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A DM’s Guide to Character Creation

By Andrew Moran AKA Rannos

Character Creation

The best campaigns have the best characters in them, The GM creates the story and the world and moves the plot forward, but the players themselves supply the fun and excitement that will keep them coming back week after week.

So how can a DM help?

Rules Lite and Rules Heavy

For a long running campaign,  I like to help my players craft their characters.  It doesn’t matter which system you are running, as giving ideas to your players and lending them a friendly hand is always useful.

Taking a wild example one of the best characters in Toon was the Companion Cube from Portal. Anything is possible in this rules lite system, but  guiding that player to create a complete character with roleplaying potential can be difficult as a GM. In this instance social interaction for the companion cube was not a problem:  There was none, it’s a cube.

One could ask what is the point of roleplaying in a game like Toon, but Toon is a game of over the topness and satire. The GM could suggest that the cube is unable to move if someone is looking at it, because it’s a cube.  Flaws like this are not written into the system but can lead to hilarious results when you turn away and the cube jumps through a window. These memorable moments always start with character creation.

In a rules heavy system, players often find themselves thinking in terms of attributes and numbers rather than a whole character concept. As the DM one of the most important aspects of your role is to convert a player’s idea into a character sheet: This requires a good knowledge of the system so make sure you understand the system you are playing.

Concept is Better than Stats

Talk with your players to find out what they want the character to be like and then craft and fine -tune the numbers with them. As a player it’s far more interesting to be thinking about why he is performing an action rather  than simply totalling up his damage bonus. When your monk has a reason for punching the bad guy in the head (maybe the bad guy ate your family?), you will be glad  you have  a +10 bonus to damaging his face.

The right tools

During character creation you can help your players by given them aids or tools to help them think about their characters. Some DMs enjoy the traditional 20-question framework, with questions such as “Where were you born?”, “What made you aware of the supernatural?”. These questions help focus the player into crafting a skeleton for the character.

Most DMs I know prefer asking their players to create a backstory. While this seems like a tedious, awful process that maybe 2 in 5 of your players hand in to you, it does make everyone think about the background of their character even if they never write it all down. Don’t Forget that XP is always a nice reward for awesome character stories.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Don’t kill off your PCs too often; a few games I have played have resorted to flipping through obscure rulebooks to min/max a character that will survive more than 2 sessions. These characters are generally unroleplayable. This isn’t to say you should remove the elements of danger  as any game should have a risk that you might die, but as a DM does the pit trap really need spikes … with added poison … and a swarm of killer rats?

Probably not.

Also be aware that awesome character concepts actually improve the characters’ survivability. Taking an example from my monthly vampire LARP game on campus (*PLUG*): The prince of Kent has a fantastic character with many distinctive character traits and an understanding of what’s not the best for his character but the funniest for all characters. I know that is a poor description but given the opportunity I wouldn’t want to kill off his character; he is just too fun and the game would suffer a great loss because of it.

Therefore, when you have a great party you as the DM should invest as much effort into developing the characters as the Players should. Most ways that this occurs is by weaving the character into the narrative of the campaign. By suggesting elements of your world during character creation you can get the juices flowing for great plot ideas.

A potential traitor in the midst, a lost sister that the Fighter guarded until the town he was defending came under siege by goblins led by Steven Seagal. Why did the goblins attack (maybe the wizard knows)?

A PC throughly enjoys being the plot, it shows great trust and is a great way to showcase Roleplaying ability.

But whatever you do don’t punish bad roleplaying!

Untraditional Roleplaying Bonuses (or why I hate Flaws)

Giving out heavy bonuses for good roleplaying leaves those bad roleplayers fed up and unable to keep up. They inevitably quit, which may seem like a good thing but it really isn’t. As a DM you should realise that they are people too and that what you should be doing is giving the player small nudges from building poor characters into good ones that they can roleplay. This takes a lot of time to perfect but is worthwhile in the long run.

Occasionally during character creation the Flaw mechanic will arise. Bad character builders see these as firstly a potential for a tic that they can roleplay and secondly as more XP. Unfortunately this roleplaying tic never makes it into the game. Personally I hate flaw mechanics, but you should never stop a player playing a flawed character; they can be highly interesting if played right. In my campaigns that flaw would provide little to no starting character XP, but would grant  an in-game reward if it hampered the party and was thus used as a roleplaying mechanic.

