Teach A Magic Player: RPG! Creating Your First Player Character, by Timaeus Faustus

Level 2: Bringing Your Child into the World

Dragons of Tarkir Common and Uncommon Picks for Limited by Chris Aston

Teach A Magic Player: RPG! Creating Your First Player Character

Evening all (or the appropriate greeting for whatever time period it is in your part of the world). I’m Timaeus, and I’ve been a Game Master of tabletop role playing games for pretty much six years back to back. Here at Manaleak, I’ve started to put together a series of articles that should show you the ins-and-outs of the hobby as if you were fresh-faced to the craft, whilst still having enough original advice to provide a useful resource for those who’ve been gaming for a lot longer. Today, I’ll be taking a look at characterisation and how to create a player character for a role playing game, and encouraging you to ask the right questions to ensure you’ve got enough of their personality and history fleshed out in your mind so you can step into theirs. Enjoy!

 

Level 2: Bringing Your Child into the World

Characterisation is always a difficult stage of the role playing experience, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do it easily. The character generation experience is one that you’ll become familiar with, as by nature it should be the first thing you do when sitting down with your friends to make your story. Like my previous article, I’m going to show you a number of methods for creating a character that you can feel at home in, whilst also being comfortable in your campaign, your party, and your play group. I’ll do this through a combination of my own experiences and those that I’ve watched players go through as a Games Master, highlighting some of the choices people made while creating the avatars that would represent them in the story, why they made those choices, and most importantly, what you can learn from them.

While I’ll touch on things like class choice and character growth in this article, those are deep subjects which can be reserved for other pieces which can give them the kind of insight they deserve. In this column, I’ll be visiting topics over the next few months that should be helpful for beginners from all angles, and I don’t want to rush through questions like those at the expense of anything else.

When done well, a player character can live with you for years, and you can learn from them and be guided by them as much as they’re guided by you and grow from you. I’ve seen people cry over the deaths of these characters, talk about them as if they were in the room, and speculate about their nuances with as much furore as anyone who loves a character from a book, movie, or video game. I’d love to give you the kind of guidance that can help you have these kinds of experiences, but the most important part of the work is the beginning.

 

Part One: Making a Special Snowflake

I’m fully of the mind-set that the best way to get to know a person is to ask them questions, and then watch how they respond to those questions. Understanding your Player Character is no different, and the person you should be asking those questions is them. Before you get to that part? You need to question your Game Master. To get started, try these three out for size:

  1. What tone are you aiming for with this story?
  2. What themes are you looking to address with this story?
  3. What character restrictions are in place?

If you bare the answers to these three questions in mind, you will never create a character that doesn’t feel somewhat a natural part of the story they were created for, and this is one of the most important parts of characterisation. You could make one of the most complex and emotionally nuanced sorcerers in the world, with interesting flaws, well-developed strengths, and a well-developed and emotionally engaging backstory – none of that matters for anything if that character doesn’t fit the setting. That kind of character will just feel awkward in, say, a Wild West game, for a Hard Sci-Fi game, or a high-stakes political game set in Wall Street. That’s not to say a character like that couldn’t fit in those games, but it all depends on what tone, themes and restrictions the Game Master has in place for their stories.

I don’t like to throw the term “special snowflake” around due to its dismissiveness and unfair stereotypes, but this is where that kind of sentiment gets recognised most. It can also be reversed, and the amount of liberties you can get away with in context will amaze you.

I mentioned in the previous article that I’ve been running a game over Skype for the past 30 months; in this game, I can summarise the player characters we’ve got in short –

  • An Elven assassin who’s the heiress to an ancient arcane lineage and a multinational corporation.
  • A young woman who wants to discover the mysteries of her parents’ scientific work and her own destiny.
  • A machine who slowly discovered they had a soul, and is shaping themselves into the woman that soul once belonged to.
  • A war chief devoted to defeating dragons to avenge their national history.
  • A cowboy-cum-survivalist with a Goddess in his head who regularly battles eldritch monsters alongside their own insecurities.
  • A skeleton who plays a harmonica despite being in possession of neither lips nor lungs.

In short, without context? They sound ridiculous. And in some cases, they are. But that’s not important; what is important is that they fit the context of the story that we’re putting them in. We’ll try another one, shall we?

  • A good-looking billionaire who’s also a super-genius. He’s an engineer who’s made a super-weapon that makes him impervious to most damage, capable of flight and can fire rockets.
  • A Russian assassin running from her past (inexplicably in a cat-suit).
  • A 90 year old patriot who’s put all of their combat specs into fighting with their shield, but all of their ability points into charisma.
  • The God of Thunder. Drinks a lot. Has a beard and an evil brother. Also he can fly by throwing his weapon really hard and holding on for dear life.
  • A scientist who’s basically a rip-off of Jekyll and Hyde.
  • An archer who never misses a shot and lives deep in the woods with his family and nature, away from society.

