Creating a new character for a roleplaying game is one of the highlights of the game. You both get to create a new alter ego – good or bad – for yourself, and enjoy figuring out the character’s relation to the other characters.
This post is not about creating the characters themselves – your system of choice will explain that – this post is about making the characters fit in the story. There are many things to consider, for players and game masters alike, so let’s get started.
For the Players
“Adventure. Excitement. A jedi craves not these things.”
– Yoda, Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back (1980)
What do You Want to Play?
The first step in creating a character is figuring out its basic concept. I think this is done best by summarizing the idea in a single sentence, like:
- A ruggedly handsome rogue in the service of the crown.
- A noble and virtuous ranger haunted by criminal family ties.
- A stout outcast dwarven alchemist seeking redemption.
- A vain paladin fighting to win the heart of a fawning handsome prince.
- An ambitious young wizard seeking to overthrow the guild master and access the guild’s most secret tomes.
Alternatively, find fantasy artwork online and model the character after that.
I prefer to keep it simple and let the character grow into its own organically. I’ve seen many times elaborate ideas put in the backseat as the campaign progress. Roleplaying games are a group effort, which means that anything that does not involve the whole group will not get the necessary focus to grow.
Example: Simple Characters
Four of my most recent characters started out with simple ideas or just images. My conspiracy investigator is a mix of Max Payne and Fox Mulder. I recently played a samurai based on Bill Clinton. I based my Starfinder ace pilot on a piece of Tom Clancy’s The Division concept art. I also play an elven fire mage for Storm God’s Thunder modeled after a couple of suitable images.
These are simple concepts, but all gained more depth as we got deeper into the campaigns, while staying true to the initial idea. All have been a joy to play. GM and players both benefited from this open-ended simplicity: I had a clear idea of what I played, while the GM had lots of room to maneuver.
What Fits the Setting?
You want your character to fit the setting and the campaign. If the other players want to play city-dwelling rogues, your druid may be out of place. If your GM wants to play a story of scheming nobles, a pacifist dwarven monk may make you the fifth wheel of the party.
In short, what does the group want to play? Make sure you pay attention to whatever the others are saying and what they want to play. Roleplaying games should make everybody is happy.
What Does the Group Need?
What does your group needs? Most roleplaying games rely on team-based combat, so how does your character fit into that team?
There are some meta-issues to consider if you care about tactical choices. There are several roles to play in combat. You need damage dealers, someone to hold a defensive line, a healer and some utility abilities – all depending on the system and setting.
Is the player with the lowest attendance play the cleric? Do you have three rogues in the party? Is anyone playing an arcane spellcaster?
Does this even matter? Some would say yes, so check with your group. Folks play for different reasons and enjoy various aspects of the game. Some people favor developing an elaborate story and character arcs, while others prefer exploring character options and the tactical elements of the game. Both are valid preferences.
But here is the gist: unless the entire group shares your preference, you have to dabble in both to ensure everybody’s enjoyment of the game. You may want to learn the necessary optimization of your character concept, or you risk becoming a sidekick whenever there is a fight. You should also make sure your character has some social skills, a background and engages the story outside of combat.
You may create a background for your character. Some enjoy carefully crafting elaborate backgrounds while others keep it to a minimum, making it up as they go. There is no right or wrong here, but I strongly favor the later. Pinning down details too soon often means that they go unused and wasted.
Another problem is that background notes are quickly forgotten. Actual events from last week’s game session are likely to be stronger in your mind than that two-page summary you wrote months ago. Experience trumps references every time.
For the Game Masters
The Game Master must make the characters feel at home once they have put together their team of adventurers.
How does the GM Handle Character Backgrounds?
Characters backgrounds may be both a blessing and a curse for the Game Masters. A character background gives the campaign a kickstart. The background gives you a batch of plot seeds.
The downside you may have a batch of plot seeds you do not want, or does not fit whatever you have planned out. Then you have a choice, stick to your story or follow the characters’ choices. The answer is easy. Character agency trumps anything you have come up with, as a roleplaying game is about the characters.
Character agency is the character’s ability to make decisions and act upon them. This is vital to any story.
The question is how do you implement this in your game? Character agency applies to both what the players can play, and how they can play. I will not concern myself with player behavior and only focus on the characters.
Again, gaming is a collective story, and the characters are the focus of the story. It is all about their choices, and you as a Game Master wants to allow as much player agency into your game as you possibly can.
A flashback can be an alternative to the two-page background story, and a compelling narrative tool when used with care. People keep saying “show don’t tell” whenever they give storytelling advice.
I have had hundreds of characters in my games over the years, and most of them with some background story. They all have in common that the backstories may have been important at the time of introduction, but all have faded in importance quickly. So perhaps the advice is sound.
