JP On Gaming

Friday, January 4, 2013

Making Fun Organized Play Characters

I have been talking to players who asked me how they can create unique characters - particularly for Organized Play. Though many campaigns focus only on the combat and ignore or minimize the non-combat to "a few dice rolls", many GMs and players enjoy doing something than comparing the amount of damage they did.

One thing LPJ and I have talked about has always agreed upon is that art must make a person go: "Who is that guy?" and "What's his story?" Those two questions seem fairly simply but how many times have you looked at a piece of art in a book (RPG or not) and asked yourself those two questions?

One of my favorite artists is Larry Elmore. Other than a great realistic way to draw, LE always created scenes that made me want to know more about how things got the way I saw. When I look at the image to the right, I don't think "That elf girl is a 6th level ranger with bow focus, and the Manyshot, Rapid Shot and a bow +3" or "that mounted swordman is a 12th level cavalier with a +25 in Ride and a +3 demonslayer sword".

Let's look at what we know from the Archer Girl: She is an elf. She is an archer wearing light armor. Her dark hair could indicate a tribe or even half-elven heritage. She has been here for a while, perhaps having set an ambush (why would she plant arrow in the ground rather fetching them in her quiver). She seems poised and calm amidst the chaos of battle. The hair + earring combination makes me think she might be from a gypsy-like culture.

And now the mounted swordsman: he carries a sword and shield. He wears some type of breastplate with a simple cloak - making me think he is either used to the cold perhaps coming from a place where this weather is common. From the way he handles his horse, it is obvious that he is used to riding and his horse used to be taken into combat. His eyes are on the dragon's head but he seems to be preparing for an attack behind the dragon's legs.

From either of those two simple description one could make vastly different characters. For the fun of it, try the exercise on more LE's art. Feel free to try it on any art you find on Deviant Art or Elfwood.

If you only saw two sets of stats, then there is little I can do for you.

Creating a unique character

When creating a character for it (whether NeoExodus or PFS), I try to think of my character in the following terms. "What will MY character bring to the table that would make me a useful member of a team?" and "What will MY character bring to the table that can help the party succeed?" By answering these two questions, I generally try to answer in terms that are not strictly in-game.

Next, I try to think of a few quirks. Those familiar with GURPS will know exactly what I'm talking about. These are small personality tricks that make your character unique. This could be an accent, a little trick they do, a basic character trait, in short something that cannot be quantified in pure game terms.

From the 2 questions and the 2-4 quirks, then I start building a concept. This makes characters completely unique without having anything to do with his stats.

Here are my first three PFS characters with the basic idea I had for them: People often remember them simply on the basis of these quirks.

Katharan al-Zawree: "This character will be an awesome face and highly utilitarian caster" Quirks: Acts like a spoiled brat, speaks with a "Borat-ian" accent, promotes her business "Al-Zawree oil"
Sir Alexite von Crispin-Thrune: "This character will be able to do almost everything non-combat" Quirks: Speaks with a french accent, strongly devoted to Asmodeus as the "lord of contracts"
Naadhira al-Zawree: "This character will be a kick-ass necromancer" Quirks: hates Katharan, speaks with the same accent, hands out "if you find my body" cards

Now I have a concept that can be ported to any game system. I now have guidelines upon which to build my characters.

Playing a unique character

It's one thing to have created the most unique character in the history of the game. If you forget everything once you sit at the game table, you simply wasted your time.

You now have a character with some interesting traits. It is time to bring that character to the table and explore the world.

Here are a few tips.

