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Gizmo

Good Overlap vs. Bad Overlap

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As some of you may already know, I've got a bit of a reputation as 'the guy who hates it when two characters overlap'. We joke around about it a lot, but I've started to realize that there's some confusion about just what I'm objecting to. Am I saying a whole character is bad? Why do I get so worked up? If it's just about being special and unique, why do I care when characters that aren't mine overlap? I decided it was time to explain a little more fully, because here's the secret:

I don't actually hate overlap.

Some overlap is inevitable, even necessary. Two characters who have absolutely nothing in common are going to have a pretty hard time relating to and interacting with each other. Any two player characters here are at least going to both be superheroes and operate in the same city. That sort of overlap gives them a shared history that ties the setting together and strengthens the bonds between characters. On the other hand, if everyone was playing exactly the same character, down to the smallest detail, things would get really boring really quickly. It's hard to have a conversation with someone who's different from you in every way, but it's just as hard when they agree with every one of your opinions, too.

In other words, there's good overlap and there's bad overlap.

I'm going to be taking a look at some of the areas where character concepts can overlap each other, using examples to illustrate both good and bad cases, and some where it's a moot point altogether. It should go without saying, but the board policy of Play What You Want still applies in full. This guide isn't here to tell you that you can't play the character you want to because someone beat you to the punch. In fact, I'm going to be discussing times where that might be a great opportunity, not an obstacle. Leveraging good overlap and avoiding bad overlap during character creation can help you design a character that's more satisfying to play and to play with. You can also think of the following as guidelines that are good to understand before you break them

Edited by HG Morrison
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Archetype

Archetypes are the basic, foundational character types that you'll find common across all types of storytelling. Some are universal and some are specific to genre. If you spend much time of TV Tropes, you're probably already familiar with a lot of these. They can be great shorthand for getting across a character concept and in a lot of cases they'll be the foundation you start building your idea upon.

Your character is going to overlap with others when it comes to archetype. That's the point! If they didn't overlap, well, it wouldn't be an archetype. Does that mean you don't have to worry about it at all? Well... no. In fact, it's very important to recognize which archetype or archetypes your character fits under, because it's going to determine which existing PCs you'll want to take a closer look at.

To illustrate this, I'm going to be looking at one of the most recognizable superhero archetypes: The Cowl.

The first Cowl most people will think of is Batman, and like him the archetype is always going to be a popular one. It's also a tricky one because these characters tend to be stand-offish and prone to working alone (at least in theory), and nothing makes an aloof loner look sillier than putting him next to another aloof loner. Consequently, anyone planning to play a Cowl needs to keep a sharp eye out for bad overlap.

Let's take a look at some prominent Cowl PCs:

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You're going to notice some pretty striking similarities right off the bat. Costumes we'll be looking at more closely later on, so let's set that aside for now; powers and details, too. Instead, let's focus on the main traits of the Cowl archetype. Striking from the shadows? Check. Fading into the night before they can be thanked? Check. Using intimidation as a weapon? Check.

So how do these four characters differentiate themselves? It's all in what they play up and what they avert. Arrowhawk is a great example of Good is Not Nice, with a cantankerous attitude. By contrast, Midnight II is a notably better teammate, but plays up the Quiet One aspect of being a Cowl. Crow focuses on being young and relatively inexperienced with the added twist of using magic gadgets, while Avenger is literally a Creature of the Night. Despite belonging to the same archetype, each of these characters is going to react to a given situation a little differently and each one has a different dynamic to bring to an interaction.

Once you figure out which archetype your character best fits under, decide which aspects you want to focus on and which ones you want to downplay. This helps to define your character more specifically and gives them a niche apart from others in the same wheelhouse.

Edited by Gizmo
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Powers

It's a superhero site, people: your character's powers are a big part of what makes them different from everybody else in the world and from each other. That said, not all powers are created equal when it comes to overlap. Powers that are enhanced versions of things humans can already do, like Super Strength and Super Speed, are very common. Flight is a common one, too, but having actual bird-like wings isn't nearly so common. The ability to create ornate constructs made entirely of lava is pretty rare. The more specific an ability, the less room you have for overlap.

 

Let's start with Super Strength, a staple power.

