Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Building Character

Greetings readers – this has been a busy month. I’ve been working on a new RPG setting with two friends and colleagues, Jason Marker and John Dunn. In addition, I wrapped up design work on the Shadowrun skirmish miniatures game, Sprawl Gangers. I started some freelance RPG development work. Lastly, I did some additional writing for my own projects and made some additional freelance contacts. So yeah, lots of stuff going on.

This week I wanted to talk about building characters for RPGs. I’ve made more than a few characters in my career as a gamer – over 27 years at this point – so I believe I have some good perspective on the subject.

Step 1: What am I bringing to the table?

I need a "Blog Writing +1" skill.
The first thing that goes through my mind when I am building a character for an RPG is my desire to identify a unique role for my character in the group. Sometimes the concept itself comes first (i.e., “I want to play a swordmaster!”), but more often, I take a look around and see if the group I’m playing with has some strong inclinations towards a particular character type.

For me, I don’t want to end up stepping on another player’s toes. This can happen less often with a role and more often with a concept. Two characters with the same role can often find a way to make it work – all it takes is a bit of a different emphasis, a slightly different spin, or something of the sort.

For example, I recently made a character for a Shadowrun game, and I discovered that another player had created a very similar character in the same role. I had built a melee-focused combat character (a troll), and my friend had built a ranged-combat specialist who was also a troll. Two trolls can end up looking a lot alike in other circumstances. However, our characters found ways to emphasize the differences between us and the game is going really well. My friend focuses on his heavy weapons and I focus on being an awesome swordsman – we can back each other up, but we’re not copies!

As I said above, however, similar concepts are harder to reconcile. When it comes to an RPG, a character’s “concept” is often more than just the basic idea of who or what he is; it also encompasses the abilities and mechanics that character uses to interface with the game’s challenges.
Several years ago, I was in a Deadlands RPG game in Louisville, Kentucky. I made a character who was a riverboat gambler, an experienced man of the West with a swift gun, a hot temper, and an intimidating mien. What I didn’t know is that my good friend George had come to the table with his own character (somewhat based on Jonah Hex) – and his character had all those same traits. Although we started in different places, we had made two characters that were stylistically and mechanically very much alike. Needless to say, this pleased neither of us!

As always, communication is the key – I make sure to talk to the GM and talk to the group so that hopefully we can iron out any misunderstandings before the game begins.

Step 2: Identify the Character

There are a lot of things that make up a character’s identity. There’s the concept, of course – that original idea that defines who and what he is – and there’s the role the character plays in the group. 

Lots of different characters here!
However, identity doesn’t stop there. A character’s identity also has a lot to do with the mechanics of the character’s abilities, his role in the story, and the way that the character interfaces with the game.
Sometimes it is the character’s tools and abilities that make up his identity. In fantasy games, for example, the character’s choice of weapon can define him greatly – a barbarian with a two-handed axe is a very different warrior from the cunning elf wielding two daggers. In the Star Wars universe, Han Solo is well-known for his skill with his blaster pistol, while Luke and his lightsaber are rarely far apart.

One thing that is a bit unusual but can be a lot of fun is to maintain some mystery about your character’s abilities – “full disclosure” is the norm (at least in my experience…), but keeping some secrets can lead to some excellent moments in the game (caveat: this approach works best with the right group). A good example is my friend Bryant Smith’s Dungeons & Dragons character. He always was careful to simply describe his character’s appearance – a tall, helmed warrior wielding a unique-looking crossbow – and let everyone guess as to his character’s race and class. This was quite difficult, because the character exhibited several spells, excellent fighting ability, and even some thief skills. After literally years of having people make incorrect guesses, it was revealed that his character was in fact a female drow under the helmet – thus explaining some of the spells – and caused quite a stir!

Editor's Note: I'm adding Bryant's own comments here, because I think they've got some good advice in them:

"ah yes...my Bounty Hunter Mandrill. I based that character on Kevin Kline in the Wild Wild West, Cadderly from the Cleric Quintet, and Boba Fett. Honorable yet severe, never coming out of the armor in the presence of the party (Fett), with the Gadgetry of Kline and Cadderly. It was always fun to work with the GM to come up with solutions to inventions I would need to mimic items found in Mandalorian armor. I seem to remember you being shocked most of all when the reveal finally came. lol.

I tended to build my characters off of a mood I wanted to play, and then figure out what best fit that in class. Sir Brennan, the fallen paladin, is an example that comes to mind. I wanted to play a fighter, a rather simple class when you really get down to it...however, I had recently watched Dragonheart, and thought Bowen, played by Dennis Quaid, was a very well thought out flawed character. So I made a drunkard that had fallen from the grace of the Storm Lord...and what better accent to have than an Irishman?

When approaching my templates for how I wanted something to play, I would seek inspiration from a flaw that I thought was interesting. It was either a weakness inherent in a race, or something that would tend to balance out my uncanny ability to see how numbers sometimes would work to make an awesome character class, but without the flaw, they would become a faceless arch type, forgotten soon after playing.

Govannon Tahl'aer ath Ghillie Sidhe would be a good example of that. Two things made him memorable to me: His honor driven by guilt at what he had done while a member of the Hunt of the Elves, and his naiveté of the human duality. I remember some of the most fun I had with him was missing a willpower check when confronted with the evil of humans and going into a homicidal rage, (something quite deadly to behold when a Blade Singer does that). Although, out of all the times I donned that role, the thing that has made me laugh the hardest was his very first battle upon introduction to the party. The look on your face when I said "I close my eyes.", made my blindfighting check with ease, and rolled 4 crits out of 5 while facing the dracolich that had cast "mirror image" was, simply put, priceless.