Flashbacks are used in books and movies to explain essential events in the past. Key moments or choices that come back to haunt our characters. So make sure this is not just another way of showing the past, and make sure to include player interaction in the flashback. Flashbacks should end in character-defining choices. Otherwise, they are likely just padding.
Example: Flashbacks in Star Wars and LOTR
Implementing flashbacks must be done with care and consistency. It is a matter of taste, but I feel flashbacks must be used as a recurring tool, or not at all. Throwing in one flashback in the middle of a long linear history will increase its importance, but it will also make it stick out in the narrative. If it becomes an oddity, it may not be as efficient.
The first flashback in the Star Wars movies was in the Force Awakens, in the seventh movie, 13-14 hours into the narrative. Rey’s memories of her childhood are moving and critical moments, but also puzzling as flashbacks is not how the Star Wars saga has been told up to that point.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies has similar moments, but the 5-minute history lesson in the prologue of the Fellowship of the Ring creates some precedence for flashbacks later.
The flashback should end in a player choice, something that defines the character. Otherwise, it is likely just to be filler.
Example: The Fighter and the Smuggler
Let’s say the group’s fighter is considering visiting the local baron regarding a smuggler in the area. The fighter is a bit of a folk hero, but as it turns out, he worked in the local militia a few years back during basic training.
Run this as a flashback. The baron had employed the militia to deal with smugglers while the fighter served. On one mission, the militia caught a smuggler, a young man who claimed to smuggle only to support his family and oppose the greedy baron.
The fighter has a choice. The smuggler’s circumstance may sway the fighter to let the smuggler go, or the fighter may decide that a job is a job and turn the smuggler over to the authorities.
Whatever the fighter decides will influence the upcoming conversation with the baron, and we will learned something about the fighter. The smuggler can also be developed further later in the story. Let the player make this choice. Either way, this will tell us something about the fighter.
Rooting the Character in Your World
The character needs a world to interact with for any choice to be meaningful. How do you build your world to best support those choices?
- Make sure viable character choices is supported by the setting.
- Be cautious of “railroading”. Make sure your story fits the characters in your game. If not, change the story, not the characters.
When you have made the characters for your story, you should make sure each is appropriately grounded in your world. Writing long essays about each character’s backstory may not be your best option in a collective story like is a roleplaying game, as the backstory may constrain your choices as well. Your mileage may vary.
What you need to do is to make sure every character has a place in the setting and the possibility of a proper character arc.
Introducing characters to your story should raise some questions. Make sure you can answer those questions, and your world will benefit. The following is a checklist to make sure you have a space for every character in your world.
- What is the role of the character classes in your world?
- Are commoners allowed to carry weapons?
- Where is the closest holy site for the character’s religions?
- What are the church’s current projects?
- What are the rivaling criminal organizations in the region?
- Is magic legal?
- How are witches treated?
- Where was the character trained?
- Who was the mentor? What is the mentor’s agenda?
- Was the mentor what he or she appeared to be? The mentor may have a secret agenda tied to your campaign outline.
- Are there thieves’ guilds and mage guilds?
- How is magic taught? Is it inherited or a combination?
- Are there any ruins, dungeons or monsters related to the characters?
Just Say ‘Yes’!
I am, like an old-fashioned grognard GM, hardwired to say “no” and hinder the characters whenever they try something crazy. That is not necessarily a good idea. The players are not trying to cheat you. They are trying to have a good time. So there is power in saying ‘yes.’
If they try to do something impossible, allow it be just tricky. Make failure spectacular and increase the ante when the characters fail at something. Otherwise, the action just stops, which is not fun at all.
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Two systems come to mind when discussing exiting character options and actions: 13th Age and 7th Sea.
13th Age (2013) has a simple, yet intriguing, concept that each character should have one unique thing, no matter how wild it is. Think about it, something truly unique in a fantasy setting? It boggles the mind.
The use of icons – great figures of power, like Gandalf or Galadriel – in the lives of the adventurers is another fun feature of 13th Age. Each session start with each character rolling for icon relationship, for better or worse altering the course as the story progress.
The 7th Sea (2016), John Wick’s classic pirate setting, has embedded saying ‘yes’ and failure always increasing the drama into the core mechanic. You want cinematic action outside the D&D tradition, with in-depth storytelling and always increasing antes? Look no further. The basic rules of 7th Sea is also available for free.
Pathfinder has used backgrounds a part of character generation since the beginning and expands rules in Ultimate Campaigns (2013) by devoting 35 pages to random tables for race, childhood and class training.
Another feature in this book is using downtime to develop the characters. I’d use this book with some caution, but it has some fun ideas I’ve wanted for years.
A nice feature in the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons (2014) is a renewed interest in background stories, in the form of skills and abilities from backgrounds and random life events. This incarnation also implements downtime as a way to develop both characters and campaign. Dungeons and Dragons approach to downtime differs Pathfinder is it more guidelines than hard rules.