Again, without context? They sound appalling. There’s that phrase again – “Special Snowflake”. However, put them into context, into the guidelines that the story has created to match the tone? Well, the Avengers line-up doesn’t sound so weird anymore – they’re not so much defined by what they are, but what they do, and how they interact with the story around them. Don’t be afraid of making a character too weird, because sometimes, weird fits.

SARKHAN VOL
Try summarising this beautiful man in a sentence. “Dragon shaman who also time-travels and technically doesn’t exist.”

Part Two: Asking the Right Questions

The best way to learn a process is to go through the process, so we’ll do that. Hypothetically, our GM has set a game in a world I’m pretty sure 90% of this readership will be familiar with – Innistrad, before the recent Shadows Over Innistrad story-line. Now, coming up with this character, we have a number of questions to answer with Innistrad in mind. I’ll give you ten short ones to start off with, and then we’ll work through them together.

  1. Fundamentally, who is this character; what is their identity?
  2. How does this character view themselves and their place in the world?
  3. How does this character view the world around them?
  4. Where did this character come from, and how did they get here from there?
  5. Where is this character going, and how will they get there from here?
  6. What are this character’s hopes and goals for the future?
  7. What are this character’s fears about their future?
  8. What is this character’s defining philosophy?
  9. What would make this character defy their defining philosophy?
  10. Who, or what, would this character die for?

I guarantee you have an answer prepared for each of these questions will help you to understand your character on a much more emotional level than simply having a stat block for them, a race, a name, and a class archetype. So, in this scenario, our Game Master has told us they are running a mystery campaign set up around discovering a cultist plot devoted to an arch demon on the plane of Innistrad – we’re allowed magically capable characters if we wish, each character has to be old enough to be considered an adult, and we’re allowed to be of any moral alignment, as long as we can work well in a group.

Simple, now let’s create.

  1. Fundamentally, who is this character; what is their identity?

Innistrad offers us a wealth of character identity choices – vampirism, lycanthropy, alchemists, hell – even geists are prevalent on the plane (though you might have to check with your GM about that one). This campaign is about investigating cultists, so it makes sense for us to build a human character that works for the Church of Avacyn, as that would fit into the campaign narrative quite well. It’s not necessary, of course, but as this is our hypothetical first campaign, it’s always easier to build a character that goes hand-in-hand with the story. I like the idea of playing an Inquisitor, who’s very sceptical of things around her, as cynicism is an interesting weakness to play with, so that’s what we’ll build.

  1. How does this character view themselves and their place in the world?

Innistrad is full of humans just trying to make a living, or monsters just trying to survive – we’ve built a character with a bit more purpose, which is always useful. As an Inquisitor of Avacyn, she’ll probably see herself as a force for good, for purity. However, this also means that she’ll see herself as a smaller part of a large effort to spread light and purity throughout the world, meaning her self-esteem and sense of moral purpose could also lead her to put herself in danger more readily, or even lead to self-sacrificial behaviour or a belief that her life isn’t as important as others. Themes like these could be useful for us to explore as we develop her further during the campaign.

  1. How does this character view the world around them?

Being a world of gothic horror and light fighting against the darkness, Innistrad is full of people who see the world around them as dangerous, depressing or grief-ridden. Being an emissary of a church that represents the people, and that protects the community, our Inquisitor might be a little more hopeful. I enjoy the idea that she might see the potential in her community, even if she might be cynical of people on an individual level. The focus of her work, then, might be protecting the good in the world, rather than destroying the bad – this is good for growth, as it makes her less combat-focused and more social, giving us wider options for our problem-solving than “punch evil things in the face”.

  1. Where did this character come from, and how did they get here?

This question is one of the most important ones; a character’s backstory often helps define what drove them to be what they are, and what they’ll become in future (we’ll get to that next). An easy method of creating drive is tragedy – the death of a relative or loved one, usually. This is an option, of course, but you’ll find that a lot of Player Characters you play with are orphans because of this, and familial relationships are usually fun to explore. There’s nothing wrong with Dead Parent Syndrome, per say, but with a little more thought, original motivations can always be created.

I’ve seen a character want to become a military general to impress their aristocrat father, because they weren’t as academically gifted as their older brother, and they had to play to their other strengths (literally) to make their family proud. Another good character backstory that didn’t involve death was that of a London-born car-thief, who stole because their dad was never around and they had to provide for their mother and baby sister.

Our Inquisitor could be the daughter of a Cathar, born and raised into the church, and inspired to defend her townsfolk as a few years ago when she witnessed Avacyn herself fight off a small incursion of devils. This explains her devotion to the church, and also gives her a point of turmoil when Avacyn’s corruption really sets in.

  • Where is this character going, and how will they get there from here?

