Keeping pace with the renewed popularity of pencil and paper roleplaying games like D&D and Pathfinder is an equal rise in the amount of RPG blogging. Yet, approximately 110% of those blogs are advice related to Dungeon Masters, leaving players to grind it out at level 1.
This is particularly true for brand new players. LOTS of new players are coming to tabletop roleplaying games, so let’s share some simple advice for one of the simplest of things: CHARACTER CREATION.
Specifically, what are some tips and thoughts on creating a great character? This advice comes from Heather Allen and Rachel Sandidge, two wonderful people who happen to also be long-time Pathfinder RPG players and current cast members of the Find the Path podcast, a playthrough of the Mummy’s Mask adventure path for the Pathfinder roleplaying game.
Character Creation Advice
Clave: First, thanks for sharing. What is your primary goal in creating a character? What are the common high-level objectives you’re trying to tackle? And do you have the character fully mapped out in your mind?
Heather (currently plays Onuris, a 3rd level cleric of Horus): I try to make characters that are different than ones I’ve played before, but with a build that I think I’ll enjoy playing. If it’s a character I know I’ll play for a while, I tend to chose my feats and class abilities that I can customize ahead of time. That way, if I want to do a feat tree, I know I’ll be able to get it and still have it be viable during the game. (Editor’s Note: This is keyed toward the Pathfinder RPG but the principles remain the same for D&D 5e, for example.)
Rachel (currently plays Sitra, a 3rd level rouge): Hands down, my primary goal is a character that I’m going to have fun to play! Once I find out the theme or location of the adventure, I start building a concept from there.
Unlike Heather, I’m not usually the player that plans everything out from 1st level to 20th level because I like my characters to evolve more organically. I’ll have a general idea in place, but I like when the story drives my character development. Every time I’ve planned them out, my characters end up going a different direction anyway, so it makes it easier to just let things fall where they may.
Clave: OK, you have your high-level concept. Now, what are some sources of inspiration you use to then flesh out your character?
Rachel: I’m a visual person so over the years I have become familiar with deviant art. I also follow several artists on tumblr. A lot of the time I’ll see a picture and then when an adventure comes up, I develop my character around that.
Or if I know the general culture my character is based on compared to real world places, then I will dive in the collection of books I’ve gathered over the years. I have encyclopedias on ancient cultures, religions, or day in the life sort of things. I use them mostly for my own writing, but they definitely come in handy.
Our GM (Rick, my husband) also has pretty much every Pathfinder book we could possibly need to reference the world of Golarion. He helps me hash out the final details that solidify my character’s connection to the story and the world. I have the habit of coming up with a concept, and then I have to go to our GM and ask him, “How do I make this work in Golarion?” Not once has he failed to deliver, but I know that makes me pretty spoiled as a player.
Heather: I draw inspiration from a lot of places. I often look at the campaign traits that Paizo supplies in the Player’s Guides for a Pathfinder adventure path and take the one I chose into account when developing a backstory so my character will feel like they belong in the setting. I’ll read about the location we’re playing in to help determine what kind of life my character would have lead before the adventure begins.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your DM and ask questions or just have a conversation about the game and the setting. They might have ideas that could help you flesh out things you’re having trouble with.
If you’re stumped, don’t be afraid to take inspiration from a favorite character from another media! It’s a good starting point for personality and big backstory points, and as you play you’ll develop the character. Even though it was based off of something, they will become your own.
Clave: Let’s dig into that a little more. Maybe–as you said, Heather–it’s inspiration from other media, but what are some other surprising places or technique you use in create characters?
Heather: I have been inspired by songs before. There’s been a handful of songs that have made me think “what kind of person would feel this way, or sing about this” and then gone off to make an entire character following that train of thought.
I tend to start with an idea for a backstory, and build the character from there. There’s been a few characters that I’ve had their backstory written before I’ve even touched a character sheet.
Rachel: My best friend, Jessica, and I have already been writing together for ages. Character creation for us actually is a back and forth process. I will start with a character trait. Could be as simple as my character is quick to anger. Then we’ll bounce ideas about why that character is angry. Is it family? Friends? Something historical? Cultural? Etc.
We will just sit and continue talking about who this person is stemming from that one thing. Then I’ll go back and see how that fits into the mold of Golarion and whatever specific Pathfinder adventure we’re aiming for. Anytime we have writer’s block, or need a new character, or whatever, just sitting around and talking gets the creative mojo going, and before we know it, we might have the initial character done, and three more on the backburner for future stories.
Heather: I’ve had characters be related to characters someone else is playing. For our Pathfinder Carrion Crown campaign, my character and my friend Jessica’s character are siblings. We talked about what we wanted to do, and while we both wrote our own backstory, we worked together on some of the details and came up with something we both really liked.
It gives you a strong connection to another character, and gives you some good role-playing opportunities right from the beginning. We did this at Find the Path for our Mummy’s Mask characters to a lesser extent. Onuris knows Sitra and Sudi, but we didn’t write our backstories together for that campaign.
Rachel: My other strategy came from my previous profession. I still do some teaching on the side, but when I was a full-time public-school teacher, I pretty much had my pick of characters. My students were so diverse, interesting, and just wonderful that often times I’d base my character on them. It was a rare occasion if I based a character solely on one student. Usually it was a combination of several. I never told any of my students that they were my inspiration, but I hope they’d be flattered.
Clave: Thanks so much. I think the lesson learned is there is no one right way. It might be a piece of art, a song lyric, a student, a back-and-forth discussion, a skilled build keyed to a particular campaign, or more! So thanks for sharing your process with us, as there is surely something in there that will connect with new players who may be looking for a little guidance to get going.
If you are looking for a simple, step-by-step guide to preparing a streamlined backstory, click here. Or click here for more on the Find the Path podcast. And click here for more on the Pathfinder roleplaying game.