Character Creation

Little-known fact: there’s nothing that gets me quite as excited as this:

I’m the sort of person who watches video game rosters very closely during production. I watched every reveal trailer for Marvel vs. Capcom 3 the day it was released. I have the website for Super Smash Brothers 4/5 in my daily bookmarks list. I review every roster for a professional wrestling game, even though I have no intention of ever playing the game myself. Even after release, games with more playable characters have a higher appeal to me than games that don’t. It’s why I first picked up Fire Emblem, or got a pre-order of Batman: Arkham City for the DLC.

Why? Because there’s nothing that represents quite as much potential as a new character. I’m the sort of player who loves discovering new things, and playable characters are no exception. Will they be easy to learn, or powerful but difficult? How will their mannerisms translate to gameplay? Will the story be different with them, and how? Will they be terrible?

I approach D&D character creation the same way. I don’t want to come up with a great build and slot a personality into it, in the same way that I rarely want to come up with a great personality and slot a build into it. I want everything to work together. I want to iron out the kinks as I work through it. I want to take this character and see how they affect the story and how the story affects them. I want to change that potential into fun.

Most of my players look at character creation similarly. I do know players who design a build and a personality separately, either because they’re unaware that the two clash or because they simply don’t care. I also know players who design a build solely and trust the personality to come naturally during play, which is an interesting way to go about it for a strong role-player. But for the most part I think players love character creation as much as or more than actually playing the character.

When it comes to the actual work involved in creating a character, D&D and Pathfinder books do have advice. Often this comes in the form of an easy-to-follow list of steps, and often I have deep and abiding problems with that list. Here’s the list of steps for character creation in the 3.5E Player’s Handbook:

  1. Check with your DM for house rules, campaign standards, and what other players have already created.
  2. Roll ability scores
  3. Choose your class and race
  4. Assign and adjust ability scores
  5. Review the starting package (if you don’t know what this is, that’s fine; most players skip it)
  6. Record racial and class features
  7. Select skills
  8. Select a feat
  9. Review description chapter (that is, the chapter in the book that covers alignment, religion, vital statistics, personality, etc. Per the book, this step is optional.)
  10. Select equipment
  11. Record combat numbers
  12. Fill in details like name, age, gender, alignment, personality, etc.

I expect that this is for a first-time player, and it’s one of the worst ways I’ve ever seen to present it. By these steps, you don’t consider your character’s personality until step (9), unless you want to put it off until last. That is, your ability scores, job, race, training, and possibly even your equipment are more foundational than your personality. As Socrates Jones might shout, “Nonsense!” That’s an academic way of building a character, something that you might expect to give to a program or a robot that can create character quickly and efficiently. But we don’t want quick and efficient. We want meaningful and fun. We want to design our characters not with Intelligence, but with Charisma.

…meaning “in keeping with the theme of this blog”, not “with Charisma as the primary stat all the time.”

I’ve only created fifteen-odd characters for campaigns, but by my count I’ve run campaigns for seventy-odd characters. Adding in the characters I’ve helped design for other campaigns and one-shots like Delve Night, I think I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t when building a character. And what doesn’t work is waiting until the end of character creation to create the character. Things like class and race can give you some direction, but they should never be your basis. Instead I have my own list:

  1. Get together with the rest of your party and the DM. I skipped this step the last time I touched on character creation, but that’s not to say I’ve never said it.
  2. Decide what character you want to play. This includes personality, general role in the group, some backstory, and so forth. Try to avoid deliberately stepping on other players’ toes during this step, unless that’s what you and your group want.
  3. If the description from step (2) contains any in-game terms like the character’s class, feats, skills, etc., repeat step (2) until it doesn’t. This is to make sure that you’re building a concept first and numbers second, and to keep your blinders off. If you decide “I’m playing a paladin”, you won’t consider a fighter even if it’s closer to what you want. If you decide “I wear lots of armor, ride a horse, and protect the weak”, you have more options.
  4. Jot down a few phrases about who your character is and how they act. These don’t have to be as long as a sentence or as pithy as in the FATE system, but they can be. Whatever makes sense to you. Some players like doing this as part of their character’s past: “Raised in a cane break by an ol’ mama lion” reminds them of their history in a way that pervades their other choices. Some do it as future: “I want to become a top-ranked assassin” suggests that skill and recognition are the character’s driving motivations, and the build should reflect that. Some do it as present: “When in danger, hide behind the robot” shows a defensive character who shouldn’t be built for front-line combat.
  5. Start rolling stats and building the character. The above list puts this as a number of steps, as though “record racial and class features” is as important as everything else. It’s not. The build itself is only one part of the character and only one step in the process.
    • If the stats you roll don’t mesh with your character concept, talk to the DM. Technically, 14 / 13 / 13 / 13 / 13 / 8 is a valid stat array, but I don’t know many players who would enjoy it (I’m looking at you, Leaf Faraldrson).
    • You can design the build in largely the order stated above: ability scores, class, race, skills, feats, equipment. But it’s not a hard-and-fast order. Some players have strong opinions about how certain races should act and choose race early in their design. I do not. Some players also have certain equipment in mind (whip, lightsaber, or even something Lucasfilm didn’t do) and build with that in mind. Whatever works for you.

