Making Characters In Tabletop RPGs: Imagination Is The Limit

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Many who want to play a tabletop RPG have a very clear idea about what kind of character they want to play. In the beginning, a vague idea is usually enough. Somebody loves Dwarves and wants to play a Dwarven warrior. Another likes Legolas and wants to play an Elven archer. But then there are people who like Sapkowski’s Witcher, or Spiderman, or ninjas, and who would like to play one. Let’s face it: many roleplayers at least start with the idea that “this is the chance for me to play my favourite book/film hero”. But most games don’t offer such specific classes or character abilities that would make it possible for a player to tailor their character according to such archetypes. What is the way around, then?

The “Official” Route

There is such a large amount of RPGs available nowadays that some company has probably made a game including character classes using ninjutsu, shooting spiderwebs from their hands, or whatever else one would like. And if not in the official market, the internet is full of fan-made projects. There are RPGs specifically tailored for the worlds of Avengers, or Naruto, or even Blade Runner, complete with the rules and villains.

Of those fan-made projects, many of them are sadly nothing more than the result of one person sitting down and writing a wall of text, either ripping off existing rules from other games or making up their own. The very bad ones you can recognise just by skimming through them, but finding a good one may be very hard. The rules made from scratch often suffer from complete imbalance – regardless of good intentions, it is really difficult to create a balanced system of rules without weeks of testing. On the other hand, those who take and apply the setting on an existing system often end up with lazy crossbreed in which instead of “Strength” and “Dexterity”, you have “Taijutsu” and “Ninjutsu” and the result seems absolutely messy, because it doesn’t make any sense.

It would be a mistake to believe officially marketed rulebooks are any better, though. In fact, I would say that they are worse – at least from moral standpoint, because fans who post their home-made attempts on the internet for free are at least not trying to make money from it. Low-budget, independant games can be good, but they may have the imbalance problem because of the lack of testing. Big companies that may own licenses to specific franchises, on the other hand, often just take their generic RPG system and try to make it fit. The result may be a hybrid that looks like Dungeons&Dragons, plays like Dungeons&Dragons, and because of the inner logic of the D&D system, it may not feel like whichever setting you are trying to play in, but it may feel like Dungeons&Dragons. One such example is the Star Wars Roleplaying Game which is anything but small and untested, but one cannot help but feel that the Galaxy Far, Far Away with its own logic and laws has been forcibly squeezed into a pre-set system of rules where a completely new gaming system of its own would have served it better.

In most cases, however, the issue isn’t about all the players wanting to play a group of X-Men. Usually, it is only one player who would like their character to be a ninja or a Witcher. Such players may think the basic rules of most RPGs are insufficient for them. If you use the internet, you are once again going to find a bunch of fan-made rules applied to existing games. “This is a Spiderman class, made specifically for Dungeons&Dragons v. 5.0!” You are, however, going to also run into the same problems as mentioned above. What to do if this isn’t the way?

The “Make Our Own Rules” Route

There is the way how all the fan-made special rules came to be: somebody just needed a “Ninja” class, so they made one. You can do the same, or you can take one of the existing ones and tweak it in a way that seems more balanced. Years and years of practice have taught me, however, that making an imbalanced rule is all too easy even for those who believe themselves experienced. Your “Wonder Woman” may end up being too powerful (an ability to make somebody to tell the truth even once per day may be too much) or too weak (when your Wizard is capable of annihilating ten Orcs with one fireball, two or three whip-tricks may not seem adequate at the same level).

I would like to bring your attention to one solution that is quite common – the so-called “ability swapping”. What it means is usually creating a “hybrid class” by taking an ability from one class and swapping it for another as a “tradeoff”. For instance, let’s say that in the original game, a Rogue can perform a sneak attack while a Druid can shapeshift into an animal. But what if I want a druid-assassin who can’t shapeshift, but instead can perform a sneak attack as powerful as a Rogue does? Or maybe I want a Rogue who isn’t really a stealth-killer, but can pick somebody’s pockets and then transform into a rat. It is, on the one hand, a brilliant solution (much better than making a whole new class, if you ask me), but there is also an easy way to make a mistake that will only be discovered later. The problem is that class abilities are not usually matched 1:1, but the entire class is a balanced complex that has access to some abilities while to others it doesn’t. You can use the “ability swapping”, but you should do it with extreme caution.

