Ravyn Freewrites: Rage Against the Character Sheet

It’s one of those bizarre contradictions that I’ve never entirely made sense of: why do I hate character generation so much, when I run a game with such a ridiculously large NPC cast that I could probably do two or three alphabets and only repeat myself on a letter or two where desperate? Given how often I find myself needing to chargen—or how many games I’ve missed out on because of my difficulties with it—I know I’m going to need to find out.

I know a lot of the trouble comes from how important it is for me to know my characters, or at least have room to know them. The character generation I do for my NPCs is loose, on the fly, often subject to last-minute change until there’s something I’ve committed to onstage. So I might bring Olathe in, but not know why she’s so dour until weeks later; I might introduce Solada as a friend of any of a number of other characters, but have no idea what martial art she practices or what her other skills might be. Some of my PCs have been like that, on occasion; there have been things I found out on the fly over the first half-dozen or so sessions. But it’s near-impossible to get away with hopping into a game with a character who isn’t fully built; this in fact may be one of the reasons why I’ve been avoiding D&D in all but professional situations, that I got so sick of trying to figure out the alignment of a character whose head I hadn’t gotten to occupy.

Then there’s the issue of when I do know them already, and that in itself is the problem. It’s rare that I manage to build a character who can actually do what I imagine her doing when I’m coming up with the concept; of the ones I’ve designed in the past few years, my FATE re-adaptation of older character Lycoris and my Irish bibliomancer Aisling are the closest I’ve come, and in Aisling’s case I still didn’t have a complete picture. “I’ll need this,” I mutter as I rummage through my point-buys on characters for whom I have a full image, “and a little of this, and some of that, and….” Next thing I know, I’m trying to squeeze things in like a college student figuring out storage, and there just isn’t room for everything I think I need.

There’s prompts. Most of the time, when someone’s talked me into learning a new system or I’m still on my second or third game in one I’m quasi-familiar with, I’ve managed by virtue of finding some mechanic I found nifty, or some piece of setting detail I couldn’t help but want to play with—former PC Tehane, for instance, was a case of my deciding I really wanted to toy with magic-crafting of all sorts. Or something to do with an aspect of the world and the pictures I could get from it, as with both versions of later character Najam. Other times, it’s been “What the GM needs right now”; I started by temporarily helping out when my cousin Matt was teaching his brothers a new system I’d recently been exposed to, used “okay, you need a plot device?” as a way to get my concepts for the next two or three games with another group… and then discovered a little while later that if I was in a system that I’d already played out, with a GM that didn’t need my help, there went the neighborhood. I’ve been known to use other people’s characters as something of a template, filling the gaps they leave—but I come to hate doing that because they end up covering the things that I realize would work with what I’ve gotten from the idea, or start resenting having the last pick of everything because waiting for the other concepts means being beaten to the other builds.

“It’s always that time when they’re developing that’s the worst,” I told a friend of mine today. “Sometimes I even come to hate them.” They won’t give me their secrets. They aren’t good enough. I’ve had characters I completely scrapped because they wouldn’t stretch, wouldn’t squash, wouldn’t give me the time of day in time—or ones I stuck to despite my dislike of them simply because I knew that I didn’t have a plan B.

But at least in knowing the problem, I can figure out how to talk myself through the solution. This is me, this is chargen, this is why we don’t get along—now, I just need to figure out what I’m going to do about it.


  1. Skip character generation, focus on character description, and just create stats on the fly?

  2. Seth says:

    Chargen is my favorite part of the game!

    We actually seem to approach it similarly, too. I’m definitely spurred by prompts and DM-service at times. I also have an affection for character trickery, though; since my games are all online, I like to build a character to appear as one race/class/etc but is mechanically something else. I’ve played Artificers who read like Barbarians, Psions who think they’re wizards, and still stranger things.

    Another thing that can give me some character creation legs is to just write the character first, then build the mechanics (through reflavoring powers, hybridizing or altering classes, and so forth) to suit it. With enough of a word-coating, the mechanics will just flow out of a fully-realized image of the character himself.

    From how you describe your process and the expectations you have of your characters, it seems like perhaps you could make it a stone policy to always start by writing up the character’s personality, backstory, perhaps some in-character stuff first…so that by the time you start worrying about builds and so forth, you’ve already formed that attachment and delved into those secrets.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Jaap: Is a thought. That’s certainly how I handle my NPCs. Not sure how well it would work in a game setting, though, without getting a little broken in places; I tend to stretch my characters to the limits of what they can do. Maybe with a more experienced GM.

