Better Roleplaying – How To Create a Great Character Concept
From Tony Medeiros
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #678
Do your players’ imaginations fall into a black hole when it comes to character creation? Do they fumble for great character concepts – the story and style behind their characters? Today, you’ll learn how to help your group create brief, inspiring character concepts to help them add depth to your campaigns and roleplay more.
How do we help our players get there? Teach them the critical first step of great character creation: to flex their imagination and combine a wondrous setting with ambitious stars.
Step 1: Imagine a Wondrous Setting
What captures our imagination more than fantasy and RPG settings? By their nature, they’re imaginative worlds filled with wonder. Here’s how you can help your characters come to life within these fantastic worlds.
First, help your players capture the essence of your world.
What one remarkable quality or theme jumps to mind about the campaign setting?
Is the world filled with seas of sand or volcanic ash and elementals, lush with ancient forests and mystic creatures? Maybe it is dominated by the fires of war and dragons?
Find images that represent this and share them with your group. Tell succinct tales that resonate with this theme or quality to give players a sense of its wonder.
Think of what the world looks like and how wondrous or harsh everyday life is. Think of the grand expanses and events of the world. Envision the campaign setting from what you know of it so far. Create a player’s guide to impart these details to help inspire during character creation. Make the guide as visual as possible.
Now, ask players to list one thing that captures your world theme and makes their character stories wondrous.
What one wondrous thing can you say about the campaign setting, the campaign arc or story, and each of its star characters (PCs and NPCs)? One thing that’s truly fantastic, imaginative, creative – identify the “coolest thing” from the character’s perspective about his story or world.
If players struggle to incorporate your theme or quality into their character stories, work with your group to make a list of cool stuff about the world. Brainstorm seven fantastic things you know about it or imagine what might be in it. Then have players scan the list and choose something that strikes them as interesting.
After each player writes down one or two sentences that capture a wondrous aspect of the setting from their character’s perspective, have them share their entry out loud with everyone. This can further help stuck players get ideas.
For example, “Trees grow upside-down from the sky and speak to us in war-torn Avara. They are the quiet gods, mystics, and guides of this once-beautiful world I call home.”
Step 2: Imagine Ambitious Stars
The heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists of every story have dreams and desires. Their ambitions drive the action and tug at your emotions as they experience victories and setbacks along their journey. Here’s how to make sure the characters of your world are the brightest stars of their epic stories.
Here, clearly identify the stars of the campaign.
Who are the great heroes and villains – the faces – of the campaign?
The PCs should be the eventual heroes, so their names go on the list. Then add villains, allies, and notable neutrals.
It’s important to get into the habit of imagining what makes the stars of the campaigns memorable. Make their name, nature, and ambition wondrous and memorable.
Now it’s time to envision the great goals and ambitions of each character.
- What do the campaign’s stars actually do that drives the campaign ever-forward?
- What one or two actions, plans, or goals are the cornerstones of the grand story?
- What’s at stake or at risk?
- What motivates each character?
The stars of the story – both the PCs and NPC villains – must have at least one clear, exciting, and challenging goal to begin play with. Ambitions and goals might evolve, or new ones might come into play, but it’s important to have the major characters take a stand – to identify and chase after what they believe in and want most in the world.
How do the story’s stars collide? Why do they come into conflict? Great ambitions lead to great stories.
Avoid vague, epic goals like “save the world.” At the least, they must answer: save the world from what? Epic goals can make tremendous campaigns. But at the character ambition level, just one or two additional details of key people, places, or things add much-needed weight and focus.
Keep molding the one starting ambition for the world’s major heroes and villains until they have the right balance of clarity, challenge, and excitement.
Note, some conflicts aren’t direct but can still be compelling when included in a character concept or campaign. The ambitions of one power group and the PCs might be at odds in a way that makes them competitors or uncomfortable allies rather than true enemies.
For example, two people or groups might both want to save the Sky Trees, yet differ wildly in methods and means to achieve that end. One faction might perceive burning the sickliest Sky Trees as an act of mercy. The other faction sees this as an act of cruelty.