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Wander and Phalanx are both character with huge amounts of Super Strength. What's more, they went to the same school and were on the same super team, so comparisons were inevitable. How did their players differentiate them and find their separate niches? A bunch of ways:

 

  • Origin: Wander got her powers from a vaccine that also left her the only survivor of a zombie infested wasteland. Phalanx received his as a Terminus Baby, and they manifested early in life. That meant that while the former was inclined to go all out as a matter of survival, the latter was very conscious of how fragile the world around him was.
     
  • Application: The visual of Wander smacking something hard enough with her bat to leave a dent is a strikingly different visual than Phalanx punching his way through a brick wall to rescue hostages.
     
  • Other Powers: Wander's compliment of powers make her a little to a lot better at just about anything physical, but they remain upgrades of existing, human capabilities. Phalanx, on the other hand, has a full Paragon suite, including flight, super speed and laser vision. By being aware of each other and their overlap, these two were able to coexist without competing for the 'Strong Guy' slot in their group of friends. And that's:
     

Good Overlap

 

Let's move on to something a little more specific. We've had a lot of interest in plant controller or chlorokinetics lately. These sorts of trends can be a bit maddening when it comes to calculating overlap; enough characters with the same power set appearing all at once can shift the context of the setting for everyone else. They're inevitable, however, for the same reasons a television executive will find a dozen pilot scripts with the same idea on his desk at once: we're all consuming the same pop culture and the same ideas are floating out there.

 

Plant control traditionally isn't very common, so it stands out a little more when two or more characters share that power set. That just means you're going to have to work a little harder to separate yours from the pack!

 

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Let's use a few plant-themed Oddballs to illustrate the point. Four-Leaf Clover, Venus and Will O'The Woods can all control plants one way or another. Even so, they're very different from each other. Four-Leaf Clover's luck manipulation is a whole secondary power set that gives him versatility and let's him pull off tricks that other chlorokinetics couldn't. Will O'The Woods is really a plant controller in name only; once he creates his leafy blade, he's much more concerned with melee combat and mobility. Venus changes things up by combining plant manipulation with the Cowl archetype, an unusual and immediately striking choice.

 

Good Overlap

 

If each of those characters had been a standard 'makes vines grow to entangle foes, grows giant plants, talks to flowers' chlorokinetic, they'd have a lot of trouble finding unique moments when in the same thread and might even end up competing for spots in stories. You don't need Plastic Man and Elongated Man on the same team, even if one's a joker and one's a detective. There's just too much overlap between their very specific power sets.

Then again, maybe you can make that work for you!

 

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Will and Vorpal here are both vaguely elfin sword fighters who can summon magical blades. That's a lot of overlap in both utility and flavor, and one of their players might want to rethink their concept accordingly. On the other hand, maybe these two are rivals who frequently partake in friendly (or not so friendly) sparring matches. Or maybe they work together to develop a tag team style, like Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fighting Darth Maul. They might even turn out to have related origins, explaining their similarities! Sometimes the difference between good overlap and bad overlap is all in the way you approach it.

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Costume

A couple of points should preface this section. First, as the guy who maintains the Visual Guide it should come as no surprise that I take costumes pretty darn seriously. Second, this is a superhero game. Your character needs a costume. We're pretty flexible when it comes to the definition of 'costume' but I don't care if John Constantine is part of the nuDCU or if you want to have Jim Butcher's lanky, literary babies, a superhero should generally look more like Dr. Strange than Philip Marlowe.

 

With that out of the way, costumes may not seem like as big a deal in a forum format, but the outfit your character chooses to wear into battle against the forces of villainy says a lot about them. That message can get seriously muffled if they blend into the crowd of similarly costumed heroes.

 

Warlock Equinox (Old Costume)

 

Two magic users, both in long, black robes offset by white elements? It's not necessarily Bad Overlap, but it's not great.

 

_allery_5.9e728c00a08f6e4b43e2ab775df744 Equinox

 

Much better!

