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How to Create Great RPG Characters

Steve is the co-creator of QAGS, Hobomancer, and many other RPGs from Hex Games.

The Paradigm Nine, Paradigm City's most mostly adequate super-heroes!

The Paradigm Nine, Paradigm City's most mostly adequate super-heroes!

A Guide to Creating Strong RPG Characters

Before you can start playing a role-playing game (RPG), everyone but the game master (GM) needs a character (also known as a player character, or PC). The PCs are the main characters of the story you and your friends will be telling as the game unfolds. In addition to serving as your proxy in the game world, your character serves as your interface with the game’s rules system.

Just like different chess pieces can move in different directions on the board, different characters in an RPG have different abilities and limitations. Some of these are defined purely by the mechanics of the game system; others are tied to narrative goals of the players and dramatic needs of the story. The balance between rules and story varies according to game system and group preferences, but all RPG characters are defined by a combination of narrative elements and game stats. Game stats and important narrative elements for a PC are recorded on a piece of paper (or in a computer file) called a character sheet.

In the early days of gaming, when characters functioned more as playing pieces than fully-realized fictional characters, and when most game systems had very complex character stats, players often made their characters in isolation before the group got together for the first game session. Nowadays, there is a lot more focus on story and most modern games recommend that the players get together to create characters. This gathering is sometimes called “session zero.” Making character creation a group activity provides three major benefits:

  • Brainstorming: Brainstorming is an important part of character creation, and brainstorming always works better when you have other people to bounce your ideas off of. It’s a lot better to find out that there’s a terrible flaw in your character idea now than after you’ve spent a lot of time on it. Talking through your character concept with other players can help you spot and fix bad ideas and improve upon good ones.
  • Coherence: Since the players know what kinds of characters the other players are making, it leads to a more balanced and coherent PC group (also commonly referred to as a “party”). If everyone makes their character in isolation, the party may end up with repetitive characters (a super-hero team with nothing but grim loner vigilantes) or with nobody to fill an important role (a group of space pirates, none of whom know how to fly a ship). If everyone’s together during character creation, you can make sure all the necessary roles are filed and none of the character concepts overlap too badly.
  • Connections: As players build their characters, they can build connections between the PCs. For example, if Sparky is taking karate classes and Luke runs a dojo, it makes sense for Luke to be Sparky’s karate instructor. If Jesse and Bianca were both wronged by an evil corporation, making it the same corporation gives them a common enemy. These bonds can help provide the characters with a shared history that helps explain why they stick together, give them a common goal, and generate lots of story ideas.

5 Necessary Steps for Character Creation

Session zero usually begins with a brief summary or discussion of the game’s setting, system, and premise. Special attention should be paid to details that will affect character creation, such as allowed or restricted character types or whether any of the game rules will be ignored, changed, or replaced by house rules. Once all the players understand what’s going on, they can begin brainstorming their characters, hopefully with lots of group discussion that results in better and more interconnected characters.

The process of character creation can be broken down into five basic steps:

  • Decide on a character concept
  • Define your character’s role in the party
  • Create a character sketch
  • Determine your character’s game stats
  • Add some details to bring the character to life

You don’t have to do these steps in the order given here, or even finish one step before moving on to another. Character concept is usually the starting point, but in some games (especially older ones) stats are generated randomly, so you might not know which concepts will work for the character until you’ve rolled some dice. The order given here is simply the one that I’ve found most helpful for walking new players through the character creation process. Once you’ve got the hang of it, do things in whatever order feels right to you.

Creating a Character Concept

A character concept is a brief summary of the character, usually just a few words. It’s how the character would be described in the dramatis personae of a Shakespeare play or the trailer for a movie. Character concepts typically consist of a job or genre archetype and a few descriptive words that distinguish the character from others with the same job or genre archetype. Here are a few examples:

  • Scoundrel with a heart of gold
  • Cop on the edge
  • Impulsive starship captain
  • Prissy elf who thinks he’s better than everybody else
  • Wise-cracking teenage super-hero

By their very nature, character concepts are a little cliched, but that’s kind of the point. They’re a starting point from which to build the character, so they should be simple and easily-understood. You’ll add the nuances as you build and eventually play the character. Without a strong concept, you run the risk of ending up with an incoherent pile of cool abilities, traits, and plot hooks rather than a fully-realized character that you and the other players can identify with.

Pictured: Grand, Epic Adventure!

Pictured: Grand, Epic Adventure!

Character Role

While your character is one of the heroes of the story, he’s not the only only hero of the story. The story is about a group of people, so you need to have an idea of how your character will fit into that group. Especially if your concept is based on a standard genre archetype, your role will often be obvious: wizards cast spells, hard-boiled detectives solve mysteries, and cops on the edge shoot lots of people.

As long as the party’s likely to get into situations where spells need to be cast, mysteries need to be solved, and people need to get shot, the others will probably keep your character around for purely utilitarian purposes. If your character’s usefulness isn’t so readily apparent, you’ll need some idea of why the others keep him around.

It may be because the character serves a purpose that isn’t based on his profession or skill set (the seemingly useless slacker is the son of a wealthy banker and the rest of the party can sponge off of daddy’s credit cards) or because he has a personal relationship with one of the other characters (the warrior isn’t going to leave his little brother behind for the orcs to capture, no matter how useless the kid is). Hopefully, you and the other players already have a general idea of what kind of situations the characters will be getting into. If not, don’t be afraid to ask your GM for advice about how to make sure your character will fit the party and the plot.

