A couple of friends have asked me recently (for different an unrelated campaigns, even) about how I make a player character that I am excited to play. It’s worth noting that they were relatively inexperienced, and while they knew what D&D is and how to play, they didn’t have enough experience to know their options and how to capitalize on them for maximum anticipation. I’ve talked about this a bit, but haven’t made a full blog post about it, so here it is, oh friends of mine from the future that have asked me this same question.
That said, this guide will be geared towards those players. I would say the majority of people who play D&D regularly as a hobby tend to have a backlog of possible characters they would like to play and are simply waiting for the opportunity to pull them out (like me). Even if that is the case, though, maybe they’re not as fleshed out as they could be, and this guide will help you learn more about that cool idea.
Here we go.
Step One: Identify your Rule of Cool. This can be anything. Maybe your cool thing is casting spells on your enemy to make them think you’re their friend. Maybe it’s the too-cool-for-school rogue that only feels happy when she’s stabbing somebody. Maybe it’s a backstory, like your parents were murdered by birds and now you are on a quest to kill every bird for revenge. It doesn’t matter what it is, just search deep inside your soul and find the answer to the question “How do I achieve maximum coolness?” because everyone should be able to feel cool when playing their heroes.
- To follow along with an example of my own characters, one of my Rule of Cool things was that I wanted to play a Lawful Evil character. Somebody that is selfish and manipulative, but still helps the party. (We’ll get to that part.)
Step Two: Identify how your Rule of Cool manifests. How much of that thing is narrative, and how much of it is actually gameplay mechanics? Wanting to murder every bird is narrative, because it doesn’t have any influence on what race or class you are. Wanting to mind control all your enemies does inform your class, though. You’d be hard-pressed to make a barbarian whose main purpose in combat is to mind control, for example. Once you figure this out, you can more easily identify what parts of your character you still need to figure out.
- My Lawful Evil character was a dark elf, or a drow, because in most common lore, dark elves are lawful evil. So this Rule of Cool informed race, which helps inform backstory, but there is no hint of class yet.
Step Three: Find the ‘But’. This is the critical point in which your cool idea becomes an interesting and nuanced character. The idea here is to fill out the rest of your basic character concept with something that significantly contrasts your Rule of Cool idea. Maybe your mind control character is a big dumb goliath. Maybe the guy that wants to kill all birds is, secretly, a bird. Maybe your edgy rogue character secretly just wants to be loved. It doesn’t have to make sense (yet), it just has to be interesting enough to get you interested.
- My drow still didn’t have a class here, so that’s what I used for the ‘But’. Lawful Evil drow? What if he’s a bard that sings songs and inspires people around him? How does that work?
And now for Step 4: Use those two mismatching ideas, and find a way to make it work. This will pretty much always tell you the basics of their backstory and make filling out details easy. How did this dumb goliath get mind control powers? Why did your edgy rogue turn to stabbing people when really they’re just lonely? Why does a bird and his parents get attacked by other birds? The idea with the ‘But’ here is that it allows you to ask specific and direct questions that inspire their own answers. The Cool idea and the But idea should be mismatched in a way that asks these obvious questions.
- How does a lawful evil drow become a bard? Easy, he found himself orphaned on the surface (for reasons that aren’t important so I don’t care yet) and was adopted by a nice noble family. They loved him and cherished him. Gave him an education and taught him music. He hated it, because he wanted to have a cruel, twisted life so that he could use that hatred to be edgy and drow-like. Instead, he had a cushy lifestyle he was too embarrassed to talk about. Which is a fun secret to keep from the rest of the party!
And you’re done! …ish. It’s important to note here that none of this process actually nails down anything concrete. It can, but really the point is to figure out all of the important basics for your character and then decide what you want later. Our friend that murders birds still doesn’t have a class, for example. Our mind controlling-goliath has a few different options regarding class. Our edgy rogue can still be any race, and there’s lots of room for growth and exploration regarding their backstory.
That’s pretty much it. Getting interested in your character is really just a matter of brainstorming the right questions and coming up with answers that add depth and dimension to your character. The specifics can always be more refined later.