Getting A Vision For Creating Your Character
  • Getting A Vision For Creating Your Character


    I am typically a game master when I game. It is the role that I enjoy the most, and I think that the world building part of the GM's "job" is a big part of what I enjoy. But I do sit on the opposite side of the GM's screen from time to time* and being a player. So, does "world building" apply to character creation?

    Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

    One thing when you're world building is that you're likely going to come up with a level of detail that you're never actually going to use. You have to prepare for the assumption that you aren't going to be able to prepare for everything. When you're a GM, you can prepare on the fly by using the actions of the players as a springboard when you have to take things into a direction that you weren't originally prepared to take. As a GM I like to prepare "set pieces" that I may, or may not use. These set pieces can be locations, or they can be the broad strokes for an NPC that might get called into play.

    Now, before I get too far into this, I should point that that this isn't the only way to make a character, and I don't think that what works for me is going to work for everyone. Or that it should work for everyone.

    Before I get into the nitty gritty of what I do, let me talk a little about my process. Mechanics come last when I'm making a character. I like to get an idea about who a character might be before I start to work out how a character works out mechanically. However, there has to be a difference between figuring out who a character is and overworking a character. It is a fine line to toe, because I prefer a character that emerges during play than one that has everything worked out about their past. When I am a GM I tell players that the idea behind a player character is to engage in the ongoing story of the campaign, rather than focusing on the details of what has happened before the campaign started. Having a backstory is important for a character, but it shouldn't be so spelled out that it limits what that character that can do going forward.

    When I start building a world for an ongoing campaign, or when I start building a character, I create a vision board. Sometimes this is a physical vision board (or even a scrapbook), and sometimes I use a service like Pinterest. Ultimately I end up using both in the same way, so the type that I use is dependent upon my end need. If the vision board is something that I will share with others, or others in the group will contribute to, then I will most likely use something sharable, like Pinterest.

    Now, guidelines are guidelines, and if you feel that you like any of these ideas and want to add them to your process, then I suggest using my procedures as a starting point to develop your own ideas.

    Right now, I am starting the process for making a character for a Call of Cthulhu game that will probably start in July with one of the groups of people that I game with. We're talking about setting the campaign in Berlin of the 1920s, so I started the process of making a character from that point. Outside of having seen Cabaret on stage about 20 years ago (and probably longer ago since I last watched the movie), I didn't really know as much about the place and time as I would have liked, so I started the process of doing some research. For this particular campaign, my research starting point was Christopher Isherwood's book 1930s novel based upon his time in Berlin called The Berlin Stories. If you haven't read it, it was the main influence upon the aforementioned Cabaret. If you aren't as interested in musicals, the book might be a better starting point.

    At the same time that I was starting all of this an artist friend on social media picked up a book on Weimar-era Germany by author and filmmaker Mel Gordon and was sharing some photos of the book. When I looked up that book, I found another book about a personality from the time and I decided to order them both. Warning before clicking those links, neither of these books are all that safe for work. The nice thing about Voluptuous Panic is that it is mostly a book of photos and illustrations, so it became the center of my vision board. Right now I have a bunch of Post-Its throughout the book, marking images that are important for me. I'd share a picture of the book, but if you clicked through the link above you would understand why Morrus wouldn't be thrilled with me putting it into the article.

    At this point, I am getting an idea of the tone of the time period. For me, in the process of creating a character, tone is more important than specific details, because ultimately the game will just be a fictional version of what happened in history anyway. This period was a time of great social and political upheaval, which lead to a great deal of cultural change. But, since this is going to be a Call of Cthulhu game, the Weimar period makes a great choice because it gives a lot of entry points for your occult baddies of choice.

    Now that I have the basics of the setting that are important to me clear in my head, I can start to figure out the background of my character. We just finished up another Call of Cthulhu story set in the Victorian era, and the GM suggested that we could connect our 1920s and Victorian characters in some manner. My Victorian era character was a woman alienist who was a cousin to the fictional character of Carnaki, The Ghost Finder. As often happens in Call of Cthulhu adventures, things for the characters didn't go as well as they thought that they might and the party nearly died. With that game done, I had my character "retire" to the Caribbean to study the anthropology of Voodoo societies and convalesce to recover from her injuries.

