Building a character for role-playing games

How do you build a character for role-playing games?

Miniatures of an armored warrior confronting a young blue dragon.
Paladin confronting a blue dragon.

There are two common approaches to building a character, roll-play or role-play. This holds true across different gaming systems and genres, whether you are playing fantasy, space exploration, or modern. Role play is all about the character concept, where the mechanics support the look, feel and back story of your friendly, neighborhood murder hobo. Min-max, or roll play, is a build process where you make design choices designed to gain the maximum mechanical benefit. These choices are largely defined by the rules of the game and not too create a type of character.

Don’t worry though, both of these are awesome ways to create your next character. Keep in mind, some players have pretty strong feelings one way or the other, so I have some tips on how you can work together and avoid splitting the party.

Min-Max: Many players derive the most enjoyment from their gaming when they have a brutally effective character. This means achieving some type of statistical maximum or a combination of beneficial abilities that promote damage, survivability or power. These characters take advantage of mechanics that allow you take “dump stats” for negatives and use those points to push a handful of abilities into the awesome category. Here are a few steps to follow as you build your ultimate bad ass, whether it be the deadliest killer, the un-killable tank, the most powerful spell caster, or the best talker in all the realms.

  1. Determine where you want to character to excel! You can rarely maximize a build for every activity in any RPG. Using D&D as an example, you won’t max martial damage, spell damage, saving throws, and skill checks across the board. Instead, decide on what you want your character to truly excel at, such as melee damage, and build to that goal.
  2. This the hard / fun part, depending on how much you like rules. Dig deep into the manual for every mechanical advantage that you can apply to achieve your goal. If its martial damage, you want to tweak every option to maximize that damage. Choose the race and class that give the largest modifiers to your strength. Then, maximize the primary attribute of choice, often at the expense of others you are willing to “dump”. Finally, carefully select feats, skills, weapons, and other character abilities that let you lay down the hurt. Don’t worry if your character is a bit strange… you can always murder hobo your way through town.
  3. All RPGs have an advancement system. Some based on levels and others on skills. As you advance, always choose the options that allow you to continue to focus on and improve your goal. Every small bonuses in your area of expertise is the right choice. Pretty soon, you’ll find that your character performs far better in your specialty. Of course, you can’t have it all. You’ll struggle a bit more at other activities. The Mountain is an unstoppable killer, but he’s not going to win any poetry prizes.

The Cons of Min-Max

The most common criticism of this approach is that your character won’t have much personality, since they are just designed to do a mechanical thing very well. In a more role play orientated game, the GM or other players may want you to be even more disadvantaged because of your choices. Some will even demand that you make a more role-play friendly character. There can also be a jealousy factor. Your companions might be struggling to hit the evil overlords minions. Meanwhile, you are already taking a nap atop the big bad’s corpse .

You’ll hear this common trope quite a bit. You have a strong, stupid fighter who just kills thing. You don’t bring anything else to the table. But if you love min-maxing, don’t re-roll!

Extend an olive branch to your role playing friends and embrace your characters stats. Look for a fun reason why your character just so good. Rather than strong and stupid just because, your fighter fell into a pool of incandescent goop left behind by an aberrant beast. Too much ale me thinks! They’ve become freakishly strong, but their memory is a bit off. Some might even call you forgetful.

Join into the discussion by mis-remembering previous events and names. Insult your contact because you just don’t understand what is so special about the special dignitary to what’s that place. And so what if your fighter wasn’t great at the books? It’s not your fault that your village didn’t have a school. I mean, you can’t even remember the name of that flea pit.

Also, be prepared for one common complaint. Your dumb fighter can come up with a complex plan. I mean, look at those stats! Well, you just walk right on up to them, smack em on the side of the head and carry on, soldier. Disclaimer: the character’s head not the player! If you couldn’t come up with a clever plan to hit someone till they were dead and then take their stuff, your murder hobo would still be stuck on level 1!

Phew, long post! My next article on building for role-playing takes a look at pros and cons of building a character for role-playing.

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