Friday, February 19, 2016

Sidekicks

One of the things that's part of superhero lore that doesn't show up a lot in RPGs is the sidekick. (By sidekick I also include pets and familiars, so Zabu, the sabre tooth tiger with Ka-Zar, counts as much as Robin or Stripesy.) I'm really talking about sidekicks as sidekicks, not a Teen Titans model where they fend for themselves.

A superhero sidekick is tough to play. When I think about it, I've only had sidekicks show up three times in decades of superhero RPGs: Once, the sidekick was actually an ex-sidekick; another time, the sidekick was simply another player character hero, and there's an agreement between players that character B is the sidekick of character A; in DC Heroes, where there was a specific in-game mechanic for handling sidekicks (that also existed in Golden Age of Champions, but I never used it). I've used sidekicks as a GM to comic effect (such as with Gecko and Lizardboy, where Lizardboy was actually the crazed millionaire's middle-aged butler), but for players, not so much.

Who Plays the Sidekick?

There seem to me to be four options:
  1. The GM plays the sidekick.
  2. The player plays the sidekick.
  3. Another player plays the sidekick.
  4. Rotating people play the sidekick.
Which is best depends on the situation and your players.

If the GM plays the sidekick, you have the advantage that the sidekick can do things that the player doesn't expect. There's also likely to be more emphasis on the disadvantages of a sidekick.

If the player adds the sidekick on to his or her usual load, you have the advantage that the regular PC and the sidekick really do function as one person. The player gets twice as many opportunities to act, which can be a disadvantage (though the player probably paid for this advantage, with an actual cost or a quality). It's rather like Duplicating powers that way.

If another player plays the sidekick, you have the same advantage as if the GM plays, but the amount of trouble generated depends on the players' relationships. I would assume things are easier for the character, but that won't always be true.

If you play the sidekicks in troupe style, then you can take advantage of all of these. 

I think it might be interesting in a low-membership group to have each player take a sidekick of one of the other players. That is, Player A plays Character A and Sidekick B, Player B plays Character B and Sidekick C, and Player C plays Character C and Sidekick A. You get six characters and because the sidekicks are usually lower-powered, they don't stress the players out as much.

Odd Sidekicks

Everyone thinks of Robin, the boy hostage, but really there are a variety of sidekicks and one of them might be right for your character, at least for a while.
  • The sidekick is the one with the power, rather like Johnny Thunder and the Thunderbolt.
  • The sidekick is unwanted, rather like Frogboy or some other minor character who tries to emulate the PC.
  • The sidekick is actually disposable: the hero is running a Be A Sidekick For A Week contest on his website (or such a contest was run without his or her knowledge), and the winner of the contest is an elderly man who has always wanted to be a superhero. ("Look, Brassman, you said that in the armor, anyone could be a superhero. So I built a contest based on that. You signed off...it was in that stack of forms.")
  • The sidekick draws fire, either because he or she is immortal or very tough in some way.

In terms of powers, sidekicks are usually copies, having powers or origins essentially like the PC (Robin, Kid Flash), so the operative phrase becomes "Like the hero but..." However, some sidekicks are spackle or complements, filling in some of the gaps that the hero has. In both an RPG and a book, this often occurs because the GM has determined that they need some power in order to get the plot coupons they need to advance. And some sidekicks are wildcards, some kind of random assortment of powers, joined to the PC through some social or psychological mechanism. 

Animal companions tend to be complements, granting the hero some extra powers in battle or reconnaisance.

What Stories Do You Tell?

If having a sidekick is going to be a special event, then you have to know what you plan on doing with the sidekick. Usually sidekicks are all about Learning Responsibility and About Power. (We don't need sidekicks as audience stand-ins because the players have regular characters for that.) 

You could also use sidekicks as a way to talk about the grit and stick-to-it-iveness that one needs to be a hero. There's also betrayal and infiltration stories, where the sidekick turns out not to be so nice.

What Do You Do Mechanically?

In Supers!, a sidekick would be an Advantage, with the number of dice indicating how powerful the sidekick is. Unless there's special approval from the GM, I'd insist that sidekicks are less powerful than the PC; it's probably a 2D or 3D advantage.

In ICONS, you dedicate a quality to your sidekick. Unless you've arranged otherwise, sidekick powers top out at 7, with origins adding to the powers...until they get to 7. (This gives them roughly the two-thirds suggested in some game supplement. Wasn't it ICONS Team-Up?

The TL;DR version is that I suspect it's rare to have the sidekick as a regular thing...perhaps a bit more common with familiars-as-sidekicks. But there's no reason why you can't introduce a sidekick as a running plot for a while.