    Seth: Sweet! One of my favorites worked the same way–back in a D&D 3.5 game I was in, my second character was an unholy mix of Beguiler, Mountebank, a level-dip in Fighter, and a couple other influences, given glamered armor and shield, a warmace equivalent to the Sword of Subtlety, and introduced impersonating a general (who himself immediately turned traitor, or at least appeared to) in an enemy kingdom’s army. I don’t think anyone except the player who helped me build her quite realized what she was until she revealed herself, and that was in a live game.

    The pre-creating them thing, though–that’s one of the biggest problems I had. The most comfortable character I ever played was tossed together on site for an explicitly one-shot game, one I hadn’t even realized we were going to be playing when I showed up that day. The ones I had time to get into the heads of first, the act of putting numbers to paper tended to nearly destroy, since they never really lived up to expectations. There needs to be a strong idea, else they don’t come naturally, but not too strong, else it’s like my creative writing professor’s quote about basing characters on people: “But if you try to adhere to a living person, you will fail, because that person must be killed”; there will be parts that feel vital, but that just won’t fit under the chargen rules, and then they will die, and someone similar replace them.

  4. Seth says:

    I wonder if we give different levels of credence to the stuff on the sheet; I suppose I don’t know what system/edition you’re even making your stomping ground, though I’ve assumed this is primarily a DnD issue (Fate being Fate, and all).

    When numbers and feats go down on the page for me, they’re usually just a light mechanical skeleton I hang whatever I was going to play anyway on top of. I might stat the same character three or four different ways to see which one has a better feel, for instance, but he’ll still be the same quiet, contemplative half-orc with an untapped well of powerful charisma that drives his companions to be better than they are and shake off even the most grievous wounds. I railed against the 4e hybrid class system for the longest time (because I felt that they’d finally “fixed” multiclassing already) until I set out to make one of the characters I talked about in my Jocularity post. When I decided I wanted to essentially model a mid-level NPC boss as a character, though, hybridization allowed me to get the right mix of domineering (psychic damage warlock attacks, mostly) and aggressive (a number of sorcerer attacks all tied to his fiery breath). I used the same approach to build a cockney Karrnathi orphan thief out of rogue and monk parts.

    Back in 3e, I build chars that sound a lot like your Beguilerbankter; picking up a level in fighter to get the weapons I wanted to wield, dancing over to monk to boost my unarmored ac, maybe a little rogue for the skill points.

    The next time you’re making a character, as an experiment, maybe write out all the things you want that vision in your head to do and break down their fundamental qualities, then see where you can chop those into the different things on the sheet. I’ve certainly made folks who couldn’t, at level one, accomplish all of the impressive magical flammery I wanted them to; but passing off some of that as flavor for skill rolls, other bits as the properties of Items I was already carrying, and so forth usually got me pretty close.

    It’s worth noting, too, that I’ve been blessed by awesome agreeable DMs. In the Red Hand game, the DM has let my character summon no less than 3 comparatively powerful exarchs (going all the way back to level 1 or so) because it made dramatic sense within the context of the story; my wizard is essentially making the existence of this multiracial horde allied under Tiamat into a question of poaching souls and derelict priesthoods, with stakes high enough that it doesn’t feel unreasonable for him to occasionally put a soul directly in the hands of Hruggek.. We’ve been able to run with this despite my never actually taking any sort of planar rituals (or rituals, for that matter) because it tells a good story and cements my character’s history of paying any price to see the lands under his charge saved.

  5. Ravyn says:

    Actually, I haven’t really played D&D seriously in years; my primary system is Exalted 1E, with occasional wanderings into other systems when I need a break and one or more of my usual players is having system shiny-shock. I suppose it might have to do with the fact that it’s a bit of a bear to figure out what the ratings translate to, and a lot of the time chargen turns into “okay, so the concept requires me to qualify for this, and for that, and the standard minima for this particular group means I need to do this here, here and here… all right, and I know it’s going to be combat heavy (….again….) so I need this for defense, and this for offense, because otherwise they’re going to balance for the combat monkey…. CRUD I have no Awareness, now what?”

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