Your quirks should be easy to remember and play If you can't make accents, do not build a character based on a stereotypical Italian pizza man. YOU are the one playing your character, others will not be reminding you "doesn't your character stutter?" They won't.
Your character will evolve based on his game experience, go along with it One of the worse things you can do is to plan your character for the next 50 level of his life. This is convenient, but completely unneeded. It makes you unresponsive to what happens around you. Some of the best characters I played completely happened when I least expected it. One such character was my cleric of Berronar Truesilver in LG who I planned on making a Clr/Ftr. However as a CLR2, I met an oracle who told me that I would become greatly involved in magic. During the adventure, I found a spell book. Well, Torgga finished her career as a Mystic Theurge! She became one of my favorite characters, and a memorable one at that!
Focus on what YOUR character would do, not what YOU would do Your character should have thoughts an ideas that are his own. Your character is not YOU. He is influenced by you, draws from your experiences, but he should have goals and thoughts of his own. And alignment should not be the determinating factor in his personality. Some of your characters may hate such another PC but like others. Most players dislike playing Naadhira because of her abrasive personality, yet about as many like having her around because she keeps people alive and does her job well. Yes, she's abrasive and threatens people all the time, but she also keeps them functioning (though a few people would rather not...)
Don't talk about your character in game terms That's perhaps the easiest. Use non-game words to describe your character. Don't say "I'm a fighter". Say "I'm a veteran mercenary" or "I live to slay [orcs/ dragons/ demons/ ninjas]". This makes is fun because your character does not have "fighter" or "barbarian" or a unique combination of classes. Never lie to the GM, but don't be afraid of passing notes to him about your class. If you ever pull out the surprise where your fellow players look at you with round eyes and go "you can do THAT!?" is well worth the reward.
No one else wants to read your background, you have to make others interested in it Many players believe that writing a novel for your character and giving copies to all your friends and fellow players is a great way to give yourself depth. It does not. It gives your character a back story. The experiences you had should affect how you play. How did the experiences he had in the back story affect how he is today? Did you characters grow cautious or brash? Did he gain a fascination for spiders and other things? That's one thing. The next is to have your character bring in tidbits of his story. Let that be the catalyst for in-party discussion. Understand that your character's views and story may not be the only one.
Do not get discouraged Many players get discouraged because others only care or focus on the stats and the number. One of the things about Organized play is that not everyone wants the same thing. Some people are just there for combat and others are there for the social. The goal is to make sure everyone gets their fun and perhaps find that there are some bright spots. Campaign culture really plays a big part of that. Campaigns where AC 30+ "wins" and all you need is a mindless barbarian dealing 50+ damage at level 2, will result in players doing exactly that.
There is no difference between in-combat and out-of-combat character unless it is part of your character, your character doesn't have a personality that turns on or off during combat. If your character is shy, he should act that way in and out of combat. Try to stay true to your character.
Combat should not trigger that type of surprise change.

Yes this was just an excuse to put one of rock's most awesome and insane anthem: Genesis's 1972 "Supper's Ready" the sweetest tale of the Apocalypse... When they were great. Really. Awesome... All the way to the raising of the sword at the end... NICE

Practice, Practice

Now all this is simple and easy to say, but you should practice, practice, practice. You won't be good at it the first time around. But the more you practice and keep reminding yourself of your quirks and how you want your character to be.

Oddly enough, I found this to be easier to do when GMing. Take a few NPCs and think of them in that way. Make them unique. The reason it is easier is that you do not have to play the same character for X hours. Rather the character comes in, does his thing and leaves. You may them think back upon your performance and practice it.

I practiced - quietly - my Joker laugh/ giggle at work for a week before I got it to a point I thought was both sinister, funny and insane.

I didn't tell my players, but WAYYYYY back in an era of innocence, youth and craziness, known as the 90s, I practiced that... ON MY PLAYERS. At the time, I used to have 2 groups of Vampire: The Masquerade I would run. Both of them in the same in-game town (but I had one group in Montreal and one group in Sherbrooke). One of the things I (still) like about VtM is the fact that you have relatively few Vampire NPCs, so they are frequent recurrent characters. By having 2 groups, it quickly became obvious that they would both come in contact with each other.

And contact they had. So many times, I played PCs of group 1 to the PCs of group 2 and vice versa (then off-screen I would tell the player I impersonated the gist of the conversation he had). Then one time, I had a "party merge" where they all got together for some big event (can't remember what it was). The players were amazed at how smooth the transition was. And I was happy about it too.

If your spouse - or significant other - is like mine, she should provide you with ample quirks to mimic. Mimicking my wife - usually behind her back - is great and hilarious... Until she finds you then you pay for it.

In short, there is no "bad way".



  1. Nice article JP. My favorite tip from the article: "Don't use game terms to describe your character in game."
    It bugs me when people introduce their character as "I am a Level 5 Dwarf Fighter", or "I am a sterotypical ranger." Really? Do you have a name?

    1. Very accurate and informative article, JP.

      From personal experience: I still get nods of recognition from old-time LG players when I talk about my "humble apothecary from Vilayad" even though that campaign has been over for, what, 5 years ? :)