You might be thinking, "Oh goody, another list of character creation tips I've seen everywhere else!" You just might be right depending on how much you've read. I'm going to do my best today to explain how I create my characters so that I keep my interest in them alive for long periods of time. A lot of this crosses over to how I handle my characters in my writing, but my focus here is as a tabletop player.
I play a lot of tabletop. I also have no shortage of characters that I wish I could play more often. Over the years I have seen, and sometimes been the cause of, a kaleidoscope of lives and deaths of my fellow players' characters. One of the big pain points that some of my peers mention again and again is simply not having an interest in their character or not knowing how to play them. I've had it happen to me too.
If you have a player, or are a player, who goes through multiple characters per campaign out of boredom this is meant to try to help rekindle interest in an old character or make sure that the next character you make will have a longer shelf-life. If this sounds like you or a loved one read on. Side effects may include having too many characters you want to play, an unquenchable need to express your love of your character, and a desperate thirst for more art for them. I've noticed that a lot of people get caught up in making complicated characters with multi-faceted backstories and all of the bells and whistles, but the most important thing is really your foundation.
Keeping it Simple
The best thing that you can do for yourself when making a character to roleplay at the table is to select a simple base to work from. I'm going to work with the character that I played in the reboot of Heirloom of Darkness since it's view-able and it's only a few episodes long. I always start with core personality traits and build around those traits with what makes sense. For this I'm also going to give an example of a character built incorrectly and how to fix it.
For my character, Zacarias Chadington Esq. I set out with the simple idea of being "that stereotypical, painfully average, self absorbed guy in the horror movies." I built him with that as my guiding concept. I asked my DM what the average race was and found out that he would be human. After that I fished out that cleric was a pretty common profession given healers and the like in the world. I now had a human cleric with the flaw of being self absorbed. We’ll be re-visiting Zac as we go.
Let's make a character together now that will need work. I'll take an example straight from one of my other campaigns and start with a class instead. Let's say we want to dual class something unusual and say a rogue-wizard. Okay, now we know our class. I don't have a great idea of who my character is, but I know we want something unusual, so I'll pop over to a stat block from D&D beyond and see what the least common race to play is. It looks like that's the Aasimar. Now we need a personality for them. What my make an Aasimar become a rogue-wizard? We'll make them a pickpocket adopted by a wizard. It's likely that they're naturally curious and a bit daring.
So, as you can see, either of these are usable characters, but in the long-run if I'm making choices based on my class and the desire for an unusual character I will probably start feeling bored with them once I begin to establish some habits and bond with my fellow players. I might also find that this character is a bit flat feeling since I might feel that I need to be making risky choices and asking a lot of questions. With Zac, it really doesn't matter what my class or race is since I know the archetype I'm going for with him. It doesn't mean that I didn't get surprised with my character or run into unexpected things that I had to think through, but I had a pretty strong heading compared to curious and daring.
So let's try moving forward with the other base for our rogue-wizard. They need a name though. Let's call them Goat. If I were to fix Goat at this point instead of coming back at the end I would spend some extra time with their flaws or really focus on their motivation for joining the quest. It could be something as simple as wanting to see weird monsters. In fact, let's roll with that later on.
Fleshing out the Base
I usually find things out as I go. I've found that being overly specific is a great way for me to be unsure of how to portray a character. Traits that I can bring up verbally or during combat are usually great for me. For Zac I had a trait of "I had a friend that studied [blank]." That was some of the funniest roleplay I've gotten to do in a long time and since my character was self-absorbed he thought he was, naturally, the best at things. So when we encountered things completely out of his depth he would lead with "I had a friend that studied this," and we were off to the races. It was a ton of fun purposely mispronouncing things that he would have no business knowing about while trying to play off being the authority on it to the delight and horror of my friends at the table.
