Composition of a Character

With the changes in my primary group and my office game as well, I’ve been getting my fill of character creation.  I love making characters, but it seems unfortunate that my idea of character building so vastly differs from the majority that I’ve seen.  I’ve seen a few different ways people use to build characters and here’s how I see it

By the Numbers

This is, by far, my least favourite way of building a character.  This is where the player sees their character as mere numbers on a page and tweaks things for “maximum damage output”, also known as min/maxing or just being a douche.  If this is how you want to game, go grab a controller and sit over in front of the screen.  The characters are shallow, two-dimensional mockeries of a character, with a hollow back story to try and justify their jacked up stat line.  Allowing them to exist in game only makes them worse to control as they gain experience.  As a GM I have prerogative to eradicate these characters before other players get the idea that they are the proper way to go.

The Gimmick

I’ve seen this used to good effect and I’ve seen the opposite also happen.  Rather than focusing on the numbers, the player decides that “it would be really cool” if their character could do X.  Sometimes, the gimmick isn’t overly complex and can be pulled off readily.  Other times, so much of the character’s creation points are allocated to the gimmick that the rest of the character falters.  As with the number crunchers mentioned above, story often comes second on these characters.  The story is often built around a means to justify why this gimmick is the coolest thing ever (after all, the character has apparently devoted everything to it).

The Homage

A version of The Gimmick, this is latching onto a favourite character from a movie/video game/comic book and building a character to be just like them.  In a lot of cases, there is even already back story packaged in that can be extended into a number of settings (although if I see another Wolverine clone, I may have to puke).  The trouble comes when characters that have no business in the setting are incorporated; it often leads to jarring character interactions.  If you’re playing a group-centric setting, such as Shadowrun, and play a character who is the consummate lone wolf, you might find yourself without a group after repeated attempts to go it alone and potentially working against the team plan (because your idea was better anyways).  As much as you like a given character, always remember genre and overall setting.

Story Driven

As most those reading this will likely attest, this is my favourite method of making a character.  Before numbers ever hit a page, I build a character story that I find interesting.  Then I build stats to fit the story.  Are they the best at what they do?  No.  Is it an efficient build?  Not bloody likely.  Are they the hero type?  Maybe… though I often opt for character flaws that are impactful in some way.  Is the character interesting?  Yes.  And this is the key.

White knight style characters have a time and a place, but as the old cliché goes: nobody’s perfect.  Whether your character has a dark past they’re trying to leave behind, a flaw they’re attempting to overcome, or they’re genuinely not a nice person, but is doing their part for a reason they keep to themselves, these flaws lead to personal conflict and makes the story dynamic and entertaining.  White and Black are boring.  Give me shades of grey.

However intriguing a story is for a character however, it has to resonate with the player.  I could write a fantastic back story of deceit, intrigue and love lost that will find ways of working its way into almost every adventure to shape the person they will become by the end.  But if I can’t identify with that character, then at the end of the day, it’s nothing but wasted potential.

Of course, I’m not advocating everyone making a character just like themselves, but there has to be something in that character’s soul that one can identify with or there’s no way you can don that persona and feel at all comfortable.  It’s finding that part of the character you can identify with.  My example would be my character Burn.  He’s a smart-mouthed, disrespectful, chain-smoking, racist ork who blows stuff up:  all things I have zero tolerance for (well, I can’t speak on the ork part, having never met one and blowing things up can be kinda cool…).  But, under all of that is the guy who treasures his close friends (even if he has a hard time showing it) and will do anything he can for them.  That is the part of Burn I latch onto, even as I’m spouting off at my teammates in-game.

Anyways, that’s my mental meandering for the day.  Do you have any methods you use for character creation that helps breathe life into those character sheets?  These are my opinions, rather than anything official or even important and I’m open to discussion as to what makes a solid character.

~ by 1nsomniac on April 26, 2012.

4 Responses to “Composition of a Character”

  1. I am most definitely a story based character creator. It might be a writer thing, the urge to have a character that’s in depth with a solid purpose.

  2. I concur, with no identity there really is no character; it’s just a bag of skills. I don’t think it has to be worked out in explicit detail, because the alchemy of play will contribute its share to the creative process, but the concept should precede the stats in a system you know well.

  3. Sorry felt the need to weigh in so I’m participating in some thread necromancy.

    I’d suggest you missed one “The Concept”. It’s not specifically based on a gimmic, or a particular character from fiction and in many cases you’re not building “By the Numbers”. Instead you have an idea, former cop, disilusioned freedom fighter, betrayed company man, whatever. It’s not a story, it’s a couple of words at best that form a loose framework that you can build within.

    Character build choices are based on “What makes sense for this character?”. What reasonably would a person in that position, job or career realisically (for a fictional world) know. What would they have had access to that they might have taken with them when they struck out on their own. In almost all cases this character has a story that is fleshed out as you build them. “Why does this character have a phobia of ?” or “Who are they in debt to and how did they end up that way?”. In all cases by the time I’m done building I could rattle off a 10 minute speech on where this character has been, how they learned what they know and why they behave the way they do. Unfortunately finding the time or will to put pen to paper or fingers to keys and turn it into something you’re willing to put out for public consumption isn’t always easy.

    Anyways just thought I’d throw this out there as I’m sure I’ve been accused of designing by the numbers more than once.


    • I agree. I suppose this is a more broad version of the “Gimmick” and the “Homage”… where rather than a certain element or a specific role-model, you latch onto a genre. I suppose they’re all shades of the same development principle… just a matter of where you draw your inspiration from.

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