5 Expert Tips to Build a Great Tabletop RPG Character

From left: The Expanse Roleplaying Game, Monster of the Week, and Dungeons & Dragons.
From left: The Expanse Roleplaying Game, Monster of the Week, and Dungeons & Dragons.
Image: Green Ronin Publishing, Evil Hat Productions, Wizards of the Coast

There’s a lot that goes into playing a tabletop roleplaying game. The rules, the improv, the drama—and it all starts with a Player Character (or PC). It can be scary trying to make a new character for an RPG game, especially for folks who’ve never done it before. Here are a few handy tips from a professional gamer to get things going and avoid common pitfalls.

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We talked with James D’Amato, One Shot RPG podcast host and author of The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide, about how to successfully create a roleplaying game character. He shared a few tips on how to get started, what mistakes to avoid, and perhaps most importantly: Why it’s vital to keep your character flexible. Below are a few of his suggestions.

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1. Start With One: Stats or Story

There are many ways to create an RPG character, but they often come down to two main components: stats and story. Stats are the nitty-gritty numbers that determine things like how physically strong a character is, how far they can travel in a single move, and whether they’re adept at lockpicking, lying, or magic. Story involves the more individual elements: a character’s name, where they come from, their religious or political beliefs, whether they prefer soup or salad.

“I think there are a lot of people who might come to the game from a background of storytelling. Someone who works a lot with character and story. You might feel super comfortable writing up a couple pages of backstory for an RPG character before you even roll dice,” D’Amato said. “But there are some people who might be coming over from video games and have a strong foundational background in understanding game systems—and where they fit into the context of an activity like role-playing—based on their mechanics.”

According to D’Amato, it’s best to start by focusing on one of these components and then using it to influence the other one. If you’re more experienced with storytelling, create a character’s personal story and then figure out what type of adventurer, monster hunter, or the like would fit in with that vision. If you’re like me and numbers are a better starting point, build some of your character’s stats out and then use them to shape the narrative. In both cases, you may need to make adjustments to come to a happy medium, but that can often turn out a few character surprises that will challenge you in the game.

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2. Don’t Make a Superhero

We all want to be the gallant warrior who gets the final blow against the monster but creating a character who’s already “The Greatest American Hero” risks putting your baby in the corner. D’Amato provided the example of a strong, high-ranking soldier from an army who walked away from the fight because she didn’t believe in the cause anymore: That character is already way too experienced to be starting out on their first quest, so there’s little room for growth or change. Plus, it can be boring to play a character who’s really good at something in theory, but in practice can’t do it because they’re not a high-enough level PC yet.

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“In the first session, you’re playing a Level One character. So the abilities your character has don’t really reflect the actual experience that your backstory kind of wants them to have. You might experience the dissonance of, ‘Oh, I imagined this really cool, talented hero, but I’m kind of playing a fumbling beginner right now,’” he said.

D’Amato recommended making sure your character’s backstory reflects the level they’re starting out as. If they’re a Level One character, maybe have them be a squire instead of a knight, or they’re a wizard who was kicked out of their mage college for performing forbidden magic so they’ve struggled to teach themselves the magic arts. Not only does this leave room to shape the character throughout your sessions, but it provides opportunities for the environment game master (aka GM) to shape them too.

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“You don’t have to always allow the system to shape your storytelling, but be aware of where you’re starting your story and what the level your character is at because it will help you match the actual experience of playing to your expectations of what you want for the character,” D’Amato added.

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3. How Much Backstory? Ask Your GM!

This is one of the trickiest questions in creating a character: How much backstory do you write out ahead of time? A paragraph, a page, a book? Anything at all? D’Amato suggested checking with your GM about their preference. Since the game starts and ends with them, it’s good to know how much information they’d like to have ahead of time for the sake of world-building and how much stuff they’d prefer to fill out on their own. This is especially true if you’re working with a newer GM, as they may still be figuring out these things themselves.

