i’ve rolled up many, many more D&D and other RPG characters than i’ve ever used, as either a DM or player. Whether inspired by films, like Navarre from the classic “Ladyhawke” with his double crossbow, who translated into a 1st edition AD&D ranger…
…or knights both shining and fallen, a la “Excalibur,” to video games, like the “Final Fantasy” style lancer/dragoon that’s informed several character across multiple editions (personal favorite: 3.5 edition 9th level fighter).
The current game i’m DMing evolved from a one-shot session to a maybe-we’ll-try-to-get-together-again group, to an ongoing quest, to what is now a sandbox game set amidst the stars and crystal spheres of a Spelljammer universe. To this end, i’m letting the players basically tell me what they’d like their characters to do, and sprinkling in people, places, things, events and scenarios for them to interact with (or not).
The running spreadsheet i created already has hundreds of entries. It’s my hope that, years from now, the players will have encountered quite a few of them, but with many more still in reserve – the list is ever-growing! For the NPCs on the list, the notes i’ve made include details to remind me what my initial thoughts were about the character. Things like their motivation, fears, background, or visual or audio clues to give them a distinct flavor. (i come up with a lot of voices while driving.)
There’s as many ways to come up with interesting characters as there are playstyles for TTRPGs, from inspiration through other forms of media to a couple of details to help bring your characters to life.
The 5th edition Player’s Handbook even has built-in mechanics to help players turn a collection of numbers, stats and abilities into concrete concepts through the background features. Examples of characteristics like personality traits, bonds, ideals and flaws provide a guide for players to fall back on in roleplaying their character. For example, one of the suggested flaws for a criminal is “when faced with a choice between money and my friends, I usually choose the money.” A player can get a lot of mileage out of something like that. The rest of the party might be put off by such a flaw. Over time, they might come to accept that their companion has a compulsion to get that loot above all else. And it can provide drama, too. When dire situation arises later in the party’s adventuring career, perhaps the criminal PC overcomes his flaw, and chooses his friends over a pile of gold.
An additional mechanical benefit to characteristics is the inspiration option in 5E D&D. A DM can award inspiration whenever a PCs acts in accord with their characteristics, whether that is exemplifying their personality traits, giving in to a flaw or sticking to a bond at great risk. Inspiration allows a player to gain advantage on an attack roll, saving throw or ability check at the time of their choosing. This is a great incentive for roleplaying a character.
The PHB backgrounds also include special features unique to each one. The aforementioned criminal’s feature is a contact the PC has, someone connected to the world of shady dealings that they can rely on and trust (for the most part). These are great details for DMs as well. One of my players has the hermit background, and mentioned that he thought his discovery feature could be related to cosmic enlightenment somehow. Boy, was he surprised to find himself on a spacefaring ship later on – especially after he was the only party member who failed a series of saving throws and hence received a vision of the larger universe.
A terrific DM tip from Wil Wheaton’s excellent Titansgrave series from Geek & Sundry is to encourage players to come up with secrets that their characters keep from the other players. These can be a secret about their own character that they don’t want anyone else to know, or a secret that they know about another character.
“It changes the way that they think, it brings depth and complexity to their characters and it lets me serve the story in ways that will be appealing to them,” Wheaton says in the Chapter 0 introduction to Titansgrave.
As the webseries progressed, all of the different secrets, quirks and details of the characters’ backstories were woven into the narrative in dramatic ways. It is a fantastic example of how several different elements of RPGs that both players and DMs bring to the table before, during and after actual play, combine to tell their particular story.
Whether your group uses the backgrounds and traits in the PHB to flesh out their characters, coming up with a backstory is a longtime tradition in TTRPGs. Setting aside the mechanical options, backstories are a way for players to integrate their characters into the world using their imagination. The elements of a backstory can absolutely be informed by the mechanics like backgrounds, race, class and even ability scores.
A good backstory weaves those elements into a tale of what happened to the character up to the time when the table gaming sessions begin. Working with your DM is extremely useful, so they can help steer your ideas in ways that fit into the world where your adventures will take place. For example, the 3.5 “dragoon” fighter was for a campaign based around the dominance of chromatic dragons in the world, and the party were part of a rebellion against them. My character was an air genasi from a secluded mountaintop village (inspired by Machu Picchu) dedicated to Bahamut, that was decimated by a dragon attack. The lone survivor, he discovered the village temple’s hidden sepulchre that held the weapons and armor of an ancient champion that were designed to aid in battle against evil dragons. (Since we were starting at 9th level, it was really awesome to basically use the starting gold to choose completely customized equipment including magic items.)
Here’s a list of some things to keep in mind when coming up with characters and their backstories:
- Where are they from? This could be a specific city or region in your campaign world, or something vague like a farming village, port town, capital city or mining outpost. Knowing where your character is from gives you an idea of their outlook in the wider world. If their home is remote, perhaps they’ve never seen other sentient races or experienced metropolitan life. If they’re from the capital of the kingdom, maybe they consider rural folk to be simpletons. Miners will place high value on hard work, and so on.
