If you've been playing RPGs for a while, you've probably found yourself wondering how you can level up your character concept in your next game. When we throw the old out and start new, it can be a little disorienting and even nerve wracking to try and figure out what you want to do next. How could you possibly do better than your beloved level 25 Sorcerer that could level a city block with one fireball? Our table had to face this same issue when we started to reboot our campaign, and we came up with this list of character creation guidelines. Check it out, and see if you can top yourself on your next roll up!
1. Like the character.
Kind of obvious, I know, but characters that are in conflict with your real world beliefs can be really frustrating to play. Personally, I'm not good with authority. In real life nothing pisses me off more than being told "I'm in charge and you're going to do things my way because I said so." So even if I have a really cool idea for a Colonel who is fighting corruption within the army, I'm never going to play that character because I would spend the entire game butting heads with the military hierarchy. Being told I can't do something because that character's commanding officer won't allow it would be a real buzz kill for me. Other people might find it satisfying to work around the system, exploiting loopholes and planning political maneuvers, but I don't. Identifying your hard limits can help you avoid characters that won't be as fun to play as you expect.
2. The character has a goal.
Although swinging axes and hunting treasure is appealing at first, over time characters get boring if they are just mechanics. Without some kind of motivation or stakes, a campaign can start to feel like an endless game of bowling. Set up the pins, knock em down, go again. Nothing ever changes, nothing really surprises or challenges you. Making sure that your character either has something to gain or something to lose as a result of their actions will make you feel engaged in the plot. Ask your game master about the world of your game. What organizations exist, and what are they working towards? How did you meet your party members, and how well do you know each other? Establishing some kind of allegiance or cause that ties you to the story will make it very easy for your GM to get you invested in what's happening.
3. The character has flaws.
I used to know a player whose characters always died. Like seriously, all the time. He once went through four characters in one campaign, during which the rest of the table grew their PCs from level 9 to level 25. By the end, we had to bribe him with food to show up on game day because he was so upset at the amazing things our characters had achieved while his characters died in obscurity. So eventually, as our epic tale drew to a close and he gradually became more and more bitter, I asked him why he had such trouble keeping his characters safe. I'll never forget his answer. He said, "Well I just get so bored when i feel like I can't fail. What's the point of playing if I already know what's going to happen? And when I get bored, I guess I just fuck around and see what kind of crazy stuff it would take to kill them."
Sounds really weird, right? But I actually think he was on to something important about character design. Conflict is central to a good character, because it's what keeps us coming back to a good story. Does he win the fight? Can she find the clue? Is the monster going to find them in the bushes, or walk by unaware? Suspense happens when we are unsure of the outcome. My tablemate felt that he always knew the outcome, and so he didn't care what his characters did. Because his characters didn't have any limitations, and our GM did not put any constraints on them, he felt that the only way to put his characters in jeopardy was to intentionally endanger them and see if they could escape. A far better solution, in my opinion, would be to give your character flaws in the first place. Let's look at Critical Role as an example. What would Vex'ahlia be without her lust for gold? Just another elven rogue, I wager. How many gut busting laughs would we lose if Grog were smarter than a five year old? Pick a flaw, and lean in to it. Your whole table with thank you, because you will keep things interesting wherever your character goes.
4. Internal Conflict
In real life, people do things for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we take action because we want to, but more often feel compelled to act by outside forces that may or may not be visible to the people around us. As a writer I tell people that I write as a form of artistic expression, but is that actually the only reason? I would be lying to myself if I did not admit that I enjoy the praise my writing garners, as well as the social status a successful story can get you. At the best of times, my writing becomes a record onto which I can engrave my successes, and during times of emotional turmoil it is the reservoir into which I pour my unexpressed feelings. Once a partially finished story attracts a following, finishing it quickly becomes a chore that I avoid for weeks. This single aspect of my life is host to an entire network of thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. Moreover, the way i think, talk, or do that same action changes depending on the situation and my mental state.
You can't force your character to have an internal life, but as you play them week after week you will find opportunities to build up habits, and also to break them. Try to keep a good sense of how your character is thinking and feeling as you play, and never miss a chance to reveal what's going on inside their head. Knowing why your character acts rather than just what they do will bring your character to life.
5. Make a Story, Not a Character
My final tip for making deeper, more developed characters is to start from the inside and move outward. When you are flipping through the rule book its really easy to zero in a particular class and just go with it. Matter of fact, that's how most players make their characters. My advice, if you are looking to kick your character building skills to the next level, is to toss out the book and pull up TV Tropes. Start with an archetype, or a 3rd act twist, or even an object of power. Start with a story, then ask yourself what kind of person compliments that story. That's kind of abstract, so let's do an example:
I'm going to play a game of D&D, and I have no idea what I want to play. I come across the TV Trope "I Just Want to Be Beautiful", which basically is any character whose primary motivation and ultimate downfall is their quest to improve their looks. I get the idea of making a sort of high fantasy Amanda Lepore, a mage obsessed with sustained illusions and magical body modification to the exclusion of all else. Already, I've got a pretty unique character for a D&D campaign, purely because I would never have thought to incorporate something like cosmetic surgery into a fantasy universe. I roll a dice and determine that the character is male.
Once I have that idea, I start to work outward. Why does he want to look this way? He's not just aiming for attractive, but stunning. Beautiful to an unsettling and unnatural degree. Maybe he wants a reaction? More than just attracting others, he wants to shock and perplex them. He's a showman. So rather than assuming that he started out ugly, I decide that he was plain. He had many siblings, and all of them outshone him. His strange obsession with body magic is fueled not by a hatred of his looks, but the deep seated belief that he is boring, ordinary, and uninteresting. Becoming beautiful is his way of proving his worth. Since body illusions is not a popular school of magic, his strange obsession with it makes him a pariah at the mage's conservatory. The more he tries to "improve" himself and earn the attention of his peers, the more he creeps them out.
So just like that I have a story. This man thinks he isn't good enough, and so he uses his magic to make himself cosmetically better but fails to address the real source of his discontent. Over the course of the story, depending on what he encounters on his adventures, he may continue altering his appearance while his feelings of inadequacy fester, or he may have his worth proven to him. He has a serious flaw in his vanity, and his need to be the center of attention. He has a goal in his quest to achieve physical perfection at any cost, and that quest is challenged at every turn by his internal conflict. Even if he achieves his objectives, will they actually satisfy his lack of self-worth, or will he find himself wanting more? That's the stuff great stories are made of.
So there you have it. Use these simple techniques, and you'll be making unique, memorable, and deeply developed characters in no time!
If you found this article helpful, please consider subscribing to our e-mail list by filling out the form on the bottom of the homepage. We don't send out spam or any kind of automated messages, just announcements for new articles like this one, podcast episodes, and live appearances. You can also keep up with the Uncanny Crew on our official twitter @UncannyShow. Thanks for reading!