Character Building

I've played my share of old-school, Dungeons & Dragons style, pen and paper, roleplaying games. As a form of escapist entertainment they don't have a direct comparison. Computer RPGs and books are often amazing in their own right but are confined by someone else's narrative. A pen and paper RPG is an unrivalled exercise in collaborative storytelling that allows you to live something of a second, imaginary, life. So it's really disappointing when that second life is a tale of almosts, could-haves, and not-quites.

Building a character then, that awkward, mathsy, bit at the start of the game is pretty important. You have to craft a hero from a bunch of esoteric and usually random numerical values that will represent your displaced ego for tens or even hundreds of evenings to come. There's not just a book, there's a tome of rules that describes how those numbers interact with each other and how those numbers interact with the narrative.

There are some tips for building a hero that are fairly universal, or at least rules-agnostic.

  • You need to be good at something. This may seem pretty obvious but actually we kind of want our epic Elven or Dwarven selves to be excellent at everything. Game systems limit your available resources to try and force you to build in strengths and weaknesses but of course most of the time you are equally at liberty to spread your resources thinly to cover as much as possible. Don't do this. The old adage "jack of ll trades, master of none" is doubly true in RPGs. In a system where challenge resolution works on comparing numbers it is easy to put yourself in a position where you fail too often at the things you want to be good at. Make sure you are really good at the things you need to succeed at.
  • You still need to be competent at a range of abilities. Don't worry about being great, but give yourself a chance of being successful reasonably often. Often overlooked system skills such as climbing or swimming benefit immensely from just the smallest of investments and when you fail at them it can be catastrophic for a character or a party.
  • Consider the aptitudes your character would require for daily life. A modern setting would likely require your character to have enough computer knowledge to browse and email. A medieval setting might require hunting skills, at the least some ability to cook. Little details like this give a character a rounded, human quality; they didn't just spring to life a fully formed Ninja Assassin.
  • There's nothing wrong with being pretty normal. Not everyone needs a tragic backstory to push them to succeed. Sometimes a regular Joe just has to rise to the challenge. Often people are not special until they need to be special. If your hero never really dreamed of being a hero, what did they intend to do with their lives?
  • Leave yourself some room to develop. You're going to need to spend those experience points somewhere, and only so much of that will go on maintaining your niche within the group. Organic development is great, but the conceit of any good character design is in knowing, in broad terms, where you're going. Staying effective requires some planning.
  • Take advantage of your niche in the party. There's a cliche that the last player to pick their character gets lumbered with the healer, but when you consider it, that reluctant player has a guaranteed and busy adventuring career. Nothing rivals the experience of solving a problem that nobody else in the team can deal with effectively. Your niche is where you shine.