The Alphastream Game Design Blog
A great character concept makes the games we play even better. How can we create memorable characters? What is a good process to tease ideas from our minds? What can we learn from different RPGs? And, how do we create characters in Fantasy AGE? Let’s find out!
I’ll first speak in general terms. Later in this article, I’ll use the example of Hobin Proudbelly, the character I created for a Fantasy AGE livestream with the Saving Throw Show!
You can watch the video of the livestream here, with an insanely fun crew of Rich Malena-Webber as GM, Amy Dallen as the let’s-blow-it-up mage Bedelia Buckleberry, Xander Jeanerret as the noble who wants to be a rogue Lyric Snowdrop, and Rick Budd as the forced-by-a-priest-to-be-good fighter!
If you want to see a video of my character creation process, I streamed about creating this particular character:
(On a completely different topic, I was fortunate to be invited on Nerdarchy to talk about gaming. You can catch that video here!)
Okay, back to character creation!
Which comes first? The character concept, or the selection of mechanics?
If we start with mechanics, we select a number of options first… perhaps all of them. Race/species, class, features, background options, feats, and so on are all selected. We then sit down to figure out the story. Maybe we made a mage with lots of fire spells who used to be an innkeeper. Now we sit down and figure out a story and character concept to make that all work.
If we start with a character concept, we first think of a type of character and begin narrowing down the concept. We do this before selecting mechanics.
Both options are valid, but I favor starting with a character concept. I like to first work up the idea of who this person might be, and who they were and who they might become, and then reinforcing that through making choices. I find this produces the most memorable results for me.
In most cases, you will mix some approaches to some degree. You might work on an initial concept, make a few mechanical choices, cement your ideas fairly well, and complete the mechanics. Or, you might start with mechanics, come up with a concept, and go back and change some mechanics to strengthen the concept.
There are a number of ways to come up with a fun character.
A product such as “500 Unique Character Creations Questions!” can help you come up with fun ideas. I also liked old products such as the Central Casting series of books, which asked questions and walked you through a whole process for fleshing out a character. Various RPGs do that, and you can find a 5E D&D version of this in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything in the “This is Your Life” chapter.
Sometimes we want to play something new. This can be a class or race we haven’t tried, or a role, or even an idea. “I’ve never played a diplomat!” Or, “How about playing a character with psionic powers?”
Sometimes we have a mental image, or even art, of what we want. We can use this as a rough concept. Wielding a huge weapon. A lean and quick skirmisher. A technical wizard. A suave swashbuckler. An alien/robot/warforged. We can start with that image and work forward.
4th Edition D&D leaned heavily on the concepts of roles, though other RPGs use them as well. Maybe we want to be the tank, or the healer, or the big damage dealer. Other games have the hacker or technical specialist, the diplomat or “face.” Thinking through our place in the party can be extremely helpful.
The 13th Age RPG has a really cool character creation rule called One Unique Thing. You select one thing that sets you apart. It can even be something no one else has, and even be supernatural. The GM has ultimate say, but you can create something fantastic. Most importantly, it’s usually something very memorable. In one convention game, a player said if they ever stopped moving, roots began growing out of his feet, holding him fast. He had broken up with a dryad, and the dryad cursed him! It was awesome.
If your campaign or setting resembles Harry Potter’s school, what’s your house? Are you a student? Teacher or staff? If the setting is Eberron and you are all scavengers of the Mournland, what kind of scavenger are you, and what drives you to risk the wastes?
I’ve written about the Dresden Files RPG and it’s campaign creation rules. Players have a hand in creating the setting and they then tie their characters to the setting choices they made. When you know the elements of a campaign world well, you can better design your character to resonate with those qualities. Even in other RPGs, you can think through what is likely to be fun. Ask your GM for the basic campaign premise so you can design your character to play off the concepts.
With the concept in hand, at least at a rough level, we can now turn to selecting the mechanics that enable the concept. This can make character generation simpler, because now we discard options that don’t work well. I like freeing up my mind this way, especially because it prevents me from worrying too much about optimization.
As we go through each step in the character creation process for the RPG, we may be surprised at what can reinforce our concept. Feats, equipment, languages… there can be unexpected ways to make the concept stronger.
As part of character creation we also want to think of where we came from. Why did we end up being this person?
