Burst of Insight—Cameos and Crossovers, part one

Last blog I talked about using existing movies to establish a “cinematic universe” to set your campaign in. That was just one way you might make your campaign more like a blockbuster cinematic franchise. It’s a quick and easy way to get player buy-in and it functions in much the same way that using published settings such as Golarion or the Pact Worlds do. There are additional tricks we, as GMs, can pirate right from the MCU and other similar film franchises and today I’d like to begin talking about Cameos and Crossovers.


Before we get deep into the cameos discussion though, I’d like to remind everyone that a successful campaign isn’t about you as a GM it’s about your players’ characters. Let’s face it, whether your players are butt-kickers, method-actors, min-maxers, or storytellers the most important thing to each of them when they sit down at the table is their character. With method-actors it’s pretty obvious from the voices and mannerisms they adopt at the table their character is their focus but with some of the others, it might not be as noticeable. Butt-kickers might be interested in combat, mayhem and murder-hobo excitement but that’s measured by, “Did you see all the butt my PC kicked this week?!” Storytellers might be interested in the story you’re telling but they are most engaged with the part that centers on their PC. Now, most players don’t sit in such easy stereotypes but isn’t it nice to think that at least one thing about each player type is (almost) universal.

Why am I drilling this concept from GM 101 home? Because for some GMs cameos and crossovers can be deceptively tough. When I started roleplaying there wasn’t a lot of game fiction but there was some and then suddenly—Boom! There was more game fiction than I or my friends could keep up with. Inexorably, some of the material from the novels began making its way into our games. Whether we were adventuring in Krynn or Toril we either had adventures that paralleled events from the novels or we kept rubbing shoulders with the heroes from the books…and more often than I care to admit we did it poorly.

Image copyright Wizards of the Coast

From talking to other GMs over the years, I’ve found that ours weren’t the only tables struggling to handle the influx of book heroes outshining the PCs at the table. If the GMs weren’t solving every problem for the PCs by playing Drizzt or Raistlin when the PC’s should be in focus, then the PCs were trying to track down Elminster or Luke Skywalker to fix everything for them.

When I started a 3rd edition Forgotten Realms campaign rather than botch cameos again I decided the events depicted in the novels were bard tales and nothing more. There might be people with those names but chances were they were mythical, long dead, or not as skilled as the PCs. In avoiding the issue altogether I weakened that campaign. After all existing in the same universe as the big novel characters is part of the fun. It’s what the MCU gets right when it teases the Avengers with Nick Fury at the end of the first Iron Man or pits Captain America against Tony Stark in Civil War.

Image copyright Marvel Studios.

So how do you get it right? Well, that’s going to depend on your group but my recommendation is to start small. Name drop and hint rather than roll out the big NPCs right away. If your group has been reading the Pathfinder novels use small specific details such as having someone offer the PCs wine from the Jeggare Vineyards in Cheliax or while in a port city mention the names of the ships and include the Stargazer. If these sorts of things get oohs-and-ahs then you’re on the right track and you can up the ante a little. Maybe, while carousing in Sandpoint they find Velaros and Seoni passing through the Rusty Dragon and one of the PCs gets into a drinking contest with the big warrior before they part company. If you have room at your table you might even let a guest player step in and play a notable NPC. Whether it be an iconic or major character from the novels (or movies if you’re using a framework like I suggested in the last blog).

Alternately, if you’ve been playing in the same world for any length of time maybe the cameo isn’t with major characters from the fiction but other adventurers from previous campaigns. You could for example, have your party of Kingmaker PCs relaxing in Restov one evening and they encounter one of their old Carrion Crown PCs on his way to the reading of a will in Ustalav. This can especially be a lot of fun if you let the character’s original player reprise the 1st level version of the favorite character. Your Starfinder characters’ may end up the proud owners of a pre-gap statue depicting the founding monarch of a tiny nation in the River Kingdoms.

Other Tips

  • Whenever you add a cameo ask yourself does this add to the story or fun of the game?
  • Does the cameo make sense?
  • Does the cameo allow the spotlight to still be on the PCs? Don’t let the NPC hog the spotlight.

You also don’t have to do all the work. Is there a player whose character would be absent you can let play the NPC? If so let that player stay involved at the table by portraying an NPC. Coordinating with the player between sessions can also help make sure the interactions add to the story. For example, John’s PC is taking a fallen comrade Jane’s PC to the nearby big city for resurrection while the rest of the party waits in the local port town for word from Lord McGuffin.  Rather than hand-wave the wait time away you could run two parallel adventures one where the waiting PCs play one short story with Jane and John taking on the roles of NPCs such as Captain Torius Vin and Celeste who are calling in a small favor from an old acquaintance who just happens to be in town…this is of course one of the waiting PCs. Then you could run another short adventure with the recently resurrected Jane and John as they get ensnared in a caper involving the wizard Ezren and a nare-do-well swordsman Rodrick and his sword of living ice Hrym. All played by the other players at the table.

When we return in two weeks we’ll talk about planning a major crossover event at the table.

Burst of Insight

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.