Let's go back to Goat. Using what we know can help us pick a good background for Goat. We know that they were adopted by a wizard for pickpocketing, so for me an urchin or a charlatan would be my go-to choices. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for something like an acolyte or a disciple since they ended up following the wizard home.
With Zac we knew that he wanted to show people he was the best. I was able to broadly apply that to well...everything because he was just so sure that he was the best at everything. It ensured that I was making rolls for things I wouldn’t normally be and just generally making a nuisance out of myself whenever possible. Depending on your angle this could be either a trait or a flaw of his.
Let’s use the traits we made to give Goat another trait or flaw. Right now we know that Goat is curious and a bit reckless, but traits can be made separate of An overly specific trait that we might not be able to use for the sake of the example. "I do not like tunnels. They remind me of worms." So, we have essentially two traits in one that we could have made into claustrophobia or fear of the dark that we could apply in any situation. Worms? Is Goat afraid of bugs or worms specifically? Is this actually a fear of gardens and small worm holes? Despite our very specific situation it might be very difficult to show if it even comes up. Let's shift it so that Goat is afraid of the dark and things without legs. We're well on track to being troubled in most any dungeon and can play to wanting light even though Goat, as an Aasimar, has dark vision. If we run into sand worms, naga, or a wind variety of monsters we can role play it while giving our party the chance to prank Goat with an actual earth worm in down time.
It's easy to follow a logical order of thinking when you have a personality concept. I can look at Zac and go, "Right, so he has a pompous name and a need to prove that he's the best. He's probably not the oldest child, and I made him have friends that studied different subjects. He's probably a noble." With Goat, I'm operating off the idea of an unusual character for the sake of trying to make something unusual. It's harder to tie the different thread together after picking them at random. It's not impossible, but it is harder to build things that way. For example, let's give Goat a flaw since we already know Zac's. I don't think I've seen a character with IBS so we'll go with that.
We need a goal for our heroes. Goals are things that the character desires that motivate them in their life. We already decided that Goat's is to see weird monsters. We're not sure why, but that's doable. Now how does Goat handle situations where there are no weird monsters to be found? What are supporting goals for Goat? For the record, I’m saying supporting goals to describe things that are secondary to the main quest that can be worked on with more leisure. We want something unusual. Goat will want to sample the cheeses of any race they encounter and Goat wants to make the best ale this side of the fantasy ocean. This will give the DM a few things that we can play with and interact with beyond getting excited about wayward monstrosities or abominations. A bad goal might be something too easily achieved like, "find their mentor." If that is Goat's only real motivation they have no reason to stay with the party once they find that person.
Zac really just wanted people to know that he was the best and that he was a hero. It makes it easy for me to interact with and gives the DM ways to pull him in different directions. It would be a natural reaction for him to want to enter or accept any competition or challenge and to do anything deemed heroic. If he would have been built for a longer campaign I would have probably given him some goals within his family as well since I know he looked up to his older brother. Zac was very popular in the stream for some reason that I attribute to people being able to identify the feeling I was going for with him. I had a ton of fun playing him, but we'll move on from him now that we have three main characteristics to focus on. From here, we're going to focus solely on Goat.
Making Goat Memorable
So we have looked at two different directions of character creation. Goat still has a few issues that would make it hard for me to play them in a longer campaign though they are more than ready to set off into a one-shot. Let's review Goat. Goat is an Aasimar rogue-wizard with an urchin background. I'm not going to get into subclasses or any of that here, but we'll roll with it. At the moment, we know that Goat is a curious individual with a bit of recklessness. They have IBS which will be troublesome to deal with in combat and a distinct love of cheese and ale making.
