Character Generation in Roleplaying Games
First published 9/12/2001; last edited 1/7/2005
At first I honestly wasn't sure where to start on the subject of creating a three-dimensional roleplaying game (RPG) character. "Well," I thought, "you just make a person." But when you haven't done it before it isn't that easy. The first couple of roleplaying characters I created were pretty paper-thin, thinking all the way back to high school. And it isn't like a light switch, either - if you enjoy creating three-dimensional characters, then each one is probably a little more engaging, a little more interesting, a little more "real" than the last. It's a matter of degrees, not an on-off switch.
So to be honest, I can't teach you to create a fully-formed and fleshed-out character in five easy steps. It's a long process of trial and error, experimentation, and fun gaming experiences - each one giving way to another, even more fun gaming experience. No one can teach you how to create a "real, live" person.
I can however give you some pointers: a few places to start, a handful of things to think about, and a number of questions to ask yourself. A road map, in other words, which is exactly what one of our readers suggested when he asked if I'd tackle this subject. I may not be able to tell you how to make a person, but I can at least tell you that it's possible, and point you in the right direction.
You're used to thinking of characters within the context of the game. Your character is "the priest" or "the tank" or something equally categorized. Your character is more a concept than a person.
If you haven't played around with three-dimensional character creation before, it can come as a bit of a surprise that it's even a possibility. Think about yourself for a moment: What are your hobbies? Who are your friends? What do you do in your spare time - reading, writing, crafts, sports? Who still holds a grudge against you for last week's argument? How do you feel about your family members? What weird hang-ups do you have?
Does your character have any of this? Does she have hobbies? Does she have friends? Does she hold grudges? What does she do in her spare time? How does she feel about her family members - does she even have family members? What weird hang-ups does she have? If any of these revelations come as a surprise, then read on. I may be able to help.
"Why should I?"
Why should you bother to create a person instead of just some numbers and a vague concept? What use do you get out of it?
#1. It's fun. A lot of people enjoy it. It expands the range of what you can do while roleplaying. It makes the experience a bit more intense when characters have an emotional investment in what's going on. It pulls you further into the game. It gives your character room to change and grow, making the experience more interesting. (I personally think that one of the coolest aspects of having a three-dimensional character is being surprised when she does something I'm not expecting.)
#2. Plots. There are a lot of plots you can play with if you have "real people" as characters that you can't play with if you only have shallow archetypes. It's hard to play with emotional ties or moral ambiguities when your characters have only the shallowest of moral codes and emotional reactions. It's hard to have dramatic scenes if your characters aren't emotionally involved in the game.
#3. Variation. Characters with hobbies and interests and friends can be dragged into a much wider variety of plots with a much wider variety of solutions to them. Characters with depth tend to have wider interests, odd useful skills and abilities, and so on.
Give it a try. There's nothing saying you have to do it if it doesn't appeal to you, but you might enjoy it.
Method #1: Working from the numbers up
"So where do I start?" you ask. There's so much to a person! The prospect of creating one can be daunting if you've never done it before. One method is to start with the numbers. This is particularly useful when you're playing with a system that assigns statistics (Strength, Dexterity, whatever else) randomly, or according to class - in other words, you don't have a whole lot of control over your numbers.
Take a look at your numbers and see what they suggest to you. Do you have a priest with a high Charisma? Maybe he's a slick charmer who likes to use religion to fleece people of their money. Maybe he's conflicted between his true devotion and faith, and his desire to make a quick buck.
That's just a start. After that you can think about what sort of family background he came from. Why does he feel he has to con people out of their money? Is it because he was poor, and never had good clothes or money? Is it because he was wealthy, and this is all just a game to him? What does his family think about this? Have they disowned him? Do they tolerate him? Do some of them help him in his cons?
Method #2: Working from the concept down
Perhaps instead you started with the concept of a roguish priest, and you're working with a system where you have the latitude to assign your numbers more or less as you see fit. So you think about the concept first, get a good handle on it in your mind, and then try to figure out what numbers should go with it.
Should he have a low Strength? After all, he seems to prefer getting by on his wits. Maybe that's because he doesn't have the strength or combat-ability to just take what he wants. Is he smart? He'd probably have to be at least a little smart and quick on his feet to make his cons work and to get away when they go wrong, but he doesn't have to be too smart or too fast.
