What Do You Look Like?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 21, 2009

Describe your character? It sounds like a simple question, but it’s more difficult than you think. I’m not asking you to tell me your class or level; I want to know what your character actually looks like.

Most characters are described by their race, class and equipment and that’s it. But if I tell you that my PC is a Half-elvin Paladin wearing plate armor that doesn’t really give you a good idea of what I looks like.

Imagine that our PCs have never met before but need to meet in a very public or crowded place. All you have is a vague description of me. What kind of details will make your job easier? Knowing that I wear plate armor is helpful if you’re looking for me on a battlefield, but what if you’re trying to find me at a social function? I’m not likely to be wearing armor at all. So what other details will you need?

Most character sheets have a place for race, sex, height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and skin colour. All excellent details that help define your PC. But how much thought goes into the rest of your PC’s description?

We’ve already explored the idea of unique Adventuring Company Symbols as a way to distinguish your PC as part of a select group. And in What’s a +1 Sword we looked at how your PC describes his magical items. Now let’s look at the whole picture and describe your PC.

With the practical necessity to use minis in 4e D&D, some people assume that their PC looks like the mini. They make no effort to change any of the details. Just because your mini is wearing a blue cloak doesn’t mean that your PC has to be wearing a blue cloak. In fact you don’t have to wear a cloak at all. Remember that the mini is just a marker on a battle grid. Sure it’s nice to have a mini that very closely resembles the vision you have for the character, but don’t feel that you are limited by what the mini looks like. Similarly you shouldn’t feel that you need to replace your mini if his equipment changes.

When describing your PC try to think of the little details that help make him unique. These can include physical characteristics like a scar, a limp or a tattoo, but they can also include his possessions. Beyond the PCs armor and weapons what else does he possess? One of the easiest and most common things to give your PC is jewelry or accessories. This can be something subtle like an earring (or a dozen earrings), a family ring, or a necklace with a good luck charm or religious symbol. Another good way to make your character stand out is to think about colour. Most armor is left the colour of the materials it’s made from. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Perhaps you character has added green, blue or red to his plate armor.

Most players have a mental image of what their PC looks like when he’s adventuring. This image usually includes every piece of equipment the PC possesses. And when he’s out in the wilds adventuring this is probably a very accurate picture. But what does this same PC look like when he’s not decked out in his full regalia?

Let’s say that the party has just arrived in town and plans to spend a couple of weeks here before getting back on the road. Is your PC going to wear his heavy plate armor every day or will he dress more comfortably during his down time. Walking around in plate armor doesn’t make sense and will attract a lot of attention. This is especially true if the town is a lawful community. Unless you expect a dragon to attack any minute there’s really no need to wear your armor everywhere you go. Getting out of the heavy, clunky armor is probably a welcome relief.

When PCs are in an urban setting there are even more reasons for a change of attire. A fancy dinner with an important official, a night out to enjoy a live performance, or a trip to a seedy gambling establishment all call for different kinds of dress. This is the kind of detail that is rarely given much thought.

Does your PC have a few changes of clothes that he carry’s with him to cover these kinds of situations? I think most PCs carry around at least one set of clothing among their standard travelling gear.

Clothing is not the only, non-adventuring equipment that you should keep in mind when describing what your character looks like. Does your PC have jewelry? Many cultures pierce their ears, and if your PC is from such a culture he probably wears earrings. But does his wear them all the time of just dunging special occasions? What about other jewelry? A ring, pendant, necklace, even a belt buckle are important details that help define your PC. If he possesses these things under what circumstances does he wear them? A family signet ring with a valuable gemstone denoting nobility may look exquisite, but would the PC risk loosing or damaging it during battle? More likely he keeps it tucked away. But if he needs to impress a local princess during a social function it makes sense for him to put it on.

In the end it’s up to you as the player to decide what your PC looks like. The more clearly you envisions and describe your PC the more he becomes an individual. Anything you can do to make your PC more than number on a page will increase your enjoyment of any RPG. Just don’t get carried away. Make your character unique but these little details should get in the way of the game.

How much time and effort do you put into describing your character? Have you run into situations where putting in this kind of extra effort really paid off?