    I'm not 100% on the new character yet, but I am seeing her as a niece of my Victorian character, a native of Cuba. I'm guessing that my last character will end up in Havana at some point and start a family. The relevance of the arts (painters, photographers, filmmakers and dancers) exploded in the Weimar period because that often happens in times of staggering economic inflation. People look for cheap entertainment, and entertainment that will take their minds off of the world around them, and music and dance often fill that bill. Cuba is pretty well known for its dancers, so having a Cuban dancer relocate to Berlin to learn more about the (then) styles of modern dance wouldn't be a huge stretch.

    This is sort of the ultimate extension of a Call of Cthulhu dilettante character. How does a dancer fight Cthulhu? Very carefully. One of the things that I like best about Lovecraftian gaming is that it is just as important to have characters who know things as it is to have characters that fight things. We know that fighting the creatures of the Mythos typically ends poorly for characters (doing that in our game nearly got our characters killed). I see my next character as having learned from my previous one. One of the basic concepts of Lovecraftian fiction is that underneath what people believe to be true about occult happenings in the world is the actual truth of the Mythos. This means what my next character learns from my previous one (off camera) can still be relevant to the "truths" of the world of the game.

    The 1920s are pretty done to death in Call of Cthulhu, but taking a different perspective on them means that we can hopefully create a different sort of story than those adventures that have been used in this period previously. Whatever it is, we will end up having a good time.

    Now, after all of this my next step will be to mechanically build the character with the GM and the other players. And then we play!

    This is really just a quick overview of the processes that I use for character creation and world building in my games. Hopefully you'll see something that you haven't used before and you'll have a new tool in your toolbox for building things in your games.


    *I don't actually use a GM's screen at any time, and probably haven't in 30 years.
    Comments 17 Comments
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Alas, Mel Gordon died two months ago (and Adam Parfrey, the head of publisher Feral House, just died a week ago or so). I’d like to suggest another one of Gordon’s books, “Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant,” which could also be a great inspiration for CoC material, and probably somewhat more Morrus-friendly.

      Anyway, I agree that vision boards can be useful. I’ve used Pinterest for such, and have gotten a fair bit of mileage from some of the images and art.

      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post

      At the same time that I was starting all of this an artist friend on social media picked up a book on Weimar-era Germany by author and filmmaker Mel Gordon and was sharing some photos of the book. When I looked up that book, I found another book about a personality from the time and I decided to order them both. Warning before clicking those links, neither of these books are all that safe for work. The nice thing about Voluptuous Panic is that it is mostly a book of photos and illustrations, so it became the center of my vision board. Right now I have a bunch of Post-Its throughout the book, marking images that are important for me. I'd share a picture of the book, but if you clicked through the link above you would understand why Morrus wouldn't be thrilled with me putting it into the article.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      Alas, Mel Gordon died two months ago (and Adam Parfrey, the head of publisher Feral House, just died a week ago or so).
      That is a shame, I didn't know any of that. Parfey's Apocalypse Culture books have had a huge impact upon my game worlds since the 90s.
    1. William Mize's Avatar
      William Mize -
      Surprised you didn't mention Babylon Berlin, over on Netflix. It might also be useful in evoking or recalling a certain period in time. I know I'll be watching it, prior to moving us into the 20's!

      - Bill
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Ironically, two friends and I just did a podcast episode focusing on PC's and NPC's and we discussed our differing methods of character creation! (It can be found on soundcloud and iTunes under "The Grognards", it is episode #3) We discuss the backstory first vs. mechanics first techniques among other things.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Adam Parfrey passing is very sad, Apocalypse Culture is like a handbook for Delta Green.

