Friday Favourite: Give Your Character Personality

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 20, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From February 22, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Give Your Character Personality.

When you ask a gamer to tell you about their character they will usually begin with class and race followed by the kind of weapon the PC uses, a list of their best magical items and then finally some really cool attack power or spell in their arsenal. And for most people that’s the answer they expect. But when was the last time you described a character as being a know-it-all, or a suck up, or a dreamer, or manipulative, or unusually arrogant?

Personality isn’t one of the boxes you need to fill in on a character sheet so many gamers, me included, often overlook this important detail when we create characters. More importantly we forget that every character has a unique personality. Looking back at my last few long-term characters I realize that they all had pretty much the same personality – mine.

In my experience, very few of us define our character by who they really are at heart, resorting instead to what they possess and what they can do. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach, but if you play a lot of RPGs you realize that a character with a well-defined personality can be a lot more interesting and a lot more fun to play. After all, personality goes a long way.

Vincent: Do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But a dog’s got personality. And personality goes a long way.

Vincent: So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he’s cease to be a filthy animal?

Jules: We’d have to be talkin’ ’bout one charmin’ pig.

–– From “PULP FICTION” By Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary

It can be difficult to create a character with a unique personality, or at least one that’s different than that of the player. Many gamers feel that a PC’s personality must coincide with their alignment. If the PC is good he’ll be polite, nice and have a positive outlook. If he’s evil he’ll be a mean, arrogant, selfish jerk. For brand new players this kind of thinking is fine, but once a player has a little bit more experience they should break away from these overused stereotypes.

Just because a PC is evil doesn’t mean that he can’t be charming and likable. His alignment and his motives aren’t emblazoned on his sleeve; he can act however the player sees fit. Often the most evil characters are kind and well liked by the masses, at least until their evil intentions are exposed. Likewise a PC with a strong good alignment may be disliked or even hated. Perhaps the PC is working towards the greater good and doesn’t take time to explain his actions. The result is that onlookers think he’s an arrogant jerk.

Giving PCs a few personality traits helps the player quickly figure out who this PC is and how he’s going to play him. During the first few seasons of D&D Encounters many players used the pre-generated characters Wizards provided. On each character sheet were a few brief sentences describing the PCs motives and personal history. Since the players didn’t create these characters themselves they really latched onto these descriptions and it made for some excellent role-playing. In subsequent seasons most players now make their own characters and the role-playing has fallen flat. They worry so much about the numbers that they forget to bring the character to life.

With a new season of D&D Encounters about to begin and many groups getting together this week to cerate new characters, I implore DMs to encourage players to develop personalities for their characters. Ask them to list a few personality traits that they feel play a significant role in defining who this character is. If they’re having trouble coming up with a few off the top of their head, I recommend using one of the many lists available online. Although these are usually intended as random tables to help the DM give NPCs differing personalities, they work just as well for PCs.

By listing even a few personality traits or mannerisms about every character you play you’ll make them more memorable and will likely find that you enjoy playing them a lot more than characters who are just numbers. Remember that personalities can change over time so be mindful of how events in your game may cause subtle (or radical) shifts in your character’s established personality.

For a really radical approach to personality have your players actually roll on one of the random charts to determine their personality traits. No matter what the results, see if they can actually work that personality into the character they’re creating. It may not work all the time but it might get them to take the character in a totally different direction that they ever would have thought to go.

How often do you give your characters a distinct personality? Do you ever write personality traits on your character sheet? Would you be willing to roll randomly for personality traits or would you rather make a conscious decision about how your character behaves and acts?

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1 dan September 21, 2013 at 4:31 am

I have always given my characters personalities. While I like to create characters that are mechanically interesting (such as dex-based gnome barbarian with dagger/whip combo), I usually feel the need to explain HOW they became that way. So, I create back stories. I create a personality. I think of a few little quirks, and figure out reasons for them. Then I go on to decide what other personality traits he would have from those past experiences. I love giving my characters depth, and always encourage my friends to do the same. In the end, it results in much more fun roleplaying.

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