Creating a Better Character

AKA – Guidelines for crafting something unique while avoiding the Special Snowflake.

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There is lots of advice on creating better character out there – from mechanical to social aspects and everything in between. I don’t claim this is original information, but I do feel that it is good, simple advice for anyone wanting to build an RPG character in any game.

Everyone wants a unique and fun character to play. Occasionally though, in pursuit of this we get what is known as “The Special Snowflake”. These are the characters that are so overdesigned in their uniqueness (rarest of the rare) that they become problematic for DMs and other players. The Special Snowflake might have a selection of abilities designed to exploit loopholes in the rules, or they might have such an overwrought and inflexible characterization, backstory or personality traits that make them unsuited to team play. Examples include trying to make a character as difficult to hit or defeat as rules combinations allow, trying for the magic combination of statistics that generates the most damage possible per attack, or having them overspecialise to the point where they simply cannot fail at a certain type of task (also called the ‘one-trick-pony’). Mechanically this creates balance issues for the DM because in order to challenge such characters against their strength, it often makes the other characters vulnerable or makes it impossible for them to contribute to overcoming that challenge.

"Piss off Demogorgon. I'm untouchable bro!"

Drizzt is the ultimate ‘Special Snowflake’ because he is the rarest of a rare creature (purple eyed drow) who is so heavily draped in plot armour as to be essentially unkillable.

Possibly worse still are the personality choices that make a character difficult to co-operate with. Again examples might include an inflexible attitude to communication, an extreme phobia or prejudice, or – and my personal biggest dislike – the ‘strong, silent, lone wolf’ anti-hero who is a difficult to be around and won’t play nice because his personality is ‘edgy’ (read ‘jerk’). In rare cases players might actually craft a character that is all ‘roleplay focussed’ and mechanically unsound in the rules system as a way of exploring a concept. These characters generate their own issues as they become an anchor a party that must ‘carry’ as they are simply unsuited to succeed.

Finally, there are the characters that are mechanically sound, and may even be fundamentally acceptable from a general roleplay sense, but are created without a view to the context of the campaign. For example, if the DM has crafted a spy vs spy, shades-of-grey morality thriller campaign, and a player creates a morally rigid crusading knight then no matter how valid the character is, it simply isn’t going to fit with the setting being offered as the environment to play in.

The best way to describe an RPG is a collaborative storytelling experience. It is both collaborative with the DM and with the other players. As such, creating concepts that directly conflict with a communal experience is counterproductive to RPGs. Better characters are built to work with the system rather than against it. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise completely on concept, you just need to work with the rules, players (DM) and setting.

When creating a character, keep in mind three simple guidelines;

 

Create an appropriate backstory

Characters should have a backstory to give them some depth beyond their statistics, but this backstory should be tempered by the ideas of co-operation, flexibility and growth. Characters in books and movies don’t spring forth complete in the first act. You watch them grow and evolve as the story unfolds. This is true of RPGs as well. You are starting at the start, not the end. Give the character enough backstory to define their general values and behaviours, but be flexible enough to change and grow in the campaign. RPGs are all about the journey. Allowing a character to evolve with the story will give you the best gaming experience. You’ll generate better immersion, and encounter less interpersonal conflicts, both in and out of character.

Who is 1

Is this really an appropriate character that’s going to have a meaningful contribution to make?

Ensure mechanical skill without mastery

Everyone likes to succeed and few like to fail. Failures can take games in interesting directions, and should happen in a game, but not too rarely or too often. Building a character to be either infallible or conversely hopeless creates mechanical headaches for a DM trying to balance a game for a range of players and characters. Characters should have mechanical strengths (and weaknesses) but they should save extremes for the end of the campaign. Do you want to be the greatest thief whoever lived and flit from shadow to shadow like a wraith? Great, but that’s a goal, not a beginning. If you achieve it mechanically, and are impossible to discover when hiding (ie maximised stealth) what is left for the character to strive for? Also designing a character to be the “greatest” anything shows a lack of regard for the other players and their play experience. You are part of a team and need to be part of it, not apart from it, in order to get the most from a primarily social game. This goes doubly so for players who feel it is somehow necessary to outdo or show up the other players (see my other post on trying to ‘win’ an RPG).

Laura Diehl

Every great archmage begins as a dreaming apprentice

Connect the character to the setting

Finally, a character should be crafted with a connection to the campaign setting. In part, this is to avoid the massively inappropriate character conflict (for example the dwarf in an elven empires campaign) but also to give the character something to strive for within the story rather than just be carried along by it. Many DMs will run a Session Zero, which is time set aside before commencing to impart the major themes and tone of the adventures to come. If not, go ahead and ask your DM about the setting or world. If a character is connected to the setting the player will have more opportunities to collaborate with the storytelling process, and really that’s what RPGs are all about. If you can find goals within the story rather than in spite of the story, the DM will be able to find more moments to let you shine.

As always, this is by no means a complete list, but it is a great foundation to ensure you get the most out of your character and the game it is in.

Micah

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