Thursday, April 7, 2011

Building Character: Starting at Scratch

Since I started posting my character backstories and the From Their Eyes series I’ve been receiving compliments on the way I build and craft my characters, and I figured I could take advantage of this praise and give it back. See, I know a lot of people struggle to make their characters anything more than assorted numbers assigned to different stats, and they’d like to build a character with y’know… character. I want to help in this aspect, because if those people appreciate my characters, then they might also be able to learn from the process I use to make them. That’s what this short series, Building Character, is all about. I want to take you all through a step by step process of how I build my characters (with Caitlin Cormac as the headline example), and how you can get into the roleplaying aspect of the character during any part of the process. Without further adieu, let’s start at the beginning of character creation: conception.

Before any idea comes to fruition it is first thought up, and since I’ve yet to reach a point where I can manipulate the fabrics of the dimensions of time and space I am also bound by these rules. When I decide to create a character I decide whether I’m building this character to compliment or contrast an existing party, or if I’m building whatever the fuck I want. Some players subscribe exclusively one way or the other, but for me I try to go based off of the party composition and who has decided on what. If no one has any clue and isn’t in any rush to decide I usually take initiative and create what I want, but in general I find I enjoy characters the most when they’re pigeon-holed during the creation process as it often lets me come up with concepts I might not normally consider.

In the case of Caitlin I built her to fit into what the party needed while also building her partially to be own whims which I’ll get into down the line. To explain what I mean you have to notice the party’s composition: Dhother (Controller), Denora (Leader), Drew (Striker), and Jonn (Defender). With all of the major roles covered I had the ability to pick any role I wanted. I eventually settled on either a Striker or a Defender as it had been a while since I played a Striker and I just love playing Defenders. After doing some test builds I decided upon three “Test” characters: a Drow Sorcerer, a Human Swordmage, and an Elf Scout. At this point these characters were labeled “Test 1”, “Test 2”, and “Test 3” respectively, but character was still on my mind as I’ll speak about in a moment. First I want to note why I picked those classes.

For Sorcerer and Swordmage I decided upon those classes so the party had someone arcane related in the group. I’ve noticed that Arcana checks can be quite important to the game from a mechanical and storytelling perspective, and I thought it would be essential for the group to have someone skilled in that art. At the same time I saw that Nature checks can be just as important, and without Kithra the party really didn’t have any character well versed in Nature. There was also a secondary bonus to the Sorcerer class because their main stat is Charisma and the group also lacks a CHA-based character to help with Diplomacy and Bluff checks. All of these characters fit a purpose in the party, and could be essential to the group dynamic.

In addition the races also held a bit of importance, or at least the Drow did. When I looked at races I tried to find races optimized for what I was trying to do because while I’m not necessarily a min/maxer, I do try to build strong characters so I get to enjoy playing them in the inevitable encounters. For the Storm Sorcerer I was building I found the Drow to be perfect and after thinking back to the second session of the campaign I figured I could work the history very easily into the Drow slaving angle. I even had a vague backstory that my character was taken from his/her home as a slave but escaped via their natural magic with the added twist that in order to escape in time he/she would have to leave a very close friend or family member behind. I even came up with an added twist on top of that, but I’ll keep that one in my pocket.

I came up with stories for the other concept as well, but again these were vague. For the Swordmage I just had the idea that this character was a soldier who came across an ancient lost magic either by accident, or it was forced upon him/her by an old mage. For the scout all I decided on was that I wanted to be a soldier of some kind, but more royal and urban in concept than some mercenary who spends their lives living in the woods. As you can see, these backstories were far less detailed during the conception phase because they didn’t work off of something established by the campaign. Usually working off what the DM has already set up works far better than trying to introduce a new concept into the campaign. If the campaign is one where Dwarves are a forgotten race that hasn’t been seen in years, try playing a Dwarf. If Warforced are mechanical golems built by the Dwarves as guardians (as they were in my brief campaign a few months back), try playing a Warforged. If it seems like the way a story is built excludes a creature, work with your DM to come up with a way to work around that rule, like the Drow above; he/she was going to become a slave, but he/she escaped.

