Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 25, 2014
New player guide to role-playing: Character creation

In the first part of this series I talked about how the role-playing and the game part of a pen & paper role-playing game (RPG) sometimes have conflicting goals: You want smooth progress for the game, but interesting challenges and obstacles for the role-playing story. Nowhere is that conflict more evident than in character creation, so I'm talking about this point next.

Most RPG systems let you make choices on character creation which affect the combat performance of your character. For example if you want to make a fighter, it is possible that the system allows you to put your highest ability score into strength, and that then makes hitting things with a sword easier. You probably also can choose a race for your fighter, and then some races have bonuses that make them better fighters. Thus, just like one would do in a video game, one is tempted to do some min-maxing and create the dwarven fighter with the best combination of ability scores and skills and feats that the system allows you to make. Sometimes rules systems are a bit complicated, but with a bit of study it is always possible to make the best possible character for a certain role. But should you?

The problem is that there is usually just one optimum. So if you play more than one campaign, you end up meeting a lot of dwarven fighters. And because that is such a stereo-type that it appears in lots of books and movies, many of those dwarven fighters are played as having a character similar to Gimli from the Lord of the Rings. Add an elven ranger to the party, and you get role-playing dialogues that aren't really anywhere near original.

I am not proposing to go for the opposite. Don't make an extremely weak but intelligent fighter, one who barely can lift his sword but can discuss philosophy. Combat is an important part of most RPG systems, and you don't want to completely gimp your character. But if you want to make a fighter, you should consider making some more interesting choices if they don't have a too bad effect on combat performance. If a halfling fighter only hits 5% less well than a dwarven one, consider whether that wouldn't be more fun to role-play than something stereo-typical.

A similar consideration is also true when creating a background story for your character. Some people tend to either not create one at all, as a completely unattached character has the most freedom, or to create a background that they hope will give them some advantage, like coming from a rich family. But character background is really something that a player should discuss with his DM. Ideally character background provides story hooks that weave into the campaign story and provide personal goals for characters that go beyond the group goals. So you need to speak with your DM about what his campaign is about, and what sort of character goals he can work with. While personal goals are a good thing, you also don't want them to diverge too much inside the group. Groups work best if the personal goals of one character aren't incompatible with the group goals and the personal goals of the other characters. Some conflict is good, but not so much that it tears the group apart.

In 40 years of pen & paper RPGs, nobody has ever won a game. It simply isn't a competitive game where you try to do better than the guy next to you. It is a collaborative game of interactive story-telling, which involves some game elements like dice rolls. So if you create a character, try to make a character that lends itself to creating an interesting story. The halfling who became a fighter when an evil necromancer ruined his father's merchant business probably ends up having more interesting encounters and personal involvement in the campaign than yet another Gimli the dwarf lookalike.

I do remember my second RPG/AD&D character ever: a human ranger without any boni.He was fun to roleplay and as we first did solo adventures, everything worked. But when I joined the main group, I did like 1/3 of the fighters damage and my companions got killed in the first fireball/aoe spell.

...that was when I decided to first look what the others picked and then decide on a character.
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