Building better characters

Calvin on building character © Bill Watterson One of the most important steps when starting a new game is creating characters. If you are interested in the full roleplaying experience, creating your character is much more complex than just “picking a guy”. Even if the process of creating your character’s stats is pretty simple and straightforward (like in many rules-light or old-school games), the character creation doesn’t end there.

An interesting character should have a history, motivations, emotions and faults. Especially faults are often seen as optional but as you can see with many classic comic superheroes, the “faulty” ones are the more interesting. While we all realize this when it comes to characters in movies, comic book and novels, a lot of us tend to forget this when it comes to creating roleplaying game characters, player and non-player characters alike. My advice is to give every player or non-player character faults and little quirks to make him more interesting and give them opportunity to actually advance in more aspects than just stats.

A lot of players actually put too much emphasis on the history part. While it’s nice to have some background for a character, nobody is reading your 6-paged description of your character’s history. Most of the time the other players and the GM need to know who your player character is right now. What are his motives? What’s his worldview? These questions are usually more important than what the name of his first dog was. In my opinion having a nice character history is nice to have, but it should not be longer than a few paragraphs and it should not restrict any character advancement.

When most people read character advancement they are thinking about levels, more hitpoints, new skills and abilities, getting better equipment etc. That there’s more to your player character than just their stats is often forgotten or ignored. Even players who work long on their character’s background and motivations make the common mistake of not advancing their character in the original sense of the word.

Bob the first level fighter and Bob the 9th level fighter may have vastly different stats but in a lot of cases they are still the same guy. For some reason all the adventures, hardships and life events that shape living human beings doesn’t affect our friend Bob, he’s still having the same motivations, the same dreams and the same worldview. Sounds silly, right? But alas I’ve seen it too many times in games I played and trust me, I have done the same thing a couple of times.

But if you make an effort to really bring your character (or characters in the case of a GM) to life, let them change and advance over time. The encounter with the dragon where one of the party members died may have caused some psychological scarring, the victory over a great evil may finally be what was needed to overcome the character’s drinking problem, or the thief who was only interested in his own financial gain may finally find something worth fighting for besides money.

In my opinion creating a believable character that changes over time not only in stats but in actual character is important for a deep and immersive roleplaying experience. Of course there are vastly different roleplaying styles and some people prefer a more light-hearted experience, so your mileage may vary, but for me it’s definitely the way to go.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

2 thoughts on “Building better characters”

  1. I find that if a player writes down that their character has a limitation or a problem, they don’t feel at liberty to say “Okay my character has overcome that”. It’s like a stat. It’s not okay to just say “I think my strength should be 3D6 instead of 2D6”. I don’t think there always has to be a mechanic for handling this but it could be a good though. Icar has it’s Deviant Wheel and I think it’s one way to handle that but I think there should be some kind of condition that the players know when they’ve fulfilled it and can now mark off they’ve changed. The GM could also award different “milestones” saying something like “You’ve become more confident in your ability”.

    One change that I have noticed in characters is when a player starts off playing a character as a principled, noble character, for some reason as they advance stat wise and money wise, they become less principled. Power corrupts?

    1. I fully agree that a limitation or a problem should not be overcome that easily. But if the GM approves or if there's some buy-off mechanic in the game, why not? If it suits character development or the story I don't see a problem with overcoming faults. It's of course not ok if the player is just lazy to play the limitation out, but bought it in the first place to get some free points to spend on his stats.

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