Building a character for role-playing, part 2

Character design for role-playing versus rolling

Warrior and a bard miniatures confronting a young blue dragon.
Adventurers confronted by a blue dragon.

I get it, focusing on the mechanics will create a powerful character. But a lot of us are more interested in the character interactions and doing cool things rather than rolling the dice. Or, the dice are a secondary part of our fun. For role players, the main goal is to create an interesting character that you are happy spending a lot of time with.

How much time? Well, it’s taken my group almost two years to go from level 1 to 11. That’s roughly 40 game sessions and over 120 hours of play-time. For perspective, that’s less than Witcher 3 or Skyrim, but more time than Fallout 4. That is a lot of time to spend with your character, but with a good hook and back story you can always have something fresh to act out.

Role-play: The role player thinks about character first and stats second. That’s great, but how do you start? Well, I like to start by deciding whether I want to emulate a character or play to a theme. Then, I build a back story on how much character made it to the first day of gaming. Finally, I build to that character idea by finding the best fitting mechanics from the game system.

Let’s start with that initial brainstorm. I find this is the most time consuming part because the options are limitless! But, here is a quick hack. Focus on either a mental image of your character or on a central theme for your character. It helps to know some of the options available in your game system.

  • Image: You build to an image when you have an idea of what you want to look like like, act like, or emulate. This could be a favorite character from fiction, an idealized version of yourself, or an iconic combination of abilities such as laser beam eyes. This could be playing to a particular racial idea, such as the loyal and strong-headed dwarf versus the elegant, forest-dwelling elf. In your mind’s eye, you see a elvish warrior wielding blade and sorcery in battle and tormenting the party in camp with tales of ancient elvish grandeur. You are creating the flavor of your character first, and then building the mechanics and back story to support that vision.
  • Theme: A theme is much like choosing a character arc. When building a theme, you are less concerned with a signature image or attitude, but rather the emotional and moral journey. This is for those of us that want face big ideas: good versus evil, staying true despite temptations, redemption from past evils, coming of age, or gaining respect from others despite repression and rejection. Don’t worry, I’ll do a post soon on some of my favorite themes and examples.

To get you started, consider two extremely common themes: coming of age and the redemption story. In the first, you are a green adventure ready to face your first trials. The fun comes with the why? Why risk life and limb? What do you hope to achieve and who are you trying to impress? In the the redemption story, you are already an experienced individual, but you’ve had to do some dirty things to survive. What did you do nd why? Why are you now seeking to right past wrongs and why should anyone give you a second chance? The other choices, mechanics, class, etc. serve help you tell this story.

The Cons of Role-play

The biggest con for role-players is that rpg games are ultimately a system of rules and mechanics. Some are more flexible than others, and a few are built with role-playing in mind, but eventually the dice come out. When they do, every additional modifier increases or decreases your chance of success or even your very survival.

Min-maxers will struggle with you game play style because they may see your character as weak and less able to support the party during those all important roles. You may have built your character with a wide variety of options in mind, but its sub-optimal for the game. This is especially common when your GM wants to throw mechanically difficult challenges against your party where you need to punch above your weight.

In my experience, role-playing focused characters are a bit easier to adapt to tough challenges. The reason is that mechanics are easy to re-skin with a little help from your friendly GM. You can describe your character actions and bring your back story to live with little interference from the RAW (rules as written) as long as your willing to make minor changes or you can adapt the fluff of abilities to your story.

A great example is a character image where you play someone imbued with life saving powers. You don’t quite understand them or even where they are coming from, but you feel driven to help and heal others. This is at odds with your profession, thug and bouncer for the hall of ill repute. Well, easy enough, play a melee focused cleric. No reason why you need to know your deity as mechanically it adds very little to the game. But your party will appreciate the healing and you can play out your redemptive arc as bruiser with a growing conscious.

Probably most frustrating and difficult for role-players is playing a game where the GM and other players are more interested in the mechanics and combat. You want to act out and immerse yourself in a story while they want to kill the toughest creature they can find. The best approach here is to slowly encourage other players to join you in the role-playing. Don’t let yourself be trapped as the “face” of the party. Push others to participate by having your character ask them for their opinion and encourage solutions that require teamwork to accomplish. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you encourage the group to engage in a situation rather than rushing to the forefront of every non-combat encounter!

Next time, I’ll dig into a few themes and character arcs with some of my favorite examples. With a little modification and your custom twist, you can take any trope in make it your own.

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