Living Legends 1 - Character Concept


The first of a series of articles that will attempt to address making characters, giving suggestions and ideas, as well as a battle plan, to make truly legendary characters. While primarily for players, this has been designed with both players and GMs in mind, as both need to make great characters to make a great game.

For any roleplaying game, character is the driving part of the game. While someone can certainly play the game without a real character, you'd be cutting yourself off from much of the best stuff in roleplaying. The best games revolve around the characters, as do the best of anything in entertainment, whether it be movies, TV, books, or just about anything. Just try to imagine Star Wars without Darth Vader or Luke. Or Lord of the Rings without Frodo and Sam. Would Lost be anywhere near as good as it is if it didn't involve the characters, and have such great characters? Characterization is the most important part of just about all entertainment.

So how does one make characters that match up? No matter how good the GM is, he/she can't make a good game without good characters from the players. Sure, it might be semi-enjoyable, but people play the games because of their characters. They want to see and be a part of the creation of their character's history, see what happens to them, and decide how they react. So how does one make a character worth playing, one that'll guarantee hours of enjoyment?

In this upcoming series of articles, titled Living Legends, I will attempt to address just that. I will attempt to lay out how a player can make a great character, a legend for this world. However, this isn't just for players – the advice offered in this article can easily be used for GMs, too. In fact, as has often been said, a story is only as good as it's villain. So, this advice is for both players and GMs to create both the protagonists and the antagonists, truly making the story legendary. Also, the last article in the series will address how GMs can take the great character histories provided by their players and use them to make a truly legendary campaign.

Let's start from the beginning – the character concept. Now, if you're like most roleplayers, you've got at least four or five swimming in your head. But, before we get into that, let's define our terms. A character concept is a baseline idea of what you want your character to be – it's what you use to develop the rest of the character. The concept should remain simple, because if you don't you'll limit yourself and keep great ideas from coming out later on. Let me give you a few examples from my own head – a philosopher barbarian, a sorcerer with an illithid bloodline, a Jewish demolition specialist fighting for the Allies in WWII, and a Russian (former criminal) nuclear technician working in the Trenoble nuclear factory (which exploded at the beginning of the campaign).

The concept is the defining trait of your character – everything should come back to it. After you've picked your concept from the multitude in your head, or made one up entirely, you're ready to go. Don't worry if you feel your concept isn't good enough – even something like "I'm a barbarian," can be a great springboard for a character, in fact, some of the best characters I've seen have started from concepts that simple. However, too complex a concept will be very difficult to play. After the character has been fully created, the concept is the baseline to which you can always refer when trying to play your character – if it is too complex, it fails in this purpose. I would recommend the last example given above as the most complicated to go. More than that, and you'll be confusing yourself when it's most important – at the table.

Now, a note on creating characters mid-campaign. There are several different ways that this happens. One is when you bring a character to a game without really having a complete idea of what you want to play. If this happens to you don't stress – there is still a possibility of creating a legendary character. All you need here is the concept, which will come to you in time, if you don't already have one. In fact, several very talented roleplayers that I know don't fully develop their characters until several sessions in, wanting to see how they play the character before they try and make the history, to make sure the personality and the history fit together. While not my preferred method, this is actually a very good way of doing things and for this reason I believe GMs shouldn't demand a full character history until several sessions in. However, if a GM doesn't even want to make a campaign until he/she has all the information about the characters, then there is a middle ground. The GM can run prologue sessions, probably just one, at most two, with this character, letting them feel their way into the character. That way, come campaign time, they're already comfortable in that character's shoes, can play them to the hilt, and the GM gets the history before the beginning, giving him ample time to integrate it into the campaign he is planning on running.

What about creating a character mid-campaign, after the death of another one? Well, that's about the same as making one at the beginning, except perhaps more fun, because you get to make more. Again, even though this character is most likely more experienced than the last, and therefore has more history, you start with the basic concept.

For the GM, the concept is even more essential than it is for the players, as, depending on the NPC, the concept might be all there is of the character. But the GM doesn't have the luxury of creating such a simple character concept as the player does. A concept that worked with the player, like "I'm a barbarian" doesn't work with the GM, as the world will most likely be filled with barbarians, and, if said barbarian is the antagonist, the players are going to need, in most cases, a lot more reason to fight this NPC than that he's a barbarian. But, the GM also faces the same problem the player does with complexity – if the concept is "he's a barbarian from the snake skull clan (which believes in human sacrifice and worships Yuan-ti) who left his clan to become an adventurer many years ago, found a woman who almost made him good and almost settled him, but then she died and he came back to his people and now leads them against the civilized world because he believes it's their fault she died, etc:" you're going to have a very hard time playing it. However, a base concept of "he's the barbarian leader of the snake skull clan, which is evil" is enough for now. Later comes the details.

However, the GM also needs to know when to stop. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, as I'm a very detail oriented person, and would be more than happy to detail every person in a given world. However, I like running the games more, and I can't have both. Besides, if too much detail is given, then not only will you be more likely to make mistakes and forget those details, especially important ones for minor ones, but there will be no room for improvisation and some of the brilliant ideas that come of it. So, the GM, after the basic concept is in place, then needs to make it simple for all but the most important of NPCs. The players will not appreciate in depth detail on every one of the bad guy's minions – but everybody loves a cool bad guy. So ignore the minions after an interesting concept is created for them, and detail the main villain. After all, in order to play the NPC, all you need is a concept, but to make an interesting and involved game with the bad guy, you need a lot more than that.

However, the concepts should come easier to the GM because he has the world, which he should have in depth knowledge of, to frame the concept. Because of this, the GM should have the surrounding world figured out long before he tries to create concepts, in most cases, because the concept might not be fitting with the world, which would destroy the players suspension of disbelief. World building is not something this article, or several subsequent ones by this author, attempts to discuss, so if the GM has not created the world yet, then he shouldn't be using this information yet. This comes after the world has been created and is now being populated. Also, the GM should almost always have several different concepts ready made to pull out at any time during the game if he/she needs a random NPC. Try not to take these ideas from lists or random rolling – they're usually more interesting when you come up with them originally.

Figured out the base concept yet? Great – that's the easy part, but one of the most important. Next we'll get those annoying things called stats out of the way so we can get to the real character behind them, and we'll also discuss using those stats to develop your character further.