Now zoom out on the stars and their ambitions.
- What types of stories will you tell?
- What one story theme runs throughout the campaign, from beginning to end?
- Is the campaign filled with intrigue, romance, betrayal, or sacrifice?
Think of the actions people and monsters take in the world, especially actions that affect others as they chase after their ambitions.
Another pair of questions you might ask here is:
- What is the moral of the story or campaign?
- What will the protagonists and antagonists learn about themselves, each other, or the world?
If you’d rather not explore these types of moral questions at character creation, stick with identifying the basic story themes.
Have each player say aloud and write down one or two sentences that capture the story’s stars and their character’s ambitions.
For example, “The Sky Trees are dying. My friends and I must hunt down and stop the fugitive spellcasters who pollute and feed on the Sky Trees.”
Step 3: Finish Your Character Concept
Finally, connect your one or two sentences from the “Wondrous Setting” step and the “Ambitious Stars” steps to create each character concept.
Keep character concepts to no more than three lines of text. Make concepts concise and memorable. Does it ignite the player’s imagination? Is the player excited to fight for what the character wants most in this fantastic world?
For example, “Trees grow upside-down from the sky and speak to us in war-torn Avara. They are the quiet gods, mystics, and guides of this once-beautiful world I call home. The Sky Trees are dying. My friends and I must hunt down and stop the fugitive spellcasters who pollute and feed on the Sky Trees.”
Character Concept Generator
Here’s a quick generator to help stuck players. Roll or choose from each of the four lists below to create rough character concepts. Use connecting words to smoothly combine each generated element.
- Oceans of Ash
- Vast Deserts
- Massive Mountains
- Endless Rolling Hills
- Lush Forests
- Barren Wastelands
- Ice Age / Snow-Covered
- War torn
- High Seas
- Nightmares Made Real
- Undead Horde-Filled
- Talking Animals
- Magic is Technology
- Endless Earthquakes
- Eternal Night
- No One Sleeps
- Intelligent Artifacts Rule
- Golems are Constables of World
- World/Sun is Dying
- Monsters Rule, Humanoids are Slaves
- All Ore and Gemstones Enspelled
- Time Travel is Common
- Weapon Grafts are Common
- Polymorphing is Common
- Death Itself Rules
- Time Randomly Moves Backwards
- Everyone is Immortal
- Demonic Creatures Walk the Earth
- Heavenly Creatures Walk the Earth
- Gods Walk the Earth
- Sky Trees
- Good character who can’t remember it was evil
- Evil character who can’t remember it was good
- Polymorphed character who doesn’t know it’s polymorphed
- Clergy-trained bounty hunter
- Elemental creature who is a trained monk
- Natural-born spellcaster who hates spells
- Vampire lord who seeks to expand his reach and spread his “gift”
- An ex-pirate or criminal turned constable or knight
- A fallen angel or redeemed demon
- Druidic order that seeks True and Perfect Balance, unconcerned morality
- Family of gypsies whose fortunes are deadly and feared
- Mercenary network that serves a good and honorable, but dying ruler
- Spy network that serves a lich lord and his undead armies
- Church that expands its reach and leads crusades against undead all over the world
- Merchant guild that truly runs the city
- Thieves’ guild that deals exclusively in slavery and poisons
- Honorable warriors who only fight in pairs, back to back
- Network of mercenaries and explorers who steal and sell ancient lore and texts
- Assassins who only behead their enemies with the unique blade of their order
- Spellcasters who drain power from and sicken the land
- Stop the Lich Lord from destroying the Admiral’s armies and Sky Fleet
- Clear the Fire Ocean of Pirates and Criminals
- Awaken the First True Elemental Kings and Queens
- Find and Reactivate the 13 Ancient Elven Portals
- Find and Bring Home the 7 Missing Dragonslayers
- Destroy the vampire lord and stop his spell-plague
- Build a castle in the sky and rule the tribes of the Icy Northern Fist
- Build a fleet of ships to reach and conquer the dinosaur-filled Islands of Doom
- Stop the giants from enslaving the people of the Hammer Coast
- Aid the Church of Fire in destroying the Lich Lord’s armies
- Become a dragonrider and open a school to create more
- Help end the War of Crows by employing the aid of forbidden magic and demons
- Establish an order of Respectable Mages who do not work forbidden magic
- Become Lord of the White Wall and Ruler of the White Dragons
- Weed out and imprison all spies in the Order of Ancient Discoveries
- Restore light to the world by stealing and cleansing the Blade of True Night
- Unearth the Lost City of Spellgems before the Druids of Truth
- Remove the thieves’ guild leaders from power and disband the guilds
- Drive the Dark Orcs out of the Five Golden Nations and back into the True Dark
- Stop the Broken Casters from feeding on and killing the Sky Trees
- Dark Fantasy
- Epic Fantasy
- High Fantasy
- Political Intrigue
- Loyalty or Duty
You’ve now learned how to help your players create quick and imaginative character concepts that help drive your campaign’s story and bring your players’ characters to life.
