An Introductory Survey of Character Creation Methods

“Character creation.” When you create a character for a roleplaying game you’re making a person, or a persona — someone whose mouth you’ll speak through and whose body you’ll act through in the fictional world of your roleplaying game. If you’ve never made a character before this can be a confusing process. How do you make a person? What attributes do you give him? What sort of life does he lead? How much of a character do you need to make?

Character creation is a very malleable process, and your approach to it is likely to depend on you, your game master (GM), and your game. Here are a few of the ways in which you can create characters; choose one that seems right to you and start with it. As you gain experience in roleplaying, you can adjust your process until it’s right for you.

Methods

Concept First

Some people like to start out with a concept. They know they want to play a retired police officer who gets drawn into her neighborhood’s troubles, or a naive young man who wants to make a difference in the world. They think a bit about what such a person would be like–what skills he’d be likely to have, what resources, and so on. From here they tend to go back and forth between the “mechanical” character creation process (assigning numbers to statistics, picking skills, and so on) and the creation of character background (figuring out who the character knows, how events have shaped his views and his life, and so on).

Advantages:This method has the advantage that you’ll have a strong, concrete idea of the sort of character you’re playing. You’ll have an easy time communicating your general character concept to the GM and other players in a sentence or two.

Disadvantages: It has the potential disadvantage that the starting points available might not allow you to construct exactly the character that you want. In that case, try imagining what the character would be like if he were younger, less experienced or less well-trained. Imagine that the character you envisioned is what the character will be like some number of years down the road, instead of right now.

The other potential disadvantage is that a one-sentence character concept can sometimes be just another way of saying “stereotype.” If you remember to come up with plenty of original details (quirks, hobbies, family background, and so on), it should be easy to move past the stereotype and on to something new and interesting.

Numbers First

Some people prefer to start out assigning numbers and statistics. As they play with the numbers they’ll develop a concept based on those numbers. (“Wow, that’s an unusual skill. I wonder what sort of character would know how to do that?”) From there they can move into character background. As they address the character background they might go back and change some of the numbers based on what they’ve come up with.

Advantages: This method has the advantage that you’ll easily be able to fit your character within the starting pools of points, because that’s what you’re basing everything on.

Disadvantages: It has the potential disadvantage that if your numbers don’t lead easily into a concept, the image you have of your character could end up being bland and uninteresting. This might lead to a not-so-fun game for you.

Full Character First

Others come up with a fully-fleshed character before they even touch the numbers or the game mechanics at all. They know they want to play a young woman named Aria, who has a bad case of amnesia and some unusual fire-related abilities that she doesn’t know the origin of. They see the rest of the process merely as a means to flesh out and represent that character.

Advantages: This method’s advantage is that it can easily be used to create very “real” characters, with a great deal of depth and complexity to them. It’s often easier to think of your character as a person when the statistics are entirely secondary.

Disadvantages: It has the same potential disadvantage as the first method — you might not be able to create exactly the character you want. Also, some people who use this method merely use it as a means to re-create a character from a movie, TV show, or book that they like. This isn’t necessarily a bad place to start, but it helps if you keep going from there: add your own quirks, history, and details in order to customize the character and make it your own, unique creation.

The Three-Dimensional Skeleton Method

If you know your GM plans to have a high-death-rate game (a dangerous game world in which characters get killed fairly often), you might feel that it isn’t worth it to put as much work into creating a fully-fleshed-out character with lots of background and depth. In that case first create the basics (abilities, basic life history, quick personality, etc.); this is your skeleton. Then add a few brief, colorful details that can act as plot hooks and which you can expand on later if the character manages to live for a while. This might be something as simple as, “Gerald’s mother was a mysterious figure in his life, and she disappeared when he was 10.” Later on you could expand this into a much more interesting and detailed part of his background, assuming he lives for a while.

Advantages: The amount of effort you put into the character is commensurate with the length of time you get to enjoy playing him, but he still has some interesting details to him right at the beginning. This can also be handy if you don’t know much about the game universe and have no idea what sort of character to make for it.

Disadvantages: You might forget to expand on the character later (or never get around to it), leaving him rather skeletal. Also, you might find it harder to “get into” a character that’s less detailed.

