Your Character’s Psychological Profile

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 6, 2013

The character creation process, be it for D&D or any other role-playing game, usually starts with filling in all the boxes and fields on the character sheet. In D&D the areas that usually get the most attention are the class, race, ability scores, skills and weapons. Once these are filled in you’re well on your way. For many this is where the creative process ends. They have all the hard facts they need to begin play. From a mechanics point-of-view they’re ready to explore dungeons and slay monsters.

For the number crunchers and power gamers this is all they’re interested in. They’ve filled in all the blanks on their character sheet so they must be done, right? I suppose, but what about the character’s personality? After all, this is a living being. Shouldn’t you spend at least a few minutes figuring out this character’s personality? It may not factor into their attack scores or skill checks, but it can help guide your role-playing and give you (and the rest of the players at your table) a better idea of who the character is and not just what kind of sword he wields.

Unfortunately the only area of the character sheet that even comes close to defining the character’s personality is alignment. However, in my experience alignment is one of the most overlooked or outright ignored parts of the character sheet. Even when it is completed it rarely carries any weight in how the PC is run. In previous editions of D&D there were nine alignments, in 4e we’re down to five. As new players come to D&D, alignment seems to be less important and plays a much smaller role in the character development.

So how do we encourage players to better develop their character’s personality? The answer might be as simple as adding more boxes to the character sheet; new boxes that place more emphasis into defining your characters’ initial psychological profile. Alignment is a good start, but why not delve deeper? In the old TSR spy RPG Top Secret S.I. there was an area on the character sheet (or character dossier as they’re called in that game) called psychological profile. It helped players really get inside the head of their character and breathe personality into their PC from the very first outing.

Gamers tend to be meticulous when it comes to making characters. They want to complete all the boxes and all the fields on their character sheet. If a new section was added to the D&D character sheet, a section dedicated to defining the PC’s psychological profile, I believe that a) most players would complete it, and b) it would provide the players with a better idea of who their PC is from the very beginning.

In Top Secret S.I. the psychological profile is broken into six categories, each of which represents an emotion, attribute, or personality trait.

    • Cruelty
    • Loyalty
    • Passion
    • Piety
    • Sanity
    • Selfishness

Beside each category the player indicates the PC’s level of interest or devotion by writing one of five responses.

    • No
    • Low
    • Some
    • High
    • Total

The idea is that your character is more than numbers on a page. The psychological profile helps you understand and define the PC’s attitudes towards other people and life in general. The psychological profile isn’t set in stone. As you play the character you may find that his views or outlook changes. When that happens, you make the necessary adjustments. The key is to try and follow the map you’ve created for reading this characters psyche.

Let’s look at the psychological profile a stereotypical Human Paladin as an example.

    • Cruelty = None
    • Loyalty = Total
    • Passion = High
    • Piety = High
    • Sanity = High
    • Selfishness = Some

This is what you’d expect from a holier-than-thou knight in shinning armor. Absolutely loyal, extremely high dedication to his religious beliefs, passionate in his convictions, a fairly good head on his shoulders, and not a cruel bone in his body. But as no one’s perfect this knight is sometimes selfish as long as it doesn’t conflict with his loyalty to his deity or liege.

Now what if we tweaked this profile in order to make the character more interesting? His abilities, skills, and class remain unchanged (the numbers on the page) but we tweaked his psychological profile.

    • Cruelty = Some
    • Loyalty = Total
    • Passion = Total
    • Piety = Total
    • Sanity = Some
    • Selfishness = None

Seeing this revised profile I’d think the Paladin is now a fanatical religious zealot. He’s motivated by the words of his church and likely believes it’s his mission to repeat the doctrine to anyone and everyone he encounters. His low sanity could represent poor judgment and his wavering cruelty could indicate that he may actually harm those who disagree with his beliefs. It’s important to note that this psychological profile doesn’t necessarily indicate that the PC has an evil alignment.

It’s up to you to decide how to play your character. You choose his alignment and his personality. But if you’ve played as many characters as I have over the years it can be difficult to make each one seem like an individual. By adding a few extra lines to the D&D character sheet we can ask players to define their PC’s psychological profile in just a few quick steps. With so many similar characters out there this is an easy and subtle way to help your character find his voice at the gaming table.

