I have a confession to make: I used to hate Dungeons & Dragons.
I played twice during my formative teen years and found it to be incredibly dull. My character was a fighter named Micki M. Annoyus who had a big sword and that was about it. She wasn’t a character. She was a fighter with a big sword. Micki had no story and no personality. I didn’t care what happened to her. Then in college, I heard about my friends’ D&D campaign based on the anime Slayers–which I also hated–but decided to give it a try. I created a barbarian gourmet chef named Haruka who was ridiculous and super fun. Following that game, the characters I created were way more interesting because I built them from the inside out. I knew who they were as people, which allowed me to get in their heads and really act as they would.
Below are my five tips for creating roleplay characters with depth and personality to enrich your RPG experiences.
The Big Question: Why?
Image credit: Joma Cueto
“Why?” is the most important question behind every good character and plot line. Why does your character need to go on this journey? Why do you want to explore this dungeon even though you know it’s dangerous? When you can understand your character’s “Whys?” then you will have a much deeper understanding of who they are. Why leads to motivations. Motivations lead to actions. It actually becomes easier to make decisions and say what the character would say when you understand why they would do or say those things.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to write stories about things that have happened in the character’s past because so many of our personality traits come from experiences. Look at Vax’ildan and Vex’ahlia from Critical Role. When Liam and Laura knew their campaign was going to continue, they sat down together and hashed out the twins’ backstory. Where were they from? What did they encounter as half-elves? Laura even has a huge story about how she and Trinket became a pair. By doing this, they created the unbreakable bond that you see play out on screen.
Secrets and Flaws
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Secrets and flaws are a huge part of what makes your character interesting. Ever play with that one dude who always has to be great at everything? He’s the annoying one you quickly realize will make the game less fun. Imperfections make your character more real. What do they fear and why are they afraid of it? Perhaps they have an addiction, or they’re downright obsessed with something that is distracting the party from their quest. Flaws allow the other players to see deeper, and sometimes darker, sides to your character.
Secrets create ulterior motives. Is there something about your character, or something in their past, that could destroy your party if it got out? Secrets create mystery and give other players reasons to be interested in discovering what your character is all about.
Bishop is a private investigator in my Edge of the Empire game. She’s usually pretty badass, but she’s also claustrophobic. Why? (There’s that all-important “why”) Because she spent an extended period of time in solitary confinement. This flaw makes her nervous and can even lead to panic attacks. The first time she was stuck in the back of a truck, the group got to see this vulnerability. It made her more than a one-dimensional caricature. Of course, the other players don’t know yet that she spent time in prison, and even if they find out, the reason why is still an intriguing secret.
Inspiration is everywhere
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Literally, it’s everywhere. It’s in books, comics, movies, real life, and everywhere in between. It’s perfectly okay to start with a concept based on another character and then develop them into their own unique persona.
Here are three simple questions to help you start fleshing them out:
- What is their zodiac sign?
- Which of the 7 deadly sins represents them best?
- What song would be playing in the background when they first appear?
One time, I even found inspiration in an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. (Don’t judge me. I’m dead serious.) Unmei was my prim and proper sorceress in a D&D 3.5 game. She was wealthy and beautiful, but also a nasty bully. Originally, the “parents gave me everything I wanted except love” motive worked, but something felt flat about it. Then I saw an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras where this adorable 3 year-old said, “If I win, then they’ll love me.” It was sad, but inspiring at the same time. I changed Unmei’s background so that her father ignored her, but her mother pushed her to be competitive to the point where she became neurotic about always being perfect and shunning those who would make her less perfect, hence becoming a bully.
Build Stats Around the Concept
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What is your character’s purpose, and what are the skills that compliment that purpose? Obviously that’s where you should start your skill point allocations. But what other miscellaneous skills might your character have that may not necessarily relate to the plot? More so, should your character be missing any stats?
Bishop is the social character of my EotE group. Her main skill stats are in Coercion, Deception, Perception, and a custom skill called Investigation. The game is set on a neutral planet in the Star Wars universe with plenty of seediness and crime to go around. Bishop seems to know who is who and acts all tough in the cantina, yet she doesn’t have any ranks in the Streetwise or Knowledge-Underworld skills. For a private investigator, that’s a bit strange, isn’t it? This lack of skill hints at a lack of experience. So how does she seem to know what she’s doing if she hasn’t been hitting the streets very long? Perhaps she has experience in a related field. And there, my friends, is that secret aspect I was talking about.
Leave Some Holes
Image credit: Rod Wong
It’s wise not to fill out every detail of every day of your character’s life. Sometimes when you leave things obscure, it creates an opportunity for filling in those details with something really cool when an idea hits you later. My Sith character never knew her parents, only that they were both dead. It wasn’t something that I ever really explored. About 3 years into playing her as a bodyguard, The Phantom Menace came out, and it hit me that she could easily be Darth Maul’s granddaughter. So I picked up that thread and ran with it. Goodbye bodyguard, hello Sith trainee!
What are some of your tips for creating RPG characters? Share them with us in the comments!
Featured image credit: Wendy Sullivan Green