Behind the Screen – Chapter 1

I’ve spent many years playing tabletop role playing games, both as a player and as a Game Master (yes, the capitals are very much required, as any GM will attest). I’ve played through many different systems and spent time with a large range of people. As culture changes, these normally ‘nerdy’ activities are becoming more popular, and so there are new players who might benefit from the words  of a person who has spent most of their life immersed in these games. This is what I aim to do with my Behind the Screen series. I am aiming for a weekly instalment.

So let’s get started!

Recently, I’ve had to make a few new characters for a few games I am playing in, and so I’ve been thinking about the process of character creation and how I approach that. Everyone has their own personal system for character creation, but I will share mine.

First of all, for any player, one must be aware of the rules of character creation for whatever system will be utilised. One of the first things I do when I start reading a new system is to roughly build a new character; it helps me understand what all the various parts of the system are and why they are needed. This is not how I create a character normally, this is only part of the learning process I use to help me understand a new system. I need to know the limitations a system will have before I start my proper creation process so I know what I can and cannot do when it comes to bringing the character to life. It is a very important step for me.


I’ll give an example of the difference knowledge of the rules of the game can make, at least for me, when creating a character. I play in a semi-regular Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game. I have almost no idea about the rules, I’ve not read them and I don’t plan to either (I am intentionally not learning that system to see how easy it is to play a given game without knowing the rules, and to test the GM’s ability to work out what he needs to do to make possible the outrageous things I want my character to do, things which I would have dismissed as impossible in a game I do know the rules of). I came up with my character idea and let another person in the group do all the rules legwork. What came out the other end mostly fit what I had in mind, but not quite. So now, I have a bit of trouble thinking what my character would do in a given situation because the idea in my head doesn’t match the skills on the sheet, so what I want to do sometimes just doesn’t work. In comparison to that, I recently created a character for an up-coming World of Darkness game. While it is new WoD, and I know old WoD, the two systems are similar enough that I could create my character knowing the limitations of the system and what I needed to take to get the job done. I sat down with the Vampire and Core books and got to work. I had an initial idea and as I applied the rules to that idea, it morphed and transformed into a wholly satisfying character that I will have great fun playing. Granted, I haven’t used the character yet, but I just know that it will work as I had planned.

Take into account that one does not need to know the rulebook inside out and back to front to create a character, just enough to understand what the character is capable of in a given world. It is pointless coming up with an awesome concept of a Luchadore with chainsaws for hands that rides a steam locomotive monster truck when the world is a fantasy setting that employs magic rather than technology.

create2Once enough of the rules are known, then I go into concept creation. To me, this is an integral part; without it the rest would be just a bunch of numbers on a page.  This is where I create the soul of the character. People with a good imagination should have little trouble with this part. Take the setting, rules and your own capabilities into account when creating the persona of a character. A good point to start is to pick a well known character from something else (books, movie, tv series) and change them up some to suit yourself. I’ll put in here that there is nothing wrong at all about basing your character off something else. It is done in every form of media and by everyone, all the time. I think it would be very hard to think of something completely original that couldn’t be linked back to something else that already exists. I’ll refer back to the WoD character I created. I started with the idea of Czernobog, a character from the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Czernobog is largely based on Chernobog, a Slavic God of Darkness. Now of course I couldn’t have a literal God as a character in WoD, the setting did not support it (WoD is not Rifts after all), so I needed to expand on the character idea to make it fit the system. At first I thought it could be the earthly reincarnation of Czernobog, but that didn’t fit either, so I moved on to it being just a basic person who believes he is Czernobog. A little more fleshing out made him Yakovlev Dieb, a Ukranian immigrant who went irrevocably insane when he was turned into a Vampire, and now believes himself to be the earthly incarnation of Czernobog, brought to life to remind the world of the terror the night holds. You can see how an idea can morph and change depending on what the game allows. One must also take into account personal skill when it comes to character creation. If you are a quiet person who prefers to listen rather than talk, then creating a loud face-type character who will rule most of the conversations may not be the best character for you. Creating a character that you have the ability to accurately portray will make a game so much more enjoyable for yourself and the rest of the party. I’ll get more into that side of it in a later chapter, I think.

You now have your character idea, whether it be something completely original, or based on a character from something else. Now you need to add your own twists to the character to make it interesting, and a lot of times, this comes in the form of something detrimental. Having a Superman-esque character with no flaws is boring. Using flaws as spice, something interesting you can role play throughout the game, results in a character with personality, not just something pushed out of a press mould and shoved into play. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Depending on the system, it might be through the rules or just through role playing that twists become apparent.

paladin2You can have Bob, fighter № 3,724. Nothing special. Change his name to G’hillidar the Foul and role play him as having never washed and brushing his teeth with parmesan cheese and now you have a bit of flavour in there. Sure, the GM might instil a negative when trying to charm someone, but there might be a bonus when trying to interrogate or intimidate someone. And then you can get more creative by saying the smell is almost a living entity in it’s own right, going into rooms before G’hillidar does and killing all the flowers and hiding the remote down the back of the couch.

The rules creation part of the character reflects the ideas of the character. I try to make the rules fit the idea I have. My WoD character has high strength combat capabilities because of what he is, and very low pretty much anything else. I found it hard to use up the last few points because, of the skills that were remaining, nothing really fit. Another character I made for a system called Unhallowed Metropolis had all his flaws built into the rules, because that is what the system allows for, though I had to modify a few rules (with the GMs permission) to make the fit a little better. And if you do have a very outlandish character concept, it is a wise thing to talk it over with your GM. Generally, from my experience, a GM will allow a bunch of stuff as long as it doesn’t over- or under-power a character or in some way break their game, and as long as it fits the setting and style. Often something strange and unusual will add more complex layers to the game and make it more fun. I have a tendency to make very out of the box characters, to make me improve my skills as a player and to make the GM think in different ways. Small example of this, I made a non-combat bard playing in a completely combat based game. The tactics I used were well within the rules, but the GM (at first) didn’t know how to apply them to the game because he was too used to combat solving all situations. He got over it, learnt what to do and carried on.

After the rules have been applied, I finish up with minor tweaks to do with things like equipment and that’s about it really.


I’ll give a basic run through below about my process, without all the waffling on.

  1. Understand the rules of the system and know them enough to be aware of the limitations.
  2. Create your base concept of the character. Invent their general look and personality. Base this off some exterior character or idea if you wish.
  3. Apply that concept to the world and rules, modifying and adapting to suit. This may mean major changes or sometimes completely reinventing your initial idea. Remember that flaws can make great modifiers to a character, but they need not be huge flaws; small ones will suffice.
  4. Build the character using the rules and apply those rules to the concept, making them fit. Building a flat character and trying to apply a personality to those numbers can result in a disjointed character who will not function as you intend.
  5. Add the finishing touches and polish up to a brilliant sheen.

So there it is. Longer than I thought it would be.

If you want any more advice on any of the things I write about in this series, don’t hesitate to leave a comment. There are several veteran role players here at ATGN who will offer what help they can. Also if you have any ideas about what else you would like to see in this series, make sure to let me know. I have several ideas lined up for future chapters, but I can’t think of everything.

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