Building & Playing A More Unique & Memorable Character
From Dave N. ‘Brittanman’
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #126
- Build A Wish List
- General Appearance
- Armor & Weapons Make the (Wo)Man
- Dress Purposefully
- Personal History
- Avoid the “NO” Choices
- Identify the PC’s Personal Secrets
- Subtext – No Means No! Right?
- Play a Goal
- Ask Why?
- Choose Ability Scores That Make Sense
- Another Source Of Names
- Finding New Players
- Two GMs Tips
In order to ensure a player is going to have a good time, the most important issue on his/her mind during character creation is “What kind of character should I play?” or “What type of character would I enjoy playing?”
By answering the right questions and with a bit of planning and forethought, you can put together a PC who will move through the game believably and almost instinctively. Here’s a bit of an outline on how to build from the bottom up, stepping into the shoes and following the footsteps of a PC character you’ll enjoy playing either long or short term.
I’ve used some improv techniques, and some theatre, writing, and storytelling tools to construct this outline. There is no specific order in which these should be used, but I have assembled them to make as much orderly sense as possible. Please feel free to pick and choose what you find usable…
Before getting started, it’s important to mention that character construction is made up of choices and that these choices should be wielded with imagination in order to create a unique and interesting character.
Standard cliches or stereotypes can produce a tired, less interesting, and more predictable concept. So, make a few different or unusual choices.
On the other hand, making many choices that are off-beat or unusual can make the character too busy or give it a contrived feeling (i.e. doing something for a game reason or effect instead of it just being part of the PC’s personal history).
Also, a character who is too different will tend to alienate NPCs or other PCs due to the difficulty in relating with them. Just a few uncommon selections should be enough for flavoring.
You might find this character questionnaire helpful in answering some of the questions asked in the sections below.
Build A Wish List
Define the qualities in a character that would currently interest you. These may include a brief physical description, personality, activities performed, skills, or capabilities.Always try to avoid gamer or genre jargon. Words like magic, thief, bard, spell caster all will point you in a direction that may aim a bit too directly towards playing a specific character class.
Check out some of these examples:
- I dabble in some mystical art or arts. I can be intimidating but use my attractive appearance and social skills to solve problems and overcome difficulties. I prefer to use intellect instead of muscle.
- I am mechanically inclined but like to flex my muscles every once in a while. My plain appearance is used to an advantage. I can fade into the woodwork or even a crowd. I can be youthful and brash, sometimes causing me to make impulsive mistakes.
- I take short cuts and look to gain advantage before committing openly to action. I am an extrovert and am more effective in achieving what I want with my mental and people skills due to my smallish size.
It is important to be as general with your description as possible to avoid pigeon-holing yourself into a specific class. The definition should be in first person (I, me) so that your PC becomes more personalized.
The examples above would fit just about any known RPG system. That’s the idea. Generalize. A good test for a wish list is to see if the PC type would make an effective multi- class character. It doesn’t have to be, but it will help keep your options open.
You should include some, but not necessarily all, of the following:
- Build (light, medium, large, bulky, lanky)
- Race or skin color
- Hair (color, style length)
- Eyes (shape or color)
Don’t include just character weight and height when describing build. In fact, try to avoid it. Use the body type or build instead, as it will tend to be at least, if not more, descriptive than numerical statistics.
Try some of these instead:
- Tall-Light Athletic
- Short and Heavy-Set
- Small-Frail or Petite
- Waif or Waif-ish
These are all examples of PC physical build descriptors. They tell you more about the character’s physical appearance than plain height and weight statistics do.
Armor & Weapons Make the (Wo)Man
The way a PC carries him/herself and the type of armor and weapons they choose will tell a little about the character (misdirecting is also effective). Not all fighter types wear chain or heavy metal armor (even if they aren’t rangers or barbarians). Not all spell casters use a staff.
Try some of the following ideas:
- Use understated weapons and armor (it will be less offensive/defensive but give you more options).