How much effort do you usually put in to defining your characters’ personality and psychological profile? Do you think that adding a few more lines to the character sheet would help? Do you think the Top Secret S.I. model is detailed enough or would you add additional categories?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mariah February 6, 2013 at 11:19 am

I’m coming to play with you lot, I can never find anyone as into character creation as me.

2 Samantha February 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Character personality is important in the games my husband and I run. We rely heavily on storyline in our campaigns and if the characters are flat, it is much more challenging to keep them motivated. Since we write our own material, my husband and I can (and often do) work part of the story directly around the characters. It is so much easier (and more fun) to write for a character with a well-defined personality!

I’m not sure how well having an area on the character sheet would work, but it is better than nothing. Best thing – ask players to write a background for their characters (doesn’t have to be long). The process of writing the background usually helps jump start the personality. Of course, there are always some players that will play the same personality no matter what class, race, or background their character has…

3 Mimglow February 6, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Great post. I’ve tried different approaches to encourage players to develop a back story. I’d say the player’s style determines whether they go the extra bit to add unique personalities to their characters. Too many times, I find they play themselves in a fantasy land. I’d like to see them come out of their comfort zones, and this psych profile could just do the trick! You could even have them roll to fill out the extent of the character’s Passion, Loyalty, etc.

4 Spot February 6, 2013 at 8:59 pm

I did like this, I’ve been playing around with some Axis model of alignment, where players choose two of 8 (ultima like virtues) as their alignment chart, and for being true to these they move up the virtue line, and for going against these they move down the virtue line…not sure how this would play, but imagine that the extremes of the each virtue would begin to add bonuses/penalties…still working on it.

This article reminded me of another system put forth in a Dragon magazine a long time ago, I think the articles was called “For God and Country” (or something). It basically had a character rank “Self”, “Companions”, “Patron” and “Deity” as a rather linear way to make decisions…

5 Ablefish February 7, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I played TS long ago and had forgotten about the psychological profile. That’s a pretty succinct way of defining a character.

To expand on that, I think every play group that enjoys adding personality to their characters should give this site a read: http://rpg.ashami.com/. We found it last year and its really helped me get in the head of my characters.

The other thing we did when we started our last couple campaigns was using a Fiasco-ish method of creating background ties between party members.

We expanded on the ideas in a Sly Flourish article and this is the table we generated. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/pub?key=0AtzLVxwSGy1bdExnVHBFdmF5TFhyMFh2VENQNXluQUE&output=html

We all ended up with much richer characters that everyone (power gamers and crunchers alike) enjoyed.

6 Wolfgrim February 7, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Love this excercise! I usually have my players develope this through there actions as they learn to RP. So they end up making these choices without being pidgeon holed into them. I have to say though, some players have no clue where to start. This is a great starting point for those characters. I also recommend adding 2 categories, 1) A mannerism (tugging beard, grins when lying, laughs heartily ect.) 2) Something that is physically unique/different than the norm (scar, different coloured eyes, odd clothes, earings, ect.)

7 Icthenue February 7, 2013 at 11:14 pm

My roommate and I have a large player base that we run a custom campaign for right now (average 8 players a night). The alignment system just doesn’t cut it in this large a party. With these personalities defined, the party will have a much better understanding of their characters. We play 3.5 but your articles are almost always applicable, regardless of version. Thanks for another great post! :)

8 avatarjk137 February 8, 2013 at 1:06 am

Now here’s an article that I can really get behind. I’m using this next time I GM, and probably showing this to my current DMs as well!

9 Rewolf February 8, 2013 at 6:05 am

I count myself lucky that in our play group (which consists of close friends) there are no meta/power gamers who don’t want to do the real roleplaying part.
I, for instance, love the roleplaying part and creating a story, whether it be a character background or a story how the group met. I find it fascinating to create something new out of my mind. This also makes it easier to get into the psychology of your character and play it well. Some players however, aren’t able to do such a thing (a friend of mine isn’t that creative with his fantasy so he just plays a Mindshard with Amnesia) for whom this tool can be great. My experience so far however shows that when players aren’t that creative (or can’t/don’t use a tool as you give here) play a character psychology like their own RL character is. In those cases these tools could be handy to give them an opportunity to get out of their own comfort zone and play something else, but I have yet to meet the STATS Power Gamer Only.

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