What tips do you have to help your players create great character concepts? What do you do to keep character concepts brief yet imaginative and engaging? Hit reply or tweet @roleplayingtips.
Brief Word From Johnn
Tip Request: Puzzles
Patrons recently took part in Topic Vote #7, where they get to decide some of the subjects future editions of the newsletter will cover.
This helps me because I get a prioritization of the numerous tip requests that come in, and it tells me what topics would appeal to more readers to try to make the newsletter as valuable as possible for you.
Here’s how the voting went:
- Good ideas for puzzles
- How to outline a campaign
- Making foreign cultures seem foreign
- How to bring a campaign to a satisfying close
Writing is underway for tips on Campaign Closes. I’m tackling that topic myself. And a recent reader tip request has given me a couple of excellent tips for creating campaign outlines.
I haven’t given thought yet to foreign cultures, but today I’d like to ask you for tips you have on puzzles:
- How can you turn a normal, real world puzzle into something that makes sense in-game? And what are some good examples you’ve found?
- Riddles are a lot of fun. What are some good ways you’ve used to introduce or use them in your game?
- What are some fun physical puzzles and puzzle props you’ve used in games?
I’ll take any tips you have on puzzles, including links to good puzzle sites, apps, and resources. And I’m especially interested in advice you have on making puzzles a valuable and fun plot aid.
Just hit reply or tweet me with your tips, and I’ll compile them all, edit, and publish them in a future newsletter edition.
Have a great week, and try to get some gaming done!
GM Tip Exchange
Tips shared by your fellow readers to help your GMing. Have a tip to share? Just hit reply. Thanks!
Dom’s 5E Tavern Games
From Dominic Dalton
[Comment from Johnn: Dom was kind enough to share a couple tavern games he created for use in his Fifth Edition D&D game. With a little work these could be converted to work in most fantasy games.]
Both players make two ranged attack rolls on the board each per turn from 8 feet (AC10). Roll D20+DEX damage against 101HP. Reduce your score exactly to 0 to win – you can alter the final dart plus or minus up to your DEX modifier.
Your STR ability score is how many feet you can throw from before imposing disadvantage on the attack roll. You always miss at 2xSTR+1, except on a natural 20.
Your CON bonus allows you to ignore attack penalties up to -5 from alcoholic beverages and external distractions. If it’s a negative modifier any such penalties are instead doubled.
You and opponent roll a d20 and attempt to predict whether you will roll lower or higher than the other player each time.
Two correct predictions in a row wins.
Either player can choose to ‘stick’ to keep their last roll.
Proficiency/2 can be added to your roll on a bet of ‘higher’ or subtracted for a bet of ‘lower’.
You and your opponent roll one of each die type from d4 to d20.
