[Guide] Developing Your Character: A Guide To Roleplaying

StormbowStormbow USA
edited July 2016 in Roleplaying Discussion
The following is presented to help those who are interested in roleplaying and in understanding more about what roleplaying is all about.

I have had this file in my collection for years, and I share this with just about everyone that asks the age-old questions: What is roleplaying? How do I make my character? In every instance, it has helped others to better understand the concept of roleplaying.

Please note: This article was originally written with pen-and-paper roleplaying games in mind. However, I feel that the concepts, ideas, guidance, and instructions given below are sound, and should prove helpful to any potential roleplaying in Shards Online.

Posting this guide ran me into some odd "ValidateLength" error messages, so I had to break this guide down into multiple posts; not all posts could be the same length for some reason. (Normally, this guide is 3 posts long.)

     ♦ Part I
     ♦ Part II
     ♦ Part III
     ♦ Part IV
     ♦ Part V
     ♦ Part VI


    ( Why It's Important For Your Own Enjoyment )
    © February of 2000 by James L.R. Beach

    In the past, as well as in my current roleplaying games, players and spectators alike sometimes ask me what the point of it all is, this game, this roleplaying thing, this pastime or hobby that sometimes seems to border on obsession. I imagine it must seem rather silly to them or perhaps just utterly confusing as they glance at it without really trying to get involved. Even though they, themselves, probably already have the basic experience of roleplaying games already under their belts, they just don't get it. They have probably forgotten they used to play "House" or "Pretend" or "Army" or whatever bit of "Make Believe" they indulged in when they were considerably younger. As they matured, they moved on to more structured games with beginnings, endings, winners, losers, definite rules, limited playing surfaces and times, and yes, games that required little imagination. So long ago, those simpler days of make believe, they can't remember what it was like. They've forgotten that playing didn't really require those limitations, and sadly, misplaced the basic thrill of pretending to be something you are not.

    For many, now brainwashed most of their adult lives with the mind set of those limitations often found in popular and commonly available board games, they will need assistance to recapture their youth and reclaim what is rightfully theirs; their freedom to pretend to be anything they want. So, this article is designed to help the novice and the experienced player delve more deeply into the realm of the make believe, expand their minds, and create an existence apart from reality where they may go briefly from time to time to have a little fun all too often denied them by the constraints of reality. I am, of course, talking about character development within roleplaying games.

    Who is this person, this character you have? Is it just a collection of numbers on a page? Perhaps it's only a bag full of new abilities, and what the character will do is what you, yourself, would do with those abilities. Is that it? But what would you do? I mean, your character can't provide for your real life family (maybe that's what you'd do with those abilities, maybe not), but your character can't reach into our reality and do that. Nor can they solve the problems you have here, today. So, since these characters are not you and do not have your problems, it is no wonder they should not have your goals in life. But what do these characters want, and who decides that, and how do they decide that? It is terribly confusing at times, and if all you know about your character is a bunch of numbers on a page, then what you know is as good as knowing next to nothing about your character. Sure, you have the tools, but what good are tools if you have nothing to fix or nothing to build?

    As children we knew what we wanted. Even then we knew. We wanted to be adults (those sneaky grown-ups had all the real power and fun, that was plain to see). That was our goal, and that's what we often pretended to be; adults, doing adult things, or what we imagined adult things to be at any rate. A simple goal, a simple ambition, yes, but ambition nevertheless. This is the absolute fundamental building block upon which we must start our characters. We need a goal. Like the kid's goals, it can be simple, but we must have one. Without it, our character will have no direction and no purpose and the game quickly becomes boring and pointless, as if we are aimlessly drifting through our life and the GM (Game Master) or god or whatever is throwing problems at us just to amuse himself. Fight the monster, get the treasure, fight the monster, get the treasure, fight the monster, get the treasure, repeat until well done. I mean, if that's what the game has become for you (or indeed if that's all it ever was), and you find this to be a problem, then may I suggest the problem does not reside within the game so much as it is your character's lack of ambition and goals. With a goal, you can see your character's progress toward it, see your character's development, foresee the obstacles before them, and if played well, overcome them. And unlike real life where you often do not have the tools, the money, or the talent to over come your problems, in a game, you probably will, and that's part of the fun too. But even with the tools, can you overcome this world's difficulties? We shall see - oh yes, we shall see indeed.

    How does one create a goal for their character? Well, it does depend a lot on the roleplaying game in which you are playing, but mostly you will have to define your character by his or her surroundings, the people in your character's life (NPCs or Non Player Characters, and PCs or Player Characters) and your character's situation. Your GM may give this to you, or they may work with you to construct a setting and background for your character. In fact, you will probably have a rough idea of the general options available to you before you begin to construct your character and start playing.