      For Character building, I try to not go overboard, but to come up with something colorful, here is my last CoC investigator, Ilya Skrydlov, itinerant Russian Boyar:

      Investigator History
      Ilya, born in 1895, was raised in the fields and forests south of Gdov, summering on Lake Prepius, with some time spent at the ancestral estate at Tver. The son of Admiral Nikolai Skrydlov, and a long line of career naval officers in whose footsteps he was expected to follow; in truth, Ilya merely wanted to be a gentleman farmer. He always had more of a feeling for the peasant side, rather than the Boyar, this may have been a saving grace during the 1905 uprising, as his family's dacha was spared destruction, and was reinforced by service in the Great War. His family was a old branch of the Rurikid dynasty, more directly descendent of Vasily Tatishchev; however, more distantly of Alexander Nevsky, of which Ilya finds that to be boastful at best.

      Like his father before him, he attended the Sea Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg, it was there he graduated as an Ensign with duties on a minesweeper out of Reval. There also where he was introduced to his distant cousin of Baltic German Noble origin, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, by another cousin, Count Hermann von Keyserling. There it was he initiated into the knowledge of the occult, by his cousins. Soon enough at the tender age of 19, the Great war began, he was eventually attached as liaison to the RNAS Armoured Car Section operating in Russia, from who he sharpened his English. Later, commanding a Mgebrov-Renault armored car squadron, he was wounded in 1916. Recovering, he was shifted to the Caucasus region when the Russian Empire was in battle against the Ottoman Empire, here, he ran acros his cousin Ungern again, as well as meeting Cossack Capt. Grigory Semyonov. After the Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917, Semyonov and Ungern declared their allegiance to the Romanovs and vowed to fight the revolutionaries; Ilya felt compelled to follow their lead. Being navy, he led a communication squadron (dispatch riders on horse) between Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, nominal head of the White Russian forces in Siberia, and Semyonov and Ungern's commands. In the Transbaikal, and outer Mongolia, amongst landscapes best described in the paintings of Nicholas Roerich, it seemed a Colour Out of Space touched his soul. Eventually, Admiral Kolchak's corpse took up ignominius residence in a hole chopped in the ice after execution, and his cousin Ungern, who now carried the sobriquet of "The Mad Baron" was leading a final futile attack; Ilya followed Semyonov and escaped to Harbin, China. It was from one of Ungern's officers, Kamil Gizycki, an engineer and travel writer, that he became enamored of the idea of being an author.

      Semyonov was taking money from both the Japanese an Chinese during his fight in Siberia and Mongolia; Ilya cashed in upon this as well, recieving a stipend of 1000 and 1500 pounds from the Chinese and Japanese respectively. From Harbin he traveled to Nagasaki, then Honolulu, San Francisco, through the Panama Canal to Havana, New York, and finally London. Ultimately his destination is Paris, where his sister Svetlana lives with the Russian emigre community, in the meantime, he has taken up an invitation to the Haverfeld House. His father has died in the Red Terror, buried on their ancestral estate, which also has be confiscated by the Bolsheviks, his finances straitened, and no home to call real.

      In appearance, he has the large expressive brown eyes, and full mouth of many Slavs; his eyes almost seem mirthful. He is light hearted of demeanor, and would criticize too many for being too stiff for a lack of dancing; something of which he is accomplished, by either a waltz or Russian folk dances, which in turn belies a certain manual dexterity. When bored or nervous, such as walking in the dark, he has a tendancy to whistle parts of Scheherazade Movement 1, by Rimsky-Korsakov, his favorite composition. He is used to being addressed as "Gospodin" by formality, nevertheless he makes no claim on innocence. Ilya is drawn to the occult, something in it calls to him, as an author, he will follow that road until there is no end.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! Apocalypse Culture was massively influential for me as well. That book was a doorway and a window to all sorts of strangeness.

      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      That is a shame, I didn't know any of that. Parfey's Apocalypse Culture books have had a huge impact upon my game worlds since the 90s.
    1. rmcoen's Avatar
      rmcoen -
      I have used many methods of creating characters (PCs and NPCs) in the past. A few were created to "try out a mechanic" ("best archer possible in 4e", or "highest Divination skill possible in 3.5e") - these have varying success as being fun to play. The latter was actually a blast, but the archer was boring and reitred early.

