Players make their characters for their own benefit. Their character is the person they will be controlling and leading through the various tribulations of the campaign so they naturally want to make a character on their own terms according to their own decisions. That is as it should be, but there are also certain elements of character creation, and especially character backstories and personalities, that make Games Masters jump for joy when they see them striding purposefully across the their game table. I gathered some pointers below about elements of character creation and backstory that Games Masters really love to see.
- A strong concept. If a character can be summed up in a few words, without any ambiguity or vague language, it’s a strong concept. Even clichés are fine if they give everyone someone to work with. ‘Wily thief with a tongue as sharp as his dagger’ is a great one. So is ‘gruff barbarian with an unexpected heart of gold’. ‘Assassin trained from birth, deadly but new to the ways of the outside world’ is, too. A concept doesn’t have to be wholly original or groundbreaking to work, and a solid concept is much easier to work with than something that’s difficult to encapsulate quickly.
- Not too complicated. The best backstories have enough meat to explain why a character is the way he is, but not so much that detail becomes superfluous or impossible for everyone to remember. Multiple reversals, changes of identity and reams of past significant deeds tend to get forgotten quickly.
- A hook. Good backstories give Games Masters ideas that let them engage the character directly in the plot. For instance, a character from a particular tribe might find herself returning to that tribe, where the reasons for her exile become important to the story. A wizard might have been trained by a famous master, who turns out to be involved in the sinister machinations of the campaign’s villains, creating both a way to get the character personally involved and a personal conflict over whether his respected master is as respectable as he assumed. Again, too much detail makes such hooks difficult to use, but simple, strong connections to the game world make excellent tools for a Games Master to employ.
- Not destructive to the campaign. Characters who are selfish, insane or evil to the point of destroying party rarely make for positive campaign experiences. Players might want to play them for the challenge, or to do something different, but many Games Masters will ask them not to because it is so difficult to run a campaign where the player characters are assumed to be acting together if one of those characters goes out of her way to destroy the party’s cohesion. Some campaigns can accommodate this, but if the Games Master asks that characters not be corrosive to the idea of the party, it’s a good idea to listen. Even worse is where a player creates a destructive character to ‘beat’ the Games Master by derailing his campaign. No one wants to play with such a character, or such a player.
- Not too silly. There’s nothing wrong with humour in roleplaying games but it will usually arise naturally from the players’ interactions or the foibles of their characters, not from characters created to be ridiculous all the time.
- Has a reason to adventure. A character needs a reason to engage in the dangerous, punishing, often fatal things a typical roleplaying character does. Sometimes the campaign will provide this, but often a basic reason for adventuring – revenge, lust for riches, heroic struggle against a greater evil – is very useful if it’s worked into the character concept.
- A cool name. Names are important, and will be used all the time. A dull name is uninteresting but not necessarily damaging to the experience. A joke name gets very old, very quickly.
Exceptions exist to all these rules, but if in doubt they’re good pointers to making a roleplaying character that’s easy for the Games Master and the other players to deal with. Always consult with the Games Master and other players as you make your character, be prepared to tweak things if they don’t quite fit, and create someone you’re confident you’ll have fun with.