Gaming Has Changed My Media Expectations

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GM's Can Create an Adventure in Five Easy Pieces
Blast from the Past: Shogun Warriors
Gaming media characters
Jon Heder, as the titular Napoleon Dynamite, and Aaron Ruell as Kip engage in a nerd battle in the independent film “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Arguing about media is a staple of the nerd subculture. We spend an inordinate amount of time going over our favorite shows, movies and books with a fine-toothed comb picking out small details and jabbing at each other with them, because as nerds it’s just what we do. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, then, that my friend group is no exception to this.

I’m not going to lie, much of the time it’s my fault. I am a total killjoy to watch a movie or anime with, because I absolutely hate it when the main character does everything.

Gaming-altered media consumption state

gaming characters
This Pathfinder RPG party shows a diverse group of equal partners in an adventure. [Art by deviantart user Skiorh]
Sometimes I wonder how I got like this, and honestly? I’m pretty sure it’s tabletop gaming’s fault. I’ve gotten so used to the gaming format where the main cast is 4-8 people who split the spotlight. Maybe sometimes one of them steps forward and gets to be the focus for a little while, but every character gets their share.

That is how I feel like it should be in fiction media too. Don’t get me wrong, there are some things the protagonist should do. Going into the final fight isolated with the odds stacked against you?

Heck yes, that’s good drama. But what about the big chunk of story before that point?

Think about a television show that has a main cast. Bonus points if you’re thinking of an anime. More bonus points if the cover of the DVDs often boasts four or five characters arranged like they’re of equal importance. You’d think some of that main cast would get to do stuff. I mean, why else are they there, right?

And yet so often you get to watching or reading media and then the one character steps in to solve absolutely everything. I’m not saying it’s wrong to find that fun, but it just isn’t interesting to me. Shows, books and other media like that honestly feel like a gaming campaign where one player keeps overshadowing the rest of them. All I can imagine are the other players sitting around the gaming table rolling their eyes because Goku’s player has to spend eight rounds charging his ridiculously high level attack again.

Give all the characters a chance

It’s incredibly specific, too. Not every character has to act like they’re being played by an actual person for me to care. If they’re background enough they feel like NPCs, and that makes sense to me and I can let it go. Think about that show I asked you to think about a minute ago again. Who are the PCs? I bet you can tell me without having to think about it.

Now take a moment and think about whether you could actually believe those characters are being played by different people. This is the test I subconsciously run media through in my head. There are so many tests you can find on the internet for character agency, but for me, this is what it boils down to.

media characters
Still from the anime “Sword Art Online.”

My go-to failure for this test is Sword Art Online. Kirito does everything. He is his own deus ex machina.

Even in moments where the source of the drama surrounds other characters who have every right to handle the situation over him, he takes care of it. Those characters don’t act like it bothers them in the slightest. They are just happy to stand by and let him save them.

I wouldn’t want to be Asuna’s player because she’s basically a glorified decoration. Hardly anyone else shows up more than once. I wouldn’t want to be Kirito’s player either because hands down he has got to be a self-centered jerk for not letting any of the other PCs do anything.

On the other hand, The Slayers pass. Lina Inverse is absolutely the main character, no question. But the rest of the main cast are compelling and capable of pursuing their own goals. If you’ve seen the anime, you know what Gourry Gabriev’s dump stat was, but he has an awesome magic sword and often goes toe-to-toe with beings of extreme power in spite of not having any magic ability himself. Zelgadis has an intriguing backstory and a very clear personal goal the plot sometimes beelines to follow. Amelia…well Amelia just wants to be lawful good and sometimes isn’t the best at it but the point is that she’s shown making progress.

It’s easy to imagine every one of those characters having a player at a gaming table. As a matter of fact, some of the sillier moments feel just like a real gaming group cracking stupid jokes with each other. And when it gets serious, boy does it get serious.

And why would you ever have one character do absolutely everything when you can have a cast like that? What PC is going to put up with being shoved aside so the showboating guy next to them can save the day again? No player I know would put up with that garbage. No DM I know has ever been that bad about playing favorites.

Actually, that’s not true. In the case of a bad DMPC, that’s exactly what it’s like. Kirito is a bad DMPC.

When I watched the anime, I was the only one in the room that noticed. And when I complained about it I could pretty much feel the irritation levels of my brother and fiancé rising; they were just trying to enjoy their media – nothing wrong with that. But I still can’t help but feel like treating a work of fiction more like a D&D game sometimes could benefit media in general.

After all, you’ve got all these characters. Why not use them?

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Follow Megan R. Miller:
Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

  1. A.J. Kinney
    | Reply

    Megan this is an awesome article. I have only one complaint, it was too short. I would love to hear more examples of the DMPC character in media. It is a fun topic.

    What do you think is the fundamental flaw here? Is the main character over developed? Are the side characters so underdeveloped they are little more than cardboard cutouts? Is it a little bit of both?

    What other shows, aside from the mentioned Dragon Balls series and Sword Art Online, have a bad case of DMPC? What would you do, within the existing characters of that media, to expand the side characters?

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