- Avoid making the long sword/short sword choices or weapons “straight off the rack”.
- Have a punching bell attached to the hilt of your blade (or weapon).
- Choose a quick-draw feat, skill, or ability.
- Add carvings, ribbons and medallions to weaponry and armor. Personalize.
- Choose an interesting range weapon.
- Wear weapons that are never/seldom used, to misinform.
By choosing less armor you will most certainly lower your defensive capabilities, but movement and stealth will become more effective. Or maybe you’d rather go the other way and play stealth but accept the penalties for bulking up.
By selecting ‘off the rack’ weapons and armor you are showing that you are just like everyone else. Dressing up weapons so they are unique may get potential opponents to reconsider or re-evaluate if or how they approach you.
Maybe you are left-handed or a two-handed fighter with weapons stowed not so visibly? A “quick draw” feat comes in handy here because you don’t need to have a weapon ready or in your hand.
Using ribbons, medallions, or “favors” on your armor or weapons shows that others (ladies, nobles, and political figures) hold you in regard. They might also serve well as a warning that your harm may cause some retribution.
Carvings or ‘runes’ can be added for decoration or design, though it could lead others to believe differently (possibly a powerful enchantment).
If all characters have ranged weapons, heavy hitters not able to reach the melee can still contribute. Those not normally waging direct combat can still be helpful if they’re out of spells to cast or for other reasons.
Ask yourself how you want others to visually perceive (or not perceive) your PC.
- Are you dressed in worn old clothes but well groomed?
- Do you wear bright and shiny expensive armor?
- Are you dressed like a rogue but are actually a wizard?
How you dress reveals potentially valuable information to the public or to potential enemies that you’d rather keep secret. So, make use of your clothing to distract, confuse, and mislead.
- If you are wealthy, try dressing down.
- If you are poor, try dressing up.
- Dress like you are an amiable commoner rather than a killing machine.
- Add accessories to enhance your image (jewelry, hats, decorative daggers, buckles, scarves, etc).
Also, once you decide on your class, don’t necessarily dress to the text book description or stereotype.
Does your PC’s family, customs and society influence him/her to a small or large degree?A personal history will give a basis for the PC’s existence.
- Is the family poor, rich or middle of the road?
- Does this affect the PC in anyway?
- Is the family large or small? How does this affect the PC?
- Injuries, training, relationships, a developed code of conduct?
The more detail the better. Constantly build on your character’s history, both past and present. This is where the character becomes spontaneous and instinctive. The better you know him, the quicker his/her responses to situations will come to you.
- Poverty: embarrassed about humble family life.
- Wealthy: could be miserly or a big spender to show-off.
- Working Class: learned self-discipline and pride in craftsmanship.
- Only child: spoiled with too much attention or suffered from not enough.
- Small family: well balanced and close knit.
- Large family: self-sufficient from helping bring up siblings, or resentful.
- Large family: worried about inheritance.++
- The PC is physically challenged.
++ If you were the oldest son during the middle ages and/or the Renaissance times you got everything. The only thing that a second or third son got from his father was his name and possibly a decent education or maybe a trade or skill).
Avoid the “NO” Choices
When building and playing the PC, avoid making the “NO” choices. These are reasons or excuses for the PC not to act or participate in gaming activities or scenes. They are passive choices that make it difficult for everyone involved in game (including the GM) to keep things moving.Passive choices are actually not the problem…it’s how passive they are. Holding an action/initiative or hiding out are passive actions, but they can be constructive in some situations.
The following are some examples of passive “NO” choices:
- The PC is shy, easily embarrassed, and does not communicate well with the party or gaming group.
- The PC does not like, is uncomfortable with, or is very mistrusting of a particular PC or NPC in game.
- The PC has difficulty working with a team due to strong differences (religion, alignment, code, etc.).
“NO” choices can be playable but make the game more difficult.