- 2 numbers match = 1 point
- 3 = 2pt
- 4 = 4pt
- 5x = 8pt
- 6x = 12
Roll proficiency die: d12 for +2, d10 for +3, d8 for +4, etc.
Roll again or stick: round ends on 0 points if there are no matches in your roll. Get to 21pts.
Stuff You’d Find In A Fighter’s Quarters
From Johnn Four
I needed to stock a room lived in by a fighter. And I wanted to provide some clues to create a bit of build-up for a future encounter with the NPC.
So I queried my GM Mastery G+ Community and got these great responses:
- List of trusted blacksmiths
- List of good-for-brawling taverns
- List of pro-bono healers
- Tokens from a fallen comrade
- A brick from a wall held against all odds
- Book about laws in different places
- A certificate or letter from training with a master
- Letter of recommendation from a military commander
- Talc used between the floorboards to muffle sounds of practice
- A small wad of time stained yellow letters from a woman
- An exotic weapon collection
- Trophies from competitions
- Trophies from kills
- A form holding a suit of armor
- An empty form without armour
- Armor rack
- Maintenance supplies
- Weapon oil
- Pain relief alchemicals
- Practice armor (padded)
- Ceremonial armor/scabbard
- Shield bearing a coat of arms mounted on the wall
- Whet stone
- Tools and materials for patching armor
- Spare clothing of rough materials (cut to a larger physique?)
- Crude journal
- First aid materials, bandages, a sling, maybe a crutch
- Bag of teeth or fingers
- Loose chain links
- Small shrine or effigy of a war god or goddess of protection
- A giant tub of ‘battle grease’
- A well-stocked medicine chest
- War art
- A wooden training dummy
- Bloody rags from recent wounds
- Book with illustrated fighting techniques
- Book with notes on weak-points of various armors and beasts
- Collection of current ‘Wanted’ posters
- Fighting treatises by various masters
- Books about famous wars
- Discarded, broken weapons and armor he intends to fix
- A common soldiers’s prayer above his headboard
- A quilt with “warrior” sewn in giant letters, possibly a gift from mom
- MRE’s or hard tack – soldier’s food
- Martial exercise illustrations
- Portrait of a warrior
- A portrait of himself in full panoply
- A coin minted by seditionists
- A mirror to assist with putting on armor or practicing forms
- Empty liquor bottles
- Bones from vanquished enemies
- Portraits of family or loved ones
- Notches or gouges in the ceiling and walls from practicing indoors
- Used bandages
- A hidden compartment with a baby’s toy
- A wooden sword
- A lock of hair tied with an old faded ribbon
- An old dagger
- Scuff patterns on the floor, underneath the rug, that suggest footwork practice
- Various bottles of oils and rags to apply them
- Small stone idol with a spot on its forehead worn smooth from frequent rubbing
- Token from a failed military campaign
- A standard “deployment” kit
- A “run-for-the-hills” kit
- Two or three decks of cards
- A handful of normal dice
- A set of loaded dice
- A pouch of tabac and a pipe
- A locket with a sweetheart’s picture
Thanks to all the GMs who contributed to this great list. It’s a shame we didn’t reach a nice and rollable number of 100 entries. I did not want to put boring, mundane stuff from a standard equipment list just to round this table out though – I really like the personal and thoughtful entries here.
So if you have any additional ideas for interesting things you’d find in a fighter’s room, please hit reply or tweet me. Thanks!
Good RPG Sound App
From Ian Gould
I found a good RPG sound utility the other day if you haven’t seen it already:
[Comment from Johnn: Be sure to play with the presets and the sliders. And wow, there’s a ton more here at the same site.]
Murder Hobos S2E5: Frantic Fight At Fort Frostfell
We had four players, too much leftover Halloween candy, and one plot twist. Here’s what happened during Friday’s session.
Reeling from having released the demon apocalypse, the characters flee down the Triboar Trail. Their mission: find Kriv the barbarian’s mom and free her from orc slavers.
