Pitfalls of RP: Character Creation

The Pitfalls of RP series is examining ways people can ruin their own fun in RPGs. This will be focused on players and PCs / player characters, but by the time I’m done may include GMs / game masters. RPGs, as I said before, are the pinnacle of escapist entertainment. They can be great, but unlike passive entertainment – TV, movies – we can personally mess up the experience so many ways.

Right at the outset, some players set themselves up for problems. People create characters they quickly come to hate, or that never feel comfortable in the PC party. You’re playing a game to enjoy yourself. While one would assume that means “do what you feel,” sometimes what we feel could use more careful consideration.

Fortunately there are a million books, essays, and blog posts about creating characters for fiction that can be of some help. But the collaborative nature of RPGs means that one important avenue of characterization is unavailable to you and may work the opposite of what you expect. I’m talking about the way other characters treat your own.

If, for example, you are writing a book and you want the main character to be beautiful, you can simply have the other characters in the story treat them as such. In an RPG, every character around your own is controlled by a different writer. You cannot tell any of them what to do, be it the other players or the GM. People should respect the character’s description to some extent. If your character sheet or statistics indicate your character is very physically attractive within society’s standards, PCs and NPCs should react as they would to such a person.

But looks are subjective and they aren’t everything. You ever meet someone beautiful but outrageously shitty? How long did your interest in them last? And while you can say your character is conventionally attractive – clear skin, shaped like the society’s sexy statuary, ten fingers and ten toes – you can not tell the GM or other players that they have to make their characters be into that.

Every character can be attracted to a different gender or no gender at all, or have a prejudice against the beautiful people, or just not find those specific traits alluring, or just intentionally hold everyone they find attractive at arm’s length to keep from getting attached. Any number of excuses for ignoring a PC’s or NPC’s supposed sex appeal are totally legitimate.

And that’s just a physical trait. What of the mental? Unfortunately, most game systems have a statistic for “Charisma.” So you could create a character with “CHA 100” and play them as a rude narcissistic murderous pile of trash, and the GM is obligated by the game system to make some NPCs fond of them despite it all. But I don’t begrudge any GM who refuses, and would certainly allow all PCs to ignore charisma stats on a character they would never get along with.

I was GMing a game where the players were allowed to make up some NPCs in their character’s backgrounds – friends, family. One player ran their character as a surly asshole who only got on with another PC who was willing to play grabass with them. But their character was described as having all these people in their past who cared about and liked them. How does that work? I don’t care how much the character looked like a model. I mostly dodged the issue by never having anyone from their past show up, letting all relationships with NPCs and PCs going forward be based on their crappy behavior in game.

Sorry that was a bit off topic. Players have gotten my goat proverbial too many times over the years. The point is that you can not rely on the other characters in the campaign to prop up your concept. You have to come up with a character idea that is entertaining in itself. You want your PC to be well-liked or romantically successful (assuming romance is even appropriate in that campaign)? You’re going to have to play someone people would actually like. A lot of dudebro players recognize the problem and give their characters abysmal CHA scores. I don’t have a problem with that.

My examples so far have revolved around crappy players who are making mistakes, but this is true for situations where you’re the best player involved in a game, or when you have a lousy GM. If you have a character that brings something decent to every scene they’re involved in – without being pushy or forcing a narrative that doesn’t fit – then you have one good thing to remember in the otherwise bad gaming experience.

So how do you make a character you can enjoy and remember well when the game is done? As I said before, there is a lot of advice out there on the subject. But I do have a few things to say about it. Even though I am usually the GM and may have different concerns from the players, I find the players who have the best time and get along the best with others have things in common.

Make a character that would be in a party. Wanna play that lone wolf, that roughneck who will cut a guy’s head off if they mock the color of his shoelaces, someone who is prejudiced against elves in a party with two or three of them? Think again. Many people RP with only one player and GM, and those concepts can work better there. Even then, only if you are certain no one else will be joining the game down the road.