They can be measured by how many are caused difficulty by them:
- Personal effect only
- Affects one PC
- Affects all of the PCs
- Affects everyone within a hundred mile radius
There are solutions to these kinds of problems, but they tend to be only temporary or short term. A talented GM can overcome them, but your best bet is to avoid them all together.
Identify the PC’s Personal Secrets
Dredge through the PC’s background and come up with some secrets that make sense.
- Married and has a family (secretive to protect them from many enemies).
- Has other identities (to protect him, or for undercover reasons).
- You have a twin who died.
- You work secretly for a benefactor (who unpopular political stands).
- You have horrible scarring or injuries not readily apparent.
- You have a certain phobia(s) that you keep to yourself.
Your secrets can be simple and seemingly unimportant or very complex and as drastic as you wish. The key is to not share them with anyone in or out of game.
Secrets are great because your GM can make them into interesting plots or subplots, which could add to your enjoyment of the campaign.
Pose several of your ideas to the GM and if she/he is not into it, or chooses not to know, then you still have a great subtext (see Tip 8) to play with.
Subtext – No Means No! Right?
Subtext has to do with the PC’s reasoning. It’s not what is said or done but what is truly thought or intended. Subtext is “reading between the lines.” It’s what motivates the PC and the individuals encountered by him/her.A lie is the simplest example of subtext.A more complex example is a PC who gets angry and sullen around children–the children feel the anger and fear the PC, not understanding that the PC lost his twin brother at a young age and still grieves and is not actually mad at them personally.
The PC’s actions are perceived one way while the truth is actually something completely different.Roleplaying subtext is important when gathering information, bargaining, bluffing, issuing veiled threats, or any activity involved when being tactful or having an ulterior motive.
Here are some examples:
- A smuggler conceals how much he wants a ring he is bargaining for to avoid the seller boosting the price.
- A local trader puts on a front and stands up to a tax collector he greatly fears.
- An ambassador is polite and pleasant to a visiting noble he knows to be a spy.
- A nobleman smiles cheerfully and accepts the Queen’s request to continue staying at his manor house estate even though there are 100 guests with her and it will cause him to go broke.
- The relationship between Han Solo and Leia behaving as if they don’t like each other while all along they both share a mutual interest.
- A Vampire puts word out on the street that a feared Witch Hunter is in town, but fails to mention that the man/woman has been recently killed by him so that he may keep others busy and out of his business.
- A Net Runner/Hacker agrees to a job he wouldn’t normally accept due to threats of retribution.
A character rife with subtext is interesting because he/she is not behaving in a way that the PC is actually thinking or feeling. They may behave contrary to their way of thinking, motivation, or ethics, due to outside forces.
A PC lacking subtext will often end up being a cardboard cut-out (having little substance) and seem mechanical or robotic with a flat personality.
Play a Goal
Goal playing is important because it is at the center of what the PC really wants, be it long term in life or only for the moment. The character’s personal history should give some clues to long term goals, while his short term goals will change all the time (in some instances, several times a minute).
The following are long term goals:
- Adventure until having enough money to build a keep.
- Travel to strange new lands, to open trade routes and make clients for the import company you work for.
- Become a Knight of the Realm.
- Start and run a fencing and fighting salle (school).
- Establish trust with a prison guard so that it can be taken advantage of as a means of escape.
Short Term Goals:
- Get a sword for a bargain price.
- Distract a mark so your partner can escape unnoticed.
- Chase down the fleeing bad guy on foot.
- Overpower the prison guard and make your escape.
- Hide or conceal oneself to avoid capture.
Short Term Goals are most frequently used in games. It’s a great tool to use when you are unsure what action to take. It will, at the least, give you a handle on the PC’s motivation.
