The GM's Corner: RPG Player Character Creation

You can't go wrong with a good Pen and Paper RPG, when done right they provide great stories, excellent atmosphere, and what out transatlantic cousins call sheer bloody beer and pretzel fun. Or something like that. And of course there can be great characters. Just as fiction lives and dies by conflict, good RPGs depend on good characters - and good character interaction, obviously that's all the game really is.

Obligatory D20 photo
Now some characters are going to be too mismatched to the point that it's really difficult to get any interaction out of them, or you have one character with a trait that makes him/her/them unwilling to do much communicating at first - that's fine in a games with perhaps around 5 players, but with 2 or 3 that can really grind the game to a halt. Or I've sat there wondering why the hell these characters are co-operating at all beyond the necessity to do so.

When I've been in that situation as a GM I end up using my pre-written material more quickly as the players aren't filling the time with their own conversation or ideas. That could be down to bad GMing (and probably is), but it can also be down to newer or more reserved players not quite being ready to jump in, but that's fine and kind of the point I'll eventually get on to, any minute now.

Good character creation, and a set of characters that go well together mean that all the players will be encouraged to participate as much as they feel comfortable, and the GM shouldn't have to resort to their bag a tricks - a GM should really have to do very little, the players drive the game (shh don't tell them).

Many systems have dice generated or player selected "traits" which can be a great starting point for backgrounds

So what are the 3 key options (as I see it) for character creation, and how can you get the best of the above:-

Option 1: Player freely creates character
The character is completely free to go away and come up with whatever character they like, hopefully (vaguely) relevant to the setting. The risk with this is that the characters might not really work well together, or it's difficult to come up with a plausible reason why any of them would be working together. The more players you have, the easier it can be to get away with this - but with a small handful of players it has the potential to not work too well, particularly if the players are new or have not gamed with the group or GM before and aren't quite sure of what's expected.

Pros: The players have full investment in the character and are are likely to get more involved with the gaming

Cons: Characters can be completely mismatched to each other and the plot/scenario (or make it difficult to write a scenario around them).

+ + +

Option 2: GM creates character
Going in the opposite direction of the above, the GM creates a handful of player character sheets, puts them in the middle of the table (with any secret backstory hidden with post-its or similar) and let's the players pick which one they want - or if you're really mean you just choose their character for them - although if you know the players well you can probably come up with character's similar to those they might create or at least enjoy playing anyway. Alternatively, you could always dice roll for it, good for mixing things up a bit. This can be ideal for a quick play, one shot weekend's gaming.

Pros: Ensures that characters are likely to work well, right levels of conflict but not completely implausible to have them co-operating etc.

Cons: The players may not be as interested in the character, have no investment and may not enjoy the game as much.

+ + +

Option 3: Player creates character based on GM guidelines
A compromise between option 1 and option 2. My approach for most games/campaigns now is to give the players a brief. To use a Western game as an example "You are a member of the Pinkerton's, You are being sent to investigate an incident in Tuscon, Arizona, and will be told more on arrival (but don't worry about how you get there). Write a description of you character and their background in no more than 200 words" 

This is a very lazy way of giving a reason for players to vaguely co-operate, even if they disagree with each other (it's often better if they do), it means they can be working together without having met before and the word limit means they can't get carried away and write too much of their background and negate story elements you had planned.

I might also give them specific elements to include in their background, but it depends.

Rule 3: Don't take it too seriously. An excuse to post some Patton Oswalt/Reno 911

How much freedom do you give the players when creating their characters? Well it depends on what kind of adventure/game that you're running, how many players there are and whether they're new to RPGing. Ultimately it's up to your discretion as GM to work out what lets the players get the most out of the game, but doesn't make unnecessary work from yourself or take away from your enjoyment either - it might sound like a selfish point but I think it's one easily forgotten, the GM is supposed to be having as much fun as the players.

I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this one.

The next GM's Corner will look at character creation tips from the player's perspective (thanks to Ed of the Palladian Guard blog for the suggestion).


  1. Hey there, great article and one that hits at a pretty good time. My group of players are in the process of creating characters for our first dive into Pathfinder. We're 3.5 veterans already, but we finally decided to make the switch.

    I'm the DM and we use a custom setting that I designed (new map, new gods, some new races) with very little aside from the standard races held over from the standard.

    Our group runs with option 3 from your listing (roughly). I can say that we have more frequently run into the group-based-issues than the character investment ones, but it usually takes a bit for the players to get warmed up to their own characters, let alone the others.

    The biggest problem I usually run into with character creation is the difference in what players are looking for in the game. I've got one power-gamer, one beer-and-pretzels gamer, and two that are somewhere in between. That usually leads to more issues than anything as one player doesn't take the game very seriously and the others do (for the most part).

    Needless to say, my group requires a pretty big bag of tricks to keep heading anywhere at all. x.x

    1. Thanks very much, and thanks for commenting. Haha that does sound like a group that could take a lot of work, I'm lucky in that really most of my players are pretty much like-minded in what they're expecting from the game - but that's a really good point, I guess you need to find a way to encourage the beer-and-pretzels gamer to take it a little more seriously and the power gamer to dial it down a notch. No easy task,,,

  2. Great thoughts - well phrased as ever.

    God, I miss D&D 3.5!

    (I also used to enjoy the Star Wars RPG...)

    1. Ah very kind sir. I've never actually played D&D, or Star Wars for the matter, both are on the list to get round to eventually...

  3. nice article
    as someone who is just taking part in their first pathfinder it was interesting to hear things from a GM perspective I started after the rest of the group based on option 3 as while the GM just let me do what I wanted I didn't want to ruin any story and asked where the party was and what was going on.

    in the end it was near a mountain and in a castle that they were attacking so I and the GM made up a idea that I was a prisoner from the mountains.

    the point i'm getting at is an important part is that any new members should work in a way that makes them able to explain why they are in the party.

    sorry bout the long post :)

    1. Thanks very much, - and thanks for commenting. No need to apologise about the long post :) I think your point is spot on, completely agree, and that's a pretty good way of working in a new character to an existing game - I like it.

  4. Didn't know you were a roleplayer too. (Though you costumed in WW1 French front-liner should have given a hint or three?)

    I prefer to force my players to have to "role-play" and not just glide about on some power-gamer stat-heavy character or create something that really throws a spanner in the works of my carefully planned adventure. To this end I pre-gen characters and let the players choose which they'd prefer.

    Personally I like to play a role. The idea for me is that these games are an exercise in playing as someone who is not at all like myself. I find that aspect of the game fun and it's also what I prefer to force my players to do also when I GM.

    Saying that, I haven't GM'd in 6 or 7 years... so whether this will work out in my upcoming campaign, I will find out.

    1. Haha I dabble, I've been RPGing almost as long as I've been wargaming - but much more sporadically. Ah well that s strictly historical re-enactment, not a hint of LARP in sight.

      Agree there, whilst I don't have to force anyone to role-play too much, I always reward it with XP points of some kind - so it's always very much encouraged. If I suspect I might have a group of power gamers or similar (e.g. a group I've not GM'd for before), then I would definitely go down the pre-generated character route - but might let them select from the pool of pre-gen characters.

      Definitely agree there, that's the fun of it for me, if I was going to be myself it would be a bit boring really. Ooh what's this upcoming campaign, you tease


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