      Some character concepts have come from off-hand comments, or wanting to "buck a norm" - for example, the 1e and 2e concept of "running the cleric": the party sits still for a couple days while the cleric preps and casts nothing but Cure X Wounds spells so they can recover. Thus was born Trisamar the Cleric, a slightly unstable young man whose father the necromancer was burned at the stake -- but left his son his spellbook before being captured. Trisamar wavered in his faith, and *I* knew that if the party wanted to "run the cleric", Tris was would change class to necromancer and renounce his clerical powers! A.X.E. the Automated Exploration Entity, on the other hand, was a warforged NPC bodyguard for a PC, built to flesh out the three-PC party in 4e. All his powers and feats were about protecting the "journeyman scholar" warlock... and the player of the warlock later decided to take over AXE and retire the warlock, because AXE was so much fun to play as a powerful warrior with the brains of C3-P0.

      Most of my characters, though, come with some kind of a story in mind. The nobleman dabbler, semi-skllled in fencing and magic, disinherited by (campaign event X). The rescued street urchin, caught with her hand in the offering box and raised as a cleric (whose mentor is killed/disappeared/involved in campaign event Y). The time-lost elven prince, trapped in a suicide-bomber / martydom enchantment, who awakens centuries later when campaign event Z breaks the spell, releasing the BBEG - but leaving the prince drained of his skills and life force (i.e. level 1, but with all his memories - most of which are out of date and useless). And so on.

      As the OP said - good PC design generally involves crafting a story that ties the character to the world, and ideally to the other characters. I'll admit, "Divination Boy" (above) didn't do that, but the GM did a great job tying him in for me. The last three campaigns I have run, I gave that specific guideline to my players; in one, all of them were from one small town near the frontier, and all "underage"; they all had parents and relationships and ties to the area that made even rote "Stop the Goblins" quests very personally important. Another had them all starting in the same town again (living or passing through, their choice) when a campaign event occured (a crashing meteor); two decided to be from the town, while the other two were there specifically to observe the event. The last one, I allowed the characters a bit more freedom, but indicated that their class and race choices would tie them to specific citystates in the world, and come with cultural advantages and burdens (like the cleric from Godshome having his holy symbol tattooed to his forhead - like all good god-fearing Citizens - and access to all the Church's resources... but duty-bound to uphold the Church's reputation).
    1. Gibili's Avatar
      Gibili -
      When I create a character I always come up with a backstory. Writing it and inevitably changing it as you do so, is a great way to start getting a feel for the character, as well as a lot of fun. I never do character builds, i.e. working the game mechanics to maximise the effectiveness. I prefer story elements over gameplay elements.
      The guidelines I adhere to are:
      Don't lock the character right down. So much more comes out when you play, get a feel for the story and the world, and build your relationships with the other characters.
      Leave open ended elements to the backstory that the DM can then run with them in his campaign from story arcs or minor side. This is also a great way for the DM to get you involved
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Typically I will just start writing a "day in the life" of a character. If it flows, I know I'm on to something. If I doesn't, I start over.

      Rinse and repeat until it "clicks".
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      I’m another who uses a variety of methods. Some PCs were inspired by genre fiction. Some were inspired by art. Some by music.

      Many were answers to questions like “What kind of guy uses this kind of weapon?” Or “who uses this feat/spell/power, and why?” Or “how would one build an arcane Paladin?” “How can I mix Hellboy & Hellraiser in this RPG?” (Etc.)

      But whatever the inspiration, the next step becomes fleshing out the character, and making the character’s mechanics match the fluff.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      The way I create a player-character, usually starts with the mechanical side. In other words, what kind of class do I want to play, and what sort of combat experience do I want to try out? I look at weapons, feats and abilities.

