Player depth

6 09 2009

One feature that many reviewers rate highly when it comes to critiquing a role-playing game is the speed with which characters can be created.

I can see the merit in that.  If you want a one-shot game, you don’t want to spend half the night creating characters.  Nor do you necessarily want pre-generated ones.

But if you’re considering a campaign, as a GM I find nothing more frustrating than a group of players who roll stereotypical characters and then want to start playing.  The player that likes to play the elven ranger is playing exactly the same elven ranger that he did last time out…and the time before…and the time before that. 

As a GM, it gives you little to work with.  As a player, it gives you no depth to your character.  At very least, create a little back-story.  As a writer, whenever I create a character, I answer up to fifty questions in order to flesh that person out.  I know what they like to eat and drink, what their parent’s do for a living, what motivates them and all of their pet likes and dislikes.

In role-playing, there are a variety of ways you can invest in your character.  I’ll scratch the surface here – as there really are so many ways to go about this.

  1. The hard way – just sit down with a pencil and paper and write down all of the things you can think about that may be relevant to your character.  Their favourite colour?  Their childhood pet?  What is their secret?  What is their philosophy in life?  Who or what would they die for?  You hopefully get the idea.  If you’re stuck for ideas, try writing websites.  Many have templates for character ‘creation.’ 
  2. Use the source material.  Unless it’s a fabricated world, there will be plenty of sourcebooks available.  Read them and get ideas for a village or town you were born in.  If it’s on the coast, were your parents in the fishing industry?  If near the mountains, were they involved with mining?  Are there any notable NPCs that you could have had a minor brush with?  Is there anything in the timeline that could be linked to your character?  As assassination?  A battle?  A famine?  An orc uprising?
  3. There are a few role-playing resources available.  One of the plusses of GURPS is the advantages and disadvantages aspect.  These are then extended to quirks.  Forget the point allocation and just consider the role-playing aspect of the system.  Does your character have a catch-phrase?  Do they have a phobia?  Do they have a missing ear or bad breath?  There are two other sourcebooks that I use and I would recommend.  One is quite specific to a system and favours the allocation of advantages and disadvantages – the other is quite generic.

First up is Flaws and Merits by Alea Publishing Group.  It is D&D 4th edition specific – but the overall guidelines can be switched to any system with a small amount of effort.  It’s less about background and more about, well…Flaws and Merits.  I guess that’s why they called it that.  As an example, if you were to play a Cleric, your flaw could be you are naturally arrogant and the balancing merit could be you are a born leader.  Not all flaws and merits have to be balanced out and, as a rule, it is suggested that the flaw or merit impacts your stats.

 The next one I have knowledge of is PC Pearls from Goodman Games.  This is far more detailed and is really system-free.  It covers things like choosing a name, creating your family unit as well as personality quirks and places of origin.  Then it gives things like sample organisations you may have been a member of.  For those that don’t do accents, there are twenty ways to make your character’s voice distinct.  It even gives advice on role-playing itself – from what sort of things your character should carry in her belt to where to go for information in a town.  In this respect, its also a great GM tool (although I’ll cover their GM Gems product another time).

Another plus is that both can be bought via PDF if you can’t find them at your games store.  Some time soon, I’ll cover both in depth.  For now, I wanted to show you how easy it is to create a back-story for your character and make them more than just six stats.

 But why do all this for the GM?  The first aspect is that it makes your character easier to play – as well as more fun.


When you walk into a bar, you know exactly what drink your character will choose.  You know which patrons your character will gravitate towards and which ones you’ll avoid.  Decisions will be easier – and it’ll be much more straightforward to stay in character.  It will also be simpler for other players to know what your character is likely to do and interact appropriately.

More fun

Staying in character will increase everyone’s enjoyment of the game.  For that session you will become that character.   Far more importantly, instead of just going on a dungeon crawl and killing 17.3 monsters and grabbing 187 gold in equipment, the GM can ensure that one of the items you pick up is of interest to you.  Perhaps one of the orcs you killed was part of the party that raided your village.  How about that man at the bar?  Isn’t he the NPC your character always dreamed about meeting?  What a coincidence that the damsel you’re planning to rescue is the one you used to stare at whenever the royal carriage came into town. 

Better for the GM too

As a GM, it is more fun to make scenarios specific to the characters.  Otherwise it’s just like playing on a computer, bashing the monsters and collecting the XP.  As a GM, it is typical to use this data against the players, but that’s fair game.  The whole point of this is to overcome. 

Therefore, as a player, your friends will be kidnapped, your home village will be ransacked and your sworn enemy is bound to turn up at the next tavern.  But you’ll also get to find that grimoire you’ve always coveted.  It’s a game of balance.  If you give to the game, you’ll get from the game.  The more you give, the more you’ll gain.  Think about it the next time you get the dice out to roll up a character.




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