Thursday, August 30, 2018

How do you go about creating a character for play?

Nefereanu, my Osiriani oread brawler/living monolith (and his embiggened form)
I recently came across an old thread on the Paizo Messageboards titled "How do you go about creating a character for play?" The original poster wanted to know whether other players started with a optimized build, a purely character-driven concept, random rolls, GM assignment, or some other method. My own answer would have to be that I don't have a single method; I have created player characters using a wide variety of starting points. That's hardly a satisfying answer by itself, so I'll give several examples.

First, I should mention that during my 30+ years as a RPG player, I have GMed about as much as I've played as a PC, and that influences my choices as well. I get frequent opportunities to try out new character ideas as NPCs in games that I run, and I enjoy a wide diversity of character types, so I'm pretty flexible about what niche my PC will fill in a party. If some of the other players have strong preferences about what they want to play, I'm usually willing to take one of the unfilled roles as my starting point.

That goes double if I'm joining an established group with a campaign already in progress. I will almost always feel out what the party most wants or needs and try to oblige, while insuring my own fun:
  • When I joined a fantasy GURPS campaign many years ago, my first chat with the GM revealed that current party was rather light on combat skills, so I chose to build a weapons master. (This choice also allowed me to focus on learning the intricacies of the combat system without having to learn the magic rules at the same time.) Most of Sura's character points went towards making her a very effective warrior, but then I looked for ways to keep her interesting to play when she wasn't fighting. Shopping for disadvantages helped here: Secret intrigued me (I decided that she pretended to be a man in order to learn swordsmanship), as did Minority (she was a Muslim in a Christian-dominated region). As the game went on, Sura's faith and her sense of honor defined the character at least as much as her battle prowess.
  • Some years later, when I was recruited into a Buffy RPG game, the group had just lost two players who had played witches. I was willing to take over the spellcaster role, but I needed a hook that would get me invested in the character. I am a longtime Lovecraft fan, and the campaign was set in a fictional New England town, so I proposed a character based on the Deep One hybrids of Innsmouth. The GM turned out to be a Cthulhu Mythos junkie as well, so gleefully worked a "Triton" race into her game. Most of Baz's personality and interests were an exaggerated version of my own--if I had been born a half-demon sorcerer--which made him easy and fun to play.
These days, most of my new PCs are created for Pathfinder Society. Unlike most of my other RPG experiences, participating in organized play means that you rarely play the same character in the same party from session to session. There are special rules for home games and/or campaign games if you want that kind of continuity, but it's not the default assumption. Instead, there's a certain amount of randomness about party composition, though players who (like me) have several established characters can mitigate that somewhat by substituting in a different PC before the mission starts if the table desperately needs a certain role filled. But in general, this "luck of the draw" element is embraced; players are encouraged to play the character that they want to play for that event, rather than settling for a second or third choice simply because the party is full of, say, strikers instead of healers or diplomats. 

Ansari Zolta, human rogue
When I first started PFS, I played pregenerated characters for my first several scenarios before committing to building my own character. I started with the iconic rogue, because that class can contribute in almost all types of encounters, and because the table lacked one. That made me decide to build a rogue as my "dash one" character. Ansari was a fairly typical thief-style rogue, good at sneaking around, noticing things, and disarming traps. However, I made sure to include a few hooks to make him more interesting to play: He was Keleshite, but was a devotee of Cayden, the god of drink, because he had been apprenticed to a brewer. His master had been a dwarf, so he knew the language and enjoyed being around others of that race. As play continued, Ansari remained faithful to Cayden--even to the point of dipping a single level of cleric--and he was surprisingly honest and forthright for a thief, except when the mission demanded subterfuge. All of which was development from my very sketchy notes about his background at 1st level.

Rauadabjorn Kjallaksson,
dwarf stonelord paladin
My second character was a paladin, because I had also tried out that iconic for a couple scenarios. This time, however, my character was entirely built around a racial archetype, and I never really worked out much background apart from the minimum implied by his stat block. Bjorn was actually based on a fighter/paladin/stalwart defender that I created for a 20th-level one-shot that a friend of mine has yet to run. I had deliberately built the "dwarfiest dwarf that ever dwarfed" (in that friend's words), but when I decided to recycle the name and core concept for PFS, I discovered that a single-classed stonelord paladin was actually a better fit, especially at lower levels. (The archetype gains stalwart defender abilities, without multiclassing.) The details of his personality and motivations have arisen almost entirely out of play: He's a fairly straightforward crusader hero, but his open mind and genuine concern for the welfare of the people he's protecting have been known to put him at odds with more jaded soldiers.