Avacyn’s corruption is a nice jumping off point for our next section. While creating a character, you shouldn’t plan their entire future out for them – that only risks disappointment, or worse, ruins any hope of surprise further down the line. It doesn’t, however, hurt to have an arc in mind, and you discover what that arc might be by assessing the situation they might find themselves in during Day 0 of the story.

Our Inquisitor? She’s about to go through a period of internal conflict, as dramatic irony tells us that Innistrad’s story-line very quickly takes us through the downfall of Avacyn as a godlike figure, and the corruption of many of the plane’s residents. The Archangel she put the entirety of her faith in is about to undermine her belief system, and the people she’s sworn to protect are about to turn into the kinds of monsters she’s been saving them from. How she deals with that is something we should be bearing in mind as we play her story through.

  1. What are the character’s hopes and goals for the future?

This is a good question to have answered for your GM’s knowledge, as well as your own. If you know what these are, you can aim to fulfil them every few sessions, in order to help your character make progress in their own personal development. Goals can be as big as wanting to save/own the world, or as small as wanting to save/own a cat.

Sanctuary Cat
I mean, cats are adorable. (Sanctuary Cat, David Palumbo)

Goals are part of how your character moves forward. For a heroic character like our Inquisitor, a simple life after the job’s done might be the ultimate goal. Settle down in a home, with pets, a spouse, and a well-stocked larder.

  1. What are this character’s fears about the future?

Another good question to have answered for your GM’s knowledge – challenges and restrictions are what make a character real, and without conflict a character can never really be explored to their full potential, and it’s hard to engage with a character who’s always safe. If there’s no risk for someone, emotionally or otherwise, then we as an audience can’t mimic their worries, their anguish, or their hope, because we know it’s always going to be okay.

At this point, our Inquisitor’s fears should be pretty obvious. Losing her faith, her father, her community. Try to understand what her reactions to these problems might be, so you can feel more natural while piloting her as a character.

  1. What is this character’s defining philosophy?

Feeling good yet? We’re at the point of summarisation – we have a strong idea for how our Player Character is, what they feel, how they think. If we can summarise into a defining philosophy, we can understand what our character is about on a fundamental level, and how they’ll act in the world around them. I’ve seen some great defining philosophies in my time – let’s look at some examples.

“This character believes that the only thing that’s important is their own survival.”

“This character’s one purpose in life is to protect her party.”

“This character acts exactly like a wild animal with sapience.”

Our character believes in good above all, protecting those that need protecting, about fighting off the darkness and providing an example of hope for those in her community. How do we summarise that in a sentence? Easy:

“Just because peace cannot be perfectly achieved, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be striven for.”

  1. What would make this character defy this defining philosophy?

It is a pretty well-known idiom that “any man has his price” – what is your character’s? Everyone has a breaking point, somewhere they fundamentally crack. This isn’t inherently a negative thing, but is often used as such. A defining philosophy being broken, something so important to your character that they build their personality around it, is an important moment for any individual. In a villain, it might be a moment that causes them to feel care or protection over a member of the good guys – the perfect example is Darth Vader, who breaks his stranglehold attachment to the dark side at the sight of his son being tortured, fundamentally changing his character.

What would push your character to that breaking point? What would undermine their belief system so much that they’d spin on the head of a dime and change their outlook on life. In the case of our Inquisitor? You’d have to change the nature of what she’s protecting to make her want to stop protecting it anymore. Good job there’s no chance of that on the horizon.

  1. Who, or what, would your character die for?

Plan for the end, then hope it never comes. In our case, for our Inquisitor? Probably anyone who deserved it.

 

Conclusions

Look at that, we’ve got this far and we haven’t even got a name! I’ll leave that part up to you, names are difficult. In all seriousness, from a player’s perspective, a deep and intriguing character is one of the most important parts of the role playing experience, and also one of the most difficult to get right. A single, strong character as part of the party can encourage others to invest in theirs, and ultimately, the story as a whole.

In my next piece, I’ll be giving advice to any would-be GMs out there on how to develop an original storyline that provides players with an opportunity to grow, get involved, and ultimately shape the story themselves, but for now, I hope you take my advice and make some stunning creations with it. I’m by no means an expert, and these ten questions are just a limited example of what can be done by interviewing any character you have brewing in your head. Hopefully, knowing this information about them will lead to a less robotic, more robust play-through of the personalities that you create.

Thank you for reading, and happy role playing,

Timaeus Faustus

Teach A Magic Player: RPG! Creating Your First Player Character, by Timaeus Faustus
Characterisation is always a difficult stage of the role playing experience, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do it easily. The character generation experience is one that you’ll become familiar with, as by nature it should be the first thing you do when sitting down with your friends to make your story.

Please let us know what you think below...

Visit our Manaleak online store for the latest Magic: the Gathering singles, spoilers, exclusive reader offers, sales, freebies and more!

Magic The Gatherig Freebies Giveaways