 

Sometimes costume overlap makes sense, however:

 

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Phalanx and Fulcrum are both directly inspired by the Centurion in-setting, so the similarities in their outfits are entirely intentional. Paragons in Freedom City can get away with wearing blue and gold the same way Cowls can get away with copious amounts of black on black and red glowing eyes, thanks to the original Midnight. These commonalities help reinforce the associations those looks carry with them, and that's:

 

Good Overlap

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Here's another example:

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The overlap between Harrier's Omegadrone armor and Glowstar's costume is subtle, but it helps tie them together as both being powered by the Terminus.

Sometimes costume similarities can give an impression of association that isn't what you're actually going for...

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...and sometimes that's exactly what you're going for.

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Being aware of what your character would look like standing next to other heroes can help you refine their specific look and help to avoid fashion faux pas!

Edited by Gizmo
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The Details

The 'details' are everything else about your character! I'm talking about their hometown, their body type, their hair colour, their general disposition, their codename, everything. This is the point where you can either save a character from the pits of bad overlap or fumble right before the endzone. It's also a harder one to explain comprehensively because there are so many variables. Typically it's not going to be any one thing that makes or breaks you here, it'll be a combination. Let's go to some examples.

 

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Hey look, it's these two again! Both dressed in black, both named after birds and with white bird emblems on their chests, both using wondrous gadgets to make up for their lack of superpowers. That's got to be bad overlap, right?

Actually, no! See, the contemporary Batman-expy in the sourcebooks is the Raven, a non-powered hero named after a bird. Arrowhawk and Crow together with the Raven I and II create a context where Cowls named after birds are common and part of an established tradition. That's the sort of thing that helps solidify the setting as more than just bits and pieces copied from DC and Marvel. The flavours of their gadgets are distinct as well, trick arrows and mystical trinkets respectively. If Crow were a crotchety old man or if Arrowhawk was wielding a magical bow, yeah, they'd be toeing the line, but as it is, I'm prepared to call this:

 

Good Overlap

 

Sometimes the little details that seem insignificant at the time can sort of sneak up on you.

 

_allery.33ef841b1fe2a740cfb48cd6ed56af49  _allery_5.26f7b138a5b8fc760ad639d1679266 _allery_5.ea7099608424ec77c681b99ddf6109  Supercape

 

If we were actually publishing our stories as comic books, the sheer number of blond, blue-eyed super scientists probably would have raised a few eyebrows and launched a few Godwin's Law arguments, but nobody really noticed until the pattern really started to add up. Now, this didn't have any real negative effect on play, but players who were planning genius heroes of their own eventually decided it might be nice to break the mold a little!

Like the other areas we've discussed, there isn't a specific line that you shouldn't cross when it comes to overlapping details. It's a matter of your best judgement, and there's plenty of gray. Let's say there are two characters who both have:

 

Blue Eyes - Insignificant Overlap
Ice Blue Eyes - Noticeable Overlap
Ice Blue Eyes Without Pupils - Questionable Overlap
Ice Blue Eyes Without Pupils, Bright Green Hair and Webbed Toes - Bad Overlap

 

By the time we get to that last example, those two character better be from the same moon of Jupiter or whatever, because both of them having such outlandish features due to unrelated circumstances strains the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

Some opportunities to differentiate your character with details include:

 

  • Birthplace - Was the culture they grew up in very different? Why did they move to Freedom City?
  • Appearance - Get specific! Do they have a crooked nose, long eyelashes, noticeable burns, frizzy hair?
  • Disposition - Do they look scarier than they really are? Who do they have a soft spot for?
  • Area of Interest - Give them an unexpected Knowledge skill, or ranks in Perform.

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Teams

Here's some good news: you don't have to agonize over comparing your character concept with every single other PC on the board. With so much going on and so many characters, you might go an awfully long time indeed without running into a specific individual. On the flip side, however, you should pay extra attention to characters you'll be interacting with often. This doesn't necessarily have to be a literal team: if you're considering a teenage character, you should make sure to review the active Claremont student body and if you have a super genius in the works, it would behoove you to be familiar with the scientists at the Lab.

Finding your niche in a group can be daunting, but if you can pull it off you'll make your character more useful and open the door to plenty of cool moments where you get to strut your specific talents. You might want to hop back to TV Tropes for some examples of common team dynamics and the specific personality types contained therein. For now, let's look at the line-up of Young Freedom circa-Graduation Day.