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“There are some Game Masters who are going to be extremely happy to read pages and pages of backstory and really build it into their complex world and kind of collaborate with you on that. And there are some Game Masters who, you’ll prepare all this information for it and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll skim it maybe? Because I really want this to unfold at the table,’” he said.

The main thing is to make sure a profile covers the following: where they’re from; some folks they’ve known in their life before starting the adventure; and how past experiences inform what they believe about the world. It might seem daunting but it can be a fun creative exercise, and D’Amato emphasized the importance of taking time by yourself to explore the character. If you do prefer to make a long backstory, make sure the GM has access to it and keep other players abreast of details that would help them understand your character—even if it’s things their characters wouldn’t know. Speaking of which...

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4. Don’t Keep Secrets Secret

D’Amato said one of the most common mistakes players can make with creating characters is giving them a secret—not because secrets themselves are bad, but because they actually keep them secret from everybody else. The problem with this is that it separates you from the other players in a way they don’t even know about, stops the GM and players from engaging in that secret in interesting ways, and makes the “shocking” reveal less impactful.

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“If you protect a secret really well, no one else at the table knows what’s going on so they weren’t bothering to look. So when you do reveal the secret, it’s like, ‘Oh, well I guess that was the fun thing for you to experience through the game but it’s not really affecting my character that much right now,’” he said.

He said it’s totally okay for characters to have secrets but that they should tell the other players and GM about them ahead of time. This means the players know but the characters don’t, which gives them ammunition to poke and prod the player about this thing they’ve got hidden underneath the surface. Plus, it makes the big reveal (if it happens) way more interesting.

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5. ‘Play to Change’

When asked what his biggest advice was to folks making a new character, he said this: “Play to change.” This means recognizing that the character you make can and likely will surprise you in ways you don’t expect, so long as you remain flexible. He said it’s important for a person’s character to have room to grow and change because the story isn’t only about them—they’re not designed to change the world, the world is designed to change them. D’Amato explained for io9 in more detail:

I think a lot of people like to start out idolizing iconic heroes; heroes that stay still while the world around them moves. For those heroes—I mean people like Superman, Wonder Woman or Batman—these are characters who are very defined in their traits and can be slotted into different stories. They will, through their actions, change the world around them...but they themselves don’t really feel challenged or changed because that’s not what their story is about. In a roleplaying game, it can very much be about how the world changes you.

In my Ultimate Gameplay Guide book, I advise people to ‘play to change.’ Look for the areas of your character’s story where you can allow them to develop and evolve, while still staying true to their core character traits. Allowing your character to evolve, and thinking about who that character is in the context of their story and the people around them, is a creative exercise because you are devoting a lot of care and attention to a single story that is your character’s story.

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If this has inspired you to create a new character, or you’ve got a previous character you’re super proud of, leave a comment and tell us about them. Stay tuned for more gaming coverage in the coming weeks.

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For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

remyporter
Remy Porter

I wrote a LONG block about my philosophy on character design (built around the important rule: your backstory don’t mean shit):

# Three Legged Characters: A Simple Tool for Character Creation

When making a character for a TTRPG, players tend to focus on answering two important questions: who are they, and what do they do?

“What do they do,” in this case, is the mechanical question. The classes, abilities, qualities, etc. Even things like tactical role- DPS, tank, Support, etc.

“Who are they,” often leads players to think in terms of backstory, and the purpose of this backstory is to establish core facts about the character. Some players get very invested in this, and produce reams of backstory, some players just lift tropes from popular media, or even dismiss the idea entirely. Most produce a few paragraphs.

Let us set both of those aside. Assuming we want to tell a story with our characters, that means that both the characters and what we know about them needs to grow and change. Our goal, at character creation, should be less a focus on establishing *facts* about the character and more about establishing *interesting questions* we want to answer about the character.