This all being said – some games, especially the really big ones (such as Dungeons&Dragons) offer a wide selection of bonus handbooks that have special rules for “nontraditional” character types or abilities (such as those of ninja or a witch doctor). Those are usually fully compatible with the normal system and can be used without fear. They don’t solve everything (you can find rules for a ninja or a half-ogre, but probably not for making a Batman or a Smurf character) and at the same time they often make special rules for things that could be easily solved with a bit of creativity by using the basic rules. For instance: does an Inquisitor really need to be a specific character class, wouldn’t it be enough to just create a cleric and put more emphasis on certain skills?

Use Your Imagination

This is the route I recommend especially to starting players instead of risking imbalancing the game by messing around with new abilities or swapping existing ones. But it works just as well for advanced players (unless you are specifically focused on making new rules). You’ll find out it works perfectly well to make your character fit in the preexisting system and just use the rules to arrange its abilities the way you need. Some RPGs allow it to larger extent, some less, but it should be possible in one way or another.

It is simple. You want your character to have a katana, but the game has rules only for longswords. What people often do – taking the statistics of a longsword and making it more powerful – is usually a mistake and it creates imbalance. But why couldn’t your character sheet just say “katana” while the statistics are those of a longsword? In most systems, the differences are anyway so minor that actual rules difference isn’t necessary. You also avoid the accusations of having “special treatment”. Your katana looks like katana, but rule-wise, it is the same thing everyone else has.

Similarly, it isn’t necessary to create an entire “ninja” class. Just take a “rogue” class and put the stresses in some specific places. Focus on climbing and balance and you can neglect some other skills traditionally connected to “thieves”. Be creative. If your RPG allows multi-classing, find a way to mix and match your character’s classes so that it has all the abilities required to fit your idea.

You want to feel like you are playing a Witcher? No need to make a special class either. Make a warrior with a sprinkle of mage, agree with the GM that your basic “magic missile” spell won’t have any visible effect but is simply going to be a wave of force, and rename it to “Aard sign”. And just use potions more often than other characters would. If you keep mentioning that your character uses weird hand signs, and if you don’t tell the other players how the mechanics work and that you actually are just using normal spells, they may even think you are into something “special” while in fact, you are not.

And we are back to what roleplaying is all about: it is role-playing. The rules can only take you so far. If your character looks like a Witcher and acts like a Witcher, it doesn’t really matter that it doesn’t have all the abilities a Witcher normally would. Take a fighter/mage hybrid and act in the way that it comes across as one. And sometimes it is all about the roleplaying: a samurai or an Unsullied, for instance, doesn’t require any special rules whatsoever. Just take a regular fighter and make him follow a honour code: that is the core of what makes a samurai, not a “special +10 strike”.

Last word: even if it is possible to make your character a ninja or a Batman, you should first discuss it with your Gamemaster and the other players. If everyone wants to have a game set in Celtic mythology-inspired setting, a ninja (not to speak of Batman) may seem slightly disturbing. There are two ways out of there. (The route some modern film adaptations tend to take, i.e. having a kung-fu master training Robin Hood in martial arts, isn’t really advisable unless you are into it.) Either you convince the rest that playing a game set in medieval Japan is more interesting, or you adjust your dream character to the setting. Maybe this is the beginning of a legend about Brus Waegn, the druid who communed with bats, and who, during the night, was something more than what his kin thought him to be…


Previous Tabletop Roleplaying Series Articles:

What Is Tabletop Roleplaying?
GameMaster: Narrator, Director, Coach?

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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.