Table Reflection: So You Want to Play 3 (Building a Character)

One of the greatest issues that I’ve seen when novices start roleplaying is the fact that they don’t understand some of the basics about creating a character. Most frequently, they’re used to video games or stories that either have very powerful protagonists or even if they’re used to video games that utilize characters similar to those in tabletops (games meant for playing in a cooperative group often take this path), they don’t really know how to create one of these characters from the ground-up in a tabletop system.

One of the major things before making a character is to make sure that someone knows what’s going on; either you need a certain amount of familiarity and knowledge of the system, or you need an experienced player or the GM sitting in on character creation. Personally, I like to have a session before the main sessions of a campaign simply for making characters and making sure that everyone’s got the mechanics down right. Fortunately, on the tabletop there’s not a whole lot of things that can go wrong here that can’t be corrected after the fact, but it does mean more effort down the road if there are mistakes with the actual character creation process within the game mechanics.

In addition, it’s important to cooperate with other players in your group. Even though a lot of tabletop games offer a fair degree of flexibility over what characters can do, a decent sized group should have a character capable of managing most situations, which typically means a face, one or two combat-focused characters, and a larceny-focused character, with magicians, hackers, or the like based on setting. Some of this depends on the focus of your game; if combat is a core component of the game, you’ll likely see that any character build will include some combat skills-D&D, for instance, gives everyone a certain degree of combat prowess, though out-of-combat utility tends to scale this back a little. Other games, like Shadowrun, don’t necessarily force everyone into combat, so it’s possible for characters to be built with no combat skills. This is also true of other situations; Vampire: the Masquerade requires most characters to be able to deal with some degree of social intrigue, and combat is depreciated or even entirely ignored by some successful characters. Basically, collaborate with your group and your Game Master (and the GM should be willing to give you pointers on where the campaign will go, or at the very least what skills are useful) to figure out how you should build your characters.

However, on the tabletop, characters are much more than their mechanical statistics; they are actors in a story. Just as how most video games define certain things about the protagonist, your character will have a role in the way the story unfolds. I’ve seen a lot of people who approach roleplaying like they approach making a character in Diablo, and it doesn’t turn out as well, since they’re not playing a game that’s about the numbers; tabletop gaming is about the social and narrative experience, and while the mechanics are often conducive to the same sort of “level-up” mentality that makes some computer roleplaying games popular, it’s important to consider characters’ personalities and backgrounds.

When writing a character’s background story, be sure that you stick to the realms of reality; your character will be larger than life in most games, and in some they may even be explicitly destined for greatness, but consider that everyone has to get along. You can’t have everyone be the God Emperor of Mankind, and rarely is an adventuring group helped out by having one character who is a king or otherwise far outside the normal social strata of adventurers. This isn’t to say that you have to limit your characters, mind you, but it’s less fun for other players if their characters get outshone, and you will enjoy the game more if other people enjoy the game and participate (plus, as I mentioned last week, monopolizing is a social faux pas and can result in expulsion from some groups).

My advice when forming a character would be to justify every part of their mechanical existence with a story background. A character with high levels in medical skills may have attended a medical school, or even have had such a sickly childhood that they were taught to take care of themselves because full-time care was becoming too expensive (or wasn’t available in the first place), which will result in a catch for your cyberpunk hero for hire, since this is the sort of thing that might give them connections to non player characters or in-universe locations (for instance, the local college’s freely accessible medical library). It may also suggest certain things, for instance, Shadowrun is a setting in which the majority of characters do not have formal identification, but a character with college-level medical training may have a SIN because they would have needed one for college (alternatively, they just slipped in uninvited during lectures). If they have a skill that’s considered illegal or antisocial, it may hint toward a background in certain things; a character who has a lot of firearms training in a society where guns are tightly controlled either lived on the wrong side of the law or had some permission to use them.

Don’t make your characters strictly archetypical; you can do this, but it’ll cause some major issues down the road-I’ve seen a lot of players at my own table who describe their character as a guy with an AK89 and a katana, and while that works for the game mechanics, their characters don’t get story arcs that utilize their background very well. Giving a little hint of life to your characters will make them much more engaging and is easier than one would think.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you’re basing your character off of a character you’ve seen elsewhere. On one hand, this is often pretty easy and good if you’re not feeling inspired, but it can also be annoying for people when you just reference your character as “Like [trademarked name]” and they don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s best not to try to run an exact clone of a character; use them just as you’d use your own experiences: as a building block.

I hope you found this week’s reflection on creating characters to be helpful; next week I’ll be getting back into writing GM advice.

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