 

Edge  Wander (Claremont Academy Uniform)  Midnight II  Sage  Cobalt Templar

 

It's important to realize that the characters in this group weren't originally designed to work together. Instead, they were created with traits that later allowed them to fit together well. Their roles in the group also helped define their character development.

Functionally, we have a good mix of abilities, here, certainly, but that's not the main reason this combination worked so well. It was the variety of personalities and perspectives. They benefited from both good overlap and uniqueness. Edge and Cobalt Templar are both idealistic, but the former had received a series of harsh lessons in the year prior while the latter was inexperienced and determined to pull his own weight. Sage and Midnight II are both quiet, thoughtful characters which allowed them to form a very strong friendship. Wander's tragic origin served as a plot hook that made the entire team much more emotionally invested in the scene of the final battle. Templar made use of his passion for history, Midnight his superlative driving skills, Sage her telepathic communication.

Now imagine if every one of them had taken a few ranks of Luck Control. Would Edge's powers have seemed as exciting? What if each of them had been fully capable of disarming a reality destroying bomb? Would getting Midnight in place have been as suspenseful? What if they had all come from Earth-EZO1 originally? Would Wander's return have been as poignant? Being a good team player means both being good at your job and knowing that you don't have to be good at everything.

What does that mean for your character concept? Well, if you know you'll be working with a charming, smooth operator a lot of the time, it might be alright for your character to be prone to sticking his foot in his mouth. If you notice that your character's prospective group of friends are mostly the acrobatic, fragile types, Toughness shifting and the Interpose feat might be worth looking at. Being aware of overlap allows you to give your character weaknesses and strengths that will ultimately result in cool moments for both you and others.

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Best Out of Character Practices

 

I've talked a lot about the in character reasons to want to make sure your character balances being connected to the setting and other player characters and having their own, personal niche to occupy. There are several good reasons to consider overlap out of character as well. If your new character duplicates several characteristics from an existing PC, there's every chance that character's player will feel slighted, even if it was unintentional. In the worst case scenario, they may feel they've been copied and your new PC will come across as a knock off. That's the very definition of bad overlap. No player owns the totality of the elements going into their characters, but they are invested in them and it's only polite to respect that. If you're not sure whether they'd be bothered by your idea, just ask! If they really do have a problem with it, work with them to find a good compromise using some of the techniques we explored above.

 

Another unfortunately common scenario is when one player mentions in chat an idea for a character they're considering and shortly after another player submits a very similar PC. Again, there's no official way to 'reserve' a concept, but that first player will have a completely legitimate reason to feel that the second player has taken advantage of them. They may have been waiting until they hit another veteran reward level or maybe they were just finessing the concept before committing to it; either way, they've had the rug pulled out from under them. If you hear an idea you like, ask before jumping all over it. If you know another character is planning a PC similar to a concept you'd like to pursue, talk to them about it. You may be able to entwine the ideas together. Perhaps your aquatic heroes were childhood friends before traveling to the surface, or maybe your ring bearing aliens were on opposite sides of an intergalactic war. That way you both end up with a richer narrative!

 

In both situations, you have to be prepared for someone to tell you that, no, they aren't okay with you pursuing that character concept. Most players will be open to compromise if you are, but at some point you may have to simply respect their wishes. It can be frustrating, but this is a social game and sometimes you have to be the person who takes one for the team.

 

Discussing overlap in chat can also be a good way to get character concept ideas in the first place. When you've got that character slot burning a hole in your pocket but no clear favourite idea to pursue, ask around. Maybe there's a team that's really hurting for a particular archetype or powerset. There's almost always going to be other new characters getting started at the same time; find out if they're missing an entertaining dynamic. You can even plan new characters together entirely from scratch, intertwining their backstories and designing them to complement each others' strengths and weaknesses.

 

Bottom line, communication is key. Nobody knows the intricacies of a character better than that character's player and a second set of eyes and opinions during the early stages of character design can go a long way. You're part of a community! Take advantage of that.

 


 

Hopefully this little treatise has been helpful, or at least illuminated the reasoning behind the advice I give personally. Remember, the concept behind your character deserves just as much time as their mechanical statistics! Take that time to recognize where your character would overlap with others and ask yourself: is it good overlap or bad overlap?

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