Character-First Character Design

When my friends and I play traditional RPGs like D&D we have a maxim: figure out who your character is first, then build them.  Alternately: make your PC a character in need of a mechanic rather than a mechanic in need of a character.  Or to put it even more straightforwardly: you are not your feats.  From here on, I'll call this principle character-first design.

Why Character-First?

We all dread the "let me tell you about my character" conversation.  Many gamers are not good storytellers (I'm blessed to have a couple of friends who are and we're totally having them on our show when we can get them together).  But more importantly, a lot of people think about characters based on what they do mechanically rather than who they are.  Nobody wants to listen to how taking X levels of class A and Y levels of prestige class B lets you spell combo for all the damages.  There are places for that sort of thing.

But there are also characters in traditional games who have interesting - even achingly beautiful - stories.  I can recall a few from my own campaigns: the apathetic young reverend who ended up saving the girl almost despite himself; the eager but not-very-bright wild elf barbarian who got himself in trouble just by being friendly (and challenging everyone to climbing contests); the outcast who found friendship among pirates and who eventually came to terms with being responsible for her own brother's death.

So what makes the difference between "Please, God, no!" and "Please tell me more!"?  Half in the Bag nails it in their brilliant deconstruction of Star Wars Episode I: if you can tell me who a character is without referring to her name, look, or specific things she does onscreen then she's a good character.  The audience (i.e. the other players) will want to form a connection with her; to identify with her.  Starting life as a bag of rules in search of a personality is a poor way to get to that place.

Game Influences Character Design

Why do we see so many characters who are mechanics-first rather than character-first, and why do they tend to show up in some games more than in others?  Chris Magoun at d12 identifies a dichotomy in traditional RPGs: games like D&D3.5 and Pathfinder have build-based combat systems; games like D&D 4E and Fate have position-based combat systems.  In build-based systems, it's mostly about what your character can do all by herself.  In position-based systems, it's about the party as a whole and how they coordinate.

Build-based systems prime players to look for mechanical gimmicks because they reward characters that do one thing very well.  In position-based systems, however, a character needs to fill a particular role well; how she accomplishes that is up to her player.  Build-based systems are more likely to have specific "winning" builds while position-based systems offer more varied avenues to success.

That doesn't mean you can't use character-first design in build-based systems and still have a viable character.  This is especially true if you can accept the proposition that anything within the rules should be able to be re-skinned as anything else.  It also helps if you're not dead-set on taking the most mechanically advantageous choice at every step during character creation and advancement; these games aren't balanced for superheroes after all.

My Character-First Design Process

This is what I do to build interesting characters.  Most of this I've stolen from various game systems.  Use as much or as little as you like.

High Concept

The first step is to come up with a "high concept", like in Fate (I'm thinking specifically of Dresden Files).  This is a short, punchy phrase that sums up who the character is and should give some indication of how she'll fit into the story.  A few recent examples:

  • Wizard, building contractor, and family man (Pathfinder)
  • Self-conscious agoraphobic vampire tentacle monster (D&D 4E)
  • Well meaning but douchey captain of the football team (Monsterhearts)
  • Hot-headed revolutionary cowgirl sniper (D&D 4E)

To this, I add a few additional color adjectives or phrases (think traits from Burning Wheel) that describe the character's appearance, demeanor, dress, behavior, etc.  What I'm trying to do here is create a picture of who she is in my head, to make it easier to play her.

Evaluate Builds

This is when I go to the rulebook and see if the character design will work in the system.  I'll try to come up with two or three different candidate builds (class, race, specialization, etc.) that might work for the concept.  The goal here is to look for abilities and powers that provide the most flavor, keeping re-skinning in mind if that's an option.

I'm not trying to find the most mechanically effective build, just one that works.  I will discard builds that look particularly ineffective.  I'll also look ahead at what advancement options are available - sometimes a build that looks good now makes no sense in five levels. I won't plan too much about my character's future, though - after all, I don't know how she's going to grow and change over the course of the game.

Usually one build will jump out as the best fit.  I'll choose that and see what other abilities it gives her.  What the character can do in a fight is often going to be a big part of how she's portrayed.  I'll need to know what she can do before I put on the finishing touches...

Instincts and Beliefs

... which I've also stolen from Burning Wheel.  I like to come up with three beliefs and three instincts for my character.  Instincts are things the character always does or ways she always reacts to a particular situation.  "Always shoot first" is an example, as is "hide behind the robot".  Instincts are a great way to give my character tics that will make her distinctive during both role-play and combat.

