Tag Archives: RPG

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

So…who are you anyway?

Pyromaniac Press is a one man show. That’s not to say I don’t have help – more on that below – but it is to say that I am the owner, manager, financier, slavemaster, creative department, writer, PR consultant, editor, gopher and (more than I’d like) harsh critic.

Pyromaniac Press is my vehicle and my journey to turn my love of RPGs into more than just a pastime. Ideally I’d like it to launch me into cult status as an RPG author (I’m looking at you Greenwood), but in truth if I can develop my writing and storytelling skills, and have a creative outlet for my ideas that can be shared with others, I can live with that. I’d also love it if it didn’t cost more to produce than I make. My wife would prefer that too.

My name is Micah and I’ve been playing, running and writing RPGs for over 25 years. I fell in love with the fantasy genre through reading novels such as Magician (R. E. Feist), The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien) and the Belgariad series (D. Eddings) when I was a child (though I admit LOTR was a massive slog for a 9 year old and I wasn’t overly impressed with it at the time – but hey I was 9, what did I know).  The Dragonlance Chronicles followed, and soon the Forgotten Realms novels. I was playing the fantasy based board game Hero Quest (Milton Bradley & GW), and my family and I were adding rules, characters, monsters, spells and items because the scope of the game was too small. We wanted more from it.

It was around that time I found the books from an old red box original D&D set at a garage sale. I pestered my parents until they bought them, and I was hooked. They still sit on my RPG shelf today.

Its been more than 30 years since I fell in love with fantasy, and more than 25 since I started playing RPGs.

Pyromaniac Press was an idea long in coming. I have watched the rise of RPGs in first ‘nerd culture’ (a label I hate by the way) and then more recently in mainstream popularity, always thinking “one day I’ll find the time to write and publish” as I went about my life. I’m now 38, have a wonderful wife, an amazing young son and a reasonably good job. It pays the bills, but I don’t love it. I’m not passionate about it. But it is a professional career and I love my home life, and still get to play my hobby.

The catalyst for me was a few years ago now. My father died in his mid fifties of complications arising from early onset dementia. It shook me when I realised that life is too short to not pursue your dreams. Of course, I couldn’t exactly quit my job and think I could pay my mortgage and provide for my family as an unknown writer and publisher. But you have to start. Small steps.

Pyromaniac Press is a one man show, but it really isn’t. A lot of people paved the way, and a lot of people help and inspire me everyday. I have the support of my family and friends, amazing tools at my disposal, a great community and pioneers that made RPGs what they are today.

For me though, Pyromaniac Press is possible because of two people. Erin, my amazing wife, and Dante Cifaldi, a friend and artist that took the first steps with me. There are many others that have helped, supported, contributed, and still do, but Erin and Dante kept me moving forward at the times where I thought “this is too hard” or “this is too much”.

If you’ve read this far I’d like to sincerely thank you. You are either a friend or family member, or a genuinely interested RPG community member (the third option is that you found yourself here by accident but have OCD and are compelled to finish what you started). In any case I hope you like my website and my work in general. I hope what I produce adds something of worth to the RPG community.

Micah