Today we will be talking about a key aspect of roleplaying games: character creation. I had originally written a long post that went into detail about ability scores and saving throws and all kinds of other RPG brick-a-brack, but I scrapped it in favor of this post. Do you know why? Because creating a character is much more than rolling dice and cross-referencing tables in a player's handbook. New players will eventually learn how to fill in a character sheet, but before they throw their first D6 they need to learn how to truly create their character.
Creating a character for roleplaying games is not really that much different than creating one for a novel. After all, the PCs in an adventure are nothing more than the protagonists in a story being told by the group. The more three dimensional the characters are in a novel, the better the story is. This is also true in a roleplaying game; the more detailed the character is the richer the game play becomes. Don't assume that this means each character you create has to have seventy pages of character notes to go along with the standard character sheet. Players should just take a little extra time and go beyond the stats.
The background of your character can be as simple as where they are from, but it can be much more than that. A player can create an entire fictional biography for their characters including everything from childhood friends to what their favorite game was. Why is the character's background important? Think about your own life for a minute. How much of you is a product of where you are from and how you were raised? A character that was a farmhand in a small village will have a much different outlook on the world than the son of a nobleman who grew up in the city. Your character's background can explain prejudices the character may have or explain away personality traits. A thief who grew up an orphan will naturally be less trusting of others than a fighter who was raised in a big family.
Once again a player can simply say "My character is tall with dark hair and dark skin." That's perfectly fine, but boring as shit. Think about the people that you interact with every day. When you describe them to people you probably don't give their height, weight, eye color and hair color unless you are describing them to the police. Try describing your character like you would describe someone that you have a crush on. Think about details like the shape of their face, how they wear their hair and how they carry themselves. Do they always have a scowl on their face or is their mouth always fighting against a smile? These explicit details allow the other players and the DM to qualify how your character is viewed by their characters and non-player characters. A character with a round, hairless face and smiling eyes will have a more positive reaction from others than a character with a scowl and half lidded eyes cast downward.
Giving your character a distinct personality is the best way to breathe life into them. Much like the physical description of your character, a detailed personality allows the other players and the DM a guide to interacting with your character. Is your character quick to anger, but fiercely loyal to their friends? Are they seemingly generous, but ultimately treacherous? Does their joking mask a deeper pain or are they just a flippant ass? Lazy players often think that the class of their character is their personality, but this couldn't be more wrong. The class of the character is their job and, while it may affect their personality, it does not define it. Crafting a personality eliminates the risk of falling into tropes like fighter=strong, wizard=smart, etc.
Why is your character out in the world looking for adventure? Was their village raided by hobgoblins and they are looking for revenge? Were they sold into an apprenticeship with a corrupt archmage? Understanding your character's motivation really adds an element to a roleplaying session. Most adventures start with a "hook", basically a reason for the players to group together and undertake the adventure. The problem with the standard hooks is not all players are the same. By knowing the motivation of the characters, the DM can tailor these hooks and the subsequent adventure so that it makes sense for the characters to group together. Your character's motivations should also help color the decisions that you make throughout the game. If you are looking for revenge against hobgoblins, you won't pass up a chance to destroy one of their lairs even if it means certain death.
Many roleplaying games utilize an alignment system that makes players choose to identify how good or evil they are. Unfortunately these alignment systems don't always accurately reflect how actual morality works. Just like real people, your character is going to have a sense of right and wrong shaped by many of the character aspects that we have already discussed. This morality may not easily fit into one of the categories provided. For instance, the thief who grew up on the streets would have no qualms stealing to survive, but may balk at killing. The nobleman's son may find stealing to be abhorrent, but would have no issue taking the life of a competitor in a duel. Your character's background and motivation should have a hand in determining their personal moral code. Also, the morality of a character can change over time. Growing up on a farm can fill a character with a naivete regarding good and evil that will be gradually eroded by the harsh light of the world.
This level of detail in creating a character might seem overwhelming for new players, but don't let it dismay you. The beautiful thing about a tabletop roleplaying game is that the players can expound on their character's development on the fly. You can hash out all of these details throughout the course of an adventure, much like an improv performance. When first creating a character, start out simple. Have the basic framework for all of the character aspects we have discussed and then fill in the rest as you go. As you gain more experience as a player, expand on the initial framework and put more detail into the rest as you play. The more you play, the better your characters will become and the better your gameplay will be. Before you know it, your imagination will be the only limit to the development of rich and diverse characters.
(Top Art by Ralph Horsley)