Creating Useful Player Characters

What do you think about when you create a player character (PC) for a roleplaying game (RPG)? There are all sorts of things that people take into account. Some concentrate more on useful skill sets. Others concentrate on family history and background. Still others play with plot hooks or character interests.

From whatever perspective, people try to create a fun-to-play character. Today we’ll provide a few tips on how you can make sure that the fun character you’ve created is also useful–not just to you, but to the entire gaming group.

These suggestions come with the important caveat that you should always check with your game master (GM) to find out what he wants before taking our suggestions. Giving your GM lots of plot hooks and NPCs to play with won’t be appreciated if he doesn’t want them! Every GM works differently and has a different amount of time to put into things, and it’s important to take this into account. What helps one GM may frustrate another.

This article also takes as the starting basis for most of its suggestions the idea that you’re coming up with at least a little character background. If your games don’t tend to work that way, then you won’t find all of this article useful.

Share Your Plots

If you’re coming up with interesting plots that your character has going on, think about how you can involve the rest of the party. Make sure your character has reasons to drag other people in. You can still come up with secret agendas; it just takes a little creativity to find ways to involve the others. Maybe you can come up with a cover story for your character’s secret, one that the other characters can help out with. (As a corollary to this, don’t come up with secrets for your character to hide unless you’re willing to see them come out eventually–it’s the nature of RPGs that they probably will.)

If you have trouble finding ways to involve the other characters, or you know that you have a tendency to horde plots, then design personal plots that your character just can’t deal with alone. It’ll help to push you into involving the rest of the party out of necessity. Also, keep the other characters in mind when you choose your plots. If you have some idea of what the other PCs are like, then design the plots to work with that. If you come up with a plot that none of the other characters would reasonably get involved in, then for obvious reasons you’ll have trouble involving them.

Talk to your GM about any plots you create! You’ll want to be sure that they’ll fit into his universe. You have to give your GM the chance to veto things that really won’t fit his world, his themes, his genre, or his style of GMing. If there’s anything he doesn’t like, work with him to create an alternative. Ask him why he doesn’t like it so you can come up with something more appropriate next time.

Don’t make your plots time-dependent. Make them things that the GM could just as easily work into the game three months down the line, three weeks down the line, or the first night of game. That way, whenever the GM doesn’t have the time to come up with enough plots for the night, he can grab one of yours.

Try not to get too attached to your background plots. It’s always possible that a busy and overworked GM won’t have time to work them in, or that the GM’s idea of what to do with those plots won’t be the same as yours. This is where talking to the GM does come in handy though; if he knows what you’re doing, has the chance to ask you questions, and makes sure that your ideas fit his world, he’s much more likely to play with the material you give him.

Connect with the Other Characters

Talk with the other players and come up with ways to tie the characters together. Make sure your character has reason to get involved with the others. If you’ve designed a loner character, find ways to make him dependent on the party. The party doesn’t need to be an inseparable, completely coherent unit, but the game usually isn’t much fun if the members of the party won’t even get involved in the same plots.

Make sure your character’s personality allows for the idea of working with other people. Loners and wanderers can tear parties apart pretty quickly, and leave players bored and irritated. Again, your character doesn’t have to work perfectly with the rest of the PCs, but a certain minimal amount of cooperation is awfully useful.

If it appeals to you, consider tying characters together pre-game. People will often rush into situations to help people they care about that they wouldn’t consider getting into on their own, so it’s a great way to pull characters into each other’s plots. (As a corollary to this, consider giving your character several non-player characters (NPCs) he cares strongly about. It’s a virtual instant plot hook for the GM.)

Leave Unexplained Plot Hooks

Leave a few unexplained events and incidents in your character’s background. This gives the GM places to attach his plots, ways to involve your character in the events of the story, and inspiration when he’s having trouble thinking up a new plot. This comes, as always, with a few caveats:

Some GMs prefer to come up with their own material (or use published material), and won’t make use of this if you do it. So check with the GM first to find out what he prefers.

Leave some wiggle-room when you write your plot hooks up so that the GM can adapt them to his circumstances. Don’t use them as a way to railroad the GM into putting your favorite plots into the game. Make the events truly unexplained. One useful thing to do is to write up your ideas, write up what your character believes is going on, and then point out the places where he’s probably wrong. The GM can then do whatever he wants with these bits.

Let your GM read about your unexplained events pre-game, so he can tell you to change them if he wants you to. Keep your write-up fairly simple and to-the-point, or the GM might not get around to reading it all.

Don’t worry if the GM doesn’t use your plot hooks right away. Let him work them in where he thinks they’ll work best, or when he’s really screwed for a way to get you involved in a plot.

Give the GM a Few Free NPCs

If you mention significant people in your character’s background, write up a paragraph or three on each. Ask your GM if he’d like you to fill in character sheets for them. Some GMs will prefer to do it themselves; others will be grateful for the help.

Fill the sheet out in pencil and be prepared for the idea that your GM will change the NPC. After all, it isn’t fair for you to know all the secrets of the NPCs in game. You might only fill in the things your character has reason to know, and leave everything else blank. If the GM lets you make notes on the NPC’s background and plots, leave big gaping holes. Don’t explain everything. Again, this way you won’t have unfair knowledge of what’s going on, and it leaves room for the GM to work the NPCs into his plots.

Make sure that your own character background notes any details that your character knows about the NPCs. That way the GM knows what he can change without interfering with your character.

Organize Your Background for Easy Reading

If you expect your GM to read and make use of your character’s background information, then make it easy on him! Some GMs love reading reams of character information, but not all of them have the time or the inclination.

Find out if your GM has a limit on the number of pages of background information he’s willing to take from you. Abide by it. Keeping things to a reasonable length increases the chances that the GM will read and remember the material.

The more material you write up, the more you should keep in mind that the GM may not get to or remember it all. One possible solution, if the GM agrees, is to fill in further background details later on in the game, once the GM has a handle on the material you wrote up to start with.

Organize things well. Use headings and sub-headings that make your background details easy to find. If there are any details that you think are particularly important then bold or underline them, or otherwise make them stand out a little. This way the GM can find things easily during the game.

Some people like to write fiction to help them get into character. If you put anything significant into a story, then also summarize it in the basic write-up. That way if your GM doesn’t have the time or inclination to read a story he’ll still know the important stuff.

If there are any details you aren’t sure your GM will approve of, bring them to his attention. If you do this before the game starts then there’s time for the two of you to re-work the details such that you’ll still be happy with the result. If you wait, the GM could make a snap decision during the game that you won’t like.

If you put material into your background that helps you to get a handle on the character, or adds mood and background but shouldn’t really have an effect on the game, then put this at the end of the background write-up. Mark it as optional reading. Thus you can, if you want, come up with your character’s favorite food, the last movie he saw, and who his first girlfriend was, but if your GM doesn’t have the time to read it he knows he doesn’t have to.

Summarize Odd Mechanical Details

If there are odd mechanics you’ll have to use during game-play, like the die rolls for your weird abilities, then summarize them in easy-to-find fashion in a reference sheet. This will speed up game-play considerably. If there are any important rules to your system that you expect to use but have trouble remembering, do the same with them.

Give Everything to the GM

Make sure the GM has a copy of your character sheet and background. This should happen before the game if possible, so he has a chance to object to anything he doesn’t like and to familiarize himself with your character. Preferably set up a half-hour or so to meet with him, where you can go over your character with him in person.

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