So when I narrowed it down to those three concepts I eventually eliminated the Swordmage for solely one reason: the race. I am tired of playing Humans, and I couldn’t find another race that worked well with what the Swordmage needed to do that wasn’t outrageously silly. For example I could have been a Genasi, but then I force Jason’s campaign to justify why walking physical manifestations of elemental chaos are chilling with the humans and half-elves. I’ll explain more in a later edition of this series why the Human thing bothered me so much, but suffice it to say I was tired of playing Humans and thus I turned down the Swordmage.

Looking between the Scout and the Sorcerer I had a hard time picking. The Sorcerer, by nature, was far more useful to the party in my eyes. Their main attacks key off Charisma which would help with Bluff and Diplomacy, their arcane power source meant he/she would have at least a tolerable Arcana check, and at the time I was under the impression that Drew was solely a front line fighter (I forgot he did the crossbow stuff), so being in the back would be beneficial. Still the Scout had advantages too: high Nature and Perception checks to help out the party, added bonuses to Stealth and Acrobatics which might come in handy, plus the overall simple nature. I’ve been falling in and out of love with 4E recently, and the Essentials Scout felt like a nice step away from the massive assortment of powers I had to debate on picking for the Sorcerer.

The Scout was simple. Pick a few class features, and then go to feats. I would love for the Scout to get supplemental material down the line (especially for their piss poor Wilderness Knacks), but I appreciate the simplicity in building a class who simply uses MBA (Melee Basic Attack) each round and works from there. Obviously I don’t need to tell you which class I picked unless for some reason you were convinced Caitlin was an albino Drow who her manifested lightning into pointed blades and decided to run into the frontlines of combat like she had a death wish. Why did I choose Scout over Sorcerer though? Again, Sorcerer really had more advantages to it especially with the added Drow backstory, but I just really wanted to pull back from the heavy power emphasized classes that I’ve become a bit overwhelmed by. Also I have a soft spot in my heart for the Scout class because it was the first class I ever played in D&D… but that’s a story for another day.

So how do you turn this concept of a character into a story? Simple. As I’ll say often during this series, ask questions while you make the character. When I first picked Drow for the Sorcerer I asked “How would this character react to the Drow slavery” which then got me to asking “What if this character was involved with the Drow slavery?” It really doesn’t have to be specific as that though. This is the concept stage and at this point you should have a vague idea. Consider your character to be a round featureless blob. By the end of conception you should see contours and curves along the circumference to show that progress is being made, but save the big stuff like details for later on. Right now, keep it blob-like because marrying yourself to a story at this point might shackle your own creativity.

That’s all I’ve got to say on conception right now. This stage is basic, but the principle is important: play what you want. Even if you’re building the character to fit into the party’s dynamic, make sure you’re allowing your own personal preferences to influence the decision; otherwise you’re just wasting your time. However at the same time, be open to experimentation. Even ideas that seem bizarre or out of your comfort zone can be a lot of fun and help expand your ability to be creative. Give certain obstacles a try, and remember to have fun. I shall return again soon with the topic on how to turn mechanics into character.

Until next time, Namaste!


  1. Building a character in any media takes time. You need to create a rich enough history to make people feel like this character is worth knowing. For an RPG like this, I see what you're saying. The point of making a character is to show your creativity while at the same time make it so he/she/it is really well thought out. I think you do a great job in that regard.

  2. Man, I wish my players could read this. While it's true we are all pretty n00b when it comes to D&D, I think they are having the most trouble when it comes to roleplaying their characters. This was a really good article and I think I will take your advice when making my own character for a new campaign. I wish you would make something about DMing though, I usually prefer the DM spot but I'm having trouble really getting my campaign to be fun and not like FF13 where you walk down a corridor to the boss while fighting enemies. But anyway, good post and I can't wait to read more.

  3. This was a great read and similar to how i generally create characters as well. I look forward to reading future instalments for how you yourself make characters as you do always (least from what seen from the three campaigns) make rememberable characters.

  4. Reading this post makes me wish I didn't need to GM all the time. Still, great post!

  5. Here's what I do: What class is striking my fancy today? Now what race has as little to do with that as possible? Invent complicated name. Done and done!

    Yeah, your way seems better. I like the thought you put in. Experience doesn't hurt, I imagine. One day perhaps...

  6. I cant help but think that one part of the twist for the Drow Sorceress would have been that she was related to Azad.