Character Creation Idea

I was thinking on the way players in some of my games have fallen into tropes during character creation that were a bit embarrassing. For example, in one game, there was a space on the character sheet for grade – the characters were in high school. Like, four people initially wrote that their characters had skipped a grade. Much weirder, two separate players came up with an idea of an uncaring father owning an expensive stringed instrument that their character stole during the course of the game. Violin boy ended up breaking the instrument in a teenage rage. Guitar girl just strolled and strummed, as one will. Those players had practically no interaction and came up with that stuff wholly independently. Wild.

So I had a two part idea for how to escape some of these tropes, or at least make characters less baroque and more dramatically resonant: One, come up with everything you think is distinctive about your character without looking at a character sheet at all. Two, when it’s time to fill out the character sheet, intentionally fill in any information you hadn’t thought of (character age, family, eye color, whatever) with something boring and bland.

Your character’s “bastard son of the duke” detail becomes less interesting the more bizarre details you add, and I think character sheets are where people go wrong. This is about RPGs, but the same could be true of fiction writing, if you’re using a questionnaire during character development.

The theory is that no one would have thought to have their character skip a grade if there had not been a question about which grade they were in on the sheet. As soon as you ask a question, there is a temptation to come up with an “interesting” answer. Make a character stand out by having fewer important traits. Hold off on the questionnaire, and round that thing out with bland. That’s the idea.


  1. cartomancer says

    I came across a good example of the phenomenon just last year.

    The player had started well enough – he came up with an idea for this sleazy, corrupt businessman character. It’s a fairly strong archetype and could prove interesting. So in went the first few details onto the character sheet: Slum Lord in Career, No Moral Compass in Alignment, international mob connections in the Allies and Resources box. A series of unlucky dice rolls produced a set of very mediocre personal characteristics indeed, although he had lucked out massively when rolling for Starting Wealth so it didn’t matter too much.

    Then he got to “family” and decided that his character should have a string of failed marriages to various trophy wives and a gaggle of awful children and hangers-on to make him more interesting. Then he really went to town when he got to the Disorders and Derangements box – suddenly we had a huge, unrepentant racist on our hands, with a range of over-the-top psychological imbalances including social media addiction, extravagant narcissism, a creepy oedipal relationship with one of his daughters and a ravening, crippling desire for personal validation. Which would have been bad enough, but then came the Appearance box and suddenly he had a slew of ridiculous physical characteristics too – puffy skin, tiny hands, squinty eyes, magical disappearing bone spurs and grossly unrealistic faux hair that had gone prematurely yellow in old age. The character’s usual clothing, it turns out, consisted of an oversized tie, great globs of orange theatrical greasepaint and a little red baseball cap covered in jaunty jingoistic lies. To top it all off (that “other details” box has a lot to answer for) he lived in a giant gold-plated tower in a perpetual state of tasteless opulence, he was a confessed serial rapist and he had also been elected president of a large country. This last detail seemed especially egregious and unrealistic.

    One hopes his GM took one look at this monstrosity and decided to make him start all over again and take things seriously this time round.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Gosh, cartomancer, you’re really going to undermine your reputation here. You have such a reputation for scholarly, well-researched posts — and here you blow it on such an obviously ridiculous, absurd, impossible character description. How will anyone take you seriously again when you come up with utterly unrealistic descriptions like that one?

  3. lanir says

    Not sure the bland approach is necessary. Maybe you need a “concept” blank for them to fill in? If they drift so far off track they’re barely what they say they are, it’s an easy thing to point out. If you’d like to see an example of how this works in a game, Fate does a pretty good job of using it. Fate characters have a few “aspects” or short details that define who and what they are and the things that are most important about them (gear, relationships, titles, etc). The most important of them for defining a character in Fate are the High Concept and Trouble aspects. Together they say the core bits of who you are and what stumbling blocks cause you problems or even drive you to adventure in the first place.

  4. says

    Baji Naji – Think I’ve heard of that one. High school supernatural romance RPG? Something like that? Sounds fun.

    Lanir – I dunno. White Wolf’s games have a “concept” blank too, and it’s the same as any of the others when characters get more specific they get more ridiculous. No one wants to have a character with brown eyes and the vast majority of the human species has them. At this point, I really feel people should force themselves to do *some* bland things. Yes, Fate and White Wolf didn’t have eye color on the character sheets (from what I can tell), but the second it comes up, or if someone employs an extended sheet, same problem.

    Looks like Fate did a better job than White Wolf of making the concept more important, from your link there. That’s cool.

  5. lanir says

    Satan- Heh. I started to say I was running a Vampire: the Dark Ages scenario for October. A sort of extended Halloween game. Because it’s a short run but the group would prefer to make their own PCs I was going to hand out background tidbits that integrate them into the world and suggest a role to play in the group. Then I erased it because I wasn’t sure that would fix this issue or not.

    The concept in White Wolf can be pretty loose or even just not all that important if the player just slaps something in that blank. I think what actually makes it work better in Fate is two things. First, you have a limited amount of these aspects to define your character to begin with. So each one is important (but they’re also changeable over time because they’re too important to lock in statically). Second, each one has an actual effect on the game. Players don’t all put the same importance on a White Wolf concept because it doesn’t derail anything if it’s wrong. Not sure there’s any good way to get the same effect in other games. I guess in White Wolf I could have it cost willpower. If your “cowardly lion” style PC wants to act like a “terminator” they should be spending willpower hand over fist to do it.

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