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?