Some of my other PFS characters have started out as finding an interesting combination of classes and abilities, then draping roleplaying hooks over that frame:
  • Neferanu came out of a desire to try out the Living Monolith prestige class when I acquired People of the Sand. I decided to aim for the more martial option, rather than a spellcaster, and settled on brawler because I hadn't played a hybrid class before and that class seemed the easiest of the lot (only four pages of text for the entire class!). The prestige class's requirements dictated most of his early feat and skill selections in order to qualify as early as possible, but I did find room for a few custom touches. To play up the stony theme from the beginning, I made him an oread, and chose a background trait that gave him Bluff as a class skill. (Sadly, I learned that the mask of stony demeanor was errataed well out of his price range, but I still gave him Combat Expertise so that he would have access to Improved Feint.)
  • Mariko Snowtop,
    undine white-haired witch
  • Similarly, I picked the White-Haired Witch archetype for my first character of that class because it sounded weird and intriguing. I chose a king crab for Mariko's familiar because it gave a bonus to grapple checks, which would help with her hair attacks. That choice suggested an aquatic origin, so I made her an undine. At this point in my PFS experience, I had characters from about half of the different Pathfinder Society factions, and I've tried to avoid duplicating any for as long as I could. I had had no interest in the Exchange before then, but decided to give it a try, and gave her the Diplomacy and Profession (merchant) skills to support that career path. That choice has worked out quite well for her, and she's very close to becoming my first PFS character to unlock the final reward (7+ goals) on a faction card.
My wife Erika joined PFS later than I did, but is now just as active in it as I am (and has actually GMed more PFS scenarios than I have). We play together often enough that we eventually decided to add some pairs of PCs to our stables who were designed to work as a team.
  • Our first attempt was designed to eventually make use of teamwork feats, which are difficult to use unless you can regularly play with a character who has the same feats, or have a class feature that gets around the normal restrictions on using them. I chose to go with an inquisitor, while Erika built a rogue. The fun (and somewhat silly) part came when we decided that the Greenbottles were half-siblings--a half-elf and a half-orc--who were raised by halflings. 
  • One of the GM boons that we've both earned allows us to create an aasimar or tiefling character, which are normally prohibited in PFS. Even before we received this boon, we had the idea of creating a pair of lawful neutral Chelaxian Asmodeus worshipers, each with Profession (barrister). This subskill shows up in a surprising number of PFS scenarios, and is a perfect day job skill for bureaucratic devil cultists. Erika settled on a cleric early on, though was undecided about race until recently (she chose aasimar, to mess with people's expectations). Before the race boon, I was considering an unchained summoner with a devil eidolon, but I've since settled on a tiefling investigator instead. I've also changed his Profession skill to scribe, though he'll likely pick up a rank in barrister within a level or two so that he can aid the cleric. We originally envisioned them as members of the Dark Archive, but we already had active characters in that faction. On the other hand, our original Grand Lodge PCs will reach Seeker level soon, so we made our Asmodeans members of that faction, with the idea that they promote inter-faction cooperation. (We've yet to play these characters, but hope to debut them soon, now that we've finished earning the necessary race boons.)
Nar-Lok, half-orc
heavens shaman
And then, sometimes, I just revel in being weird. I'm not sure anymore exactly how I came up with the idea for Nar-Lok, my half-orc heavens shaman. He is a combination of interesting mechanical combinations as well as some over-the-top personality elements. I gave him the sacred tattoo alternate racial trait, which gives a luck bonus to saves, and the Fate's Favored background trait, which increases any luck bonus he receives. This gives him very good saves for his level, which is critical in PFS--especially once I decided that he was Dark Archive, and thus would be making ill-advised experiments on a regular basis. His interest in the stars and weird magic suggested a day job as a fortune-teller, and to advertise this, he wears clothing covered in stars and other astrological symbols, and has a number of tattoos in the same theme. Despite his brazenly bizarre appearance, he's quite diplomatic, and with aid from his talking thrush familiar, regularly serves as the party's "face." (On the other hand, he will only get creepier as he advances and gains new hexes and spirit magic. He has also earned a very exotic improved familiar as soon as he's high enough level to claim it.)

I'd love to hear in the comments how you lovely readers come up with your own character ideas!

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