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Putting the Role in Role-Playing Games: Functionality in Character Building

Updated on October 30, 2015

In role-playing games, characters are frequently designed with a specific role (pun not intended) in mind. This is because the player-characters will be working as a team in order to overcome challenges; and each individual will need to be able to fill certain niches for the group to succeed. As part of the character building process, players often take the route of creating a character based upon what the group needs or wants. What each group will need is ultimately up to the players and the campaign, but there are a few broad generalities that apply across most settings; such as . . .

The Warrior

Whenever there is a clash of arms, there will be frontline fighters ready to step-on and do battle. With the exception of more investigatory or socio-political themed campaigns, just about every role-playing group will need dedicated warriors. Their job: make the enemy very dead, very quickly.

Most of the time, fighters will be the shocktroopers of the party and taking the fight directly to the baddies’ faces. Some warriors, depending upon preference and campaign, take up the bow and arrow (or gun; again, depending on the setting) and provide long-range support for the group.

A good warrior is often going to be built around a particular style of combat or weapon-choice. Even if it is not for the strategic choice or because the game mechanics support it, it is simply iconic of a warrior going to battle armed with their trusty spear/sword/ax, etc; hell, some players go so far as to name their character’s weapon(s) to give it that much more life (and power). More balanced fighters are going to be prepared for any kind of combat and choose to be proficient and armed with virtually every major type of weapon; just in case.

The Leader

While there is no “i” in team, every group requires direction and guidance. Otherwise, it simply devolves into a wild and shambling mob: aimless and leaderless. Hence, every group needs someone to step up and assume a leadership role; likewise, a party of player-characters will need a leader.

Leaders provide cohesion to the group beyond mutual goals and theme. The leader helps to direct the group to their common ends and prioritizes the party’s tasks as required. Tactically, leaders can also guide the party through challenges, in particular combat. In some groups, the player running the leader often handles the initiative board (thus allowing them to direct the flow of combat), though that is not a requirement of a leader; just a good synergistic use of their organizational skills.

A good commander is going to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their party. They will know the best means to overcome their shortcomings and properly exploit their strong-suits. Leaders also need to be organized; you need to be if you are going to manage a group of individuals with often disparaging skill sets.

The Healer

In conflict, people will get hurt; it is inevitable. However, people will get better; and the healer sees to the latter. Whether they are a doctor or cleric, the healer’s job is to keep the party alive when they are beat up and in need of a few more hit points (for those not familiar with the terms, hit points are the measurement of how alive a character is in game terms).

Healers can approach their duty in a number of ways. The most often seen way is that of combat-medic; dispensing healing in the heat of battle while staying alive themselves. Another major way for the healer to keep the party around is by providing long-term care in between combats; typically performing surgery or other forms of medical/recuperative care that requires more time than first aid. This also includes removing or counteracting lingering effects or ailments, such as diseases, poisons and severe injuries (e.g. broken bones, severed limbs). Depending on the setting/system, healers can also act as a support element by providing defensive augmentations (colloquially referred to as “buffs”) to the party. Buffs can come in all sorts of forms, but the healers often provide buffs that add more hit points to characters or make them more difficult to target/hit in the first place. Exceptional healers can even bring characters who have died back to life; again, depending on the system.

A well-rounded healer is going to be best at the combat healing aspect; bringing back wounded comrades to fit fighting condition while the fighting is still raging on. This can dovetail well into providing able long-term care to characters outside of combat; even being able to heal longer lasting injuries. Playing as a support-healer is more than not an option; it truly depends on the needs of the group as well as the player’s choice, but is rarely a necessity.

The Sneak

Even in combat heavy role-playing settings, the party will be faced with challenges that require more finesse and stealth than brute force. Whether it is providing reconnaissance or simply trying to slip past an armed patrol, the sneak is going to thrive as the party’s main stealth operative.

As the sneak, the character is going to have the most diverse range of skill sets. Stealth alone can encompass knowing how to stay hidden, move quietly, disguises, and being able to conceal items on oneself. Sneaky characters often also learn the art of deception; not only knowing how to lie their way through a situation but also picking up on the tells of others to know when they are lying. Classic sneaks often acts as thieves due to their stealth; lifting or dropping items surreptitiously. Many sneaks also pick up a few combat tricks. As agility is often the most important attribute for most sneaks, they become the most artful dodgers and are able to slip through enemy lines into flanking positions for the party. Some systems accent this aspect by providing sneaky characters with to-hit or damage bonuses when in such positions.

When designing a sneaky character, as much as you are going to have a diverse range of skills, focus on a particular task and branch out from that. If the group wants someone to be the point-man and scout ahead of the group, make sure the character is stealthy and perceptive. Need someone to break into places: be sure to invest in being able to pick locks, breach security systems and bypass/disarm traps. For the more tactical/combat-orientated sneaks, bone-up on the rules for flanking opponents and be sure to focus on any skills or abilities that allow you to maneuver around the battlefield with impunity.

The Support

When the situation gets tough, even hardened veterans need back-up; a skilled frontline fighter can get overwhelmed and your flanking sneak gets outmaneuvered. What you need is some support. The support shines in scenarios that no single other character-role can quite finish the job; the support brings enough to the party for that push from failure into success. Depending on the setting, support could be that weirdo with psychic powers, a powerful and wise wizard, or the technical genius with all the cool gadgets.

Support comes in many forms. Many times, the support character is useful for crowd-control; as in handling a mass of enemies at once. Even though they may dish out a lot of hurt collectively, many characters capable of mass damage do not deal much individual damage; or else that damage is partially or wholly avoidable. Support characters can also directly augment the capabilities of the party. Unlike healers buffing the party defensively, support characters frequently provide offensive buffs to achieve victory; they do also have defensive augmentations available too. Lastly, support can provide all the niche tricks (or spells) for just the right occasion.

Playing support can be difficult. You will frequently need to plan in advance what you and the party will require; and then be prepared for those situations as they arise. However, you are also going to be flexible enough to switch gears on the fly and change your tactics when the situation goes south fast.

What is your preferred character role in RPGs?

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Your Choice

Remember that while the character building process can be a collaborative process with each player contributing to help shape the overall party, it is your character that you are making. The final decisions are going to be up to you to make in terms of design and execution. Don't be afraid to go beyond the generalities mentioned above. Hell, there are a ton of more-specialized roles that I haven't mentioned. And just maybe we should talk about those next . . .


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