We don’t need pages of backstory. Just a few bullet points can capture the key elements and then we can riff on those during play.
We can also think of a few goals. Broad strokes of who we want to become or what ideals we have. These can be useful for the GM as well, allowing them to provide us with cool opportunities or challenges during play. If we want to someday run the thieves’ guild… that’s fertile ground in a city campaign. We know we may not get our goal, but because of that goal we can have move fun interacting with the setting.
Several games, including Fantasy AGE, encourage us to create links to other party members. I’ve written about using FIASCO to create relationships. Or, to work as a group to create a common backstory. At the simplest level, we can choose one thing that ties us to another character. That alone creates a fun link that weaves the players and their characters together more strongly for play.
Fantasy Age has the following process, and they do start with the concept:
For the livestream game, I knew I wanted to play a support character. I’m a reasonably loud and outgoing person, so for convention and streaming games I’ll often pick a character that helps others shine. A buffer/healer role would work well.
My “One Unique Thing” would be that I’m forced to serve the party. I’m not sure why. I’m like a butler, and I’m here to help the characters be heroes. I pictured a stereotypical butler as one might find working a high-class manor, but with magical powers and living the life of an adventurer.
With this butler concept in mind, I began mechanical choices.
Fantasy Age has 9 abilities, and you can roll to create them. The rolls generate a 0-3 result. In this case, we were using a point-buy system using 12 points.
For each ability I noted if they were an ability my butler should have (bold) and if they wouldn’t be particularly good at it I just placed a 0. No score could be higher than 3 initially, so I placed 3s in the Intelligence and Wisdom that seemed key to being a mage/priest that is aware of what party members need and who can make useful recommendations.
Race is similar to other systems, adding a package of benefits. +1 to an ability, etc. It also adds two rolls on a race-specific benefit table. You can choose to be a mix of two races, which seemed fun. You get the package from the primary race, and one roll on its benefit table. You then get 1 roll on the secondary race’s table.
Looking at my concept, several could work. I talk through these in the video, but ultimately I went with the half-halfling half-human. A bit of height, a bit of belly, plenty of jovial can-do attitude, some quickness, and some smarts.
I get a +1 Dex, a skill focus in Communication (Bargaining), the Halfling language, and when I rolled on my tables I had a focus in Willpoer (Courage) and a +1 Int. That made my Int a 4. Thanks, human parent!
In the Fantasy AGE RPG, we roll to randomly determine social class. That drives a further roll that selects our background. I landed middle class, and then an Initiate. Perfect! I’m a newbie priest.
When I thought about this concept, I couldn’t exactly reconcile it with being a butler type. I therefore decided this should be a mystery. I don’t remember my past, but I might get flashes of having been a priest. I strangely know a lot about religion… did I work in a temple? As a player I know, and other players might know, and that can help drive choices during play.
Fantasy AGE has three choices: Mage, Warrior, Rogue. However, each is flexible. A mage can be a warlock, druid, priest, or any other spell-casting class. As a healer/buffer concept, Mage was an easy choice.
The class choice grants me areas where I focus, similar to schools of magic. Healing Arts was an easy choice. Then I considered Fate vs Heroics… and Heroics seemed the best to boost my companions.
One of the features I get as a Mage is my Arcane Device, used to cast spells. I decided this should be my butler’s towel. I use it to wipe things down, to clean things, to provide friends with a soothing hot towel, and to cast my spells. Sweet!
My class grants me a talent, similar to a feat. I had three options and selected Chirurgy, as it makes me a better healer if I am low on spells.
This can be an overlooked part of the process. For my butler, it was a key. I picked up items that would underscore the ludicrous side of my personality. A large tent, dining utensils and plates for everyone, a bottle of cheap wine to celebrate, a blanket, oh… and one week’s rations. The meal would be eager, and I clearly need money to buy more stuff to help the party!
Fantasy AGE suggests three goals. I went with:
Fantasy AGE further suggests we create a tie to each character. Something that links us to them. My concept is that I don’t recall why I showed up. But, I thought through an aspect that I like about each character.
There you have it. My character creation process and how I applied it to Fantasy AGE. You can watch my character creation video for some additional details, or watch how it played out:
How about you? What are your tricks for creating memorable characters? Which RPGs have great ideas for character creation?