Beliefs express what my character cares about and how she plans to pursue her goals.  Some examples from characters I've played:

"What criminals need most is an opportunity to do honest work - something I am uniquely situated to provide."

"The World Government is flawed - I will be the justice they claim to believe in!"

"I will atone for my brother's death by protecting innocent children at any cost."

Once I've got my high concept, traits, build, instincts, and beliefs, the character is done... for now.  All of these things are subject to change as she grows, acts, and lives.  Maybe one of her beliefs is rattled by a particularly unsettling experience.  Maybe she develops a new habit.  Maybe she just finds something else she cares deeply about.  I find it's a good policy to re-evaluate my character few months in a long-running campaign. This does two things - first, it makes me aware if she's changed or grown without me noticing!  Second, it keeps the character from getting stale; if nothing has changed in months of play, maybe it's time to shake things up a little.

Dealing with Mechanics-First Characters

Inevitably you'll end up playing with people who design characters around a mechanical rather than a narrative core.  We've all been there - heck, we've all built characters like that.  These characters are much more likely to be unbalanced, because without creative constraint there's no incentive not to stack effects and exploit corner cases to achieve maximum effect.

When a player brings a character to the table that's clearly mechanics-first, you have to make two decisions.  First, is the character so incredibly focused that it's going to blow apart the balance of the campaign?  There's a few ways this can happen, but it's mostly (a) making combat uninteresting and/or (b) making the other players feel useless.  If the character isn't going to throw everything out of whack, then it might not be worth confronting the player about his play style.

Say the character is going to be disruptive, or just uninteresting in a story-oriented campaign.  You then have to evaluate why the player brought that kind of character.  If it's because his only payoffs are system mastery and overcoming mechanical challenges, then he's probably not at the table for the same reason as you are.  You might want to consider whether you should be playing in the same game at all. (Also, you should have used The Same Page Tool before you began!)

But say the player sincerely wants to role-play.  Maybe he brought his one-trick mechanical pony because he didn't know any better.  In that case, it might be worth having a conversation.  Don't use words like "broken" or "disruptive" or "ruin the campaign". Heck, you might compliment him on his skill with the system!

But you might also point out that having such a focused character is going to make play less interesting for him overall.  You might go around and talk about all of your character concepts. When it's his turn and he says "spiked chain dude who trips people" he's going to feel kind of awkward - that could be a starting point for a conversation.  Or you could just straight-up ask, "What kind of person is your character?" Give him time to work it through.  If the answer doesn't fit what's on the character sheet (it likely won't) you can suggest giving up some focus for something that better matches what he's described.  Heck, you can even show him this post!

When Character-First Characters Are Still Broken

Finally, sometimes you go through the character-first process and you still get a character who does bonkers stuff - stun-locks monsters, deals hundreds of damage in a single round, etc.  What do you do?

Well, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should, or that you should do it all the time.  The United States has been in a whole bunch of wars since 1945, but we haven't dropped a single nuclear bomb since Nagasaki.  When your first tactic as a player is always to drop a nuke, you do one of two things: you either (a) take all of the challenge out of the game and make the other players feel useless, or (b) invite an arms race with the DM.

Furthermore, if you're reading this far, you're probably already committed to the idea of role-playing as an exercise in shared fiction.  And what is fiction without drama?  What is a swashbuckling adventure story without cinematic moments?  Why don't you save your über-combo for when it has the most punch in the context of the story?  When your party is down to its last HP and your leader lies bleeding and broken on the ground, and the evil monster is about to deliver a coup-de-grace - that's when you swoop in out of the blue and obliterate the bad guy with your super-secret attack of doom!

Not only does it add dramatic punch, but it also makes you seem like more of a badass.  You're the guy who can fell a giant in one blow - but only if you can be bothered.  When Inigo Montoya fought the Dread Pirate Roberts, both started off left-handed.  We see examples in fiction all the time of people who hold back, either to test someone or because they don't think their opponent is worth their full effort.  Watch any fighting anime - nobody ever uses their ultimate finishing move until they absolutely have to!

When you do have to, you only have to do it once.  Everyone will remember that moment and how awesome you were.  It gives you and everyone else at the table a story to tell.  If you time it perfectly - if you truly are saving a friend's life, for instance, or teaching an insolent foe a hard lesson - you can turn what should have been an ordinary combat into an emotional high-point of your campaign.  Isn't that what you really wanted all along?

In Summary

  • Character before mechanics; concept before rulebook.
  • Be nice and help people build interesting characters (for your own sanity as well as theirs).
  • If you build a broken character, be a true badass and unleash only when it's most awesome.

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