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Gaming in the Wild: The Birth of a Character

Last week I ranted with constructive purpose about players ruining GMs lives just by creating characters. This week I would like to further reinforce my love of working with your GM and vice versa by offering advice to players about how I create PCs given certain circumstances, such as weekly gaming communities and marathon fundraising events. And it all starts with a concept.

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As a GM who has been running tables for many years, as well as a player who has been ruining DMs lives for just as long, I have come to realize that it is best to work with us, not against us. I say us because that applies to both sides of the screen. When you sit down at the table to begin a whole new cycle of epic adventure and glory, there is nothing worse than dropping a bomb on a table, like a PC who doesn’t speak the common language, or a campaign that comes right out of left field for a group who clearly isn’t interested no matter how many handouts you have painstakingly crafted.

When I sit down to create a character, there are a few things I tend to do. I’ve noticed these tendencies through the years, and more often than not they have helped me create memorable PCs who complement the table in many ways. It all starts with a session zero.

Session zero is a relatively new bit of terminology as near as I can tell. I blame the comic book industry who in the early to mid nineties, started this trend of “zero issues” to reveal certain events that took place before issue one. Sometimes they were origin issues for superheroes, but more often than not, they were these great re-imaginings of the events that led up to a character’s inciting event, the thing that got them their powers, or started them on the path to getting them. Really it’s a great bit of slang for that part of a new campaign where the group should sit down together and discuss what they want to do with the next stage of their role-playing hobby.

One of the things that is always fun to discuss at a zero session are what characters the players are thinking of building. Not only because you get to hear these great, good, awful, or sometimes downright bizarre ideas, but because then you get a chance to tweak them and make them work, or use those ideas as a springboard to make your own concept even better, perhaps taking it in a completely unexpected, but no less exciting, direction.

The important thing is that you sit down at the table not with a fully form-filled character sheet, but with an idea. A concept of what sort of PC you want to build, what kind of person you want to create and inhabit for the length of the campaign. Now, this all depends on what kind of player you are and what method of conceptualizing you use. I will go into my method alone, and I respect that there are as many ways to build awesome PCs as there are role-playing systems in the history of the genre.

The first thing I always start with is thinking about what kind of character I think I want to spend time with. After all, this will be my creation for me and me alone to use. I always know that I am going to play someone basically good. I have spent time playing evil or self-interested characters and I can honestly say that it isn’t for me. I like fighting the forces of evil for fame, glory and gold (or credits, or Yen, or whatever), and the betterment of the world I am walking around in. It is something about the game that appeals to me. I love creating these characters and putting them in these incredible situations of derring-do, but I am a big fan of being on the side of right, even if that side might be the lesser of two evils. So that’s always a given to me.

I tend to ponder the last few characters I’ve created and wonder where they stood out for me, and where they didn’t quite hack it. What was awesome? What was missing? Did the combat work out the way I had hoped it would, or was the character too powerful or not powerful enough? Was I useful to the group in social situations or during exploration? Was I just a fly on the wall, waiting to be needed, but constantly frustrated by a poorly thought out character flaw, like the above example of not speaking the language?

Going over what you liked and disliked about older characters can give you some insight into what you want to do next. Learning from mistakes and improving on the criteria for what makes a good PC in your eyes can all provide great inspiration for what comes next. Like dating, or so I’m told.

Asking myself questions and just feeling whether I am attracted to or excited by the possible answers is usually a good start. Do I want to be outgoing and social, or withdrawn and awkward? Am I a charmer, or a swindler? Abrasive or quiet? Am I squishy or tough, sheltered or worldly? Naive or wise? Depending on my current mood, stress levels or schedule can have an effect on how I react to those thoughts. I might be in the mood for an aggressive loud mouth who gets himself into trouble by virtue of his temper and tongue. Especially if I am having difficulties at work, or if I know that I am going to have the energy to convey such a beast at the table. What a great way to blow off steam!!

Or perhaps I’m feeling supportive, the quiet healing soul at the back of the line, aiding my companions not only through my class, but as a cautionary voice of reason, pulling us out of the fires before they are lit.

There could be a movie or novel or television show out there with a character that I just need to live in for a while. Daredevil, Captain Mal Reynolds, Ned Stark, TONY Stark! All of these are just great beings to sink your teeth into. What about Professor Snape, The Man with No Name, or Winnie the Pooh? There are so many great archetypes out there in the world, and if I am riding high on watching or reading them, why not bring them to the table with your own little twist? Somebody has said that there are no more original ideas. Whether that is true or not, does it really matter to you that much that you are treading on a beaten path? Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Most of the above is an organic process, searching through your present life for ideas or concepts that attract you or excite you. Once you have a vague idea of the person you want to portray, it’s time to start zeroing in on a more refined concept. What system will you be playing and what races, and classes, etc are available and allowable for you to choose from? These certainly matter as you start to browse your choices with that general concept held firmly in your brain.

I tend to look at the species and careers not as numbers and base stats and bonuses. I like to read the fluff. I like to think about the temperament of a dwarf, or the deep culture and history of a Corellian before I look at what they can give me in the crunch. I think about what upbringing my PC would have had in that creatures world, and what those customs and languages would have done to help shape my concept into a living breathing soul. Usually by the time I’ve finished paragraph one I know whether it’s a good fit. And I always read the descriptions, no matter how familiar I am with them. I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons through almost five editions, and I still go back and read the racial descriptions. Simply put, there is stuff I forget, and there are things in those descriptions that help inspire my concept even further, even if I don’t end up selecting that particular race.

At the same time as I’m flipping through races and species and such, I’m thinking about classes and occupations and such. I quite often have eight of my ten fingers jammed into different sections of a book as markers, and I fumble and flip my way through the pages, making guttural noises and arching my eyebrows before furrowing them in deep concentration. My wife asks me if I’m okay, and I get yanked into reality with a shock. She laughs, I’m confused, and we all get along famously.

Even with the classes or what have you, I don’t go for the crunch first. I’m less interested in what these elements can give me in terms of numbers but more so what kind of flesh they can add to the bones of my burgeoning PC. Even with a general idea of the character in my head, I can get a feel for what it will become, just by reading the descriptions of a class and twisting it against my almost blank slate. When the excitement starts to rise, that’s when I know it’s right. The ideas start to coalesce into a vision of early life, family, home and hearth and the things that pushed this being out the door and down the path to the life I will give it. Hidden in the fluff text are often platforms to propel your initial vision upwards into reality, feeding the background or personality of what you are going to create.

After that, I’m done until session zero. That’s right. I make notes so I don’t forget. I jot down one or two possible races and classes and commit to none. Not yet.

Session zero is coming. I and my fellow players will sit down with the GM and have sometimes brief, sometimes long discussions about what is going to happen in the campaign, and what that will require of the players. This part of the discussion may not affect my character concept at all, or it may necessitate a complete revision. No matter, I have notes. They can be filed away for another time.

However, once the group has agreed upon the settings and themes of their upcoming trials, the real fun begins. The GM has known all along what they want to do. If they have to adjust it to satisfy the rest of the group, that can all be done later, no big deal. The real fun begins when someone asks “What are you thinking of playing?”

That’s when the idea machine kicks into high gear. You can share your concept and hear what others are doing and if you are willing, you can be further inspired to make an even better character than you had first thought! How?

Think on that, and I’ll see you next week. If you have any tried and tested methods for conceptualizing a PC leading up to session zero, leave me a comment!

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