      The next step is thinking up positive and negative character traits, along with a worldview, quirks and hobbies. I like creating characters that have something different and/or unexpected about them. Such as a brave warrior who is afraid of heights, or a brute with a heart of gold. But my characters always have some sort of flaw (that is not disruptive to the game, or annoying to my fellow players).

      Lastly I think of a name and appearance. Both tend to flow naturally from their personality.

      I may also think of family, friends, allies, enemies and business partners as an extra step, if appropriate. Sometimes it can be interesting to play a character who is not yet another orphaned hero. Maybe they have someone in their life who they really care about. I realize this is like putting a bullseye on them for the DM, but it also gives my character motivation, and things he/she cares about.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      With a backstory, one thing is it's a nice way to give the GM ideas: who the character is and how they can fit in the narrative, or how an NPC can be a friend or nemesis, even play off the PC's passions.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      Quote Originally Posted by dragoner View Post
      With a backstory, one thing is it's a nice way to give the GM ideas: who the character is and how they can fit in the narrative, or how an NPC can be a friend or nemesis, even play off the PC's passions.
      Sometimes I'll even throw in deliberate plot hooks. Such as: "My character's parents were murdered, and he never caught the killer(s)", or "My character committed a terrible crime, and is now trying to redeem himself", or "My character was married to someone with a shady past, before she was killed. Now, as he investigates her death, he slowly learns that she was a totally different person from the one he knew."

      You can leave the finer details open, so that the DM can fill them in. You are basically giving your DM freedom to tie your character into his story and making it easier for him to do so.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaculata View Post
      Sometimes I'll even throw in deliberate plot hooks. Such as: "My character's parents were murdered, and he never caught the killer(s)", or "My character committed a terrible crime, and is now trying to redeem himself", or "My character was married to someone with a shady past, before she was killed. Now, as he investigates her death, he slowly learns that she was a totally different person from the one he knew."
      It makes the GM's job easier, giving them threads to weave into the whole.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      As an experiment, I once did the following for a Call of Cthulhu campaign:

      I gave my players each a unique black envelope, and told them to read what was inside, but keep it to themselves. Each envelope contained a piece of paper, with interesting and creepy plot hooks for their character. I asked them to pick one of the plot hooks, or optionally to provide me with one of their own.

      For example, I had a plot hook for a detective, that there was a missing person's case he once failed. Ever since that event, he kept seeing the woman's face in the crowd... or thinking he did. And there was another player who played a skeptic, who had once had a ghostly encounter during an event where he almost died, that he never speaks of. It was recorded on a videotape, which was secretly destroyed by one of the other player characters (this was their personal secret).

      I asked the players to choose one of the plot hooks, and keep it a secret from their party members, or they would lose sanity. Thus directly tying it to one of Call of Cthulhu's main game mechanics. And of course I would then construct the plot in such a way, that they would often be forced into a creepy situation where their personal secret came up. So the destroyed videotape eventually showed up in the campaign, even though it was supposed to be destroyed.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Quote Originally Posted by dragoner View Post
      It makes the GM's job easier, giving them threads to weave into the whole.
      Agreed, 100%.
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      Quote Originally Posted by Imaculata View Post
      Sometimes I'll even throw in deliberate plot hooks. Such as: "My character's parents were murdered, and he never caught the killer(s)", or "My character committed a terrible crime, and is now trying to redeem himself", or "My character was married to someone with a shady past, before she was killed. Now, as he investigates her death, he slowly learns that she was a totally different person from the one he knew."

      You can leave the finer details open, so that the DM can fill them in. You are basically giving your DM freedom to tie your character into his story and making it easier for him to do so.
      One of the most intricate backgrounds I ever did was for that “arcane Paladin” I mentioned upthread*. Long story short, I invented a whole organization- The Illuminated Society of Thoth- for him to be a part of. My write-up even included what his role as a Sword of Thoth meant within that organization.




      * though the one for the steel-drum using, capoeira mastering, aberration-hunting Clan Skyhammer for my 4Ed Dwarf Warlock/Psion is a not too distant second.
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