Guess Who’s Coming to D&D – having cameo characters in your game
C: So a while back—well, not too long ago—in a session in my campaign, we had a cameo character join us. So I thought today we could chat about what it’s like to have a cameo join in a game! And we should contextualise before we proceed: by cameo we mean a character who usually appears a limited amount in the story—like, once or twice—but who’s a player character. So it’s like a bonus PC, who’s probably not part of the campaign every episode but who joins it for a brief period of time.
A: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. You are factually accurate as ever.
C: Hahaha, thanks! In my game the cameo was played by a friend who was visiting from out of town; she played a Paladin by the name of Leo. He was a ton of fun to build with her, and really just super-fun to have in the game. It was genuinely a delightful session. I think it was one of our best sessions in a pretty long campaign—a highlight for me. Gosh, it was so much fun.
A: Sorry, I’m eating.
C: Well, I guess I’ll talk about it a little bit. I don’t want it to be too much of a monologue but I guess I’ll get straight into it.
A: No, it’s fine, I’ve finished eating now. So I think—
C: I think that cameo characters in a D&D session are always a fun thing. Maybe there are DMs out there who don’t like having cameo characters in their games, but it’s hard to imagine a game without the eventual odd cameo or two. You and I have both had quite a few at this point—me especially.
A: Well, firstly I want to say, I don’t disagree that the session with Leo was a ton of fun, but I think it’s important to stress that it wasn’t better than other sessions, or that it was great only because of a cameo character. Sessions with cameos can be a sort of break from the main narrative—they’re often a little more light-hearted and goofy. But D&D is built on continual character growth and stuff. It’s great without cameos.
C: Yeah, that’s true. I don’t want to act like our main cast aren’t awesome. I think there were a bunch of reasons why it was a really, really good session; having a cameo character there added some fun and some hype but it would have been good no matter what.
A: Cameo appearances are kind of like Christmas specials. They work in part because they don’t happen all the time and because they let the regular players show other sides of their personalities, or relax and take a backseat for a session, which can be really nice.
C: That’s a great point. And continual cameos would be exhausting.
A: Right—which leads me to my second point, which is that it should be pointed out that we have very different approaches to cameo characters.
C: Do you think that’s true?
A: Yes—as you mentioned, you build cameo characters with the player. For cameos in my game I’ve done this thing where we’ve had NPCs who I’ve then given to a guest player to play. Which you’ve done once in your game with Tag, but only once.
C: Oh, that’s so true. Yeah, I’ve tended to do it the way they do in Critical Role and shows like that, where I’ve worked with people to help them build their characters outside of the game and then incorporated that character into the game for a brief period of time. Whereas you’ve had them bring NPCs to life, as it were.
A: Right. My way is way quicker and easier, and it has useful aftereffects. But, having seen the fun both cameos and other players have in your campaign, I think that your approach is probably better.
C: Well, people have a lot of fun being a cameo character in your game, or as a player getting to interact with an NPC-who-is-temporarily-a-PC in a new way. But I’m not sure that your way is easier. Sure, they get a sheet whereas with me they have to build a whole character, but in your game that character’s already an existing person who has probably talked and done things, so there’s more stuff to get to grips with there.
A: Oh, I should stress, I mean that my way is easier for me as a DM.
C: I’m still not sure it’s super easy—because then your cameo could totally change that character on you. Don’t you worry that you may get too prickly and overdefensive about your characters? What if they do stuff with the NPC that you don’t like?
A: Well, so far it’s worked pretty well for me. It’s been a nice way of building up these NPCs who are regular fixtures in the world, given them a bit more flavour. Like, people have cameoed Deborah—she’s now very Scottish; she’s become like a D&D Miss Jean Brodie. She’s gone from being a slightly minor, sort of annoying NPC to being this much more fleshed out, still annoying NPC, which is really fun.
A: So that’s good. And I think it can be easier for the party in some ways because the story isn’t breaking up to have a new cameo.
C: That’s fair.
A: But also, I think it’s probably less fun for the cameo person because half the fun of doing D&D—or not half the fun, but a huge amount—is getting to build your character, getting to make them really interesting and powerful, or quirky and cool, or whatever you want. And you’re really good at working with people to let them do that in your campaign.
C: I think there are important questions that one, as a DM, has to ask oneself with cameo characters. How do we help them build the character—how do we help them actualise who they want the character to be and how they want that character to operate? How do we flesh out the world to them, and their character’s place in that world? How do we help them find the depth that will help them the most in their cameo experience? How do we help them with their ability to play the character effectively?
A: I think again we have different approaches. You are very much a ‘I will put in hours of work’ type DM and I’m a bit more like, ‘There’s a sheet, off you go.’
C: Well, I don’t know.
A: I mean, your way is definitely better, but it takes a ton of work, on top of all the prep one normally has to do for a campaign. My way is fine for those DMs who don’t want to let D&D take up all their free time.
C: I think you’re selling your system short; I think it’s useful and cool and fun, and you’ve done this thing before where you take the main cast and, as a kind of bonus mini-arc, you let us all play pre-existing NPCs in your game (who we’d met as the main cast), which was really unique and we should definitely talk about sometime.
A: Thank you. Yeah, rather than having a single cameo character, you all got to be new characters so no one was the new kid feeling awkward.
C: And it is true that I put in a lot of time with cameos. With Leo, we talked about it a lot in advance. We spoke over email before she was in town, we spoke several times while she was in town, I even did a mini-session with her so that she could get used to the setting. It was awesome and rewarding and I think, fingers crossed, she had a really good time. But you probably don’t always have to do that much, and you should be careful not to overwhelm the cameo player too!
A: Right. There’s always the option to do some quick-building even if you want to let a player build their character from the ground up, like with a list of suggested, easy-to-use feats they can look at and stuff.
C: Yeah, you can definitely streamline some of the building process quite easily. But I think the way that you find the groove best with your cameo is: talk to your cameo player. Talk to them not just about the game but also about their comfort level within the group; how well do they know people; are they comfortable being, you know, the centre of attention for a little while, being the cameo and all; do they want to be the same level as everybody else, or would they like to be a lower level for ease of understanding? Talk to them about their comfort level and see if they want to do a deep dive or if they want to do a lighter thing. Don’t strongarm them into being a crux character; let them explore the space and see what they come up with and then help them streamline it into a person they want to play.
C: And really being a DM for a cameo character is just, like, a microcosm of being a DM normally: find out how to best support your players, how to let them make creative choices while also helping them to find the tools to do so, and let them have fun with their friends, help facilitate that as best you can.
A: And then kill their characters when those creative choices make them way too strong and powerful for you!
C:…No. Well. I guess we’ll see.