It’s an eight day walk to the city of Triboar, and the party marches at a fast clip. The freakish weather makes things difficult, with snow one day and 40C temperatures the next. The day before reaching Triboar a large earthquake hits, knocking everyone to the ground.
Before reaching Triboar, though, two large mosquito demons accost the group. Speaking inside the PCs’ heads (thus creating painful echoes), the demons demand the whereabouts of Gar, the dead paladin’s former squire now transformed by prophecy into a demon-killer.
Malchor opens fire with his bow. The demons counterattack. Roscoe admits to having seen Gar. The powerful creatures home in on the rogue, and their mind-numbing drone puts Roscoe to sleep. Then one of the demons picks up the halfling and flies off with him while the party manages to kill the other before it can follow.
The party gives chase, but the demon gains a huge lead. It uses this time to wake Roscoe up and interrogate him further. Unfortunately, the rogue does not have the answers demanded, so the demon strikes Roscoe unconscious, flies him back to the still-pursuing Hobos, and flings the body at the group. Before it flies away, the demon warns the party to find Gar or else it’s Hobo pancakes for breakfast in the Abyss.
Shaken, the group keeps walking down the road and finally makes it to Triboar.
The city has recently been taken over by a charismatic orc visionary. He’s kicked all non-slave peoples out of the town and made it a safe place for orcs and half-orcs to live.
Kriv the half-orc leads the Hobos to the security gate at the edge of town. He pays a 10 gold piece fee for him and his three “slaves” to enter. All slaves must remove their weapons.
Inside the fenced perimeter, it’s chaos. Orcs are torturing slaves and running rampant. The group enters a more civilized interior district where such activities are still present, but done indoors and masked by wealth and handshakes.
Kriv heads straight to the nearest tavern, the Black Tusk. There he learns from an orc merchant where the slave pits are, and the party heads there next.
At the pits, some gold pries open news that Kriv’s mother was purchased two days ago and taken south to Fort Frostfell. The group wastes no time leaving Triboar, paying another fee to leave safely.
After more bizarre weather and a few days on the road south, the fort appears on the horizon. To the west is the Kryptgarden forest. To the south are more farming communities, including Westbridge and Red Larch.
Scouting the fort reveals it’s guarded by orc veterans. There’s a sleeping white dragon in one tower. And in the courtyard orcs are torturing a prisoner and partying.
The Hobos decide to sneak into the fort via its east wall during the night. They gain entry and prepare to ambush the orcs. But then Belenos walks out from the darkness and demands the orcs repent and free their prisoner.
Cover blown, the party fires their bows and wades into battle. Belenos manages to save the prisoner, but a vengeful orc stabs the victim and kills him. Orcs at the gate throw fire bombs at the PCs and the air soon reeks like a hobo bacon sandwich.
The orcs strategically flee, leaving just the dragon to fight. However, it seems content just observing, so the group holes up in a tower and rests for a few minutes. Belenos spies the dragon flying towards the Kryptgarden and meeting the orcs there. Orcs and wyrm talk and yell at each other about something, then the dragon returns to the fort.
Using captured fire bombs as initial artillery, the group emerges from its tower and attacks the wyrm, but to little effect. The lizard flies off, and the group explores the fort.
News Of Kriv’s Mom
They soon discover a room full of half-eaten prisoners. They heal everyone they can, then arm two men who have some fighting experience and declare them leaders and protectors of the others.
One of the fighters has seen Kriv’s orcish mom, just a couple days ago, here in the fort. That’s great news. Unfortunately, she seemed to be in charge! She was seen departing on another mission, direction unknown.
This is a blow to the party, who thought they were rescuing a prisoner. Instead, they’ve been chasing an enemy.
The PCs explore deeper into the fort and fight a basilisk and a shambling mound. In the mound’s lair the Hobos discover some sweet loot, including magic arrows, potions, and more gold than they’ve seen in ages.
One player remarked at the beginning of the session that the party was poorer now than at character creation. The small hoard found in the fort has fixed that. We end the session there with everyone happily updating character sheets.