Next time you’re creating a character for a game, ask these six questions as you allocate stat points and select your equipment. I think they’ll help. (I use standard fantasy tropes for most of my examples; feel free to swap out “Paladin” with “hard-bitten cyberwarrior” or “difficult middle child” or “rambunctious foxgirl” in your head if you don’t like D&D)
ONE. What are we doing now?
Odds are your Gamesmaster has given you a pitch for the game, or you know what’s going on during your average session. If not, ask them. Ask them up front what sort of things are going to be happening. Ask the other players what sort of things they are going to be doing, too.
Then, once you know what sort of game this is going to be, make a character in service of that. This is the golden rule. Your character is a part of the game; build them so they fit in.
Are you playing a game where you fight dragons in dungeons as a party? Your character should be prepped not only to hurt giant lizards in a variety of underground locations, but to be happy doing it as part of a group. Does it not make sense for your straight-laced Paladin to hang around with these filthy heathens? Change your Paladin until it makes sense, because that’s what’s happening, buddy.
TWO. What were we doing a month ago? (And if it’s different from what we’re doing now, why did we change?)
Group concepts are great. Every great campaign I’ve been in has had a solid group concept. If the other players – and the GM – are up for it, work out a common factor in your past – a church, a mercenary unit, an employer, a club, a school. a pirate ship, a gang, a royal court.
The finer-grain you can get this, the better. “We’re all from the same village” is fine, but what does that tell the GM? Do you want to stay in the village the whole game and watch it change, interact with people, build relationships? Or are you going to venture forth and forget your village altogether aside from the odd improvised gag about a shared history during your time there?
What did you do in the village? Did you all work in the town guard? Were you all in that branch of the night watchmen whose captain was, in actual fact, a vampire? Did you stake him in the middle of the street, leaving him to bleed out, only for the night watch to be disbanded thanks to bad publicity?
With the first group, you’ve got a handful of provincial goons going around dungeons and being impressed at the big city. With the second, you’ve got a handful of provincial goons who were kicked out of their jobs for doing the right thing and set off to hunt monsters elsewhere because they’re no longer welcome in their home.
THREE. How do we know each other?
Professional relationships are fine. Comrades in arms, or best friends, or schoolmates, work too. But here’s some story dynamite for you free of charge.
Say it with me: “I want to be related to one of you.” Say it again next time you’re at a character-generation session.
Working together in the past is fine, as is the classic “you all know each other” gambit, but blood relationships are ace. Blood (or a relationship close to blood) gives you an instant connection to the character no matter what you pick, so long as it’s not something like third cousin. Relationships give you hot-wired shorthand access to years of loyalty and betrayal and kindness and cruelty; if you’re related, your backstory is a given.
Play half-brothers. Play grandmothers. Play surrogate mothers. Play stepfathers. Play sibling rivals. If you’re a bookish clerk and you get invited to fight the supernatural by some meathead, you’d probably say no… but if you get invited by your meathead brother, you might well go along just to make sure he says alive.
Warning: this is invasive! This is saying to another person that you want to establish a fundamental fact about their character that will have impact throughout the game. Trust me, though; it’s great.
FOUR: What’s different about my character? (aka The Liam Pudwell Manoeuvre)
Fit in, but don’t be boring. This is a difficult balancing act, but an easy first step is to look at the stereotypes that other people hold about your character and invert a couple. Are Paladins generally considered to be stupid? Perhaps (to go back to the example in question 1) your Paladin is well-read. Are they strong? Yours is quick. Are they brave? Yours is always barely overcoming her screaming terror. Do they use a sword and shield? Yours uses a pair of axes.
If you’re in the sort of game that has strong classes and iconic imagery, try changing two things. If you’re not, imagine what someone else would think of your character after hearing the basic concept and invert a couple of those assumptions.
Or, you know, if you reckon you’ve got a decent character already – one that’s worth hearing stories about, one that’s worth interacting with – then go for it.
EDIT: I just remembered where I got this from, and adjusted the title: one of my players, Liam Pudwell, in his very first game of D&D. He’d gone over the pre-gen character I’d given him, a half-elf cleric, and changed every adjective in the character’s description to read its opposite. As a result, we ended up with a cowardly and money-grubbing Cleric of Tiamat rather than a brave Cleric of Pelor who asked for nothing in return for his services. (Azern stole wedding rings off dying old women and burned them to power his Lances of Faith in combat. Hell of a guy.)
FIVE. What can I do better than anyone else in the party?
Do one thing and do it well. Be the expert at that thing within the group. Talk to your GM and ask if that thing will come up at all in the game; make them be honest with you. I’ve played hacker-thieves in games that had neither computers nor larceny as anything but very, very tangential concepts. I’ve played diplomatic scholars in combat-heavy games. Those were bad choices. I learned my lesson.
If you don’t want to specialise at one thing, pick a penumbra and specialise within that. Don’t want to shove all your points in Firearms? Specialise in being a soldier instead. Whenever you do something that’s soldiery – combat, surviving in a harsh climate, observing and analysing a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation, communicating in a military capacity – then you want to be the best at that. Or be a cop. Or a hitman. Or a hunter.
If you specialise, it gives other players – and their characters – a clearer idea on your role in the story, and your abilities. (D&D is very good at making specialists with zero effort, because it’s a game entirely about specialisation.) Plus, it gives the GM a pretty massive indication of the skills that you want to use and how to build adventures that will interest you.
SIX. Who likes me, and who hates me?
I’ve written a piece on this before, and I think it’s relevant here – select or create two organisations that are interested in your character: one positive, and one negative. There are plenty more words about it in the original piece, but it gives you an instant grounding in the world for very little effort and does a lot of your Gamesmaster’s work for them.
Hopefully, with these questions, you can make a better character – one that’s prepped to work with the other people in the group and have a load of exciting adventures about things that matter to them. Have you got any other suggestions for questions that might help? Stick them in the comments below. I’d love to hear them.
For further reading on telling fantastic stories together, check out 11 Ways to be a Better Roleplayer and Stanislavski vs Brecht in Tabletop Roleplaying. Or if you want to start your own game with minimum fuss, check out the Three Game Plot.