You’re just starting a new campaign. Your last party got killed and disbanded, you managed to find a new Game Master, or maybe you’re just bored of role-playing the tank. Time for a change!
Because seriously, how many times can you be Torag, half-orc barbarian? Ah, just once more! Here’s the trouble with RPG: it allows you to do pretty much whatever you want. If you can’t see the problem yet (because you’ve never played a role-playing game in your life), let me tell you this:
Imagine the world of endless possibilities. You’re standing on its doorstep, ready to jump head-first into adventure. There’s nothing stoping you from reaching for greatness, for spreading your winds, flying and defying gravity. Everything is your oyster.
You’re just a pace away from discovering a world when you can become whoever your heart desire. A paragon of light. An offspring of seventh hell’s demon. A charming rouge with heart of gold, and sticky fingers. A mighty wizard who commands the elements and the Time itself. An eternal being uploaded into a hive of nanobots. An dwarf chick with an assault rifle. A gravedigger, a pirate, a travelling kung-fu master. A time-traveller, a baker, an orphaned son of a god. A death-metal halfling bard, an armor-clad cleric with morgenstern, a decker infiltrating the corporation through Matrix. A god.
And you decide to role-play a family-less, grim warrior who likes to drink in taverns and haggle for higher quest rewards. Or, alternatively, an elf archer with an air of superiority and ingrained hatred of dwarves. Of all the options.
1. Un-bury their dead.
It’s an old trope: a lone hero, the only child, parents long deceased or never really known, alone in the world full of fire and brimstone. From day one survived on the streets, fighting with rats and other urchins for a piece of rotten apple and mouldy half-loaf of bread. Trusts no-one, always alert, sleeps with eyes open, of course I have heard them, they don’t get a surprise attack on me…!
Ah, the classic. Because to have a living family is to give the Game Master a leverage and a potential plot-hook (if not blackmail-material). So: no parents, no siblings, no aunts, uncles, grandparents, childhood friends. A lone island on the ocean of random NPCs.
You see, not all of your characters have to be like that. It’s generally a good idea to give your GM a plot-hook; it will probably make a part of campaign more you-oriented, but hey! Who doesn’t want to learn that their grand-uncle/childhood sweetheart is currently supervising a successful inn/black-market pipeline, and they need help with cajoling/gutting out some of the clients? Give them names. Give them quirks. Give them dreams and expectations.
And come on: nobody IS a lone island. I get it’s a fantasy world and there are dragons roaming around, but people usually do stick together. It’s funnier this way.
2. Find what they hold dear.
Again, this may look like giving your GM the bullets with your character’s name written all over them. But it’s important. Unless you’re creating a non-human being with no hobbies, dreams and motivations (but… but why would you do that?), you want to give your character something to love. It doesn’t really matter if it’s gold, your clan’s honour, a small figurine changing into black panther two times a day, or – as would Tyrion say – tits and wine. Just let them love something. It will give you a proper grounds for thinking about your character’s motivations, acceptable bribes, and desired quest rewards. It will also help your GM give you those.
Note: before you’ll say your character is depressed (or sociopath, because for some reason it’s an appealing option for many players) and therefore lacks any passions or things important to them, think again. And get back to me when you’ll discover none of that makes you non-human.
3. Make them weep.
Everybody hase regrets, right? Even if someone looks and acts like a ray of sunshine, doesn’t mean they are devoid of any serious thoughts. Sadness is one of the most basic feelings – if in doubt, go see “Inside Out“. Tell me, what are your character’s woes and sorrows? They don’t have to cry themself to sleep every night, and you can always make your character full of bottled up and repressed grief – but think in broader terms. How do they cope with sadness? Are they wont to thinking obsessively about back-case scenarios? Do they shrug everything off and proceed with slaying monsters? Does their conscience ever wakes up/falls asleep? Will they mourn fallen comrades or companions?
Think of it. It’s easy to say your half-orc barbarian just goes through life with grim determination and never-ever looks back on the goblin villages he burned down. But why always pick the easy way?
4. Let them dream.
If it’s not treasure (in gold pieces or credits, nevermind) that motivates your character, they probably have other dreams. Think of their long-term goals: do they want to destroy their archnemesis? Rule a kingdom? Annihilate that annoying pirate’s star fleet? Marry into daimyo’s family? Create a fashion empire? Ressurect the Dark Brotherhood? Become the devil’s heir? There are no rights and wrongs here. Any dream, any goal can be used for your advantage. It gives you something to hold onto, when the quest is going south, trusted NPCs are turning traitors, and other players are running around like headless chickens. If you know what your character really, REALLY wants from life, you know how to proceed even in direst, most complicated situations.
5. Let them fear.
Nothing bares your soul more that confronting your fear. What is your character afraid of and why? Remember, it doesn’t have to be mind-numbing phobia or random panic attacks (but keep in mind, that it’s also an option!). You can go for realism or laugh-factor, but it’s usually not a good idea to let your ranger be afraid of animals, and your cat-burglar to be scared of confined spaces. You can make it an interesting trait, sure, but you’ll have to work on it, find some reason for it, think about it. Because you know, it’s very unlikely that someone who’s terified of wilderness will ever decide to become a druid.
6. Strip them naked.
On blogs about creative writing you’ll find numerous advice about determining your character appereance. Because for some reason your character’s eye colour matters. Well, it doesn’t (unless it does, for you have a heterochromia iridum and the Inquisition is already following your footsteps, you creature of Chaos!). Instead think about general impression. What is the most striking feature of your character’s face? Does the nose play a prominent role? Do they have any mannerism or nervous tick? Do they keep their hair in a distinct fashion? Is their posture imposing? Do they look like a tax collector? Are they petite and unassuming? Do they have “there will be bloodbath” tatooed over their foreheads?
Thnink of features that really are telling. The way they move. The way they walk. The way they treat their equipment. How (and if) they care for higene. What do other people think of their appearance? What do they think of themselves?
7. Drag them through hell.
Well, not exactly. Don’t forget you’re probably making a level-one adventurer in their late teens, barely an adult. Don’t give them a backstory worth of battle-worn hero. It’s usually not a splendid idea to make your character a punching bag for the universe. I remember one of my players’ character, cheeky sixteen-year-old half-elf, a war orphan, stolen from poor orphanage and put into brothel, perpetually raped and beaten unconscious, who on some sunny day killed almost all of her opressors in a blind rage, ran for her life, and then proceeded to join the party of adventurers in the random tavern.
You don’t want to role-play that.
Instead ponder on the question: how does your character behave in the face of danger? Even if your character is a inexperienced mage apprentice, they will at some point lose a part of their hit points. How do they fight when theit life is in danger? Do they like to employ any particular tactic? Will they try to outmanouver the enemy? Will they hide? Will they flee? Will they charge into battle with a cry of rage and excitement? It does tell a deal about them.
There’s a great deal of other things to consider. Maybe they have a deeply-hidden secret. Maybe they hope for something. Maybe they’re proud of something. Maybe they lost everything and are just looking for the sweet release of death. I don’t know, it’s you character. But mind this: all of these characteristics have to mean something. They’re not some randomly generated traits that will get forgotten in the middle of battle. People usually do not act randomly (don’t even start with this “chaotic neutral” nonsense, we all know you’ve picked it to have an excuse for being inconsistent). They have their advantages, disadvantages, hopes and fears, and they play along.
You should too.