Everyone has trouble creating a tabletop character from time to time (or always). Dozens of questions are introduced at once, like what would be interesting to roleplay, what class should I play, what are other people playing, and what should my backstory be? Of course, there are more questions, but that sentence was long enough!
Today I will be running you through some valuable tips and methods for creating a character! We will go over where to begin, why to make certain decisions, and how to integrate your character into the DM’s world (among other things). I am well-versed in DnD 5e, so that is the system I will be referencing, but these tips are not game or edition-specific. The majority of this information will be relevant for any tabletop RPG!
Why Do You Like to Play?
There are many reasons to play a tabletop RPG, like “it’s fun” (obviously) and to be social, but I’d like to discuss the mechanics. What do you like about the game? What made you decide to play that edition or specific game (if you got to choose)?
The major three factors are the combat mechanics, character customization options, and setting. A great question every DM should ask their table is: Do you want more combat, more roleplay, or equally both? The answer to that question usually determines the factors you take into consideration during character creation.
A more combat-oriented player will prioritize choosing a class they deem is fun in combat and decide on personality and backstory later. Meanwhile, someone who looks forward more to roleplay might choose a charisma-based character, or a class for no other reason than because they like its flavor. Figuring out your answers to these questions is vital in the creation process.
Enable Your Preferred Way to Play
Whether you care more for combat, roleplay, or a mix of both will determine which classes you have to choose from. In DnD 5e, all classes are balanced for combat, so any are viable, but what do you like to do in combat? It can be supporting your friends, controlling the battlefield, dealing damage, etc. Think ahead to what you think will be more fun by thinking of various combat scenarios.
A wizard is fun for those that care less about damage and more about effects. Barbarians do not have utility abilities, but they deal a lot of damage with simple, yet effective, hits. This may be a controversial opinion, but if you don’t care about combat, I would recommend a class that has some spellcasting. Fighters, barbarians, and monks can be great fun, but there is a lot less they can do outside of combat than a wizard, druid, or bard. To that end: Do you want to control people, nature, or reality, which is what the bard, druid, and wizard excel at, respectively? Considering what may be fun to DO in-game narrows down the plethora of choices you must make.
Class or Personality?
Think of a straight line: on the left side is class, and on the right is personality. We always start with one side at a time, even if we don't realize it. Maybe a pirate character idea popped into your mind and then you figured out a class for them. Or you really want to play a paladin, and now must conjure their personality.
Once you can’t decide or get stuck on an aspect of personality or class (whichever you chose to begin with), start on the other side. Perhaps you know what class you want but can't decide on subclass or stats. At that point, you would work on personality. Do this until the metaphorical points on the line converge, and then, theoretically, you have your character!
For example, I might want to start with personality, and then pick a class that vibes well with it. I want to be a religious sailor, who worships the god of the sea for safe journeys. He’s raucous but kind and optimistic. His major goal is to erase piracy in the waters. Now that we have the basics of personality and background out of the way, we can decide what class to choose. Certain classes make more sense than others, here, such as a cleric (religious to the sea god), a druid (druids make excellent sailors), a ranger (explorer and in tune with nature), and a fighter works for any situation. Of course, no matter what type of character you create, any class can work with it. A paladin with a strict code of conduct but who deeply enjoys finding loopholes in that code to break the law or do wrong could be an interesting character.
Backstories are either the love or hate of players. Any backstory must be cleared with the DM before session one, but feel free to be extravagant or simple. By this time, your DM should have provided everyone with the bones of their world or continent of play, and where the party will be starting. With this information, you can decide where your character was born and raised. Where they have spent most of their life may have impacted their personality or culture, depending on the area.
Next, who are at least three people your character knows? It can be a parent, sibling, childhood friend, rival, some dude they traveled with before, etc. Describe how your character knows them and briefly reveal what kind of relationship they have. The DM may use these people as NPCs later, but it also helps to make your character feel “lived in” in the world. The more connections they have, the more real they feel. Some NPCs you create can come with their own affinity towards your character (such as friendly or neutral), but for at least two, it may be good to leave that up to the DM. Giving your DM the freedom to do what they will with your NPCs may lead to interesting events later.
Next, what are two or three major events that have happened in your character’s life? You need not go into excruciating detail, but these events can do wonders for playing the game. Maybe when your sailor character was a teenager, operating on his family-owned trading ship, they were robbed by a band of pirates. No one was killed, but maybe that sparked his hate for the sea rogues. It could also make for an interesting roleplay opportunity with another player as your character recounts that tale to them. Your DM may even make those same pirates into an emotionally charged encounter. Backstory is all about giving your DM and you as a player more opportunities for meaningful interaction and options.
What Do They Want?
This is one of the most important aspects of your character! It determines why they are an adventurer.