This to me is one of the most important things in PC work. “Why?” is an open-ended question. For those of us who have or have had little brothers or sisters growing up, the number one question was WHY? And of course when that was answered, there was a follow up question: WHY? That’s why it’s open-ended. :)Ask this question about as many issues and choices about the PC you can come up with. It’s like the Internet — you’ll never reach the end of it.
- The PC chose to be a competitive archer-WHY?
- The PC became a thief or a lock picker-WHY?
- Selfish – WHY?
- Thrifty – WHY?
- Won’t eat meat – WHY?
- Gambles non-stop – WHY?
- Always cracking jokes – WHY?
You’ve always heard of the Who, Where, Why, What & How. Why? is the most effective. We can always ask why something is the way it is. And that will, of course, lead to another why?
Choose Ability Scores That Make Sense
Last but not least…Roll the dice and post your numbers where they make sense. Try to create a character who has been defined by what you want to play and not by the die roll.
Good luck and good gaming!
A Brief Word From Johnn
An Article For The Players This Week
Dave N.’s article this week on creating interesting characters is a player-centric piece that I thought you would find quite valuable as well for building better NPCs.
I also thought you could print out or forward the article to any of your players who you think could benefit from it. Specifically, I thought you might convert a hack ‘n slasher or two?…Yeah, right! (Sorry–been reading Knights Of The Dinner Table this week and am feeling cynical
Settlers Of Catan + World Building?
If you’ve ever played Settlers before and have an interest in world building, then ponder this: are there any ideas or mechanics from that board game which could be converted into a domain management RPG?
I’d like to run a campaign with some kingdom-level management running in the background as a side-game. Something to keep bored players busy and that adds depth and complexity to the game world. There are a few games out there that do this (i.e. Birthright), but I’m thinking the fast-paced, simple, yet highly strategic nature of Settlers can somehow be harnessed to make an entertaining kingdom management game.
Have you seen this done somewhere online already, or do you have any thoughts on how this could be done?
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Another Source Of Names
Logging on to Google.com and searching for ‘French names’ or ‘Japanese names’ are OK, but they sound familiar. So, search for Aztec, Carthagean, or Vulcan names instead. They sound quite unfamiliar. Also, they will come in handy if you play a game set in the Inca empire or if you run a Vampire: the Masquerade game with a 700 year old vampire.
Also, you can use one list for each specific nation in your world. This will give you a handy list with a distinct and consistent style.
One other (well-known) tip is to reverse the letters of a common word. Likewise, you might mutilate or modify a word with very good results, such as chopping ‘Trafalgar’ into ‘Falgar’ for a barbarian name.
Finding New Players
From Kitty V.
I’m a pretty new reader, but I just had to mention something on getting new players interested: go after people with theatre experience.
- Did you ever play a character and you wanted to change something the author did because you didn’t think it was true to the character?
- Did you ever want to know what happened to your character after the play was over?
Tell them that roleplaying is just “interactive story- telling”. The author has a plot in mind, but no-one can tell you what your character wants to do. You design your character (with the author’s help, if you need it), and s/he will give you a plot to live in.
If you’re looking for new players, hit up your local college’s theatre announcement board. Ask friends/co-workers if they were ever in their high school play. Was one of your players’ spouses in theatre? Ask them to come along. I’ve gotten a lot of people to play this way. Just remember, if they’ve got a lot of stage experience, they tend to be a little more likely to prefer LARP.
Also, just about all these tips can be used for authors/artists. If you start asking around, you just might be surprised how many of your friends/co-workers write poems and short stories (maybe even a novel or two) in their spare time. If nothing else, they may be able to give you some plot hooks!
Two GMs Tips
Re: how two game masters can work together on a campaign.
…we hit upon the solution to “tag-team”, so to speak. That is, I will run one game, the other GM will run the next, and we will trade off in this order.
After each game session, we compare notes on what happened and what we would like to see happen in the next game.
Each of us has our own character, and during off-games, we play it as an NPC.
The NPC has defined rules and responsibilities, and acts as more of a conscience to the characters.