1 Wyatt September 21, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Let me find the description for one I’m playing – her name’s Sunshine Metronome, and she’s a pretty goofy character:

“A very unconventional Dragonborn, Sunshine has light skin with a somewhat orange tinge and red eyes, with long dark hair. She looks almost nothing like a Dragonborn – she has a human body except for a pair of draconic side-frills coming from her hips, patches of scales around her neck, at the collarbones, down her back, and on her elbows, wrists, knees and feet. She has pointed, slightly scaly ears, and oddly enough has an orange tail, something that Dragonborn don’t even have in the first place.

Sunshine dresses in a black jacket, which is keepsake from her surrogate father that she ties around her waist in battle when she’s getting serious, and beneath has leather armor over a cotton shirt. She has a knee-length black skirt, thigh-high stockings and her underwear is a pair of dark shorts. She has brown, plain boots, and three sheathes for her three swords.”

I was sure I had something more than that, especially since she now has a set of Chainmail that turns into that jacket, and doesn’t wear her leather armor anymore, but that’s what’s on my sheet now.
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Campaign Styles In Eden =-.

2 Sean Holland September 21, 2009 at 3:48 pm

I find character description to be very important to my creative process and pondering what a character has (and why) is important in shaping them. I have often had character inspired by artwork or an interesting item.

Though I admit that sometimes the character and description will be modified by metagame concerns (like the fact that all half-orcs in Pathfinder get great axe proficiency, so I could not resist giving my half-orc sorceress a great axe as her hand to hand weapon).
.-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..New Spell – Ward Iron =-.

3 Rook September 21, 2009 at 9:37 pm

My wife uses real world pics for avatars on chat boards all the time, so she has gotten into the practice of finding a piece of fantasy artwork that she really likes and develops a character based on that. Now all of us do it, most of the time. Since we don’t play as often as I would like and the players often forget what character they are playing, using these detailed pictures are a great way to get them refocused and back into character.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: The pros and cons of flufflessness =-.

4 Ameron September 22, 2009 at 9:31 am

Thanks for sharing. This is exactly the kind of detailed description that more players need to create for their PCs. It’s unfortunate that we readily accept a PCs description as long as it includes their name, class, race and little else.

@Sean Holland
Even a stereotypical description (like a Half-orc with an axe or a Dwarf with a hammer) is a good start. It’s when these generic aspects become the only means of identifying your PC that you’ve got a problem. But it sounds like you’ve got a good handle on this already.

This is a good idea. However, do you ever limit how you develop the character because you can’t find a picture that works? For example, what if you wanted to play a Halfling warrior in heavy armor but couldn’t find a suitable picture would you abandon this character concept? This is much the same point I made about minis. Too many gamers assume that their PC has to look like the mini. As long as you realize this is just a “guide” to your character’s appearance then you should be fine.

5 Rook September 22, 2009 at 11:40 am

Oh, no, no. IF we find a pic that inspires a great character, then we use it. But if we come up with a unique concept, we just don’t use a pic.

If we do use a pic and the concept changes, such as weapon or armor choice, we still use the pic as a reminder. Oddly enough, currently my wife is playing a tiefling warlord that wears hide armor. She is using a pic she found, but the pic has her wearing plate. She used the pic anyway. Now, as she has gained some money, as most adventurers do, she is upgrading to plate armor. Funny how these things work out.

6 Andrew August 6, 2011 at 3:47 pm

In my latest campaign I played a Tiefling Dhampyr. What really convinced me to play a Dhampyr was the description of the eyes. ( and to a lesser extent, the overpowered abilities) I described him as a typical tiefling with all of his teeth as fangs, and Golden eyes with red specks around the midle. He also had a forked tounge and His tail split at the end. He actually had even more devil blood in him than the average tiefling and that was how I explained having the dhampyr and mutations. He died and was reserected multiple times, coming up each time with a more demonic trait. ( Eventually He took the Prince of Hell epic destiny.)

7 Dragon December 11, 2011 at 1:04 am

I remember the first D&D character I ever made. Dintor Hammeraxe, the Dwarf Fighter (Slayer). I started with the red box and my characters description I knew from the start. He was bald, and wore a helm with bull horns. In his backpack he carried a simple tunic and breeches, both gray like stone. His eyes were green like emeralds, and his beard long, curly, and black. I never got to make him go that far since I started DMing after the fact, but I never did forget just how much fun it was making up little details about how my character looked.

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