Living Legends 2 – From Paper to People
Another look at character creation and the process of fleshing out characters and making them as real as possible. In this article, we discuss both building a good character sheet and using that character sheet to the max of your abilities.
In the last article, we looked at making a good character concept, keeping it simple, and the purpose and uses of character concepts in roleplaying. We also examined how the character concept is essential to GMs, and how it will enhance his/her game in many ways if used correctly.
Now we examine something less useful, or perhaps less time-saving, to the GMs, but still essential to both GMs and players – building and using the character sheet. As far as gaming and die rolls, the character sheet is perhaps the most important part of character creation, but many gamers incorrectly assume that the sheet has nothing to do with their general character. The character sheet, while not a necessity, can be a powerful tool for developing a character. In fact, many of my best ideas and key moments of development in my character's past have come because of a random word on the character sheet.
I'm going to proceed assuming that you all know how to make a character sheet for whatever games you play. The purpose of this article is not to detail how one can use rules and such to powergame (maybe later installments:) but how to use the stats to make a great character. So, we proceed.
You must, of course, build your character sheet on your character concept. If you wish to play a philosopher barbarian than it makes no sense to make your first class a Cleric. However, don't use this concept as a straightjacket – let creativity go as you make the sheet, even if some things seem a bit out of character. For instance, due to this barbarian's bent for philosophy and deep thinking, he might take a level in cleric later, representing his forays into religion to determine their separate arguments for the existence or nature of their respective gods. Or, more likely, he took a few cross-class ranks in Knowledge (religion). If something feels right, put it down and wonder about it later. Don't worry about it for now. Sometimes this will give you the perfect ideas to expand your character. Other times, you'll get it all wrong. But, don't worry, you can just change things around again until you get what's right and what makes sense. Because satisfaction with your character is more important than just about anything else, don't be afraid to do it.
A note for GMs concerning this – usually I let players change their characters up until several sessions in, letting them get comfortable before they commit to one character. However, again, use your intuition. Sometimes a player will want to change their character, and you don't agree. The reasons for making them stick with the character are several but need to be used with care – you should only limit them here if their ideas for changing significantly unbalance the party, violate the rules (without you and them coming to some sort of compromise or change), or are totally opposite what's needed for the campaign. Sometimes, however, with no other reason than that you feel it, you'll want to disallow this character change. If this happens, go with it. Disallow that change, and make them stick with their character. I still can't explain why, but the few times (this should be rare) I have done this, it's paid off. With both the instances that I can remember, a best friend who was playing a wizard/cleric with aspirations to become a mystic theurge and wasn't feeling it, and another good friend who played a gnome monk and found him/herself slightly dissatisfied with it, when I made them stick with these characters, they later became personal favorites, and highlighted aspects of their personality and playing style they hadn't explored before.
Now, a note for players on character changes – make sure you do this with both the affirmation and guidance of the GM. I can't tell you how many of my games were ruined because a particular player decided between sessions to change his character and caught me completely off-guard. If you do this, the GM is perfectly justified to cut you out of the group and kill your personality swapping character. If you do this repeatedly, you should expect him/her to do so. Please, before even beginning character creation, run your ideas past your GM, so he/she can approve them. Sometimes, this means you won't get to play what you wanted to play. But, I'm sure you've got more ideas up there.
Also, try to coordinate with the GM and other players when making your character, particularly later when developing history. This will give you all kinds of ideas, as you all think of ways to link the PCs together intricately, and the GM guides your character in his world, as well as, if he/she can do so subtly, sprinkle little plot hooks and bits of information to tie you into the story.
Alright, now that the sheet is made, with all those numbers and stuff, it's time to make them mean something. Look at everything on the sheet. Do you have a good explanation for it all? By the way, a good explanation doesn't mean, yes, I need (insert feat or skill or attribute of some sort here) to do (insert cool ability that all those other things give). If that's the reason you put it there, that's fine. But, from your characters perspective, why is it there? The sheet, as it stands now, is the accumulated experience and life of your character, made conveniently into game stats. That means that all the stuff on there is the details of your characters life, those details that led to whatever he/she is now. And, as they say, the devil is in the details. Delve into the stats and find out why your character has them. How did he/she get to be so good at hitting things? Why did he/she become a martial artist? Where did he/she get their spellcasting ability from? Or, even, what's behind their name and last name?
Focus on those details and think of every reason why someone would know or be able to do those things. Why, if you're a wizard, do you specialize in necromancy, and don't do, perhaps hate, evocation and divination? The answer to these questions are never, "It just is." Think of yourself – how and why did you get into roleplaying? What have you gained from it? How and why did you get into gamegrene? Again, what has become of that? Every stat should represent something about your character – but this doesn't mean an epic behind every one of them. Some of them will have a large amount of importance to your character; others won't. For example, I am currently playing an elven fighter who wields two swords in combat. I'll use two of his stats to illustrate – he can speak Gnoll, and is good at climbing. The first is extremely important, as he learned Gnoll whilst he was enslaved to them after they sacked his hometown and took or killed everyone in it. This moment, this time he spent in slavery, is a major turning point for my character, and is represented by this language. However, his skill at climbing is less important, not even mentioned in my character history – he learned how to climb well when climbing cliffs and rock formations near his home as a little boy, and later further improved his talent as he traveled.
A great exercise to develop this ability is one that works from the opposite direction. Try making a character sheet of yourself or someone you know. If you use modern systems like World of Darkness (particularly useful for this) or d20 Modern, this is very useful. It's less useful, but still not useless, with systems like Dungeons and Dragons, though using the Aristocrat NPC class for most of us might work. Just try and do it. I did it once with World of Darkness, and I think I remade it three times. The best part about World of Darkness is figuring out what your Virtue and Vice are. If you really want to make it interesting, make one of yourself and have your friend make one of you using the same system. While I'm pretty convinced my virtue is charity, most of my friends thought it was justice. Then, if you're really enjoying yourself, try playing a game as yourself (again, most useful in World of Darkness, as it naturally puts you in tough decisions, which are made harder and more real when you play yourself). This is a great exercise because it helps you figure out a lot about yourself, particularly what you think is important or useful enough to put on a sheet, but also because it helps you focus on the details of character creation, instead of glancing over them. It also teaches you to play your character well, as, most of us at least, want to play ourselves accurately, and a good game will challenge just what you think about yourself.
Again, pour over the details, because what seems inconsequential at first could become extremely important later on. Also, even after this stage is complete, remember the character sheet is a "living" document (heh) – it can change if necessary, or even if not necessary. After you've fully developed your character (coming soon:), don't be afraid to go back and change the sheet to better fit the character, even if it isn't exactly advantageous – but it's more realistic, and makes it more personal. Trust me, while you might never use Knowledge (religion) as a barbarian, it adds depth to your character and differentiates it from every other barbarian out there – it takes your character from being a paper to a person.
In the next article, we'll be looking at taking these basic details that you've gleaned from both the concept and the character sheet and using them to develop your character further, to flesh him/her out into something really worth playing. We'll take your character from a collection of stats, a concept, and a few ideas from both of those, into a fully developed, breathing, living legend.