A while back, I promised to share some tips about how to make better characters. No, not betters that are bigger or faster or stronger. I am not a big fan of min-maxing in games because it is often done at the price of character depth, and depth is what I really believe makes a strong and memorable RPG character. Today I am going to make good on my word to share some tips with you about making sure your characters are deeper and feel more real. Now my hope is that this list will be tips that anyone can use. There are plenty of unique talents that can bring a character to life that I personally do not possess; skills like voice acting, drawing, costume design, makeup artistry, and puppeteering. I wish I had some of those skills, or all of them if I am being greedy. Oh dear. Now I’m getting much sidetracked. On to the tips!
I do not delight in seeing my players getting flustered. Honestly. But this particular moan did make me grin during a FATE game: “AUGH! My character would want to kill him because of this aspect, but he could also want to help him because of this one. What do I do?” Again, I was not smiled because I enjoyed seeing him suffer with the choice. I smiled because he was suffering. Subtle difference. The fact that he was struggling with what the character would do is a great indication that a character has depth. But even more so, the character was internally conflicted just like a real person often is. As humans, we have our morals and standards and ideals. These often conflict, and it can be hard to choose between them. When we do choose, we learn something about ourselves. We learn what is more important to us. I could complain about what is on TV, or I could walk over to the TV and change the channel. What do I do? This teaches me something about who I am if I pay attention. Later, when the microwave breaks and I have to feed myself, do I try cooking something new or just eating my cold leftover pizza? My choice about the TV will probably also be mirrored in this choice as well. Alas, not all game systems have aspects. Many games do ask you to list what is important to your character, and I don’t know of any system that discourages you from doing so on your own. Be sure to pick some interests that can conflict and point them out to your GM. Odds are those moments of personal choice will bring out a depth to your character that they did not know existed.
Boost Your Skills
Most games use dice to determine success and failure, and many of these systems give you stats that give you bonuses to rolls so that you have a better chance at succeeding at what you want to do. To this end, I say BOOST THOSE SKILLS! Now if you are the crunchy type that likes to plan out everything so that 15 levels down the road you have everything you need to finally get that super special ability that you’ve always wanted, this may not be a good tip for you. On the other hand, most people that I have met in this hobby are more interested in the immediate game session. Whether you are playing with Feats or Stunts, many systems have something extra to give you a boost to your skill checks. An extra +2 to checks during certain circumstances, or perhaps training in skills that do not match your class so that the cost to improve these skills is cheaper than it would have been before. Once you figure out what skills you want your character to be good at, these are great ways to make sure you are successful. Be sure to include frequency in your planning as well as desire for success. It is all well and good to have a +20 to your flirt checks. That will get you some great discounts in the store and some juicy gossip in the courts. But if you are going to spend the next 6 sessions dungeon delving, you are going to feel like you are missing out a bit. Unless you can be clever and hit on a few monsters. No judgements here. The goal here is to make sure you have the most success with the skills you want to move the most in your game. These feats and stunts are often overlooked for ones that give you special abilities or magical powers, and those are all well and good. But really you can add plenty of flavor to your skill rolls just by narrating what you do. And most players are going to have more fun with a character that can be reliable with a bow than they would with a character that lights themselves on fire more often than their opposition.
Most RPGs are designed with challenges that you HAVE to work together in order to overcome. So it should come as no surprise that a great way to make better characters is to make ways that your character can work well with others. This applies to building your character as well as running your character. For the character building, choosing abilities that compliment other players is very wise. Not at the cost of your own character design, of course, but definitely for the greater good. When you ask for input from the GM or other players, try to filter out bossy suggestions and look for helpful ones. “No, you don’t want to do that” or “I would do this instead” are good indications that the person offering the advice is not actually listening to you, so following their advice will not get you what you are asking for. Plan out a couple of strategies with another character. Maybe one of you boosts a roll or creates an advantage for another character. Maybe the game you are playing allows flanking bonuses. Maybe decide which of you will be the good cop and which will be the bad cop. If you can set up just a simple combo with a couple of other players, the games will flow more smoothly. And complicated combos based on circumstances will be much easier to plan when you have some basic combos already planned. And on this note, is should probably be emphasized that any choice your character makes to benefit themselves at the cost of the party’s good should be RARE! Once a gaming session is NOT RARE! If your character does not care much for the group, then the story is not going to be interesting and the gameplay is going to get tedious. Whether tied together by professionalism, friendship, or romance, a group needs to be willing to work together. You will get much more interesting character development when the other characters have reasons to support your character.
I am tempted to get into more specific details, but I fear that would be rather unhelpful to a majority of people. So instead, I would encourage you to take some time to think things out with your character. Yes, I realize that most of you do that anyway. Very few people throw together a character randomly, and even fewer keep such a character around for multiple sessions. Just be sure to give every aspect of your character a good deal of thought. Consider each play session as well as how you want your character’s story to end. Don’t get distracted by “the shinies” of character building or advancement. That’s what actual gameplay is for. ~Joshua
July 8, 2015 at 14:53
Along the same lines as work together: come up with reasons for you character to care about others. It’s especially important if you care about the other PCs, but you’ll find a buffet of dramatic meat if you concern yourself with the problems of NPCs, too!
I recently had a PC suffer over his desire for anonymity (ultimately self-preservation) and the life of an NPC. He’d already gotten what he wanted out of her, but he had chosen to make his Compassion score high. I did get quite a bit of satisfaction as I played her, tearing up and clutching imaginary bars, and watched him work through his internal struggle and casualty calculations! The tortured plans to hide the bodies of the government goons after the fight were a joy to watch. Aaah, treason.
As a player, I’ve been deeply disappointed when other players have justified inaction or selfish decisions, repeatedly, with “my character doesn’t care” about another character’s struggles. I know that it’s easy and safe (I used to do it, too), but it’s so boooriiing. It means the ensuing scenes will not have their PC’s contributions and that the player will be sidelined and either play with their phone or pressure the action to move past this drama.
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