Any RPG player or GM will tell you that your standard RPG party needs to have certain things, whether you are invading the dungeon of the feared Demogorgon (reference!) or robbing a space ship casino. The Firefly/Serenity RPG system is no different in most respects, but the standard premise – that of a ship, with a crew – does mean that a certain refinement is necessary.
Most importantly of all, the crew, and the party, need a leader, that is, a captain. The captain leads: whether its command of a ship or command of a job. They can be a stern Admiral-esque character or have a more relaxed persona, but the captain is a crucial necessity, because there needs to be someone in charge: someone who gives orders, and who the other players will follow. A good captain, wisely picked by the GM (I look for volunteers for the position, which tends to bring up someone who wants the authority, as opposed to randomly picking someone who can’t hack it) will help keep the party on track and make sure nothing stupid happens. And, if things go wrong, chain of command drama is always fun too (to a point).
A captain can also fulfil other roles on the ship if needs be, but I’ve rarely seen that happen. Generally, I find it good for captain’s to overload on leadership and combat skills, with room for specialisation in those general fields. Going too far into the realm of other roles on the ship can cause complications later, and it’s better to encourage players, in my view, to keep their “thing” as separate from other players as possible. This was, everyone has that one special something only they can be trusted to do.
When it comes to literal necessities for running a space ship, there are two roles also required. The first, and I suppose a bit more important, is the engineer. The engineer, aside from making the engine go, is the general mechanical specialist: they fix things, they make things work, and that tends to go beyond the engine room and into the realm of blowing things up (or stopping things from blowing up).The engineer’s I have encountered in various games have often tended towards the same kind of traits: lowly-educated, lower class kind of characters, good in a fight but not so much when it comes to talking to people.
The other necessity is the pilot. They fly the ship, and often they drive the car (or hovermule as you prefer). In my experience they tend to also carry the ships’ technical expertise: they are radiomen, hackers, anything to do with computers. If the engineer often tends towards being a grease monkey, then the pilot often tends toward being the deveil-may-care heroic type. Footloose and fancy free, quick with the witty repartee if not quite so good with their fists.
Beyond that, you are opening off into the more optional things. One thing that I have rarely found an RPG party without is the grunt, also known as the tough, the thug, the bullet sponge, the security, the muscle. This is the Jayne Cobb-type who tend to be to be big on strength, life points and shooting specialities and low on brains. While they are never quite the most exiting character to play, they are often crucial at getting through battles, especially in a system like Serenity, where other players LP can be alarmingly low at the best of times. And there is room for some twists: instead of a dumb lout, you could be a skilled assassin that sacrifices gun-skills for hand-to-hand and sinks other things into covert-type stuff.
Of course there should also be a medic, be they an all out Doctor or something more creative – a plastic surgeon surgeon on the run, a combat medic who can’t escape the war, etc – someone who can patch up holes and keep the party going. I’ve never had a party without an established medic character: indeed, it’s more likely, in my experience, for a party to have both a medic and a back-up medic, rather than go without one at all. Medic’s inherently tend to not be fighters – they often don’t have any time to be actively engaged in gunfights – and, if mixed properly with some other skillset or trait, they can be some of the most interesting types to play.
Lastly is the loosest of the six main roles you will often find on the ship, basically dubbed the “socialite” character. This is the Inara role: it’s a character that is more of an outsider insofar as their part to play goes without a defined role in keeping the ship ticking over. They are the talkers, the persuaders, the seducers. And they really can be anything: a respectable companion, a travelling musician, an ambulance chasing lawyer, the sneaky con-man, an actor from a troop, a preacher, a documentary film-maker, the possibilities are extensive. This makes the socialite a double-edged sword in my view: it’s perhaps the most enticing character to play, but requires the most commitment role-playing wise, which I find tends to scare off players.
So, that’s the six main roles, and I would be lying if I said that any campaign or once-off I have ever run didn’t have parties that naturally fell into these categories. To take an example, let’s have a look at my current RPG group, part of a game that I will go into greater detail on in the next post.
It’s a Firefly of course, with a crew of mercenaries/bounty hunters/whatever is required. The Captain is Jean Marshall, a former Alliance law-man with an intense love for justice (and it’s application). Outside of combat, his specialities are in leadership and investigation, which makes for a good combination when leading a sometimes unwilling crew on manhunts.
The engineer (the second one, after the first had an unfortunate encounter with a rabid bear, long story) is Tom Holden, as omewhat secretive but extremely competent mechanic, who has stuck to the mechanical fields for the most part. The pilot, Fionnula, is s space-born, pet-obsessed type with a mechanical eye, who too tends towards putting the majority of her points into piloting and piloting-related fields.
The tough is Batty, who, while retaining the “High on strength, low on brains” thing, has a nice twist in that he is the disgraced runaway from a blueblood family, who are actually trying to off him through a succession of well paid assassins. The medic is a disgraced, and somewhat insane, former surgeon named Zhao, who has a drug addiction to boot. The socialite role falls to Brondon, a travelling mandolin player who, after a player change, now has an unfortunate case of amnesia to explain away any role-playing differences. The wild-card was Mass, who started the game as the ship’s XO, with a balanced set of skills that included gunfighting, covert and others, that helped explain a mysterious past and a multitude of deadly enemies.
If I was to make three points about characters in RPG’s:
1. If in doubt, make a character balanced between several extremes and see how it plays in practise: specialities can come later.
2. The best archetype is one that bucks the trend in someway: the well-spoken tough, the doctor with a bad case of nerves, the socialite with the right hook.
3. If it isn’t working, scrap it and start over: a good GM won’t mind, and there’s no point playing something that you aren’t having fun with.
Next time, we take a closer look at the adventures of the Osprey.