In our hobby, heroes aren’t born, they’re made. Everyone wants to play a character with a cool backstory, a unique shtick, some badass abilities, or all of the above. However, as we’ve discussed previously, creativity is a weird thing. Inspiration isn’t always so readily available. So, how can you help your players to make cool characters?
Before we get started, I gotta get the disclaimer out of the way. In previous posts, I’ve always prefaced my advice with the boilerplate “this is what works for me, your mileage may vary, etc.” language, but this time, it’s a little different. I’ve tried many of these tips independently, but never all together. Helping my players make cool characters that work well in my games has always been one of the hardest parts of GMing for me. But, after years of trial and (a whole shitload of) error, I think I’m finally starting to figure it out. The steps below represent the process I intend to follow the next time I run a game, so I certainly hope they work. As usual, if you try any of this, please drop me a line and let me know how it worked out for you.
Also, please note that all the stuff I’m going to talk about in this post is totally 100% system-agnostic. It doesn’t matter if you’re running something insanely crunchy like Shadowrun or a free form adjacent game like Amber Diceless, the techniques are the same. In fact, I’d go so far as to assert that if you even think about game mechanics during the character creation process you’re already lost. Your character sure as hell isn’t concerned what his base attack bonus is, so why should you be? Your character’s mechanics will derive from the fiction, not the other way around. If you want to dig through the endless pile of Pathfinder splat books for inspiration for your new fantasy character, knock yourself out, but don’t you dare start thinking about how you’re going to assign your levels. Seriously, lay off the PHB, sparky. That comes later.
Now, to kick things off, I’d like to tell you guys a quick story. This is the parable of the Potato Farmer.
You see, I have this friend who always, no matter what game or setting we’re playing, begins the character creation process by conceiving of the most boring character in that setting. I don’t know if they do it compulsively or involuntarily or if it’s just part of their creative process, but it happens 100% of the time. A couple years ago, I was getting ready to run a fantasy game set after a Ragnarok-style apocalypse. I called the setting Age of Winters. It was going to be dark, gritty, and very low-magic. Sort of the climatic reverse of Dark Sun. So, this player asks me if druids still work in setting. “Sure,” says I. “In fact, druids are probably the most common source of magic.” My player gets really excited and goes on to describe a young druid who uses her control over the elements to keep the soil warm so that her village’s crops can prosper. Thus the Potato Farmer was born.
I never ended up running that game, but the Potato Farmer has been present in my mind ever since. The Potato Farmer is the perfect antithesis of a “cool character”. You’re never going to see Aragorn rolling with the Porato Farmer. James Bond is never going to hit up the Potato Farmer when he’s on the run from Spectre. But the more I think about it, the Potato Farmer might be the perfect starting point for character creation. Think about it. Once you’ve hit rock bottom on the coolness scale, there’s only one way to go but up, right? Which brings us to…
Step 1: Find the Cool
No matter what form she takes, the Potato Farmer usually has a handful of really cool ideas lurking just beneath the surface. Remember that soil-warming farmer druid I mentioned earlier? What would that character look like if we expanded the idea a bit? Sure, she started life as a boring dirt-warmer, but what happened to drive her to a life of adventuring? Maybe her whole village was destroyed by frost giants and she’s vowed revenge for her murdered family and friends. Suddenly, those seemingly benign elemental powers take on a nastier edge. Who’s going to fuck with the druid hell-bent on vengeance who can set you on fire with her thoughts?
So, you see? Even the humble Potato Farmer can end up as a cool character by the time they reach the gaming table. Which brings us to our first tip: Whatever your players start with, if they’re excited about it, that means there’s something cool there. You just have to figure out what it is and help them expand on it. Take a look at their start point (druid tending crops), talk to them about the end point you want for the beginning of your game (battle-hardened, ass-kicking adventurers), then play a round of Angry GM’s How Can This Be True? What you come up with a beautiful blending of what both of you want and will probably be pretty cool to boot. Also, it really helps with…
Step 2: You Need Emotional Content
What was that? An exhibition? You need to help your players find the emotional core of their characters. All of the greatest heroes have some sort of emotional center that drives them to be heroes. To revisit our examples from earlier, what kind of hero would Aragorn be without his powerful drive to see the bloodline of men restored to its former glory or his forbidden love for Arwen? Would James Bond be the same ice-cold killer we see in the films if he wasn’t hardened by the betrayal and subsequent death of Vesper Lynd? Of course not! So, talk to your players about what drives their characters. In fact, you’ve probably already done most of the leg work in Step 1. Remember when we were Finding the Cool for our dirt-warming druid? Her emotional content is tied up in the death of her friends and family at the hands of frost giants. There’s nothing complex there, but it’s sure as hell a compelling reason to get out there and kick ass.
Okay, we’ve found the cool and given our players’ characters something to care about. We’re ready to get the game started, right? Sure, but how can we give our players that last little push to make sure they hit the ground running? One way to make sure your players always have something to sink their teeth into is to tell them…
Step 3: Gimme the Gimmick
Ah, the gimmick. It’s the perfect icing to top off a moist, fluffy, well-rounded character cake. Unfortunately, gimmicks get kind of a bad rap because shitty books, games, and movies tend to substitute gimmicks for character. However, if you followed Steps 1 and 2, then your players should already have characters that are cool and interesting with a chewy, nougat-like emotional core. So, now it’s time to give them something they can easily play off of during the first few sessions while their characters are still developing. Enter the humble gimmick. Help each of your players come up with something that distinguishes their character from every other character of the same sort. In 13th Age, this is codified as a character’s One Unique Thing.
To keep stomping on my previous examples, Aragorn is the last of the line of Isildur and heir to the throne of Gondor, the only man capable of weilding Narsil (reforged as Anduril), and has the brooding bad-ass thing going on, to boot. James Bond has even more awesome gimmicks. He is the world’s greatest secret agent, is licensed to kill, has access to all sorts of ridiculously cool cars and gadgets, always carries a Walther PPK, always gets the girl, and orders his martinis “shaken, not stirred”. If you can’t find something in these examples that gets your creative juices flowing, you’re just not trying hard enough. Remember our element-wielding druid hell-bent on vengeance? Maybe in her grief, she forged a pact with the forces of elemental chaos and, instead of the usual animal companion, she now rolls with a grumpy fire elemental that she’s always arguing with. Not only does that give the druid’s player something cool to show off for the other players, but it gives you an omnipresent NPC that you can use to hassle the player. Win-win!
Step 4: The Boring Part
These lists always seem to end with a boring part, don’t they? This time, it’s not all on you, though (WHEW). The last step is to help your players get their characters’ mechanics onto their character sheets. If your players have been around the block once or twice, they should have this step down pat. Just make sure you set proper expectations regarding stuff like house rules and what splat books are allowed, then help your players make the characters that they want to play.
M. Hamhock out.