Make a character that will do the adventures. I’m going to have a lot more to say on this in a future article, but this is a surprisingly common problem. People can fall into this trap in multiple ways. One is simply creating someone that has laziness or cowardice as a prominent character trait because you think it will be funny. It can be, but they have to be able to get out the door and do things at least enough to let them function in the campaign. The other way I’ve seen too often: Making a character whose life is too good. They don’t answer the call to adventure because they might lose something dear to them.

Make a character that would not annoy you. OK, this isn’t actually good advice for most people, because everyone’s tolerances for assholery and clowning vary. But if you really take a big giant step back, squint at your new character, and find someone that you hate? Oops. Start over.

Simplicity is great, stereotyping is great! No, you don’t want to play a sociologically problematic stereotype. That is garbage. But having a character that fulfills some easily recognized and simple archetype is a good springboard for enjoying yourself as a player without too much fuss. The character classes and archetypes built into many game systems serve this well. People can understand the ideas of paladin, ranger, aristocratic vampire, corporate mercenary, ninja, etc. easily. So as your starting point, you have a set of cultural expectations and a general demeanor to work with.

Starting simple allows you to deviate from the concept without it becoming a mess. If you have a character with a million little quirks and random attitudes that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other, any given trait is just so much noise. If the character is in most ways a typical paladin – righteous, looking for evil to smite, chaste and judgmental – but they deviate in one significant way – are self-indulgent with some given vice, are unsure of their own faith, etc. – then the personalized trait stands out. It makes them interesting, gives you something to bring to a scene.

And even if you don’t deviate from the essential stereotype, just playing to it in a story with its own plot twists and events can affect who they are as a character – let them change and grow in interesting ways. You don’t have to see character creation as a giant quirk-off, trying to make the most precious and unique freak to ever come down the pipes.

If you’re a little more brave and feel like taking a chance, but still following this advice, you can make up your own simple concept, instead of relying on the ones presented in a game setting or from our cultures. I’m running a game where one of the PCs wants to help buy his single mom a nice place, but loses his adventuring money with a gambling habit. A simple idea that doesn’t have to get hammered home to add background interest to the guy.

Keep it simple – an essence that can be built out from. If the character is consistent and easily understood, yes, it’s not always realistic, but it’s good fiction. And it allows deviations from the simple concept to register as important, instead of being just another stray bit in a stream of chaos.

That’s all I’m saying about character creation for now. Do you have any ideas, experiences, or links to good articles on the subject?


  1. Siobhan says

    The point is that you can not rely on the other characters in the campaign to prop up your concept. You have to come up with a character idea that is entertaining in itself.

    Have you ever played Apocalypse World? Its character generation is unique in that you are obligated to pick among relationship histories dictated by your class to join up with at least two other PCs in order to justify the party. No more awkward “you all meet in an inn” beginnings, because it’s “Joe’s in trouble so he called up Sam, who is on the run from the law because he and his partner Jane robbed something, and she brought her mentor Gina who is also Joe’s ex-lover” built right into the character creation.

    Those relationship histories come into play mechanically by rewarding players for indulging in them; for example, if two PCs work together on something and they have a history of being partners in crime, they’re rewarded by the system (at the GM’s discretion, still, but at least the GM has pretty good guidelines). It also seems easier to run, by my GM friend’s reports, because the plot of the campaign as a whole moves forward because the players are already incentivized to respond to each other.

  2. Great American Satan says

    I have not heard of that and it sounds cool. Thanks for the info.

    The reason I started this series of articles is because of a rough time in a campaign where I had more players than I’ve ever handled before. Me and my co-GM actually thought of making sure the characters had a prior familiarity / back story. We implemented the idea, but it didn’t always work out great in practice.

    The players factionalized based on who they got along with out of character, built up relationships that were pretty flimsy in the backstory and played down ones that should have been strong, all based on who they wanted to play with and how.

    Which is kinda OK, because having to RP with someone you can’t stand personally is a crap deal. But it reduced the efficacy of that idea. Then again, unlike AW, we had no incentive system. That’s pretty cool.

    edit – that game looks super edgy. radicool >:D

  3. Vivec says

    The Charisma thing kind of reminds me of the (apparently controversial) dislike I have for games that revolve around skill checks, since the game just devolves into out of character talk and “well I passed that roll, what do I roll next” sort of gaming.