    Hey, wait a minute. I don't remember all that stuff when I was a kid playing make-believe. What's up with that? I just went with my imagination, so why all the rules? Truly, these are all good observations and questions (I'm glad I thought of them, then). But if you've ever watched children playing these games, you've seen the bully, the selfish, inconsiderate acts, and numerous other examples of kids who still haven't learned to play nicely together. Normally, their play partners will just quit playing with them, and hopefully that will teach them the error of their ways if they wish to be included later on. But for us adult types, it is nice and sometimes required to have a more structured framework or a set of boundaries we can all agree upon. No one wants to play a game where they struggle with their goals when some bonehead can just come along and snap their fingers and do it all, without effort, making all one's previous hard work seem nothing but a joke. That sort of inequality in power would be like playing chess against an opponent who starts with two queens while you have none, or playing Monopoly with an opponent who gets to start off owning Boardwalk and Park Place with hotels on them and with twice the normal starting money. Not very fun, is it? No, our games require a sense of fair play and an even or level playing field (which is also too frequently absent in real life). Without it, one player out shines the others, and that's not fun for those stuck in the shadows for we all want to bask in a little sunshine of our own. And, of course, it's nice when we can be playing the same game. I mean, playing "Barbie" isn't all that great when your brother is shooting at her with his tanks and rockets, trying desperately to take the hill which you thought was really Barbie's back yard pool party. Experience tells us that if we are all on the same page to begin with, that this will prevent a lot of problems before they even begin.
  • Now that your GM has described your options, you will probably have many choices. If the choices are limited, one may get the feeling that there is nothing new to the game after they've tried each choice once or twice, but this is far from the truth. With all the subtle variations there are in these games, the truth is you will never need to play identical characters, and any similarities between your characters may simply be the result of each one too closely mirroring your own personality, or, dare I say it, your unexercised imagination stifled through the years by normal adult games. I tire, for example, of people who speak of "cookie cutter class" characters, as if all mages are the same, all warriors are identical, and every starship captain says "make it so." That attitude often speaks of a lack of imagination and effort to make these characters unique individuals rather than a flaw in the game itself. These characters are, or can be, as individual as real people, and these differences are magnified by the variations of each different game system, each different game world, and every new set of different players, and every new and interesting situation they may find themselves in. The mind boggles at the unlimited nature of the game and the endless choices. Yet, why do some players tire of the game, sometimes wondering what the point of it is since they may feel they have seen it and seen it? Originality is the key, and with new combinations of characters, players, creatures or monsters, NPCs, and a variety of situations, you can play for 20 years or more and still not run into identical situations. True, there are, and always will be similarities, but if you've done your job right (as a player) and the GM has done their job right, these similarities should only be superficial. Let's face it, without adding depth to anything, like your world or your characters, they could easily be too similar to continue playing for long without getting bored. But if you learn to add that third dimension to your characters, you can play a great game for decades and never tire of it.

    Depth. What is this depth stuff of which you speak, and from whence does it come? The concept of "character depth" is comprised of those additions to your character beyond those given to you by the GM and the game-system in which you are playing. Most characters all have similar attributes, like statistic scores, basic abilities for their profession, certain skills (whether in "class based" systems or "skill" oriented games) and other bare bones facts about them that help define them. But beyond that, the rest is entirely your domain in which to play. Your character's name, for example, adds depth to your PC. If you take a popular name from popular fiction, you've probably NOT given it much thought, and it's not really all your own anyway. But if you make up a name, and if you make up a story about this name, you add more depth. If you fabricate some family significance to the name, or give it some cultural significance, or even just claim it is from a different language where it means such and such, this all adds depth, and with originality, this will be different from any other character. See how simple that was? What's in a name, indeed. And if a PC or NPC asks your character about their name, well, look out. "Bellbethany, that's lovely. What does it mean?" If you've given her just a name and put no other thought into it, you may only be able to respond "Um, I don't know." But if you made something up about it, you could go on for minutes and in an interesting manner, adding color and depth to the game by using the depth of your character. "Bellbethany, it's a family name passed down for centuries. It's Elven in origin, and it means 'She who protects and watches over you.' In fact, my father once told me we had a bit of elven blood in us, and the elven source of that very blood watched over our family, human though it was, for centuries until she finally departed across the waters." That was easy too, wasn't it? And hair color, what about that? How is that depth? Well, instead of taking a color you wanted, try taking a color your character wouldn't have picked for his or her own if they had a choice. Her hair was jet black, though she didn't like it, never did, and she always admired the redheads, wishing she had been born with a crown of crimson. Is this important, significant, telling, and of dire importance? No. But it is depth. The same could be done with most features, such as eye color, skin tones, breast size, build, birth marks, etc., etc. It just takes a little time, so you begin, add to it each day you play with the character, and in time this character, with all its flukes and idiosyncrasies, will be far from a cookie cutter character, and you've only begun to scratch the surface.
  • Family. Our own families are a big part of our lives, so it's reasonable to assume our character's family is a big part of their life, too. But who are they, do they still exist, and are they still alive; do we get along, are we close or estranged, are they are loving family or contemptuous of each other? Lots of choices there, you'll agree. Pick one, pick several. Make up a story about it. How does that add to the power of your magic user or help them defeat monsters? It doesn't, but it does add depth. Funny thing about depth. The more you make, the more you understand and even care about your character. I mean, who gives a flying $&#@ if the character dies when all it was consisted of a bunch of numbers on a sheet of paper, and numbers that you didn't even make up but were randomly determined at that? But if it has a name, a history, a family, concerns, hopes, fears, ambition, goals, etc. Well, if it has all that, if you've put that kind of effort into it, then it becomes a part of you (even when it is nothing like you), and you'll begin to care about it. No longer are you fighting the monster to get treasure, but you are fighting to stay alive or perhaps even save someone you care about or love. The treasure isn't just a way to keep score, but a way to provide for those people and things you care about, to help achieve your goals in life, and to, yes, perhaps make your character better prepared for greater exploits if they lead that sort of life. Believe me, when you add depth to your characters, you will naturally care more about them and take a greater interest in the game. This is all part of the fun of roleplaying.