The Template Method

If you find the idea of character creation a bit overwhelming right now (in other words, you’re kind of new to roleplaying and the idea of reading through the rules seems like more than enough work to you without having to make a person), start with a template. This is a pre-generated character using starting points. Many games provide a few templates or archetypes as examples; if yours doesn’t, ask the GM if he has an NPC (non-player character) you could play for a while, or if he could help you create a basic character. As you play the character, try to gradually shape it into something more personalized — something truly your own–by now and then answering a new question about your character’s interests, habits, and history.

Advantages: This is a quick and simple way to jump into a game, particularly if you aren’t sure whether you even like roleplaying or this particular game yet. Besides, if you have no idea yet what sort of character you’d enjoy playing, then it won’t hurt much to do this. In addition, templates are (ideally) designed specifically for party play. A first-time player will often create a character based largely on what he’s used to seeing in movies, TV shows, and books, which can lead to characters that are unsuited for a roleplaying game.

Disadvantages: You’re probably playing a somewhat generic character that certainly hasn’t been tailored to your own preferences. It might be difficult to get into or really enjoy the character.

If you decide to take this route, talk to your GM about it. Tell him that you might want to make changes to the character or switch to a character of your own devising once you have a better handle on what you’re doing and what you like and don’t like. Then pay attention to the game and your character, and see where your interests take you.

Additional Notes

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Remember that you’re creating a person, not a list of numbers. Your character is more than just statistics and paper.
  • Think about all of the things a normal person has: loves, hates, dreams, fears, family members, hobbies, minor interests, old enemies, etc. Give your character some of these things too.
  • Keep the rest of your gaming party in mind while you’re creating your character. Try to make sure that your character will have reason to stick with the other characters. Try to make sure he isn’t a total loner who won’t feel comfortable working with others.
  • Keep the GM in mind while you’re creating your character. Put together your character information in a way that the GM can easily reference and make use of.
  • If you’ve never used the game system before, then keep things simple your first time out. Use pre-made abilities where possible. Delay any customization until you’ve used the system for a while and have a better idea of what results your actions will have.

Talk to the GM: Always ask the GM what is publicly known about the game world and the sort of game he’ll be running before you start thinking about your character. Try to fit your character into the pre-existing game world. Think about the mood, atmosphere, and type of plots. If the GM talks about running a moody horror game, then don’t create a character more appropriate to a comedic game. If he wants to run a comedic game, then you’ll only be disappointing yourself if you try to play a serious character meant for serious plots.

Talk to the Other Players: Sometimes talking to the other players can also be handy. Some campaigns are run such that it’s advisable to have a wide range of abilities among the characters. In other words, if you have three “toughs” and no brainy characters (or vice versa), your characters will probably get killed because you lack necessary abilities and resources; in this case, you want to talk with the other players to make sure you include a decent spread of character types. Other GMs enjoy coming up with plots appropriate to unusual character groupings. Ask your GM his preferences, and talk with the other players about what you each want to play. While some players enjoy coming up with characters that have secret, hidden aspects to them, you can still usually find a way to talk about general skills and areas of expertise.

A spread of abilities between characters can be a good way to ensure that your character feels unique and interesting to you, instead of being too similar to someone else’s character. On the other hand, there are plenty of other ways to make sure that similar characters have differences as well. You could spend your experience points on different skills and resources. You could have wildly different personalities and ways of going about things. If you’re playing a game in which characters are encouraged to have hobby skills and a wide spread of resources, strengths, and weaknesses, the differences could be in the details.

Think about the Game You’ll Be Playing: Most of all, make sure you think ahead. Why would this character of yours get involved in the plots of a roleplaying game, and why would she stay involved? Does she find adventure exciting? Does she want to help people? Does she have a specific set of goals in mind? What skills does she have that might help her in her goals? What resources does she have that she can make use of? Who does she know who might be able to help her? What does she care about, and why?

Once You’ve Created Your Character: Once you’ve put together your character sheet, show it to your GM. Write down and show him any background you’ve come up with. Point out any special or unusual abilities your character has.. Make sure that he approves all of this before the game starts.

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