You'll notice that I didn't take either example all that far. This is because before all that long, you'll find you need to go back and forth a bit between the two methods in order to keep going. Take method #1 to begin with. Once your numbers have given you a start, you have to play with your new concept at least a little. What sorts of skills would your roguish priest have developed during his odd blend of religion and swindling? Perhaps he'd have learned to gather information from talking with others, or to bring people around to his point of view. Look through the skills available to you and pick ones that represent these abilities. Then see what other abilities are available to you, and what they might suggest about your character. You might catch sight of a few odd "hobby" abilities that give you ideas.
In the second method, you'll find that your concept has to eventually be made to work within the numbers provided by your system. Most systems include some sort of limitation on character creation to prevent you from creating too powerful a character. Let's say that at first you envisioned your priest as being quick on his feet and able to flee from any bad situation, but you don't have the points to create that. You can do one of several things.
- Try to find a way to get the points. Many systems have things like flaws, disadvantages, etc. that can give you extra points to work with.
- Set your character back a ways. Imagine, if you will, that what you've envisioned for your priest is what he will become after a few more years of development. For the moment he isn't quite so quick on his feet because he hasn't developed that level of skill yet.
- Change your character concept slightly. Instead of making him quick on his feet, give him a friend who helps to protect him - either an NPC ally or another party member.
You'll find that you do a lot of this back-and-forth during character creation. You'll do a bit of number-crunching, followed by a bit of concept speculation, followed by a bit of fiction-writing, followed by some more number-crunching, and so on. Every now and then you'll change something - either because you've come up with a new idea, or because you have to make your character fit the parameters of the game you're playing.
Method #3: Writing fiction
If you like to write and you're having trouble turning your character into a person, then try this: write up some piece of the character's life as a short story. It can help to breathe life into previously dry material. See what emerges as you write about the character; sometimes the plot developments will surprise you. This tends to force you to give the character some context - history, friends, enemies, etc. One-person stories with little to react to, after all, can get fairly boring.
Method #4: The outline
I use this more for NPCs than for player characters, but even for PCs it can help to have an outline that you follow, a list of things to think about. It can help to ensure that you don't miss anything. It doesn't need to be complicated; the idea is just to remind you of any broad categories you might have forgotten, such as your character's appearance, family, history, friends, and so on. This is one possible outline:
- Character name
- A two- or three-word summary of your character concept
- Notable abilities
- Hobbies & Abilities
- Mundane Details
- Blind Spots
Method #5: The questionnaire
Another way to force yourself to think of character details is to use one of the many character questionnaires out there on the web. These questionnaires collect all sorts of both practical and unusual questions. Some are designed to help you think of important details; others are designed to help you get inspired about your character. We have our own questionnairethat you can start with, and Roleplaying Tips Weekly presented two issues on the topic:
Few people have the time or the inclination to answer all of the questions in these questionnaires, so I recommend that you pick a small handful and answer those. If your answers are short then you might answer more questions; if they're long and more involved, then answer fewer. Pick both questions that inspire you and a few more practical questions.
Game systems and three-dimensional character generation
If you already have an idea of how to create a three-dimensional character then pretty much any game system will work for you. Even if the system itself doesn't incorporate a lot of personal stuff, you can write it up independently as character history.
If you don't have any idea where to start, however, then not all game systems are created equal. If you feel like you still need some help then pick a game system that gets fairly personal. Some game systems work things like personality quirks, enemies, friends, past events, and hobby-related abilities into their mechanics. These systems give you more to work with when creating a character with depth.
The great thing about all of this is that in creating a real person, you'll be creating a character with the capacity for growth. He'll be able to change over the course of a campaign or chronicle. He'll be able to react to the travails your GM throws at the party. He'll be able to grow in ways that you don't expect. But then, that's the subject of another article...
Making a three-dimensional player character isn't nearly as difficult as it sounds, and it can be very rewarding. You'll end up with memorable characters that you'll still remember playing five years from now. A character with depth is a character that you'll enjoy playing for a long time to come. I hope some of these suggestions help you to figure out where to start, or give you a few things to think about.
In the meantime, there were a number of other smaller, more specific character creation hints that I wanted to add here, but they grew numerous enough that I decided to split them off into Things to Think about During Character Creation