You could, and should, tie it in with your backstory to explain why they want what they want. Why do they adventure? Adventurers get into extremely dangerous situations. Why is it worth it? Give example motivations, such as: getting gold to build a base, earning a God’s favor, or specific plot/story reasons (stopping a war, overthrowing a king, rescuing a kidnapped friend). These motivations may only need to be surface level for now and not far-reaching, as your DM might provide additional motivations to players during session one or two. This new motivation is typically referred to as a campaign’s “inciting incident,” but not every DM does it, so talk to them about it first. Your character shouldn’t be a surprise to the DM on session one. It is not something to bring to “show and tell.” Dungeons and Dragons is a game about cooperative storytelling, and there will be plenty of time for surprises later. Your DM should know everything you do about your character, including motivations.
There are thousands of reasons to ditch normalcy and become an adventurer.
Gold is a good reason since risk comes with reward, but gold alone is not compelling. I can not list them all, but here are a few interesting ones to jog your creative blood:
An older character who wants to spend retirement seeing the world. A writer who wanders the landscape and delves into dungeons in search of unfound lore and stories. A hopeless romantic who assumes they are not good enough for their soul mate (whomever that may be) until they are among the strongest mortals alive. And lastly, if no ideas are coming to you, a close family member of another party member who just wants to ensure their safety.
How’d You Get Here?
By now I’ve brought the DM into this conversation enough for you to realize they play a major role in your character’s creation. And that’s a good thing! Your Dm should be just as excited about your character as you are. Everyone should know where the party is starting, but how did your character arrive there? And why? Were they kicked out of their home, forced to find somewhere new they belong? Or maybe they were working on a contract there? What would make sense for your character? Think about your character’s main motivation for adventuring, and you will likely find that it relates to the reason they come to where the campaign begins.
Say our group is starting in a large town several dozen miles from the sea, but our character is a sailor. We must come up with a plausible reason our sailor would travel inland. Maybe it is because they received a false love letter and traveled to possibly meet a lover who turned into a trap. Perhaps there will be several weeks of downtime before your ship departs again (due to restocking or waiting for a VIP to arrive), so your character wants to explore a bit (because they like exploring!). There should be a reason every character is where they are. Work with your DM, and they may lend some leeway and make your character’s arrival a part of the main plot. If you cannot come up with something, always ask your DM, and they can throw you a bone.
What Kind of Person Are You?
You might have a good portion of your character’s personality fixated in your mind, which is great! But let’s talk about morality. Put your character through various situations where choice is required and consider how they would respond. How would your character react to being pickpocketed? To a hostile enemy surrendering? How would they get much-needed information from locals?
Next, and this is easier if your backstory includes relationships with the other PCs, think about how your character will react to the company of the other players. You may not know much information on the other player’s characters but picture the stereotypical class’s personality. A rogue is shifty and often morally ambiguous, as a paladin is often righteous and outspoken about their ideals.
Consider adding in a flaw or two, as well as a bond. There are several good random tables to generate flaws provided in various sourcebooks and online. This is a fun Reddit post that has a list of one-hundred flaws you can roll for. A flaw might be pride, gullibility, curses too much, or likes to be naked at inappropriate times. Don’t be game-breaking or introduce a flaw that would annoy other players, however, because the game is about their fun just as much as yours.
Examples of bonds are to preserve a sacred text, protect a loved one, doing good deeds on behalf of a dead betrothed, etc. Essentially, a bond is something that roots your character’s morality, and can be manipulated (in an appropriate and engaging way) by the DM.
Putting It All Together
All final decisions should be run by your DM before the first session, but by now you should be able to mentally put your character in situations, and theory craft how to play them. What will they do in combat, and how will they react to it? Will they be taking the lead on talking to people, and if so, will they be nice and honest or mean and deceptive? Think about your character’s past and relationships with the three NPCs you made, and how they might grow, and what they want during the campaign. You need not make an entire character arc or plan ahead, as that should come naturally during playtime. The only thing left to do now is to fiddle with the mechanics: rolling stats, buying equipment, and filling out a character sheet. But that is game and edition specific, so I won’t be covering that.
Feel free to share your character with the other players. If they aren’t involved in your backstory, share as little or as much as you’d like. Generally, character secrets should be avoided, as they can come off contrived and deceptive to the other players (not characters). There should be an understanding at the table to avoid meta-gaming. Just because you or another player knows someone’s backstory does not mean their character does, and they should be able to play the game with their character organically discovering your story.
There are no right and wrong ways to make a character. Some templates can help, but creation is a creative process, and creativity is subjective. If you find these tips to be unhelpful or even distracting, please pay them no mind! Finally, remember the one and only rule of any tabletop game: have fun!