You would never think  you could get so much RPing out of lighting a torch when the party healer is scared of the dark.

Roleplaying hands out its own natural rewards in game. Good characters talk to NPC’s they encounter, make friends with them and make alliances with the baron.  Stay in a castle rather than in the inn. Find the adventure hooks in town.  Good characters are immersed in the game because the player has taken time to craft his or her character.

Imagine a world where your dashing swordsman’s feats of heroism actually attract the ladies, who pay attention and flirt with him; a world where he actually saves the damsel in distress. The mere act of creating a character influences the direction the game goes in and this is one of the greatest in game rewards you can get.

But what about the players who have spent little time investing in their characters? Well the campaign still has fights and skill checks and rum.  But hopefully they will see the subtle benefits of investing time in a character and do the same.

The key word  in the last sentence is subtle.

If the benefits become more than that then the players can blame the GM for favouritism; unfortunately they will probably be right. Lots of small things are good. Large grand overt gestures are not. Balance is the key, but overall have fun.

Hopefully reading this has helped you in some way and if you would like any other topics discussed, please ask below. The Contributers always need shiny things to write about and  I shall try not to make the next article over 1250 words!


  1. avatar

    Skimble says:

    You make some good points but I have a few additional comments and a couple of minor disagreements!

    First of all, you missed one of the player habits I find annoying. It’s a subtle combination of metagaming and min-maxing and it occurs with some regularity in the White Wolf “World of Darkness” games.

    I’m talking about the habit players have of looking at the cool powers or other systems and seeing that they need X and Y attributes/skills at high values in order to be good at activating the power/using the system. They then purchase the required stats at high values even if it doesn’t make much sense in the context of the character.

    I’ve always preferred to create a character’s skills and attribute set organically according to the ‘life path’ of the character as I see it. If he’s bad at one of his powers or whatever, well that’s just something I can work on improving during the game.

    One way to prevent this kind of thing is to go over the character sheet and ask the player to justify any skills or attributes that he has at above, or indeed below, average ratings. This in itself helps to flesh out the character and make him or her (or it) more than a series of numbers on the page.

    I disagree with your dislike of flaws, as they can be fun even if a player doesn’t utilise them fully. I do advocate keeping track of them as a GM, though: If a player is not inconveniencing himself enough with his flaw to fairly reflect the advantage it gave him during character creation, feel free to do it for him.

    This is particularly easy with flaws like Enemy or Cursed, but if the player took the “Socially inept” flaw but doesn’t play it, feel free to describe how his character is picking his nose during conversation or otherwise acting in a way to deserve the flaw that offsets his suave roleplaying.

    You should also be aware of player ruts and perhaps consider helping players to get out of them. There is nothing inherently wrong with always playing the sneaky thief type, but if you can persuade the player who does to branch out into different character tropes you will almost certainly increase everyone’s fun, including his.

    There are also games around that take a more narratively driven approach to creating characters – and groups! One example of this is the “Spirit of the Century” system, which uses the concept of Aspects. Each character generates Aspects relating to the others during the course of character generation that are appropriate to a shared adventure the characters had.

    For example if Dashing Dan Dixon starred in “Dashing Dan Dixon versus the Dancers of Death” with Lucy “Ladykiller” Laine appearing in a supporting role, Dan Dixon might gain the Aspect “Romantic Rivalry” with Lucy Laine, with both of them having gone after the same blond femme fatale.

    What I’m seguing into here is the concept that the GROUP should have as much care and attention devoted to its creation as each individual player does, but that’s a subject for another article I think.

  2. avatar

    Ian Warner says:

    I quite like Flaws when they have a direct benefit in exchange for the hinderance as in oWoD, Xpress, Shadow World D20 and Macho Women With Guns. The whole action of spending the points helps customise the character further and encourages great roleplay. What I don’t like is the nWoD way of doing things. Its easy to forget you have a flaw in that system because it never comes up unless the ST has said your flaw has hindered you to the extent that it gives you the XP bonus. My first nWoD character had 3 flaws (racist, sexist, behaviour blind) because I thought I could have fun with them. I did have a lot of fun with them as it happens but I never gained XP for fuffiling them so I ignored them the next time I created a character.

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