One of the things most players do when creating a character is develop some sort of hook, or “shtick” for their alter ego — it could be a defining trait, skill, weapon or look, something that makes the character easier to connect with for the player, and the others at the gaming table. Having a shtick is nearly essential for a pulp-style game: the fearless, slightly (or very) unsavory archeologist who ultimately does the right thing; the earnest, down-on-his-luck pilot that finds a rocket pack and turns into a hero; the two-gun toting “shadow” that uses his powers to cloud men’s minds fights crime in a manner that is itself highly questionable; the whip wielding Mexican (well, Californian) hero out to right wrongs…. all have something quickly definable about them.

Shtick is good. It gives a character personality almost immediately, and while it might change or develop over time, it gives you a nice shorthand for describing the character to others and yourself.

Shtick, however when taken too far, or when too well designed can actually hijack a character and make them hard to relate to, or makes them unsuited for the game world they exist in. Here’s two examples of very similar characters…one worked, one did not:

In our Hollow Earth Expedition game, we had the action sidekick in the form of Jack MacMahon. He was a Columbia-trained lawyer who couldn’t pass the bar due to being a bit thick and lazy. He was the son of a politician, rich and well-connected, a bit spoiled, and generally somewhat untalented…except when it came to having guts and fighting. Put his totemic (and at the time, very rare, Registered Magnum) in his hand and he was nigh unstoppable. He was a two-fisted, gun-slinging combat monster — but he also was careful not to go so far over the line he would be arrested for his actions. He was always in the right (well, mostly…) He was a sucker for women to the point he couldn’t hit the female ninja kicking the crap out of him. He was loyal to a fault, almost puppy-dogish.

Jack kicked ass, threw off memorable quips, and always did the stupidly brave thing. And he got his ass kicked, even when he won fights. He was human.

The character was retired when the player could no longer make it to the game. I retooled the campaign, helped one of the new players who obviously liked being the action dude build a “Jack replacement” — “Daredevil” Dan McCoy, a movie stuntman and sometime wing-walker for flying circuses with a sideline in two-story thievery. He was enthusiastic, brave to the point of lunacy, and so damned good at just about anything physical as to be unstoppable. He was a showman and the player obviously enjoyed taking him right to the limit…and over.

The shtick became unmanageable. He would get into scuffles with important NPCs they needed and screw over the other players. He notably chased down bad guys by (unnecessarily) ramming a car through the lobby of a fine hotel in Lisbon, drawing the attention of the military police (Portugal being fascistic at the time), and otherwise was a rabid dog off the chain.

The problem was the combination of the character and player made for shtick run wild, and it ruined the verisimilitude of the world, even though the other characters were also over-the-top…but in a way that was believable for the world. Think Indiana Jones. In real life, he would have had local authorities up his ass on any number of times in the real world. (But then, there also wouldn’t have been Nazis running around British-allied Egypt, either…) He was just enough, but not too much, to make the movie setting fly.

There are ways to manage shtick run wild, and you can see some of the techniques in “the best there is” characters who are suitably restrained by plot and their world. One that springs to mind is Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. We see her in action in the cockpit  the first few episodes of the show – she’s lunatic, better than the best, and unstoppable. So what do the writers do to make it not “Starbuck saves the day” every episode? They break her leg after a crash caused by, frankly, being too damned good in the cockpit and taking on too many Cylon raiders. She has to do other things that are outside the character’s purview.

An example of a similar combat monster/same player in out Battlestar Galactica game: SGT Cadmus is a marine that aids in trying to uncover the Cylon menace. In combat sequences against people or skin jobs, he’s the ruler of the roost. So I stuck him on a number of investigatory adventures that required him to be subtle, use his brain. He’s outside his element, but the player loved it because, eventually, he got to shine in a fight. But the character was restrained so that the shtick was important…something that, when used, made the character stand out, but didn’t stomp on the other characters’ moments in the spotlight. (Eventually, he got to meet the centurions, did very well, but was nearly killed. It gave the players a sense of how damned dangerous the toasters are close up and personal.)

Another example would be Cliff Secord from The Rocketeer. We are led to believe he’s an incredible pilot, and we see some evidence of that in the movie…but what does he he wind up doing most of the movie? Investigating crime, trying to stay out of the clutches of the FBI, and throwing punches — not his strong point. When he gets to fly, he’s a bit out of his element because of the nature of the rocket pack, until he gets the hang of it.

Another way to control shtick gone wild, other than make it a less important element of the game adventure, is to have consequences for folks that, say, blast bad guys when it might not be strictly legal. The cops could be an ever-present issue, requiring them to disguise themselves, a la  The Shadow or Batman, or Zorro. Your war on crime in the 1930s, your raid of that “evil” creature village in your fantasy setting, that murder of an important figures still-beloved zombie wife or child leads to hordes of not-shambling dead coming for your head. The forces arrayed against you are large, well-funded, have the monopoly on the legitimacy of violence, and will eventually get the character, if they don’t step it down a bit. It’s not railroading…it’s a bigger challenge.