My advice to someone looking to break the mold on their characters is to pick a favorite movie, then pick their favorite character and think about what it is that makes him or her interesting, and run with it. The class is just dice rolling and math...the personality is what makes them memorable."

Of course, understanding the character’s background is another important step for feeling unique at the table. I definitely recommend that people choose something relatively simple and broad as a base from which to build the rest of that history – the “elevator pitch” of the character’s background. My character Ramien Meltides took part in the Messian Campaign thatI mentioned in another post, and her “elevator pitch” went like this: Ramien was raised as a farmgirl on a large rural plot of land, amongst apple orchards and log cabins.

From that one sentence, I can build a lot of details about Ramien’s past, and that foundation can become a touchstone for anytime that background could be relevant (such as bonuses to certain skill checks).

One more set of thoughts about this subject involves finding the skills and abilities that excite you the most.

For me, I have found that I enjoy characters more if I make sure to tag certain abilities that I enjoy using in the game and emphasize those on the character sheet.

For example, one of the most common checks you’ll make at any given RPG session is one for perception; noticing things. I found that I really enjoyed succeeding at these kinds of tests – and not just succeeding, but achieving large degrees of success. I found that I really like “having the eyes of a hawk” because I enjoyed getting more details about the setting for the game or any particular thing inside the game that I found interesting.

One of my favorite game systems is the Hero System – it allows me to make exactly the kind of character I want in great detail. However, early on, I was having a lot of trouble with the game – I was trying to fit my concept into the amount of points the game gave me, and I ended up spending those points in ways that would give my character a lot of options. Being a “jack of all trades” is fine, but I was lacking the depth in the things I really liked. Once I sat down and really examined which abilities I liked the most and concentrated on those, I enjoyed my character a lot more.

Step 3: Finishing Touches

With a unique role in the game and a good idea of the character’s identity, the next step for me is finishing him off! I look for three things to try and set the character apart; an image, a voice, and a connection with the other characters.

Decisions, decisions.
Finding an image is often as easy as browsing Google Images; sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle (superheroes are the most challenging for me), but I find this to be a good way to find at least something I can show the other players. If I don’t have access to the image, I just want to make sure I have an image in my head that I can use to describe my character to the other players with a decent level of detail.

Finding the character’s voice doesn’t always mean a funny accent. Sometimes that is appropriate (You should hear my Russian accent I used for my character Dmitri…), but more often, a character’s voice is about his word choice. Does he use big words? Small ones? Does he speak like an educated man or does he talk like a laborer? It can be something as simple as a particular catch phrase or an unusual laugh.

Finding a connection with other characters is something I need to work on more – lately, I’ve been falling back on making a character in a vacuum (although Shadowrun doesn’t really encourage building bridges between characters before the campaign). However, I do think these connections can be really important. I love developing these connections during play.

A good example of connections is Doc Holliday from the film Tombstone. Doc is a flawed, complex man who lives each day as if it might be his last – because he’s very sick and, in fact, dying. Somehow, this hedonistic, educated man made friends with one of the few people to ever look at him as something greater than he thought he was – and that man was Wyatt Earp. Doc devotes himself to Wyatt. Wherever Wyatt is, whatever Wyatt is doing, Doc is along for the ride, no questions asked. Because Doc knows that Wyatt has a strong moral compass, something that he himself lacks.

That is a great connection to have. A few years ago, I played in a Fantasy Hero campaign in Maryland. Early on, it became clear that our group was making characters revolving around a kind and virtous knight, Sir Patris (played by my good friend Stephen Furlani). I had already decided that I wanted to play an assassin, but my cover was that of a cook. I decided that my character respected Patris so much that he did not /want/ to reveal his profession, and took great pains to accompany Sir Patris and assist in his quests without ever letting slip his true abilities. It was a great challenge and added a lot to my character’s part in the story.

In Conclusion

I recommend that you take a close look at how you create characters for your RPG games – are there some things you always do? Are there some things you’ve wanted to do, but haven’t tried yet? Is it time to try something new, to break out of the rut? Or do you have an old favorite you’re itching to bring back?


  1. Five star post, good sir. I often do start with a character's weapon or methodology when defining a personality as the difference between a lance or a sword and shield can say an awful lot about their outlook. And I also do try to give my characters secrets to bait some conversation later on. My current character has been hiding the fact that she's a gorgon for example.

  2. Nice post and very insightful. I gotta say that Veskar was one of my favorite characters that you played; him and Technicality.

    …gotta find a way to bring Zafirah back in some meaningful way. Even if not in the same setting or system…

    Anyway, for me, I think I do a little bit of all of the above, but the extent and order varies depending on the game and if I already have an idea or not. For example, in Steve’s Knights of Autumn game, I initially wanted to play a mage, but Steve mentioned in passing that he was frustrated that he wanted to run a game about knights…and nobody was playing a knight! So I thought about a past knightly character and rolled with it.
    However for Matt’s Bad Moon game, the only thing I had in mind at the start was “I want to play something different, someone who is more passive and is a supporting role rather than a front-liner”, this turned into a priest when I found out that we were playing a game that was all about monsters and such and there was not a single religious person in the group, which turned into “how can you have a horror game with vampires, zombies and the like and no priest?!?”