    That’s why, at least when I DM, passing the skill check means you have the opportunity to pass the situation, if you can explain how you did such. Are you blathering your way out of a situation? Roll charisma. You passed? Cool, tell me what you say to the enemy.

    Of course, I’m not a jerk so I’m not looking for something novel or amazing, but if they just said “Uh I don’t know, ‘look that way'” I’d be like “the enemy is insulted by your poor attempt at distraction and attacks you.”

  4. Vivec says

    Unless it’s like, an ogre or something, where ‘look that way!’ is a reasonably eloquent distraction tactic.

  5. Great American Satan says

    Most of my gaming lately has been diceless. Characters picked from a list of archetypes that gives a rough idea of their abilities to influence GM decisions about whether or not something succeeds, players can pick whatever skills make sense for their character concept like “knows all the ramones lyrics” or “advanced grappling” to influence those calls as well.

    It’s worked out OK. By having a setting that’s mostly banal, it keeps people from saying “i’m a special forces ninja with a million gunz.” The game’s problems haven’t had anything to do with the system or lack thereof. They’ve been from players falling into these pitfalls I’m gonna be rolling out…

    I’ve also been doing Pathfinder and like you, most of the time I expect people to RP any socially based skills. I probably cut more slack than you and allow rolls to let foolery succeed, if it’s fun and not wholly unreasonable. If the tower guard rolled a one on Sense Motive and let them by with a cheesy bluff, maybe he was distracted by a toothache or something. My players haven’t taken advantage to any degree that bothers me.

  6. Vivec says

    I guess it does kind of depend on your group. For me it’s like a 50/50 split between people that are legitimately interested in RPing, and people that just want to roll dice and acquire imaginary currency for a few hours.

    Given that the latter get to roll dice either way, but the former have their time ruined if people take any excuse to avoid RPing, I tend to DM in a way that favors the former.

  7. dianne says

    So you could create a character with “CHA 100” and play them as a rude narcissistic murderous pile of trash, and the GM is obligated by the game system to make some NPCs fond of them despite it all.

    I’m sorry, but my first thought here was “so they’re playing Ronald Reagan”. I suppose, I should update it for the kids to “playing Donald Trump”. These are both examples of people who have or had “charisma” despite being basically rude narcissistic murderous or wanna be murderous piles of trash. And people love them. Charisma is creepy.

  8. dianne says

    if they just said “Uh I don’t know, ‘look that way’” I’d be like “the enemy is insulted by your poor attempt at distraction and attacks you.”

    If you are feeling kind and the situation justifies it, you could claim that the enemy is so bemused by the blatantly terrible attempt to distract them that you get away while they’re trying to figure out what you’re really up to.

  9. Great American Satan says

    Vivec – Yes, I’m blessed with people more interested in RP, but a few of them RP in ways that give me hives. Nonetheless, I do consider myself lucky to not have people treating it like a more tedious version of a video game.

    Dianne – I’m old enough to catch both sides of that. Yeah. Maybe in the case of the jerk PC with the loving cast of background characters, I should have made them a bunch of creepy jerks as well. Somehow, that did not occur to me.

  10. dianne says

    Maybe in the case of the jerk PC with the loving cast of background characters, I should have made them a bunch of creepy jerks as well.

    Some of them, yes, but the thing with charisma is that most of the people who love the creepy jerks in real life aren’t particularly creepy jerks themselves. At least, I suppose the majority of the voting public in the US in 1980 and 1984 might be creepy jerks, but they seemed pretty normal most of the time. And yet they loved Reagan, a man who literally threatened to destroy the world if he didn’t get his way. I don’t get it. But if there is a silver lining, it might be that it justifies having a completely unlikable character have a high charisma nonetheless.

  11. Great American Satan says

    Oh yeah, I was thinking they could be cyptofascist NPR liberals. Thing is, I’ve been so radicalized by the political climate of the millennium that even people who are pretty mainstream in this country creep my shit out whenever those kind of topics come up. I went to a marriage in rural KS several years ago and the entire time in the state felt vaguely alarming to me.

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