    Quirks. Idiosyncrasies, those little funny traits real people often have. Does your character have any? If so, great, and if not, why not? They needn't be horrible or detrimental, only noticeable, making your character stand out in your, the GM's, and the other player's minds. If you play another dull, two-dimensional fighter, who can expect one to care about that, even during the game, let alone remember it long after the campaign ends? ****, even you probably won't care about it after a time. But if you play Ordamen of the red, well, he's interesting, memorable, and fun. Funny thing about that Ordamen; he hated the color red, and with the blood flowing in his warrior's profession, it was amusing the things he would do to keep clean and avoid staining his clothing. He'd often even carry several cloaks with him, just in case one became spattered, and I swear he spent a great deal of time in clothing shops in every hamlet and village we went through, always having special outfits made to order. Hey, wait a minute. This doesn't sound like a fighter. Well, good. Quirks, we call them, and they add depth to your character, from the minor vows (he swears he will never eat fish) to the compulsive disorders (she was constantly humming during combat, no matter how much you implored her to keep quiet). Anything you can imagine may be used as a quirk. Of course, it has been suggested that the 6th level clerical Heal spell can rid one of insanity, and why not minor quirks if need be, but that's neither here nor there, unless, of course, one of your character's goals in life is to rid themselves of such a compulsion.
  • Now, just doing these things and keeping them to yourself can be rather pointless. It's time to share. Talk to the other PCs, tell them what your character is feeling and roleplay it. Hey, wait up there again. How my character is feeling? What do I roll to find that out? Wrong! You try to think about your character, what you decided was important to them, and ask yourself the basic questions you might ask in real life. Say, for example, your best friend's mother died. How do you think he'd feel? Or your coworker gets a raise. How do you think he'd feel? If you have a reasonable idea of how they'd feel, given what you know about them, you will begin to have a reasonable idea of what your character would feel in various situations, given what you know about him or her. Now, express that feeling. Seek out situations that make your character feel good, avoid situations that make your character feel bad, and plan ahead so your character may do both of these things well. Done properly, your character has a lot in common with real living people, so even if your characters are rather different from yourself, you have a good feel for who and what they are (provided you bothered to add depth to your characters). But if you didn't add depth, well, then you're no better than a warrior who's sitting on a stump waiting for a monster and doing nothing else. You're not even sure if you're hungry, and if you are, haven't a clue as to what you'd like to eat.

    Remember, the GM cannot give your character their goals in life, but only make it possible for you to realize the goals you create for them. These can range from romantic concerns to religious concerns, political ones to economic ones, goals in power or goals in knowledge, or even flights of fancy or works of inspired creativity. You can care about people, money, your family, friends, your village town or city, your profession, your history, your race, your religion, your world, what you eat, what you wear, what equipment you'll need, how you are, how you are perceived, what you know, what you'd like to know, what you don't know, or where you will even be in 5 years. A good GM, I think, will try to accommodate your character's desires, but you must tell him what those desires are, and this may take some thought. Who is this character, why is he a ranger, what happened to him as a child that gave him this goal, and why is he still doing what he is doing now? If you know, then let the GM know, and if you don't know, you should.