When thinking about your role, it’s best to avoid roles like “party leader” that rely on the consent of the other players, even if your character concept suggests that your character will fit well into a particular role. Just because you’re the highest-ranking officer doesn’t mean the others in the group will listen to you, especially if you find yourself in a situation where the command structure that gave you the rank isn’t backing you up. Once you start playing, the group dynamics will develop naturally, often thrusting characters into roles the player never expected. For now, focus on making sure the other characters will have a reason to keep you around.

Character Sketch

The character sketch is a more detailed expansion of the character concept. If you think of the character concept as how you would describe the character to a member of the story’s potential audience, the character sketch is how you’d describe the character to an author who’s writing a story about the character or an actor who’s been cast in the role.

The character can contain background information, notes about the character’s personality, information about the character’s friends and acquaintances, appearance, goals, fears, dreams, and pretty much anything else that will give you a better idea of what the character is like and how he fits into the game setting.

Some players start out with a very basic character sketch and fill in the details as the story unfolds. Others put a lot of time into writing elaborate backgrounds and figuring out everything there is to know about the character. Most players fall somewhere in between.

When you’re working on your character sketch, keep in mind that this information is prologue. While it’s great to give the character an interesting background--especially if it provides plot hooks (enemies, goals, and unfinished business, for example) that the GM can use during the game--you don’t want the most interesting parts of your character’s life to be in the past.

Character Stats

Stats are the game rules that govern your character. They are used to describe the character’s abilities, disadvantages, and resources and to help determine how effective the character is at certain activities within the game, like shooting a bad guy or finding clues at a crime scene. The specific stats used to describe a character, how they’re determined, and the rating systems used to define the power of a particular trait vary from system to system, but there are a few general types of stats that appear in many different games.

  • Ability Scores or Attributes typically define the character’s natural abilities and aptitudes such as health, intelligence, or charisma. Ability scores are often used as “default” scores for actions in which the character has no specific training, or as base rolls to which dice or bonuses from more specific traits are added. The names and number of ability scores vary from game system to game system. For example, QAGS has three attributes (Body, Brain, and Nerve), while Dungeons & Dragons has six (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma).
  • Character Classes, also commonly called Archetypes or Templates, are a collection of traits (skills, special abilities, drawbacks, starting equipment, etc.) based around the character’s profession or genre archetype. Some games define character classes very strictly, others allow players a variety of options to choose from. Character classes were extremely common in early RPGs, but have mostly been eliminated in favor of more a la carte systems in more modern games. In games where non-human characters are permitted, players may also choose racial packages that give them additional abilities and drawbacks.
  • Skills and Special Abilities, which go by a number of names, describe specific training, knowledge, or powers possessed by the character. They can include anything from “17th Century literature” to “mind reading,” depending on the nature of the game. Some game systems require the player to choose these traits from a pre-existing list, others allow the player to make up any skill or special ability appropriate to the genre.

Other traits vary considerably from system to system and can include stats that define the character’s flaws, resources, personal relationships, reputation, moral and ethical views, and just about anything else that might be subject to a die roll.

When you’re generating the stats for your character, there are two important thing to keep in mind. The first is to choose stats that make sense for the character you’re trying to create, not just stats that sound cool. Make sure the character has the abilities required to do his job, and make sure you know how the character came by any traits that are unexpected for the character type.

The other is to make sure that you have a clear understanding of what the stats mean and how they work, and that your understanding of the rules meshes with the GM’s understanding of the rules. If you’re not sure how something works or the rules are ambiguous, talk to the GM and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Characters for Laser Ponies

Characters for Laser Ponies

Finishing Touches

The last step in character creation is to tie everything together and add a few details. This is mostly a matter of building upon and expanding what you already know about the character. This is a good time to describe the character and think about how you plan to role-play him. What does he look like? How does he dress? What kind of attitude does he project? Does he have an accent or distinctive speaking style?

One way to get a better grasp of what a character is like is to imagine what actor would play him if the game were made into a movie. A spaceship captain played by Neil Patrick Harris is going to be a very different character than a spaceship captain played by Clive Owen, so deciding WWPHITM? (Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie?) is a good way to get a better ide of what the character is like. The WWPHIM? also provides a reference for how the character will react to situations that arise during the game, since you can model your responses on characters the actor has played.

If you haven’t already done so, give your character a name. Try to make it something cool that fits the genre and setting. Remember, your character is a hero, so he needs a heroic name. Unless you’re playing game with a comedic or silly tone, it’s best to avoid punny or joke names. The joke will get old really fast, and once the novelty wears off the dumb name will do nothing except detract from scenes that require a more serious tone.

Once you’ve got a solid idea of who your character is, go over the details with your GM to make sure there are no problems or missing pieces. If you want specific details from your character background to be a part of the story once the game begins, talk to the GM and let her know what subplots, supporting characters, and other character-specific details you’d like to see during the game.

Most GMs welcome ideas from the players (it makes their job easier), but aren’t psychic, so if you want specific character elements to appear in the game, you have to let the GM know. Just remember that your character is only one of the protagonists, so don’t try to introduce character arcs so big that they’ll take over the story and turn the other PCs into your character’s sidekicks. Once everyone has a character, you’re finally ready to start playing the game.

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© 2015 Steve Johnson