7 Days to a Better Character

Creating a new character is exciting—limitless possibilities lie before you (unless your stat rolling abilities equal mine). However, it can also be a daunting experience. There is so much to do: mechanics, appearance, personality, the hell of mundane equipment, encumbrance and more.

 

Inevitably, it won’t all get done in time for the game. It seems like there’s just too much to do. However, when you think about it, a GM does far more between sessions than make a character. Making a character before the next session should be a doddle. However, it never seems to pan out that way.

Luckily, though, there is a way to create a new fully rounded character before the next game. And it’s not that hard to do.

Session 0

The character generation session is one of the most important sessions in a campaign. In this “Session 0” the players come together, learn about the campaign and its themes and (hopefully) agree on a relatively balanced mix of characters that everyone wants to play.

Luckily, few groups play more frequently than once a week. This gives the diligent, organised player time to create a fully rounded character. In my home game, we play weekly. Thus, the title of this article: 7 Days to a Better Character.

Important Caveats

The process below break down designing a PC into seven distinct steps. (Breaking a task down into smaller steps makes it less daunting and easier to achieve). When moving through the process, keep in mind:

  • I’m writing from a Pathfinder perspective. While I think the process works with almost any game system, obviously some games are more mechanically heavy than others.
  • This is not a one-way process. During the week, feel free to revisit previous days to tweak elements of your PC that no longer work for you.
  • No day is set in stone; for example, if you PC is starting as a slave (or what-have-you) there is not a lot of point spending day 2 on equipment. Similarly, if you are only generating the PC for a short adventure there might not be much point designing an extensive background (unless you want to, that is). Modify the process as you see fit to suit your needs.

Day 1: Mechanics

Day 1 is likely Session 0 of the campaign (unless you are sadly replacing a fallen adventurer).

For many of us, the mechanics of a character are its most important aspects. We can spend days or weeks focusing (or perhaps obsessing) over which feats, archetypes and skills to chose, and that’s after agonising over which race and class to pick in the first place. (As an aside, this is part of the reason why I like to keep things simple and only use the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. )

However, as most tasks expand to fill the time allotted to them, it’s not the greatest idea in the world to spend an entire week on this part of character development. A decent rounded character is much more than the sum of its modifiers and abilities.

When you have a first mechanical draft, send a copy of the sheet to your GM for review. Keep in mind, this probably isn’t the final version of your character but this draft at least gives the GM a heads up as to the direction you are moving. It also allows the GM to flag up any feats, classes, spells and so on he thinks are broken. It’s much better—and far less disruptive—to find this out now rather than when you sit down to play.

Day 2: Equipment

Buying magic items for your PC is fun! Buying mundane equipment can be crushingly boring. However, the sad fact of the matter is that mundane equipment is important. Having the right piece of equipment can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

Depending on the system you play and the game’s style you might also need to think about encumbrance.

Day 3: Physical Description

Obviously, your character has a physical appearance. For most of us, we generate our character’s age, weight and height, decide on hair and eye colour and then leave it at that. That’s fine as far as it goes, but consider going a little more in-depth. Your character’s physical appearance is—after all—how the NPCs you encounter initial judge the character.

Things to consider here include your character’s build, hair style, choice of clothes, appearance of equipment (old, battered, new and so on) and more. Also consider giving your character a distinctive feature or two to help him stand out. Is he scarred? Does he have a birthmark? All these things add depth to your character.

Day 4: Personality

Perhaps most important to how your portray your character is his personality. Most players normally have a vague idea of their character’s personality, but often this encompasses alignment, patron deity and little else. However, personality is so much more than that! At the very least, consider:

  • Interests and hobbies
  • Goals and ambitions
  • Hopes and fears

Some of these things can flow from—or into—the character’s mechanical aspects. Does the character like to sing? Give him a rank in Perform (sing). Does he like to whittle small wooden figurines around the campfire at night? Give him a rank in Profession (woodworker). Don’t view these as skill points wasted. Rather, they help bring the character to life.