    Helping others. Helping other players develop their characters will help you develop your own character. You look at your real life friend and you probably know why you are friends. You could even come up with a list of things you liked about them. Can your character do the same for the other PCs in the game? I'm not talking about you and the other players, but your character and their characters. It need not even be a friend for this exercise, but a rival or an enemy PC will work as well. You can generate a list of qualities they have your character dislikes or even hates. If these other characters are flat, two-dimensional characters, maybe you can't make a decent list. I mean, hating someone because of their race or their profession happens and may even be realistic to a certain degree, but bigotry has never been hailed as very smart, or praised as an example of intellectual merit. Your character should have better things to love, like, loath, or even hate about another character other than their race or profession, and in a more cerebral game (like roleplaying games), I hope you will see the things we must concern ourselves with are the more third dimensional aspects of another character.
  • Now, if you help the other player add depth to their character (and yes, this takes time on your part), then your character will be able to start adding to their list of things they love, like, loath, or hate about them. When roleplayed, the interactions between your characters become richer, more realistic, and more in depth, this adds depth to the game, and by example, it shows the other players how to roleplay using small facts about their characters to add depth, interest, and enjoyment to the game. Just by aiding in the development of another player's character, then, you see you've added more depth to your own character as well, more to the game, and probably more to the enjoyment of both players (if not all players, GM included, in that game). Of course, if you try to dwell on the aspects of hating each other, this can backfire in a game, and I highly recommend you do not go very far down that path even when it is possible, but instead find reasons to stick together, adventure together, and care whether or not the other character lives or dies. It's even possible to develop feelings of love or such deep friendships you would lay down your character's life to save the other. Wow. Oh sure, we frequently risk our cherished character's lives for each other, but to give their life? That is rather special, even if it is a game, assuming you have an in depth character of which you are really fond.

    And so we see, like most things in real life, you get out what you put in. So if you put in the effort on your character and make an effort with your GM, you will reap the rewards, but if you don't, you won't. It's that simple. I can only tell you the games that I played in and found most enjoyable were the games where I made goals for my character and tried to achieve them within the GM's world. I took on the character's role, and by doing so, the character and the world he or she was in became more important to me. My character now needed to explore the world, learn its history, become familiar with its people, because, in truth, they were a part of him or her, and many of the things they were doing or cared about were directly tied to these other world facts. Thus, I believe at least, if you put in the effort and add depth to your character, if you create goals for them, if you figure out what their fears and hopes are, what they dream of seeing one day, and if you work with your GM so they may help your character realize these ambitions, you will also find more diversity, individuality, and enjoyment in the game than is otherwise possible. Without doing this, I wouldn't be surprised if you've been left with the feeling all warriors are the same, all mages, all thieves, all characters with empathy, etc., etc., etc., are all identical to the ones your played before or seen played before. But if this is the case for you, it is my honest opinion, based on my experience, the fault does not lie within the game, but in the limited way you've been playing it.

    It frequently helps to ask yourself simple questions about your character - some things a person interested in your character might ask - and then write down two or three sentence answers for each question. If you can't think of anything to ask about yourself, try making a few questions you'd like to know about someone you just met, write those down, and then answer them for your own character. Just jot down a few lines on a piece of paper or on the back of your character sheet, and feel free to modify your answers over time. Maybe if you feel the answers aren't all that interesting, one of your character's goal could be to do more interesting things in their life, things they really care about, and so next time they'd feel better about talking about themselves.
  • Now, the few examples of depth I've discussed here are by no means meant to be exhaustive. There are plenty of ways to add depth, but what makes them truly valuable is that you've done it yourself, it's a part of you and your vision, and your enjoyment is based upon the originality that you've created for your character. Thus, a lengthy list of how to exactly go about it, or a list of specific questions you should ask yourself about your character, would only serve to make more identical characters; we wish to avoid that. Instead, I try to give the encouragement to find your own way, and hopefully this will inspire you to add something to your character no one has ever thought of doing before, or at any rate, not doing in exactly the same way as it has been done before. Years after the campaign ends, it is these special characters that are memorable for both you and your fellow gamers. So, with a little more effort, anyone could do a much better job and have a much more enjoyable time while doing it.

    "To the depths of his soul he goes, from the bottom of his heart, he went forth as he explored the uncharted reaches of her eyes, and there, within the hidden boundaries of her spirit, he knew eternity, that endless breadth of wide expanse where beyond there, may dragons dwell, and his feelings for her would know no limits, the tiny voice of fear completely drowned in the deepest pool of everlasting love and acceptance, they fell together, endlessly, until they were but one."

    Depth is pretty neat, huh? So get some.
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