A Writer’s Guide to Roleplaying: Developing Character at the Table
I started a new campaign and could barely contain my excitement about the character I spent weeks developing. My background is filled with detailed NPCs, an arch nemesis, a dark family secret, and an origin story that makes me tear up whenever I think about it. The brutal experiences of my PC’s life have made him a bit of a loner; I say “a bit” only because it’s a roleplaying game, right? I need to work with other people, so I’ll try to be open to whatever excuse the GM uses to bring our group together. Of course, once the other players figure out what it takes to break through my rough exterior and earn my trust, things will be perfect! I don’t know what that would take, but that’s their puzzle to solve. Besides, when they hear the details of my backstory they will jump at the chance to join me!
Unfortunately, when I sat down for the first game there were two other players with backgrounds even more detailed than mine and two people who made characters an hour before and named them Captain Needaname and Billy-Bob the Black and their only motivation seems to be to burn off the stress of work by killing everything in sight. Then the GM starts in with some storyline about an invading extra-dimensional army that has nothing to do with the man who murdered my sister.
All that work I’ve put in has gone to waste and now showing up at the table every week is more frustration than fun.
Don’t let your character be static. Encourage other players’ stories as much as your own. Offer to become part of their narrative, let them become part of yours and find ways to merge your stories into an even larger epic.
If you let them, your continually evolving characters can take you to places you never could have imagined on your own.
If you’ve being gaming for a while, I’m sure you’ve seen this happen more than once. We’ve all fallen into this trap at some point. Even with the best of intentions, character generation (chargen) can go awry. It’s not uncommon for the blame to fall on other players or the Game Master, but both the problem and the solutions are far more immediate.
The best characters in literature and film grow and change as the story progresses, and the best stories surprise even the writer as they are putting words to the page. Keeping that in mind, let’s break this scenario down:
My background is filled with detailed NPCs, an arch nemesis, a dark family secret, and an origin story that makes me tear up whenever I think about it.
As a GM, I love when my players give me material to work with. Loose strings and interesting ideas are great. Solidified story elements with pre-generated outcomes are far more of a challenge. The problem is that our characters, more often than not, are created in a vacuum. We may have an idea of what kind of campaign the GM is running, but we rarely have a clue to the race or class of other characters, much less their motivations or history. [I’m currently playing a lawful good cleric in a game where nearly every other character is chaotic neutral.] We create our protagonists within the theater of our own mind and can’t help but take the story where we expect it to go even before the first game. The main reason for playing a tabletop RPG is the excitement of cooperative storytelling. Why we expect that to work when we create our characters in isolation, I have no idea. I’ve never created random characters for a novel or short story then thrown them together to see what happens, so why would I do that for a game? I admit, sometimes it works: the right players, the right characters, the right DM, and the right story. The rarity of that makes such games the stuff of legend.
If you can’t schedule a chargen day before the first game, then the simplest technique to introducing PCs into each other’s narrative is the Round-Table Introduction:
- Have one player introduce the public, or easily discovered, aspects of their background. Our half-elf warlock was found outside her burning orphanage as a child, calmly reading fairy tales from a gnarled book and singing the D&D equivalent of “London Bridges”.
- The next player clockwise does the same, and then describes a way that their character is tied to the previous character. Our halfling fighter spent most of his life on the street so decided that he’d been one of the only other survivors of that fire, creating a fascinating and twisted dynamic between the two.
- Continue around the table until you reach the first player. The first player then explains how their character is tied to the last player.
This technique accomplishes two goals, the obvious being to create a reason for your characters to be involved. The second, subtler goal is to take this creative weight off of the GM’s shoulders. When players are involved with their own connections they become more invested.
The brutal experiences of my PC’s life have made him a bit of a loner; I say “a bit” only because it’s a roleplaying game, right? I need to work with other people, so I’ll try to be open to whatever excuse the GM uses to bring our group together.
Loners: another common side effect of creating characters in a vacuum. How can you tie your character to others if you don’t know them?
The solution is to create bonds with other NPCs in your background and leave spaces open for the players in your group. A good start is to not kill off your character’s parents. I would conservatively say that at least half the PCs I’ve ever played with were orphans. I understand that dead parents can be dramatic; after all, every Disney film starts with someone’s parents being shot, drowned, eaten or burned to death. That isn’t the reason people create orphan PCs, though. It’s easier to wander the world alone than to create the “mundane” connections to friends and family we deal with in real life. Don’t give in to the temptation.
As a GM, I’d be happy that the player in the example is at least considering there will be other players. One “loner” in a group can be tough for a GM and as players we should keep that in mind. Multiple loners will destroy a game if players aren’t flexible.
Not that loners can’t be intriguing in a group dynamic. The most interesting characters in literature start a story in one emotional or mental state and end someplace very different. They want something or believe they want something at the start of a story, then by the end want something very different. Han Solo (Star Wars), Oliver Queen (Arrow) and Jayne Cobb (Firefly) all find ways to compliment ensemble casts. Even Jayne, one of the most inflexible characters in science fiction, finds opportunities to grow and adapt to the needs of the crew.
Of course, once the other players figure out what it takes to break through my rough exterior and earn my trust, things will be perfect! I don’t know what that would take, but that’s their puzzle to solve.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into this. A player creates a character with a single significant motivation. Any action the party takes that challenges that motivation leads to an in-character debate that inevitably becomes either player frustration or a flat out yelling match. Whether it’s the holy paladin, loner assassin, or any shade between. Even when other players make solid arguments about what to do next, one player refuses to change the story they have in their head. I actually had a player say, “Once the other players figure out how to handle my character, he’ll change his mind.” When I asked him what that would take, he shrugged and put the burden of discovery on his fellow PCs to figure out.
