I ran a one-shot a while back with D&D 5th edition, and we had a last minute player ask if he could join in. There was only one pregenerated character left, so I told him that as long as he did not mind playing that character then he was welcome to join us. He looked at the character and said “I don’t really like to play barbarians. I like to roleplay conversations without slobbering over everyone and actually think before I hit things.”
A couple of other players supported this view by stating that they had not wanted the barbarian either for this reason. I asked to see the sheet. The character had a Charisma of 12 and an Intelligence of 11, so slightly above average for both. Not a mindless animal by stats standards. And the character had the artisan background, so they were very creative and easily plugged into high society. But everyone seemed to have this idea that all barbarians drool and kill anything that moves and cannot ever have a conversation with anyone.
Don’t get me wrong. I love to watch a barbarian rage and smash things. Especially when that barbarian is a gnome or goblin taking on a hill giant! And the purpose of a class is certainly to give you benefits towards a certain style of playing (or in this case, combat). But class is only one part of a character, and not even the most important part of a character’s personality in any game I have yet played.
What You Are Good At
A class really just represents training for a character, and thus reflects what they are good at. Wizards have spent time studying spells. Fighter Pilots have spent time flying. A class is essentially your character’s job, one that they are very good at. But how many of us are defined by our jobs?
Characters have hobbies, races, friends, bonds, genders, and background stories that really define their personalities. And class affects all of these things, true. But it does not force any of them to conform to a single stereotype. Just because you are good at something does not mean you enjoy doing it.
Now you may ask yourself “Why would I roleplay a character that is good at the things I do not want to do?” And that is a fair question. Normally you want your character to be very good at the things you want to do. When I do get a chance to play, for example, I almost always pick a character that is good at reading people because I want a character that can see through lies and read intentions.
On the other hand, you miss out on some amazing roleplaying opportunities if you always play the same character in every game. And you miss out on some fun surprises as well.
I Would Not Like To Rage
For the one shot I mentioned earlier, I gave the character a set of fine clothes (he picked a top hat) and told him that he could play a civilized individual trying to overcome the stereotypes of his tribe and establish legitimate trade with the local guild. He could still fight and rage, if he wished, but then it would ruin his reputation if anyone saw him acting like a savage.
This became an interesting struggle for him as he handled diplomacy fairly well but kept having to fight off the temptation to rage and finish off monsters or crooked merchants that were escaping with his gold. In the boss fight at the end, he did rage to save the Halfling cleric from being devoured and it was a huge deal with the other characters promising not to say anything to anyone and even the rogue giving up his cloak so the barbarian’s shredded shirt would not be seen when they got to the streets.
Variety Within Classes
The 5th Edition already offers 3 different types of characters for each class in their intro, but there are hundreds if not thousands of combinations with each one. A cleric with the background as a folk hero will be very different than one that grew up as a criminal. A fighter could be a heavy drinker or a helpless romantic. A half-vulcan science officer can be completely logical or dangerously emotional.
I always encourage players to pick their character concept before they choose their class. That way the class can be adapted to that concept. Fighters have so many options with weapons and styles. Rangers do not have to be ranged and can instead use 2 weapons, and they do not have to be familiar at all with the forest areas. A rogue can be a thief, and assassin, or even a con artist.
Nowadays, most systems have feats or stunts or some sort of extras thing that lets us add even more features to our class. Your wizard may have picked up lock-picking, or your barbarian may be able to cast a couple of spells. And most games also offer the option to multiclass.
Tweaking Those Stereotypes
Again, I am not saying that stereotypes are bad and should be completely ignored. The classics are classic for a reason. But as we have said before (in our Making a Character for example), all you have to do is add a unique twist to that stereotype to give a character depth and make it your own. The barbarian became the favored character after no one wanted it, all because we gave him a top hat and a desire to be civilized.
One shots are a great place to experiment with those tweaks because you won’t have to play those characters again if things go poorly. And if they go well, you can pester the group to play again! If nothing else, someone will have a lot of fun!
Here are a few suggestions on twists to get your creative gears turning: a monk that wishes he was a wizard, a sorcerer that believes in manipulating people rather than attacking them, a bard whose face is horribly scarred and speaks with a lisp, or a druid that hates being in her humanoid form.
What are some fun twists you have experienced in your groups? We’d love to hear your stories!