Your RPG character is stolen. It’s okay to admit it. Hollywood isn’t going to demand royalties on that orc wizard who talks a bit like your favourite actor and has a backstory pinched from the last YA novel you read. Almost everyone who’s ever played a game of Dungeons & Dragons or another tabletop RPG has cobbled together their player character from borrowed bits and pieces of their favourite video games, books, TV shows and films. Sometimes, even people they know in real life.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Gathering inspiration and influence is a natural part of the creative process. After all, even the pros owe a debt somewhere. There’d be no Lion King without Kimba the White Lion or Hamlet. No Star Wars without The Hidden Fortress. No Ulysses without The Odyssey. No D&D itself without The Lord of the Rings - and no Middle-earth without ancient Norse mythology.
What makes for the best reimaginings - be it in books, movies or RPG characters - is a way of going beyond a mere imitation of or reference to your favourite creation, pushing it to extremes or turning it on its head to explore exactly why it left such an impression on you in the first place.
This brings us to Ranking of Kings, one of the best TV shows of 2022 so far, an anime standout from the last few years and a masterclass in characterisation and storytelling that every RPG player should watch before creating their latest PC or sitting down to plan their next session as DM.
Among many strengths of the show - adapted from Sōsuke Tōka’s manga published online since 2017 - is its ability to take familiar parts of traditional fairy tales and fantasy worldbuilding and use their well-worn stereotypes to subvert audience expectations. (This article contains very minor spoilers for Ranking of Kings’ early episodes.)
Ranking of Kings’ hero Bojji is a young Deaf prince who communicates non-verbally with a shadow being, Kage. Kage literally means “shadow” in Japanese, and is one of several names that neatly set up the difference between how characters are perceived at face value - both by other inhabitants of the universe and viewers - and their reality.
Kage is the lone survivor of a clan of assassins, with his appearance and affiliation leading to an often hostile reception from other citizens of the world. But, like a number of characters in the world who experience loss, exploitation and suffering at the hands of others, Kage doesn’t slip into the simple trope of seeking revenge or retribution. Instead, Kage’s experiences are used as a way to connect with Bojji - crucially, without implying their experiences are directly comparable - and a reason to better understand even those who appear inherently evil before swinging a sword.
Many RPG characters fall back on a tragic backstory as easy motivation for their outlook and aims in a way that risks trying to justify morally questionable deeds or even inflicting harm on others. Kage and Bojji himself model how to incorporate difficult life events into characters that avoid cliché and problematic characterisation without glossing over personal hardships and the lasting effect of trauma.
The best example of Ranking of Kings’ genre-defying character portrayal is Bojji’s step-mother, Queen Hilling. Introduced as a cold, stern presence who appears to favour her son by Bojji’s father King Bosse, Prince Daida, Hiling seems at first to be a stereotypical evil step-mother in the mould cast by Cinderella and Snow White.
This idea isn’t just suggested by the narrative. It’s reflected in the show’s art style, with characters such as Hilling that would seem “villainous” in more conventional stories drawn with sharp lines and facial features in keeping with the acute-nosed baddies of Disney classics. Daida shares his mother’s deliberately primed appearance, a frowning blond-haired, blue-eyed Prince Joffrey-a-like of cruelty, arrogance and privilege in contrast to Bojji’s softer rounded face and V-shaped smile.
Without giving away these characters’ developments - much of the show’s appeal is in seeing how it undermines - it’s no spoiler to say that Ranking of Kings continually deepens the audience’s understanding of its characters and goes far beyond initial impressions. The show plays with classic conventions of fantasy and the genre’s kneejerk reaction to file characters as “good” or “bad”, resulting in complex characters who cross and break traditional lines. Good characters can do bad things for complicated reasons, and even some of the most heinous deeds may eventually earn forgiveness. It’s highly effective as a story - expect to find yourself in tears at least once an episode - but just as potent as inspiration for your own stories.
Like the D&D characters you’d find around a table, Ranking of Kings pulls from across generations of folklore and fantasy. There are armour-clad knights, spell-flinging magic users, orc-like Gigantes, a three-headed snake, a magic mirror, demons and even gods. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the show’s well-realised fantasy world and overarching premise (the title refers to a literal ranking of rulers’ comparative strength), which are deserving of praise in their own right. The castles wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones, while other locations and characters span the spectrum of light and dark fantasy from Adventure Time to Dark Souls, without being empty facsimiles of what’s come before.
Despite their familiarity, these parts are assembled and reassembled into something wholly original that leaves a far greater impression as a result. As such, Ranking of Kings should be required viewing for anyone who wants to use inspiration in making their next RPG character. It sets the bar for using age-old tricks to make a story and world approachable, before dismantling those same assumptions for meaningful narrative arcs and emotional heft.
Borrowing and reusing parts of your favourite stories is part and parcel of roleplaying, but making them more than simple homage is what takes a character from a tribute act to something you and your group will remember. So steal away - just be sure that you’re not afraid to break and reassemble what you take to make it your own.