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Classy Characters: Concept first. Character next. Rules last.

by Imaginary Daemo on May 19, 2017

Public service announcement: This blog entry was originally written a while ago. But, it was crap, so I’ve re-written it. I hope it’s less crap now!

When I was getting ready to roll my first character over 15 years ago, my DM said to me: "Play whatever you want."

After years of playing awesome but mostly restrictive Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights the freedom to play ANYTHING was almost overwhelming. My mind went wild with crazy ideas. I spent WEEKS planning my first character. I didn't know the rules... the DM was going to help me with that. At that stage, it was all about possibilities.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my lack of rule knowledge and my DM's words had started me on a path towards a character creation process that would serve me amazingly well for years to come:

Concept first. Character next. Rules last.

That’s pretty much my mantra whenever I roll up a new character, and something I would like to share with you in the off-chance you find it interesting and use it to make your characters more fun to play.

Now, before I get stuck into the details I’d like to point out that this mantra isn’t for every player or every type of game. If you want to play a quick one-off session, it’s probably not worth putting this much effort in. If you don’t tend to get too invested in your character and just want to roll some dice and depart reality for a bit? That’s fine too.

But as a gamer that really likes his character’s to stick around for a very, very long time (15 year long campaign - zero deaths) this has worked well for me. It may work for you too!

Concept first

This is the smallest step, but in my opinion the most important. This is the very core of the person/thing you’re going to potentially putting a LOT of your time into, so it’s vitally important to find something you’re going to enjoy.

You may be tempted to constrain yourself depending on the system or setting you’re playing in, but don’t do that yet - for now it’s all about the concepts. Concepts can be adapted to pretty much any setting. Focus instead on the overarching archetype that encompasses them.

If you’re looking for inspiration, the Archetypal Characters list on TV Tropes is an excellent starting point. You can also always pillage your interests - film, video games, books - and use a known character as inspiration.

Some examples:

  • The lovable rogue. This could be used to create either a fantasy Robin Hood character, or a blaster-wielding Han Solo type. 
  • The gentle giant. A hulking orc with a heart of gold. The Iron Giant. I am Groot.
  • The hero. Every party needs one of these. Luke Skywalker. John Carter. Aragorn.

You get the idea. Read through the list and see what jumps out at you. Not every archetype is for everyone ( I could never play an anti-hero, for instance).

For my very first character, I chose to go with a ‘Good person with a secret dark past’ angle. I wanted someone who acted ‘good’ in the true sense of the word, but was capable of very bad things when they were necessary. Someone who sat back and let the others take the attention. Someone with a secret.

And so, with my concept done, I moved on the figuring out WHO they were...

Character next

The really fun bit! This is where you take your archetype or concept, then see how you can apply it to the setting you will be playing in. Be it fantasy, scifi, modern or anything in between, there will be a way to take your core concept and spin it into an interesting character.

Write the backstory. Decide what their intentions are. How do they see the world? What’s their STYLE. Are they a recluse? Brash? Stoic? Some of these things are fed by the archetype, but you also have the chance to really spin things around and make something interesting… or play it safe if you want.

You will most likely find that your chosen archetype or concept will greatly assist in creating an interesting character. Most of the interesting archetypes have some form of conflicting or complementary motives. Lovable rogues for example are most likely criminals of some sort, but have a heart of gold and work towards a greater good (for their own gain).

There are already heaps of articles online about how to create characters - checklists and random tables galore - and they will all serve you well in varying ways.

There is SO much that can be said about this step of the process, and I will definitely be covering it in more detail in future blogs.

The big thing to remember here is to come up with a character that you’ll be able to stand for a prolonged period of time. Easier said than done sometimes. I’ve seen many a gamer get bored of their character - for either mechanical or character reasons - and commit death by DM. That doesn’t serve the overall story of the game well.

You don’t have to love them. You don’t even have to agree with them (Paladin players especially). But you do have to think they’re awesome at some level. If they were in a book, they have to be the sort of character you miss when not in the scene and you look forward to their return.

If you’ve somehow stretched Generic Man over a cool mechanic or build you found online, chances are after a few combats you’ll get bored.

My first character? The ‘Good guy with dark past’ evolved into a runaway assassin, living in a faraway land disguised as a merchant… who gets caught up in the overall story. He was pretty interesting already at this point, but what happened in the Rules part of his development really made him really memorable...

Rules last

With me putting Rules last, it may look as if I’m saying they are the least important part. On the contrary - in my opinion a character needs to be well built in the game system to be survivable and fun.

The reason I put Rules last is that I firmly believe having a well fleshed out character FIRST leads a more memorable and fun character to play.

By all means, sink as much time into this stage as possible to make your character awesome. Builds, feat charts, online guides - go through them all but always with the overall purpose of bringing the character that already exists in your head to life in the game.

This is also where curve-balls happen, and that's a good thing.

In your efforts to stat up your character, you may stumble on classes you didn’t know existed. A new splat book may be released. Knowing more rules means knowing more possibilities.

It’s perfectly fine to get to this step and go back to the Character step. Most times you will do a few laps of this until you’re happy with the final result.

This happened with my first character. My runaway assassin living in disguise went through many changes as I discovered more and more of D&D 3.0… eventually joining the game as Tarik, Doppleganger Ninja who spent the whole time shape-shifted to look like a Celt (I wasn’t reaching much for my first attempt, was I?).

The best part about is that the part didn’t find out that he was a shape-changer for 2 years afterwards. He needed a secret, and I figure that was a good one to keep!

Finishing up

To wrap things up, I just wanted to reiterate that the above works for me but won’t be for everyone. It’s allowed me to create some characters that I will cherish forever.

In the 15 years I have been playing in my main campaign, I have played 4 characters in total. I have retired 3 of them. They all still have a place in our ongoing story, and in my mind stand easily alongside Frodo, Rand and Kaladin. To me, they have never just been stats on a page.

Stay tuned for next time, when I delve into a foolproof way to add depth to your new character - do something REALLY horrible to them!