Fleshing Out RPG Characters: How To Do It?

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Majority of tabletop roleplaying games nowadays makes an effort to include at least a short paragraph about character creation. And I don’t mean the rules, the process how many dice do you have to roll to determine how strong your character is and so on – that is usually what 90% of the handbook is about – but I mean exactly the thing “beyond” the rules, everything that may define your character, but doesn’t fit into the ready slots determined by the gaming system. It can be your characters’ values, preferences, hobbies, past or connections. And this part of making a character is what I would like to talk about today.

Like I said, nowadays, most of the games acknowledge this dimension of characters beyond the simple set of numbers describing strength, speed, aim or constitution. It didn’t always use to be so. The very old games tended to focus on the basic “kick-in-the-door” style. Nowadays, even the most basic games usually encourage players to flesh out their characters. Often, however, they do not go into much detail. I am going to share with you some methods of dealing with character creation that I have found useful and that I have seen bearing their fruit repeatedly throughout the years.

Character Questionnaire

The easiest way to motivate players to dig deeper into their characters’ personality is making a short questionnaire. I would like to point out that it shouldn’t be a mandatory form every player is forced to fill before the game starts. It is rather a set of questions that may prompt the players to think about their characters’ aspects that they haven’t thought of by themselves. The Gamemaster can later use these also as feedback to learn something about the characters. The questionnaire can be made by the GM, or by an active player, and nowadays you can find many different ones on the internet (just be sure to find a good one. You can always change it to fit your needs, however).

The range of questions asked can be absolutely unlimited. Starting from such things as favourite food or colour, to questions about what do they find beautiful or what they consider ugly, what is their family and their relationship to it like (an often neglected thing in the world of adventurers). You can include political preferences, spiritual beliefs, ethical questions, view of magic or technology. Just bear in mind that it should all be somehow relevant and telling about the character. (Nothing prevents the players from inventing completely insignificant details about their characters, but if we are talking a questionnaire that should help to “set imagination running”, it should probably start from something fairly simple.)

If you are running a “kick-in-the-door” style game, and especially if it is your first session and you are not sure if you are going to continue playing, any kind of “extra” character information beyond what their strength and constitution is may be unnecessary. But if you are thinking about a long-term campaign with the same characters, fleshing them out pays off. Among the most visible benefits is the fact that interaction with non-player characters goes much more smoothly, not to speak of interaction inside the group itself. A character whose grandparents fought Orcs during the great wars is going to act differently towards the duke who wants to negotiate with an Orc chieftain than a character whose family have been staunch supporters of the duke’s policies since forever.

The “fleshing out” does not also need to happen immediately and before the game. It can happen during it or gradually in-between future sessions, as the players get to know their characters better. It is indeed often counter-productive to assign character traits to your character and then feel like you are “bound” by them, as you learn that your character would act differently in reality than how you imagined it in theory.

Last remark – a character questionnaire, or its abbreviated form, can be also a useful tool the GM might apply for fleshing out important non-player characters.

Model Situations

An advanced version of the questionnaire is setting up a model situation and making the players think about it. “What would your character do, if…” Originally, I used one or two model situations as final questions in my character questionnaires. They usually tended to produce much more interesting results than the plain questionnaire. “What would you do if a beggar asked you for money” or “what would you do if you saw a street magician being attacked by a gang of bullies” are some classic examples of model situations (the scenarios could, and maybe should, be also more detailed, however).

A model situation can also be used by the GM to communicate some details from the game’s setting to the players. Consider for example: “On the Festival of Solstice, traditionally celebrated in your hometown, you are asked by a local priestess to carry the animal to be sacrificed…” Now the player would know there is such a festival and something about what it is like. This helps establishing common cultural knowledge the characters would have, but the players would not. If the game itself later takes place during the solstice, the players who did the questionnaire can already easily imagine fill in some of the details for themselves without necessary introductions, and can pay attention to the specifics of the game’s story itself (such as, that on this particular festival, the High Priestess has been murdered).

Pre-Game Sessions

This is the most advanced form of sketching out your character. If you are really into it, and if both the GM and the player have the time, nothing pays off as much as meeting up before the game for an hour, or for an entire afternoon, and essentially “playing a game” before the game itself – even without rules. It can be a series of model situations from the character’s early years, how they met their mentor, how they got their first dog, and so on.

This can be connected to actually making the character – which is especially good for GMs who like to micro-manage and oversee the character creation in person; however, it has also the undisputable advantage of immediate feedback. Especially if your setting is already clearly defined, the player can have the GM’s assistance to figure out where exactly the character was born and what was the environment and the social circumstances they have been growing up in. This way, the player also learns something about the world in a “practical” manner, not just by reading a dry geographic account. Compare the following two situations:

1. At the start of the gaming session, the GM shows the players a map of the village where the adventure starts and the surrounding area. To the north, there are fields. To the west, there is a river, and on its bank is marked a place called “the Haunted Mill”. To the south, there is a “Dark Wood”. To the east, there are hills with a marked ancient ruin.

2. Before the gaming session, the GM and Adam, one of the players, meet up. Adam explains his idea for a Rogue character and that he wants him to be a curious, restive type. Adam reckons his character has spent much of his childhood poking his nose around wherever sounded interesting and exciting. The GM shows the player the map and they come up with the idea that as a child, the Rogue has probably been a couple of times into the Dark Wood, enough to know that there are wolverines and that Elven Rangers have their secret meeting spots there in small tree-huts. The Rogue has also visited the Haunted Mill a couple of times, obviously during the day. He had seen nothing out of the ordinary, but knows the legend about the old miller and why the place is haunted. The GM and the player even come up with a small episode where the Rogue, during his exploration of the old mill, fell into the water and almost drowned. Based on this experience, Adam decides to put more points into his character’s Swimming skill than he would otherwise have presumed. About the ancient ruin in the hills, the Rogue knows nothing, he has never been there because first, it is too far, and second, the surrounding countryside is too dangerous because of goblins.

I presume you can see the difference between the two approaches. Not everyone, of course, has the interest, time and patience to make such endeavours. Nonetheless, I can testify that any kind of preparation like this pays off, both to the players and the GM. The more the GM knows about the characters, the better can s/he tweak the story to fit them. For instance, Adam’s GM could safely count on the fact that his character would want to explore every nook and cranny the adventure would offer, because of the Rogue’s curious nature. Such a thing could otherwise be wasted on a party that just wanted to kill Orcs and move forward; or vice versa, if the options for exploration were limited, Adam could be disappointed his character didn’t get enough space to express his character’s chief traits.

With the preparation, the player himself will also feel more connected to his character; for instance, Adam would now know why exactly his Rogue has such good swimming, climbing and investigating skills. The better you know your character, the more confident you feel playing it and the more entertaining the game is.

Not As If They Just Spawned

These are, once again, all just tips for your inspiration. There are many other ways you could do this, and I am sure many of you would think of some innovative ways of your own. What I wanted to also show you is the fact that fleshing out characters can be useful for purely practical reasons during gameplay, and especially in long-term campaigns, it establishes closer connection between the characters and the world. That way, your characters aren’t going to feel like adults who just appeared in a strange environment, but like actual people who have grown up in the world and are part of it. That is, unless your characters have just arrived into Narnia. But even they have been growing up somewhere…


Previous Tabletop Roleplaying Series Articles:

What Is Tabletop Roleplaying?
GameMaster: Narrator, Director, Coach?
Making Characters: Imagination Is The Limit

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.