I believe that learning about characters *through play* will produce more interesting, more dynamic, and more fun characters, not just for the player controlling that character, but all the other players around the table, including the GM.

What follows is a slightly more formalized version of the approach I use for making my characters, which I share in hopes that others find it useful.

## The Three Legs

To that end, there are “three legs”- three things I like to establish about a character. The **Anchor**, the **Deal**, and the **Problem**.

### The Anchor
The Anchor is a key fact about the character which connects them to the setting. It establishes a relationship to the world, and helps explain what they may have been up to before the campaign started.

They could be a member in good (or poor!) standing with the Mage’s College. They’re a cop in the most dangerous precinct. They’re the youngest child in a sprawling, massive family. They’re a caravan trader with a well established and mildly profitable route.

The purpose of the Anchor is to show us how the character fits into the campaign setting. A good anchor will lead us to questions about NPCs in their life, factions in the setting and how the PC relates to them, as well as just broadly how the character navigates the world of the game. How do other Mages react when they meet your poor standing mage? Is our cop where they are because they’re tough, or unlucky? Is the family close, competitive? What happnens when someone tries to horn in on the caravan route?

### The Deal
The Deal is the character’s main approach to the world. It’s how you might answer the question, “What’s *your* deal?” It’s a loose combination of what they want from the world with how they try and get it, and it’s an excuse for why they’re going to go on adventures.

A character could just be in it for the adrenaline rush, or think they’re on the edge of scoring a big heist and don’t want to take any chances. They might believe there is a rightful order to the world, and if the gods don’t enforce it, *they will*. Maybe they believe there’s no such thing as forbidden knowledge, or maybe they fought in the Revolution, and will do *anything* to ensure that its legacy is assured.

The purpose of the deal is to help establish our call to adventure, and provide an excuse as to why our character will do dangerous things like wander into dungeons or stow away on a pirate ship. A good deal is going to open up questions about how the character will apply their deal in new situations: how does the adrenaline junkie cope with needing to do research? What risks *will* our thief take for the heist, and where do they draw the line?

### The Problem
The Problem is the thing that gets our character into more trouble than they should be. I don’t like to think of this like a *flaw*, as if it’s an imperfection. It’s a problem- it’s the mistake they make, the temptation they succumb to, it’s the thing that makes their life harder.

Maybe they’re a dirty cop. Maybe they have an addiction. Maybe their problem ties directly into their deal- if you believe there’s no such thing as forbidden knowledge, what if the problem is that some knowledge is actually dangerous. If you’re enforcing justice or protecting the revolution, maybe you’re willing to go “too far”.

A good problem is a story hook, because it’s going to let us ask the most important question we can about a character we care about: how are they going to get out of this mess? It also lets us ask questions like: how does their problem make this already dangerous situation more dangerous? It’s a tool for raising the stakes.

## Using the Legs at Character Creation
As a player, you don’t need to work too hard on these. Each of these can be described in any order, and in minimal detail. A sentence at least, a paragraph at most. If you want to put more time into it, don’t expand on these details- write down questions that these details make you think of. Share them with your fellow players and the GM.

## Using the Legs during Gameplay
At its core, each one of these Legs is a chance to ask a key question: if this is true, what *else* is true? If I’m a Mage in bad standing, what else is true about me, or the world? How did I get into bad standing? Do I want to get out of it? What if I got the opportunity? As a player, these are questions you can ask yourself, and as a GM, these are ways for you to craft situations where we can find out the answers.

## Conclusion
The purpose of this approach is to create more vibrant, interesting, and *dynamic* characters, while at the same time reducing the pressure on players and GMs during the character creation process.

By thinking in terms of *questions* and not *answers*, we can more easily allow the characters to grow and change, *and* by answering those questions through *play* we will find answers collaboratively- between all the players and the GM- which will usually lead us to answers that we wouldn’t find on our own.

By asking each others questions as a group, we have the chance to be surprised by the answers we find.