As you may know, I’ve been making lots of characters lately. As a consequence of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a character fun to create, and fun to play. I thought I’d share these techniques.
Start with Something that Excites You
Above everything else, it’s important to have a character you’re excited about, or it will be boring to play. Too often, this can be forgotten, thinking in terms of rounding out the rest of the group and starting with things like race and class. You can go there, but first, think about what’s going to make this character enjoyable and interesting for you to play.
It can be a mechanical excitement (“The Sneak Attack class feature looks cool, so I want to play a Rogue!” “I’ve never played a Defender before, and the Warden looks pretty cool.” “Oh man, that is the coolest feat/edge/skill/discipline/charm/trait/whatever ever! I’ve got to make a character around that.”) a situation excitement (“and I swore revenge against Majestic-12!” “The vampire prince is my Sire, but neither of us can publicly admit it!” “My partner of 20 years betrayed me on the last case. I have to find out why!) or a character quirk that excites you (“he keeps trophies of all his kills!” “he’s an uptight obsessive-compulsive introvert!” “He’s got a Scottish accent!”) Whatever. As long a you’re excited about it, and feel it’s enough to base a character on, you’re good to go.
Mechanics can inform personality (“My Rogue is a flamboyant Swashbuckler.”)
Personality can inform mechanics (“My uptight obsessive-compulsive introvert is that way because she’s a Malkavian.”)
Situation can inform mechanics, and usually informs personality. (“Since I’m a veteran cop, I should pick up appropriate skills, and a well rounded base, both physical and mental. I’m probably a little upset about the whole betrayal thing, and there’s a host of cop archetypes to play off of.”)
This sense of energy and enthusiasm is important, since it will carry you through character creation and play. Remember, always make characters that you’re excited about playing!
Familiarize Yourself With the Rules
I don’t think it’s necessary to make “optimized” or “min-maxed” characters. I do think it’s important to be proficient with the system you are using. The more complex the system, the easier it is for a player to fall behind the power curve of the other players. At best, this results in reduced character effectiveness, and a resulting loss of spotlight time and prestige. At worst, in a highly competitive game, it can get your character and other characters killed, and incite feelings of acrimonious envy.
Know your limitations! If you’re new to a system, sit down and read it over, or ask a veteran player to guide you through character creation. Keep yourself in the driver’s seat, but ask them for their advice. In a system like HERO, this is a must. (And even experienced players may want to have someone else to compare notes with.)
It can embarrassing to make a master fencer in a World of Darkness game, with maxed out Dexterity and Weapons, only to realize you’re going to be rolling Strength + Weapons because you didn’t take the right Merit. (A good GM will let you move your Merit points around. Sadly, not all problems have such an easy answer.)
This doesn’t stop at character creation. For your Rogue, you’ll want to know what Combat Advantage is, how to get it, and what other conditions might allow you to get your Sneak Attack. You’ll probably want to have a good idea of how stealth works, and what skills on your list can be used for what. Know what abilities and skills are useful for your class, and what aren’t. If you cast spells or use powers from a list, know what your capabilities are, and write them down. You’ll save time during play, and you’ll have a better idea of your options.
Build Character Through Play
This is probably going to be a controversial point, because it’s counter to a lot of accepted theory about character creation.
I think writing long, detailed backstories for characters is a bad thing.
When I write a backstory, I write two to three paragraphs. There’s only a few major things you need to hit on: Important, life altering events, (for Exalted, you get what you did before you Exalted, how you Exalted, and what you’ve been doing since then) a personality snap-shot (a few key traits, anything that has game effects like a Motivation) and an ability summary (highest skills, where your charms are at, a note for any key magic items.) Anything more than that is a waste. You risk increasing the signal to noise ratio, loading down the gamemaster with information that they’ll never use.
Leaving blank spots in your background lets you fill them in during play. It also lets the gamemaster mix and match backgrounds to weave the characters together. Maybe the cruel old sorcerer who tricked me into a cursed immortality is the same person as the corrupt vizier in your background. If we had both named those characters, and given them elaborate descriptions and information about their relations to us, that connection doesn’t work.
But more importantly, you run the risk of frontloading character. I think the most important events to your character should happen during play. And the most important revelations about your character’s personality- about their essential character- these should happen during play, at the gaming table.
I’m going to pull a book off my shelf, Legend of the Five Rings 3rd Edition. For character creation, it suggests that you answer 20 questions for your character. Let’s look at some of these:
Some of them, you can’t play without answering: Clan Membership, School, and Family are all things you will have to decide to make a character. It’s probably a good idea to ask what your character’s main motivation is. Because of the societal expectations, it’s a good idea to figure out if you’re married, and who your lord is (though that question is only indirectly asked). Since the question will come up early in game, it’s a good idea to figure out what your appearance is.
But let’s scrutinize some of the other questions:
What does your character think of Bushido?
What is your character’s opinion of his own clan?
What about your character’s emotions?
If you could, what advice would you give your character?
On the one hand, thinking about these in advance can give you insight into the character, which is good. On the other hand, overthinking about them can easily lead to creating a stiff, rigid character bible to which you must follow.
Here’s what I think the worst question on the list is:
How would your character handle a subordinate’s improper behavior?
You know why I don’t want to answer this question in advance? Because it’s a hard choice. It’s also one that’s likely to come up in play. When it happens, I want to have that moral quandary. I want to have to make that choice at the table, with everyone watching me. At home, typing up a background, I can answer that question without the same emotional intensity, and then I have a prepared response available. I deny myself a tough, formative, roleplaying moment.
Save the hard choices for play. Let your character grow and breathe at the gaming table. Let them surprise you.