They are also interested in studying unusual monsters and have a fear of the dark and all things without legs to speak of both great and small. Now, to me, I would make this character a bit of a Pippin archetype. (If you aren’t sure who Pippin from The Lord of the Rings is you can visit this video for a bit of an idea.) Playing them as someone a bit lacking in common sense, but with a natural inclination to touching things that they shouldn't necessarily touch gives me a basis on understanding how they might interact with their environment and others. IBS is troublesome, but I wouldn't classify it as a flaw per se so let's double-down and make Goat a slow learner. This means that the same trick is likely to catch them more than once for better or worse. Did Goat really touch the evil looking artifact and get paralyzed? Yep. Did they just seriously do it after the last time they touched a mysterious artifact? Yep. Are they surprised that their hair caught fire? Yep. See what I'm getting at?
By choosing basic traits you are giving yourself freedom to let Goat evolve and grow without going against who Goat is as a person. If we had built Goat with a heinously short temper and no plans to change that we might find ourselves feeling railroaded into a temper tantrum when we don't want it and when it might be detrimental to other players at the table in a not fun way. If we over complicate our characters we take away a lot of the joy we can have in playing them by feeling like we only have one choice to take all the time. It's fun to let our characters grow and change over time. It's not fun to paint ourselves into a corner on how to act and react. It goes against the freedom that brought a lot of us to tabletop in the first place. It's totally fine to set out to make the next Sir Bearington, but make sure that you have a character behind your idea too.
We took some time looking at two different type of character creation and what that might look like. I'm going to take some time to streamline some tips and examples for you that you can keep and share easily.
Keep your idea simple. Clarity is important for your character design. If you want your character to become a new god by the end of your campaign talk to your DM (Link to Working with your DM) so you can both have a clear direction and trajectory.
Show your character don't tell us about them. If your character has a flaw or trait think about how to roleplay that and make it identifiable by your party. You might have cue words or always drink too much and talk about your tragic backstory and then deny it the next day. Does your character need to look the best? Shop for new threads in every town you go to or whine if you get mud on your new breeches.
Keep it real. In a fantasy game? Yes, I really just said that. A character that has loyalty as a core belief isn't likely to be a liar or sell-out their party without pretty convincing reasons. However, that character might be dealing with the fact that they are a coward against monsters. Or you can take that loyalty to blind obedience and pick the law over your party because that is the priority that you feel you should be the most loyal to. Take a look at your character’s values and goals. Do they mesh?
Talk to the rest of your party. When you get the chance before a game talk to the other players. You could have an established rivalry that makes it easy for you to skip introductions or work with them if you have plans for your character to be a bit of an asshole. I talked to my entire party about Zac so that they would know that he was going to butt in constantly. It gave them a chance to prepare and think about why their characters would tolerate him in the first place.
Just have fun. You don't have to try to make the next hot thing every game. I have a character that is seriously just a big game hunter turned adventurer so she can hunt dragons. That's fine. It doesn't need to be complicated and deep. You'll get plenty of depth from the campaign and have a place to grow from. They don't have to be perfectly suited to their role either. Zac's highest stat was his charisma because he focused more on interpersonal relationships than his spell stat. It wasn't optimal and it didn't matter. That said, be careful that you don’t make things so that you can’t have fun.
The Next Steps
I know that this was not a technical guide to character creation but more of an incubation area. Maybe you want to take Goat for a spin or feel like you're ready to start putting your character to paper. If you are, Jake wrote a great guide to making a D&D 5e character here! I will be working on more resources to help if you want to try for a character that's very outside of your comfort zone while being respectful as well as tips and advice on staying true to the character you've made (and when not to be). What's your technique for character creation? Do you have any other advice for other readers? Let me know about it. I love stories and I know that everyone has their own methods. I hope this was helpful for some of you.
Hey folks, my name is Bailey and I’m part of the staff here at Nerdolopedia. You can find me pretty much anywhere online. I’m most active on tumblr, twitter, and our discord. Be sure to leave comments and questions for me. I’m more than happy to offer advice if you aren’t sure how to word things with your DM or players! Have you ever had a tricky situation like any of the ones mentioned? Let us know how you handled it in the comments.
Featured Image: Monty Phython and the Holy Grail