There was at some point a discussion going on RPGnet about PC types, and “special snowflakes.” Generally they were presented as a negative. A “special snowflake” PC, probably this is self-evident, is a PC who is for some reason unique and special. The only wizard in a game that’s presented as low-magic with wizards extinct. A ninja assassin in a game of court intrigue in Thomas Jefferson’s Washington, DC, that sort of thing.
While I can appreciate the argument that a special snowflake works against whatever mood or theme the GM is going for, and that too often such a PC is an attempt to seize a disproportionate amount of spotlight time, I feel like a blanket condemnation of the fish-out-of-water character type, or the special snowflake, isn’t reasonable. Provided the character’s uniqueness works within the context of the story, there’s no reason a PC can’t be unique. There’s a lot of precedent for special and/or unique protagonists in the genre media that inspires games, and in video games.
Luke Skywalker wasn’t just J. Random Farmboy, he was Leia’s twin brother and Darth Vader’s son. Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t just a random apostate mage, she was the daughter and apprentice of Flemeth. DA:O has a bunch of special/unique/against-type PCs, in fact: Shale, Leliana, Wynn, and Sten all have qualities that make them extraordinarily exceptional (self-aware golem, God spoke to her, technically undead, and near-human from far over the sea, respectively).
It’s not compulsory; Han Solo is in fact J. Random Spacer, and the Grey Warden’s party in DA:O also features a random dog and a dwarf warrior with no particular claim to fame. But I think it’s counterproductive to winnow players’ options too much. I was disappointed with the Dragon Age tabletop RPG, which asserted (not in so many words) that Grey Wardens, qunari warriors, self-aware golems, and spirit-possessed healer-wizards were all far too rare and precious to be mere PCs. If I was running a D&D game set in a world where magic was rare and wizards a special, persecuted minority whom the average peasant would go their entire lives without meeting, I’d happily let any or all of the PCs be wizards — then whatever they do is noteworthy, by definition. How better to explore a world where magic is rare than through the eyes of someone intimately touched by that rarity? Doctor Who manages to present a universe where Time Lords are possibly-extinct and yet we see at least one Time Lord on every single episode, after all. The Star Trek franchise has gotten huge amounts of mileage from rare/unique/special characters: Spock (half-human), Data (android), Worf (Klingon raised by humans), Odo (shapeshifter raised by Cardassians) et cetera et cetera. I could keep coming up with examples all day, here.
The real problem when you have a “special snowflake” character is that the character’s presence might make the game something different than what the GM wants to run. Which is either a non-issue, if the player and the GM are on the same page as to what the game should be, or a problem that’s going to result in someone not having fun regardless, because the player who wanted to make a ninja in Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet is going to chafe and complain and be unhappy with a game where he can’t sneak around and murder Aaron Burr.
That is, either everyone wants to play the same kind of game in general, or they don’t. I know a bunch of times I’ve played a fish-out-of-water: the atheist on the divinely-mandated quest, the Imperial officer in the group of rebels, the jungle shaman in the Euro-centric Generic Fantasy, the politico in the espionage game, blah blah blah with the lists of examples. In pretty much all of those games, one of two things was true. Either a) I was playing a character who managed to not disrupt the overall flow of the game (or at least, not by having a radically unexpected background/agenda/type) or b) I wasn’t on the same page as the GM as to what the game was about, through an honest misunderstanding.
I once joined an Exalted game already in progress, as a demon-summoning foreign prince in exile from his fabulously wealthy and better-than-you homeland. Cynis Evaran Gafgarion’s status as a foreigner in a hostile desert nation (all the other PCs were native to the desert nation) and his overweening snobbery in terms of how the Scarlet Empire was far, far better than this barbaric backwater, all that was way less disruptive to the game in general than his ability to summon giant golden wasp-demons which the group could ride around on at 45 MPH and teleport hundreds of miles at a time. Fortunately the desert-tracker character with all the camp-making abilities left the game just as I was joining, or else there might have been trouble what with her skillset becoming obsolete.
I used to argue with a friend of mine about the relative status of PCs in the world. He took the position that they were just one of many, that a given D&D setting has hundreds if not thousands of low-level adventuring parties running around, and no PC becomes “special” until they reach high level, which they must earn. To which I responded that I didn’t have any interest in exploring the story of the guy who failed to be awesome enough to get to high levels, and that right now (well, then) we’re sitting around a table talking about an imaginary world and you’re responsible for imagining several billion people and I’m responsible for imagining one, and don’t try to tell me that my contribution to the shared imaginary space is one-billionth as important as yours, ’cause we’re all playing a game together here.
Of course when I was GM I was terrible about making the PCs appropriately special, it’s not my best talent.
Anyway, my point is, if you’re going to run a game where the PCs are Thomas Jefferson’s secret ninja assassin squad, you better credit me somewhere in the design document, or else I’ll complain on my blog.