Player’s Guide: Crafting a Concept

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June 21, 2010 by Sarah Darkmagic

The Player’s Guide (Tracy Hurley from Sarah Darkmagic) gives monthly tips and advice just for the new D&D gamer. Although the veterans might learn something along the way as well.

For some players, character creation causes a fair amount of stress and anxiety.  How much time and effort should I put into their personality and backstory?  While the answer varies widely by player and group, the base guideline is that character generation should be fun and should provide enough information to bring the PC to life.  With those guidelines in mind, here are some tips for crafting your character.

The Basics

First, you should know how your character needs to fit into the world and group.  Does your DM have restrictions about the sorts of characters that can be found in her world?  Does your group need a character to fill a particular party role?  If the campaign is based in the desert, creating a swashbuckling pirate might not be the best idea.  Likewise, while groups can go without particular party roles, a party made up of just defenders might be a little frustrating.  More information on dealing with restrictions and party roles can be found in the Player’s Handbook and Player’s Strategy Guide.

Once you know the restrictions for your character, you can start creating him, beginning with broad strokes.  Most characters are based on an archetype and then have some twist that makes them interesting.  For example, Robin Hood would be just another brigand if he didn’t share his spoils with the less fortunate.  If you need help narrowing your options, think about characters you like from sources such as books, television, movies, and comics.  Then, write a sentence or two that describes the character you would like to play.  My first character, Sarah Darkmagic, started off merely as a cousin of Jim Darkmagic, the half-elven daughter of a magician father and his extremely talented assistant, and full of romantic notions about adventuring.

Now that you have a character summary, it’s time to flesh him out.  What drives your character?  How does he see himself and his place in the world?  Don’t feel like you need to write a novel; this exercise is meant to make you feel comfortable playing your character when you get to the table.  If you are having trouble creating questions, check out the Ten-Minute Background on the Wizards’ Community site and ObsidianCrane’s 20 questions.  For my character, I answered questions such as why was she adventuring, what was her childhood like, why was she a rogue, how did she defend herself against Jim’s Magic Missile™, etc.  The answers suggested to me that she has a small amount of warlock training (those Magic Missiles smart) and that she is a bit lonely and misses her family.

With an understanding of who your character is, you can pick some items or actions that hint at those aspects of his personality.  Where would we be without Harry Potter’s scar or the White Rabbit’s pocket watch?  The items our characters carry can also help signify whether we are playing with or against type.  For instance, a dwarf with a longbow hints at a unique backstory whereas a rogue in black leather suggests we might be able to make some assumptions.

For One-Shots

One-shots are a great excuse to try out new character classes, roles, and personality types.  However, this means that we are often outside of our comfort zone and creating the same level of detail may take more time than we are willing to invest.  What we really need are a few sentences about who the character is, what he looks like and a few personality traits that demonstrate this.  For instance, when I played in an Arabian Nights-themed game recently, I wanted to explore my darker side and came up with a changeling assassin.  I created a simple backstory for her, she was an escaped prisoner willing to sell her blade to whomever would offer her amnesty.  I made sure some of her powers evoked this darkness about her and ran with it at the table.

If you are willing to give up some control over your character, random tables can speed the creation process.  Some detailed tables can be found at Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality and Background.  If you’re afraid of letting the dice decide your personality quirks but want an easy way to focus your story creation, give Rob Donogue’s 52 pickup system a try.  Answering three questions shouldn’t take a lot of time and the answers should provide you enough of a hook to get started on game day.

Group Creation

The above tips and resources are great for helping you create a character, but what if you want to work on creating a great party as well?  Given 4th edition’s emphasis on group tactics and cooperative powers, having a cohesive group is important.  In addition, a shared history makes everyone’s job easier.  My own gaming group has had issues where a character just didn’t fit in with the rest of the party and had to be retired.  A great resource for exploring the topic of group creation is Fear the Boot‘s excellent group questionnaire and template.  The questions cover broad topics, giving the DM lots of room to tell his story, while the answers are narrow enough to guide players as they create their characters.  Other games are using group templates or shared history as well, including the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Dresden Files RPG and Spirit of the Century.

One thing to remember is that creating a character concept doesn’t end once you finish your character sheet.  As you play your character, you’re bound to learn more about him and how he views and interacts with the world.  These details are impossible to come up with in advance but often are among the best and most remembered character stories.  This initial phase attempts to provide you with enough information to get comfortable with your character so that the rest of it will happen naturally.   So don’t freak out if you don’t know his favorite color or the name of his first pet.  Relax, and just let that information come to the surface as you go.

Do you have some character concept creation tips I missed?  Do you use a different process for figuring out who your character is?  Or perhaps you have a question you would like answered in a future Player’s Guide post.  If so, let us know in the comments.

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4 thoughts on “Player’s Guide: Crafting a Concept

  1. Ash says:

    Nice introduction to the art of character creation, Sarah.

    As the creator of Ash’s Guide, I wanted to point out that players are not at all obligated to use the percentages given in the tables. The Guide was never intended to be used to generate random player characters; the percentages are there mostly for DMs who want to roll up quick random NPC personalities. I just don’t want potential visitors to be scared off because they think The Guide requires giving up control of their character’s personality creation.

    • Yeah, players should definitely feel free to use it for inspiration and/or pick and choose which categories they would like randomly created for them. I’ve had at least one DM offer us similar random tables when we could decide certain things about our character. Sorry if I caused confusion.

  2. The Stray says:

    Hey, a shout-out for the TMB! Sweet! Nice to see it mentioned. I developed it from the Minimus system as a way of getting a background with lots of potential more quickly than a 20 questions (which is what I was using before I adopted it).

  3. [...] by Sarah Darkmagic on July 19, 2010 · Leave a Comment  Last month, we discussed crafting a character concept. Now it’s time to translate this description into the game [...]

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