Your character’s growth is not in the hands of your fellow players. It’s true that someone might say something that changes the way your PC thinks, but that is a rare situation and shouldn’t be a requirement forced on your fellow players. The ability to mold your PC’s needs to the campaign is not only an important skill, I would argue that it’s the most important skill a player can have. It doesn’t mean your character has to bend over backwards every time the rest of the group wants to do something your PC doesn’t, but a willingness to do that can not only make for a smoother night at the table, it could take your character to interesting places you never would have visited on your own.
Besides, when they hear the details of my backstory they will jump at the chance to join me!
Seeing this written down may sound absurd. Unfortunately, this is a sad trap the majority of players fall into at one point or another. It’s the hardest and most obvious side effect of creating your character in a vacuum. Of course, having a chargen day where you all work together to create a well-balanced party (both mechanically and narratively speaking) is ideal, but it isn’t necessary. Few of us have that kind of time. You don’t even need to abandon your intricate and detailed background. What you do have to do is let go of the story you think should be told.
Look at your story as a starting point, not a destination. Adapt the details to the story in front of you. Most of the other players won’t know your background so changing the Baron von Ishkabible of your story to the Countess Surly your GM introduced wouldn’t matter in the slightest. It just takes a chat with your GM. Swapping an NPC from your background with one of your fellow PCs can put the story on a fun and interesting path. This only works if you let go of your expectations and allow the PC to add their own elements to your story.
Unfortunately, when I sat down for the first game there were two other players with backgrounds even more detailed than mine and two people who made characters an hour before and named them Captain Needaname and Billy-Bob the Black and their only motivation is to burn off the stress of work by killing everything in sight.
This is a harder issue to deal with and the only way to let that frustration go is to understand that there are many reasons people come together around a game table. Not everyone has the time or creativity to make a detailed background. Not everyone has the improvisational acting skills to talk in funny voices and imitate the PTSD tick of your grizzled soldier. Some people just want to move pieces around a board, roll some dice, and beat on bad-guys they imagine look like their boss. Aside from finding a group of players who think exactly like you do (which is tough), your other option is to help fold those characters into the overall narrative. If you’ve gone through the round-table intro, these characters, no matter how generic, have a connection to someone. Ask them if you can add them into a piece of your character’s story or find a way to add your character into theirs. Suggest places their character could be connected to the villain, or another hero, or your friendly neighborhood tavern keeper. The key here is to 1) be polite and 2) let the GM do their job. Suggestions are great. Forcing your own story isn’t.
Then the GM starts in with some storyline about an invading extra-dimensional army that has nothing to do with the man who murdered my sister.
The easiest way to avoid this problem is to ask your GM what kind of campaign you’re playing. Even if you know the system, or even the genre you’re playing, there are numerous variations on the theme. The “classic” Dungeons & Dragons game could be high fantasy (Forgotten Realms), low fantasy (Game of Thrones), wilderness exploration (Kingmaker), dungeon crawl (Vault of the Drow), urban (Waterdeep), post-apocalyptic (Dark Sun), mixed-genre (Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), horror (Ravenloft), or cross-cultural (Oriental Adventures, Al-Qadim). Science fiction games could be humans-only soft sci-fi (Firefly), aliens-everywhere science fantasy (Star Wars), or a mix (Star Trek).
There are many reasons your GM might not be able to answer that question. Maybe you’re GM is playing a sandbox-style game. Maybe your game is a mixed campaign with modules being played as they’re bought. Or perhaps you’re rotating GMs. No matter the reason, the most important thing you can do to make your and everyone else’s game more enjoyable is to let your character’s story evolve as it’s written. In the above example, if your sister was murdered, see if your GM will make the murderer an advanced scout for the invading army, or make your just-now-decided adopted sister the scout who was murdered by a government agency fighting a secret war against the invasion.
All that work I’ve put in has gone to waste and now showing up at the table every week is more frustration than fun.
Don’t deny your PC the opportunity to grow. If you let your character change, very few games will be frustrating. Keep in mind what emotional state your character is starting in and contemplate how they may change by the time the campaign or story is over. You don’t have to know exactly what that change will be, but giving a character the opportunity to grow adds depth and freshness, particularly in long campaigns. The change may be purely roleplaying, like hating a particular race, culture, PC or NPC then learning to trust them. Or it may manifest as a game-related change, like adding levels in a new class or gaining new skills or powers.
If the other players have decided to step through a portal to save the Elemental Plane of Mud, but your character has a phobia of getting dirty, help your character find a way to walk through that portal. Don’t force your friends to uncover the one esoteric argument that even you aren’t aware of in order to move the story forward. Maybe a member of your party saved your PCs life and your PC is just now realizing they don’t want to see them hurt. Maybe your PC has reluctantly, and quietly, developed respect for another PC. Maybe your PC hates that fastidious part of himself and wants to face up to his fear. Or maybe you have no idea why yet, but to help keep the game moving your PC goes through that portal anyway. Check in with the other players at the table and see what they think. You don’t have to create reasons on your own. As both a GM and a player, suggestions from other players, even in jest, have created some of the most memorable moments in my gaming career.