- What are their desires? Power, money, prestige, knowledge – these are only a few of the things a character might long for. Revenge and love are powerful desires as well. Clerics might desire to spread their faith. One of my players is a pseudo-cleric who recognizes all the gods, and carries a large key ring with holy symbols of all of them. His goals include finding lost relics of divine origin.
- What sort of disposition do they have? Characters can be quick to anger, or reluctant to get into a fight. They could be cheerful in the face of danger, mistrustful of authority or prone to get lost in thought.
- What do they look like? There are general parameters for all of the player racial choices for things like height and weight. Maybe your character’s hair turned white from a terrifying experience as a child, or they’re missing a finger from a deal gone bad. They could have a scar or tattoo, or always wear a distinctive hat. They might keep the hood of their cloak up at all times, wary of showing their face in public.
- What’s the character’s outlook? A character can assume everyone is trustworthy, or give everyone the benefit of the doubt. They might be an opportunist, or trust in the gods to keep them safe. Perhaps they’re positive all the time, or a perennial downer.
- What’s their motivation? Similar to desires, motivation drives the character to continue the life of an adventurer as opposed to settling down. What keeps them moving forward in a life fraught with danger? Fun, thrills, responsibilities – there are countless motivations for characters to become adventurers.
- What’s their family like? This doesn’t always have to be tragic – a fairly common PC backstory. A character’s family can be safe and happy back at home while they pursue a life of adventure. Siblings, parents, extended relatives and chosen families like close friends and community can all be a part of a character’s backstory. On the flip side, a family that was killed when the village was destroyed by monsters is perfectly okay, too. Perhaps the character’s parents split up for any number of reasons. A sibling might have left home on an adventure, and the PC is following their example.
- What does the character sound like? Not all players are comfortable speaking in character or coming up with a unique voice even if they do so, but they can certainly describe and keep in mind what their character sounds like. Their voice could be shrill, gravely, baritone, singsong, or have some sort of accent. Beyond the actual audio quality, they might speak very little, or too much.
- Do they have peculiar mannerisms? Maybe a character is twitchy, always fingering a concealed dagger. Spectacles could be sliding down their nose. A defensive person might always cross their arms or clench their fists. They could bite their fingernails a lot, fidget and tap their foot nervously. A character could mindlessly hum a tune whenever they’re concentrating on a task, or never look anyone directly in the eyes.
- Anything to refluff? Often overlooked, refluffing character abilities is a great way of customizing PCs. A warlock’s eldritch blast could take the form of a tentacle that whips out from a small rift-like portal. A monk’s darts can be ninja stars, or a fighter’s action surge can be an alchemical pill they pop to give them a surge of energy (keyed to work for only them, of course). A valor bard’s combat inspiration could be tactical shouting of commands. Check with your DM if you want to reimagine any of your character’s abilities,even if the mechanics stay the same.
- Does the character have any enemies or friends? Some of these are worked into background features, but it’s perfectly okay (and great DM fodder) to give your character people they’ve fun afoul of in the past, or formed friendships with.
- What’s their personal history? Characters might have had regular workaday jobs before embarking on a life of adventure. Class and backgrounds inform a lot of these details. But maybe they had a strange encounter or experience as a child, perhaps one that led them to pursue their profession and class.
- Does the character fit any sort of archetype? You might imagine your character a consummate schemer, a sophisticate or a bumpkin. They could be an innocent, an orphan, caregiver, explorer, rebel, lover, jester, sage or hero.
Here’s another list of some questions you can answer about your characters, from +1 Gaming (link for further description of questions):
- What emotion best describes your character?
- What emotion does your character evoke in others?
- What does your character need most?
- What is your character’s goal in life?
- How does your character believe this goal can be accomplished?
- Where did your character come from?
- When did you grow up?
- What values does your character hold?
- How does your character dress?
- What are your character’s means?
- What are your character’s personal tastes?
- What are your character’s opinions?
- What is your character’s comfort zone?
- Who has had the biggest impact on your character’s life?
- What are some of your character’s unexpected quirks?
- What kind of story does your character belong in?
- What role does your character fill?
- What should the other players know about your character?
- What is your play style?
- How do you want your character to die?
There’s even online resources like this Random Background Generator!
As you can guess, there’s a million ways to flesh out your RPG characters. No matter what your group’s playstyle, over time it’s inevitable that your character will grow and evolve, encountering opportunities that challenge and inspire both them and the players. The best sorts of characters are those who, in time, tell their players how they respond and interact with the world. When starting a new character, thinking about some of these things can guide you on that journey of discovery.
In addition, great characters and backstories are a fantastic aid to DMs, giving them insight into the sorts of experiences players and their characters hope to have. Imagine the satisfaction when a character whose motivation is seeking revenge for a terrible wrong done to their family actually succeeds in that personal goal.