t be having too many Celeb Pc’s showing up any time soon.

  4. Played a DC game once where we took orders from Batman and our plan for stopping the alien invasion was to hold them off long enough for Superman to get back. Framed slightly differently it might have been hokey but the story was of new heroes trying to prove ourselves so I think it worked.

  5. Played a DC game once where we took orders from Batman and our plan for stopping the alien invasion was to hold them off long enough for Superman to get back. Framed slightly differently it might have been hokey but the story was of new heroes trying to prove ourselves so I think it worked.

  6. Lessee, famous characters who’ve shown up in my games…

    Batman and the Joker were both regular guest-stars in a Champions campaign c. 1989.

    Professor Armitage of Miskatonic University has been consulted over the telephone in CoC.

    Luke Skywalker and Kyle Katarn have both mentored Jedi PCs in my various Star Wars campaigns.

    Evard (as in Black Tentacles) was the BBEG in a D&D campaign of mine, after being mind-blasted by a trip to the Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun; Bigby (as in Crushing Hand) was an NPC ally. In my current campaign, Acererak (of Tomb of Horrors fame) will be a recurring menace.

    So yeah, it can be done. :) Generally, as long as the players remain the star of the show, they love interacting with these Well Known Personages. It makes ‘em feel like they’re in the big leagues!

    -The Gneech

  7. I like embedding well-known characters in disguise as easter eggs. If the players catch, I’ll cop to it. Otherwise it’s a source of amusement to me.

  8. The Rippers campaign for Savage Worlds makes extensive use of real and fictitious characters from the Victorian age. Aside from Abraham van Helsing, my players also met Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson and the ghost of professor Moriarty.
    When I remember correctly I once had a NPC closely modeled after Snake Plissken in a Shadowrun Game I run years ago.

  9. Thanks for all the replies… Good points indeed. I must admit I had used TV characters as NPCs before and had forgotten about it until a player reminded me. In a Silver Age Sentinels adventure back in 2002 the PCs were involved in the suspicious death of an informant and one of the supers was a Mexican Wrestler with a “public” identity (the group was a motley bunch I’ll admit it) and the detectives investigating the case were Briscoe and Green form Law & Order. What can I say; I am a fan of the series in all its incarnations.

    My current Pathfinder RPG campaign has two NPCs based on animated characters, the high priestess of the church looks like Maleficient form Sleeping Beauty (she is a half0dragon, hence the horns) and an infamous noble the PCs just defeated was called Ben Herr de Gorgón and was based on Venger from the old D&D cartoons. He was a half fiend sorcerer that hid his appearance magically. HE did NOT ride a Nightmare but did have a coterie of Shadow Demons serving him. I think only one player made the connection with the name and the shadow demons.

  10. Ran a PbEM game for years which was basically the World of Darkness universe set within Gotham city. There were no caped heroes or super villains but a lot of the lesser characters from the batman universe filled the same roles. Commisioner Gordon was in his seat and harvey dent was the DA, Some rich brat called Bruce ran Wayne industries and the Pepperpot family were a big part of the old money brigade. You could also say that locations did the same thing as Arkham was the local loony bin and laffco had holdings in the industrial district.

    Worked well for the same reason i went with Gotham in the first place, the players already had a hand on the mood and concept of the supporting cast and locations which left them free to write more without needing GM/Storytelelr support and guidance. :)

  11. I think the use of archetypes like this – to whatever degree you and your group can accept – is an ideal form of shorthand with incredible benefits in increasing the amount of shared comprehension the players can experience. If we have to build an awareness of each and every NPC from scratch, using only verbal interaction, or possibly some body language as the means of establishing who they are and what sort of person they tend to be… some games won't be around long enough for them to have any more reality than, 'that NPC we met that time in that place where that stuff happened.' Even ones that do endure will suffer from the vagueness that that limited form of communication of content will allow.

    Using known archetypes from either the works of others, or from your group's own past campaigns, definitely magnifies and clarifies the amount of information players can take in in a much shorter period of time, allowing each person to get deeper into the scene than they otherwise could. It might just be the sardonic smile you borrow from Indy, but… often, that can be enough.

    Good post! I missed it the first time round~
    My recent post The GM of Many Parts

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