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Your Adventure Starts Here: Building Characters in Role-Playing Games

Updated on October 13, 2015

Role-playing games are socially interactive games of unadulterated imagination. Players and gamemasters each get to visit fictional settings and meet interesting albeit non-existing people and creatures; all through the medium of creatively designed avatars: the characters. And there lies the backbone of all RPG’s: the characters. Besides the entertainment derived from inhabiting these characters during gameplay and interacting with others, much of the fun of role-playing games is in designing and creating these characters. From the game mechanics to the story, building a character is an involved endeavor that is as rewarding as the effort one puts into growing the character from the ground up and from the first session onward. There are many factors that go into building a character, each of them worthy of their own focused article; so let’s start with an overview of the biggest facets of character-design.

An example of developing characters, courtesy of Geek & Sundry

Let the awesome work of Brom inspire you as well!
Let the awesome work of Brom inspire you as well!

Inspiration

All creative ventures require a source of inspiration from the artist/writer/builder/etc in order to provide momentum in their respective craft; the same goes for building characters in RPG’s. Common sources of inspiration for building role-playing characters can be from television shows or movies and literature (most typically of the genre to which the character belongs). The idea being, “I really like this character (or setting). I would like to have a character like them (or from there).” Direct inspirational sources such as movies or novels are just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to character design. Artwork, music, or other media can be fonts of creative energy, just waiting to be tapped. Whatever it is, there should be something to help move you along to create your character. In the end, the source of inspiration is practically irrelevant so long as it drives the player to design the character.

Functionality

When making a character that is meant to be part of a group (the nigh-overwhelming majority of characters mind you), it is important to consider that character’s function within the group. As a whole, the group is going to be expected to accomplish tasks within the story/campaign and overcome challenges. Each character can and will be expected to “pull their weight” within the group and contribute to the group’s success; and each character should be allowed to help in their own ways. When crafting your character, you can design the character with a specific function in mind (e.g. frontline combatant, smooth-talker/diplomat, investigator, etc.) that will aid the party as a whole. Another major factor when thinking about character-functionality is not just the group’s needs, but the campaign’s. If the gamemaster needs a certain role filled for the story’s sake, then a player can step up and help out by having their character fill that role; this can also help shape the character as well as the story in interesting ways previously not conceived by either the player or the GM.

Silhouette (Appearance)

Sometimes thinking about a character in terms of what they can do for the party or campaign is not what everyone goes for first; sometimes they have a specific image in mind to shape their character. Whether you are copying a specific character or archetype from a show or film (as mentioned above under Inspiration) or you are coming up with your own original portrait, devising a character based upon their appearance can be quite beneficial for the character building process. If you know what they should look like, then it will be easier to design other aspects of the character centered around on how they appear. For example, if you want the character to exude the machismo and suave nature of a swashbuckling pirate, then you know that you may need to make the character more agile and charismatic. Another example could be that you want the character to look like they stepped out of an episode of X-Files. Here, you are probably going to design the character with some government/law-enforcement background in mind; not to mention invest in either investigatory or stealth attributes and skills.

Personality

Then again, sometimes players aren’t sure how their character should look, but they do know how that character will behave. It is not as common to develop a character’s personality first, but it is the most developed concept for characters. The primary allure of role-playing games is taking the opportunity to portray someone different from yourself; and that includes personality-types. As a result, players often focus a great deal of time and effort in creating personalities divorced from their own. Sometimes the nicest players end up playing the meanest and selfish characters; I know player who, for whatever reason, ends up playing the best and most ruthless bastards ever and the player is pretty even-tempered and considerate! A character’s personality is also one of the few aspects of characters that is mutable. As the story progresses, a character may mature and change for the better or fall for temptation and indulge in their darker side. Again, a great deal of entertainment is seeing how these characters grow and change over time.

Back-Story

Building a character isn’t just about filling in spaces on a character sheet or solely about filling a niche for the story. It is about imbuing a fictional identity with life and letting it loose in an evolving narrative. One of the ways to conceive and develop a character is through their own story: their back-story. A character’s history can shape their personality, their outlook, and even dictate their skill sets. Back-stories, unlike personalities, do not necessarily change or evolve throughout the campaign. Oh, they can! However, the reasons are very different from the character evolving through story progression. When playing an amnesiac character, their personal history can be revealed throughout the course of the campaign and may not be as anybody imagined up to that point. Secrets can come to light that seriously alter a character’s previously established back-story. All of this can be wonderful opportunities for role-playing and further character development too!

Establishment: Character-knowledge vs. Player-knowledge

Part of the character-building process is establishing what the character knows and doesn’t know. This is very important for story development as well as player immersion into the story. The more that a player is aware of what their character knows, gives the player a greater opportunity to better portray their character; as well as contribute to the story in a productive manner. An extremely important facet to establishing character knowledge is clearly defining and separating what the character knows from what the player knows. While it is good for players to know all the ins and outs of a setting or world, it becomes difficult for the gamemaster to make the game challenging for the group when someone has all of the answers. This can also detract from the other players’ fun if somebody is constantly showing everyone else up. Besides, why would anyone want to deprive themselves of some real fun? By strongly enforcing the division between character-knowledge and players-knowledge, players have the opportunity for suspense and dramatic irony because they may know what is in store for their characters but they are “powerless” to aid the character; they have to watch as the events unfold and the character discovers what their player already knows. And that can be an immense amount of fun!

Stay Tuned , , ,

This has only been a general overview of character creation and in a broad-strokes fashion. There is a great deal yet to talk about. Keep an eye out for future articles delving into each of the aspects discussed above.

And if I missed anything, please leave a comment and I will see about addressing it in a future article.

Your character building experience . . .

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 23 months ago from Oklahoma

      Great analysis!