  6. When you’re finished with the footwork, start writing things down. Feats and equipment may change your core numbers like ability scores and AC, so I tend to put things on my character sheet last. It also makes a number more real to put it on a character sheet, which makes it harder to change. At this point the character is still in flux, and you should feel free to dump anything that you don’t like and rework it.
  7. Play the character. A lot of official books seem to think that character creation is complete once the sheet is done. That’s not even a little true. You need actual play to make sure your character is working like you want. Keep an eye on the traits you wrote in step (3); if you’re not playing to those traits, either the traits aren’t accurate or you’ve forgotten what sort of character you want to play. The latter in particular is a great way to lose interest in a character fast.
  8. Change the character. Very few characters are perfect right out of the gate. Many need tweaks to trade out features that aren’t working the way their players expected or that aren’t entertaining in practice. Sometimes the whole character needs to be scrapped and replaced with something more fun; this happened twice in the beginning of The Great Tower of Oldechi alone. I consider a character to still be fluid for at least their first three sessions, and after that I allow use of retraining mechanics to adjust a build.
  9. Repeat steps (7) and (8) until the campaign ends. No character is completely static as long as they’re being played. Maybe you died and that changed your world outlook. Maybe you found an heirloom sword and got inspired by its history. Maybe you slew a dragon (or a king) and the eye of the public is now upon you. Even if you have no singular defining moment, you still adventure, age, meet people, kill people, and gain experience and rewards. A character that stays exactly the same is a boring, insufferable character. In the same way that D&D players mutiny when they’ve played weekly for a year without gaining a level, you should take a good long look at a character that hasn’t changed in a year.

The analytical or captious reader may note that each of these steps is a more significant undertaking than the list in the PHB. That’s intentional. Character growth can’t be boiled down to a GameFAQs walkthrough, where if you follow certain bite-sized discrete steps you’ll have fun. Character creation is an ongoing process, often but not always something that happens organically without an explicit focus.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll have a perfect character if you go through this list, in the same way I can’t guarantee that you’ll always roll a 20 if you flick your wrist a certain way. There are elements in play beyond your character, including your personality, other characters, the other players’ personalities, your DM, and simple luck. But I can say that this way I’m happier with my characters, and I see more players happy with their own characters. Meaningful characters take meaningful effort to reach the potential you saw when you first pictured them in their head.

When a campaign ends, I want to think “My character was as fun to play as I thought it would be when I came up with it, and a big part of that fun was the journey as I explored their possibilities.” I want to be satisfied enough that I can get excited about the next approaching challenger, because I know I’ll have fun with that too.

Unless it’s Toon Link.

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4 Responses to Character Creation

  1. Take2Seriously says:

    Which system do you think then is best/worst for players to flesh out “good” characters?

    What are some examples of “good” character development through a campaign if you have any?

    • MssngrDeath says:

      I haven’t played every system, but of the ones I’ve played I think the best is Fate and the worst is GURPS. This is playing the systems as designed; you can probably build an interesting, dynamic character in GURPS, but I’m not convinced that’s what the designers built the system for. Heck, I’m not convinced that’s what the designers built D&D for.

      Perhaps my favorite instance of character development is the druid that changed from party mascot to secondary campaign villain to indispensable ally over the course of two or three months of play. But there’s something to be said for the gunslinger who spent his life pining for a woman until he accidentally turned her into a man, or the sorcerer who got reincarnated and started changing his spell list to fit his new race.

      And that’s one reason I like D&D more than Fate, because I felt that Fate was really, really bad at making it feel like characters were allowed to grow over time. I’d rather have a system with worse character creation and better growth opportunities, because I can make character creation good but I can’t make myself interested in a stale character.

      • MssngrDeath says:

        Now that I’ve slept on it, I have an adjustment. GURPS is narrowly not the worst system I’ve seen for building interesting, dynamic characters. That honor goes to Big Eyes, Small Mouth.

  2. Newb says:

    My preference is to have characters grow organically through the game rather than to start with a fixed character concept. It is rare that you find players generating characters which are perfect from the game right off the bat. Why then go to the effort of building a fully fleshed out character at the start when you’re just going to reinvent the character all over again at a later stage?
    I prefer to start the game with just a few ‘gist’ stats, and then to flesh out the character during gameplay. I find that it is best to allot players only about 15 or so minutes to get a rough draft of a character on paper. This means rolling some stats, and picking a race and class. For equipment I assign them all a standard kit, suitable to the kind of campaign, with one or two concessions for their specific class – after all, picking equipment is so laborious and time-consuming and the idea that the characters start every game freshly returned from PC mart is ridiculous. As everyone knows, in the game characters almost never have the perfect kit. Kit is subject to circumstances and availability, yet for some reason, freshly generated characters always have their own perfect starter kit.
    The real character generation then occurs in game, typically during the first game session. The DM should be lenient at this point, giving players a lot of leeway to chop and change characters during this time. Players should be allowed to make minor adjustments to ability scores, swap around some skills and feats and other abilities, or even to completely redesign a character from scratch if the character isn’t working. Most importantly, this gives players time to develop personalities and backstories in-game, working together with the DM and other players. In my experience, this is the greater part of the character building that goes on during game time. It may seem daunting to a DM to try running a game while at the same time arbitrating PC generation, but I’ve found that usually most of the changes that are made are minor changes or changes in character personality or backstory, things which cause little disruption to the game or even help players get more involved in the story. And major changes such as a complete redesign of a character which just isn’t working can be left off until the end of the session.
    Leaving the fleshing out and fine-tuning of a character for during the game allows you to get a feel for the tone of the game the DM is running as well as the different playing styles of other players before making the important choices. It allows the DM to involve players more in the story. The villain or a victim can be made into a close acquaintance of one PC. PCs can be made locals of the campaign location for more personal involvement, rather than the standard ‘we’re all strangers from distant lands who’ve come to risk life and limb to save you guys for no logical reason whatsoever’. It allows PCs to generate not individual characters, but closely meshed parties with mutually complementary abilities, a shared histories and backgrounds, and shared goals and ideals.

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