A wise and clever GM will provide opportunities for you to use these skills. True, you probably won’t defeat the Ancient Lurking Darkness with Profession (woodworker) but you might be able to help a peasant repair his wagon which is turn makes him your friend. He might then introduce you to someone who knows the local wizard who just happens to have a few scrolls for sale…and so on.

Day 5: Background

To know where your character is going, it’s a good idea to know where he has been. Your background—like every element of your character—can be as detailed or vague as you like. You don’t have to map out every minor event in his life, but having an idea about the broad strokes of his background is a good idea. At the least, consider:

  • His family background (including what the family business or trade was—here’s an opportunity to spend a skill point on a Profession or Craft skill—see Day #4 above for notes on why you might want to do this).
  • Where he grew up
  • Why he decided to become an adventurer
  • Why he chose the class he has at 1st-level

 

Day 6: GM-Friendly Hooks

This is really part of #5 above, but its potential impact on the game means it’s worth some particular effort on your part. Unless you want you background to have no effect on the game, it’s worth designing some GM-friendly hooks into your background. Consider, for example:

  • Does your character have a nemesis or enemy?
  • Did any specific event in his background propel him into an adventuring career?
  • Are their any mysteries in his background (perhaps a strange gift from an odd relative, a missing sibling or so on)?

Such hooks let the GM design encounters or even entire adventures that could have specific significance for your PC. That’s way cool.

Day 7: Miscellaneous

On the last day, it’s time to pull together all the extraneous materials you might need to run the character effectively and quickly. (No-one enjoys watching you look up a spell or ability for the umpteenth time because you can’t remember how it works).

Use this day to bookmark or copy any particularly problematical feats, spells or abilities your PC has so your won’t slow down game play. While this isn’t exactly an exciting task, it pays dividends at the game table. Less wasted time equals more gaming fun!

Also make sure you’ve got the right physical equipment to play your character. As an extreme example, if you are playing a 10th-level wizard who can cast fireball it’s probably a good idea to turn up to the game with more than one six-sided die.

Finally, send your GM a final copy of your character along with all its background notes and so on. A decent GM will want to get to know your character and its motivations. The more a GM knows about your character the more he can trailor the adventure’s or campaign’s challenges to suit. (And if you forget or lose your character sheet, all is not lost!)

The Final Word

As always, adjust and modify this process to better suit your game and players. You know your game far better than I so view this article as a starting point on your quest to have better—however you want to define better—characters at your table!

What Do You Think?

Does this process work for you? Is it a waste of time? Let me know, in the comments below.

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “7 Days to a Better Character

  1. My framework is similar:
    Session Zero:
    Party balance. Discussion of roles and ideas. Some players are more ‘set’ on playing a particular idea than others, some like to discover the character in play.

    Create the party as a loose framework of roles that compliment each other, e.g. healer, scout, front-liner, buffer, party-face, etc. Do this VISUALLY and ask the players to fill in the roles they will take up. Not all parties will be balanced and there may be potential role playing ‘conflicts here’, e.g. paladin and necromancer. How are these to be resolved? Ask the players to come up with the solution BEFORE PLAY.

    Ask the players to consider the following questions about their character for the following week:
    Where did they grow up?
    Why did they take up the profession they did?
    Are there any significant relationships they have/had? List then detail over time.
    Do they have any long-term goals?
    Do they have any significant secrets?
    Have they had any significant life-changing events occur?
    List one thing that is unique about them.
    List one thing they have a liking for and one thing they dislike.
    How did they come to be at the adventure’s starting point?

    Describe the character from the external point of view of (gm ascribes an archetype e.g. a merchant, a thief, etc) who has just met you.

    Give a small bonus in starting gold or ‘family heirloom’ item for the completion of these!

    • I like that you give a small bonus. I’ve given out heirloom items before as well as small XP awards for completing a background and suchlike.

      Those questions are a good mix to paint a picture of a character. Good job!

  2. This is a great article, Creighton, and not too long at all. Interestingly, I have a Day 0 coming up tomorrow evening! I’ll be forwarding this along to the others next.

    Thanks,
    Chris

  3. Interesting summary but too high level to be of any real value. Examples and suggestions would be more interesting.