Quirks and Memorable Character Traits

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 19, 2013

a-to-z-letters-qD&D characters are often described by their race, class and weapon selection. This is certainly a good start but without further details it paints a very bland picture. Throw in a theme and a background and now your character is really starting to separate himself from the pack. But is this enough?

In my experience the only reason player choose a background and theme for their character is to gain the mechanical benefits they provide. The fact that they’ve chosen to be from a certain place in the campaign world or that they had a previous occupation before becoming an adventurer rarely come into the role playing. These details that could make the character more interesting only serve to make them better when it comes to rolling the dice.

Rather than choose a background that won’t make a difference to the way the character is played, why not look for a simpler way to make your character unique and memorable. I’m referring to character quirks. These are little details that help your character stand out at the gaming table. They provide absolutely no mechanical benefits or penalties; they’re merely flavour for your character.

Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. Today the “Q” is for Quirk as we look at ways to make characters more memorable and interesting.

The DMG suggests that DMs give each NPC some kind of quirk; a personality trait or something visually unique that will make them more memorable. Some suggested ideas include things like a limp, a funny hat, a tattoo, or bad breath. This is not necessarily something that defines the character in the way that their race and occupation (or class) might, it’s just a detail to make them different from the next NPC you’ll meet. It’s good advice for the DM and it’s good advice for players.

Visual quirks are the easiest to come up with. Examples include battle wounds (battle scars or missing digits, limbs, eyes, ears), distinctive clothing (lavish style, unorthodox colours, inappropriate attire for the situation), extreme beauty or ugliness, or unusual physical features (skin colour, hair colour, large nose, long hair, bald).

Personality quirks or an unusual attitude can also be memorable but may not be readily apparent, especially if you only have a brief interaction with an NPC. Examples include arrogant, lazy, suspicious, brave, liar, pessimist, or curious.

The quirks that I like to have fun with are mannerisms. These are the things that people do; their habits or compulsions. Unusually they have no conscious realization that they’re even doing it which makes it even more memorable. Examples include pacing, nail biting, chews tobacco, taps fingers, hums, whistles, speaking really loudly or softly, nervous twitch, or stuttering.

By giving your character a quirk it gives you a starting point during non-combat situations. It also gives the other players and the DM something to latch on to if they need a way to start a conversation or shift a troublesome conversation towards a new subject. Character quirks like a fear or hatred of something can make for some very interesting role-playing and can spur on in-party teasing and rivalries.

For example, in a recent adventure one of the PCs hated Halflings. It took a few sessions before we learned that his hatred sprouted from an incident in his past where he was swindled by some mischievous little people. He didn’t have a bloodthirsty rage towards them, he just didn’t like them. The DM knew he could make an otherwise straight forward encounter a lot more interesting by making an NPC a Halfling. Likewise if the Halfling in the party could easily manipulate this PC by taking the opposite stand on any issue knowing the hater would automatically disagree.

When giving your character a quirk be mindful of how annoying it might be to the other players. After all, if it’s something the PCs is doing subconsciously he should be doing it regularly. One that is overused and often done poorly is to give the PC a strange accent. When the DM does it to make an NPC memorable or funny, it works mainly because in five minutes you’ll never see or hear from that NPC again. When you do it the group has to listen to your awful attempt at an accent for hours on end.

Others can be annoying if overused, but appropriate if done with moderation. Thinks like a character catchphrase or a stutter when the PC is talking to women he finds attractive certainly have their place. Just don’t overdo it.

If you’re looking for some ideas the 4e DMG has a list of 20 mannerisms and 20 quirks on page 186. The 3.5e DMG has 100 traits on page 128. A great online resource is the thread on the Wizards Forums called 1001 Character Quirks. At last check there were over 1,700 listed.

What are some memorable quirks you’ve give your characters? What are some of the worst you’ve seen or heard?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Taed April 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

My current character is a not-too-bright Warforged Storm Warden, who has mostly lightning- and thunder-based powers. The first times that he was attacked by a baddie with lightning, they either missed or it was soaked up by temporary hit points. So, he got it in his head that — logically — since he’s a storm warden, he must be immune to lightning and thunder! Every time he’s been attacked with lightning since them (he’s level 11 now), the attacks have either missed, been soaked up by temps, or on the one or two cases where it’s done a bit of damage, been able to rationalize why it hurt a bit (he had his guard down, he was wet, etc.).

A few weeks ago, we came across a ring which gave resist 10 lightning/thunder. As the party defender, it logically went to him, but he explained that he didn’t need the ring at all since he was already immune, but he wore it anyway to make the party happy and for its daily. But this week, he just got attacked again with lightning and ended up taking 2 points of damage — now proving that the ring seems to cancel out his lightning immunity!

Being a warforged, he also has a problem with telling humanoids apart. Male/female eludes him. Halflings and children are identical.

He also has a love of swords, and wants to collect one for every occasion or damage type. Aside from his trusty lightning sword, he has Mordant (acid/poison), Moonbane (insubstantial/silvered), and a sunblade (radiant). And with Master at Arms feat, he often switches between them, making it a tactical benefit.

He’s a simple soul.

2 Svafa April 19, 2013 at 11:42 am

An interesting, but borderline annoying quirk in our current game is a character who will only talk to one other party member. He’s come out of his shell some, but he still remains much more talkative with the Dragonborn than any of the other party members, even those that also speak Draconic. And then there’s the Deva, who has quirks coming out his ears, most of which stem from being a child in an adult’s body and never having had to take responsibility for his actions.

Next character I make I’m going to have to give a stuttering trait. Specifically, a stuttering that fades as the character becomes comfortable with the others present. I have a friend like that, who won’t stutter at all in our conversations, but the stuttering hits in full force as soon as someone they don’t know as well joins the conversation.

3 Vobekhan April 19, 2013 at 3:25 pm

While not a game of D&D I once had the pleasure to take part in a demo game of “Dangerous Journeys” and played the pregen assassin. We were told to give names and traits so I went with Smeagol and he was paranoid. He turned out to be useless at all thieving type tasks but proved to be a combat monster. When resting in town he would put a dummy in the bed and sit in a wardrobe armed and ready for the inevitable attack.
Vobekhan´s last blog post ..D&D Encounters Season 13 – Storm over Neverwinter – Session 1

4 Dave April 19, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Great article. I had one player who created his 4e character as a light cavalry rider… I warned him that I wasn’t giving him a free horse at level 1, and he understood. He chose Mounted Combat as his feat because it made sense, even though it was useless without a horse. I appreciated his desire to play a character and not just a character sheet.
Dave´s last blog post ..Liebing it Up to You

5 Rob May 26, 2013 at 8:10 am

It’s a thing that i see happening all the times. Players spend 0 time creating an interesting character, they only care about stats, equipment and whatsoever.
When the DM force them to write a background they just write a bland story of their character’s past and add a goal for life like: becoming powerful, rich, do adventures (orly?) etc.
I’m really sick of playing with these kind of players but the choices are this or nothing.
For my next pc i’m writing a short story under the form of a travel diary that narrates his journey till the beginning of the campaign (I will jump in at level 4 so I have more freedom to add things). Our DM also suggested them to pick a trait from UA to customize a little more the roleplaying, didn’t worked :(

(sorry for my bad english)

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