Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How to Build An Effective RPG Character Every Single Time

Building an effective character isn't as easy as it looks from the outside. On the one hand players need to understand the rules, and how to tune up every part of a character build to make sure it runs smooth and sweet when the dice are rolled. On the other hand a player has to flesh out the character's story, persona, goals, and desires. If you do the former but not the latter you get a min-maxed machine with no roleplay value or story, and if you do the latter but not the former you get a character who talks a good game but who does nothing but fail when it comes time to compare dice rolls.

In both cases, this will be your DM's expression.
Marrying these two parts of a character together is essential, but not always easy. This week I'd like to provide all players with a simple guide to help streamline the process so that you get an effective character build every, single time.

Step One: Identify What Your Character Does

I've had lots of people ask my how I create great character builds, like my take on Captain America or The Incredible Hulk. The first step in that process is sitting down and asking what does this character build have to accomplish?

'Nuff Said
Different players go about this in different ways. Some players decide on their characters' backstories first and then attempt to back it up with mechanics, while some players decide on a mechanic and then craft a backstory to prop their numbers up. Both ways are equally effective, and regardless of which method you use it's important that you pick the thing your character is good at before you even think about cracking a rule book.

What can your character be good at? Practically anything! The key is that you have to be specific in what you want. Something like I want to be able to destroy my enemies in a single blow is a good start, but it's too general. Will you use magic for that? A greatsword? A crossbow? A rifle? Your own obscure martial art style that allows you to stop an enemy's heart with a single punch to the chest? There are simply too many options, and you need to focus on one. Two at the most.

Some good examples of specific goals are I want a character who can pick any lock she comes across, or I want to be so strong I can grapple opponents who are bigger than I am. Those are goals we can work with.

Step Two: Find The Abilities That Let You Do It

Once you know specifically what you want to do the next step is to figure out how to do it. This is where a lot of players turn into kids in candy stores, and lose sight of their original goals. Additionally there are often multiple ways to do something, and you'll have to decide which one is most fitting for your character.

Start digging.
Take, for example, the very simple goal of I want to play an armored spellcaster who mixes it up in melee. That's pretty straightforward; the problem is there are several paths you could take.

Let's say you were playing Pathfinder. You could play a Magus, which combines magic and martial skill right out of the gate, allowing you to fight in full armor by higher levels. Alternatively you could play a Wizard/Fighter who merges the arcane and the militant, eventually taking levels in the Eldritch Knight prestige class. Alternatively you could play a Barbarian/Sorcerer and take levels of Dragon Disciple to increase your physical might, damage dealing abilities, and your natural armor.

The question at this point is which method are you going to use to reach your goals?

Step Three: Weigh Your Options

This is where a lot of players get bogged down, and where a lot of arguments get started. So take a deep breath, clear your head, look at all your options, and ask yourself which one is the most fitting for what you're trying to do?

Whatever that thing is.
Let's say you were trying to build Iron Man (like I did). Some players might feel that simply playing an armored Sorcerer or Magus whose energy blasts are flavor-texted into something vaguely technological is enough for them. Other players might prefer to play a Synthesist Summoner, who wears an eidolon like a suit of armor. A third option many players want to pursue (myself among them) is to play a character who builds construct armor, actually going through the process of becoming a magical inventor who can create the Mark II in more than just flavor.

Is any one of these options right? Of course not. The question you have to ask yourself is which of these is most effective, and best fits my concept?

There are lots of different roads that reach the same goal. A character might want to do a lot of damage while swinging a sword, but will that character be a Fighter who gets more damage from feats, a Paladin who uses faith and holy magic to increase her attacks, a Rogue who takes advantage of unwary opponents, or a Barbarian whose rage allows him to deliver attacks with raw force others would be incapable of? All of these are possibilities in a mechanical sense, but not all of them will fit a character concept.

Step Four: I Now Pronounce You Mechanics And Story

This is where we get back to that uneasy marriage of roleplaying and game. If you're one of those players who started with no story then all you have to do is pick the mechanics that will best allow you to complete the goal you started off with. Once you've chosen your mechanical base all that's left is to come up with a story that puts flesh on your mechanical skeleton. Every ability needs to be accounted for, because if you don't explain where it came from chances are you shouldn't have it (no matter how cool, useful, or epic it is).

Not all flesh is created equal.
If you started out with a story though, then you may have an easier time of picking your mechanics. For instance, if you know from the get go that your character comes from a nomadic tribe but still has magic then it's more likely he's a Sorcerer, a Summoner, or a Druid; spellcasting classes which fit better with the wild places of the world. If your nomadic spellcaster was granted his powers by virtue of his family line rather than by the gods or by an extraplanar being, then you have a strong case for a Sorcerer.

Step Five: Look At What You're Giving Up

Players focus on what their characters can do so often that they don't really think about what their characters can't do. For instance, if your character is an armored tank with a mighty swing that can destroy any opponent in single combat, that's great. What does this tank do when an evil spellcaster starts throwing magic that ignores that armor? Or when the enemy flies up into the air out of sword-swinging range? What happens when the enemy has damage reduction that knocks 10 points off of every swing, or when a creature's voice is capable of compelling him to turn against the party?

One character cannot do everything, and those who try typically end up not being able to do anything well. Even while you are focusing on the strengths of your build though, you need to be aware of the weaknesses you possess. Whenever possible you need to do something to make sure that when you are presented with a scenario in which your big gun won't work that you can still contribute in some way.

My big gun always works.
As a for instance you could be the deadliest bowman in the land; you still can't shoot a ghost without the right arrows or bow. A good solution to this would be to keep some holy water on hand so that you can still pour it over an incorporeal enemy and hurt it. If you're a master wrestler, what happens when you can't see the enemy because it's invisible? Do you throw a smog pellet or a bag of flour to reveal the creature? Do you fling alchemist fire hoping the splash will hurt and reveal it?

No matter how good your character is at what he or she does there is always a counter. You need to know what those counters are, and attempt to prepare something for them in case they crop up. 

Beware The Shiny Red Ball!

There's a thing that all players suffer from at some point in their careers; shiny red ball syndrome. When you get swept up in something that you think is really cool it's a good idea to take a deep breath, and to take a step back. If the thing you're obsessing over isn't that useful, chances are good you got suckered by a shiny red ball.

I'll give you an example. In Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 there was a prestige class called Fortune's Friend. The whole purpose of the prestige class was to give the character more luck re-rolls, and bonus luck re-roll feats. I am a notoriously unlucky player when it comes to dice rolls, so the idea of getting to re-roll a d20 a half dozen times a day struck me as really cool.

Then I remembered something important; I'm not lucky.

Taking Fortune's Friend ate up all of my feats, and as a result I didn't have anything useful except luck re-rolls. It didn't stack with my bard levels, which meant my bardic music and bardic knowledge took serious hits. I had, in effect, given my character five levels that had given me nothing useful except the chance to try and roll a natural 20 one more time. Why a natural 20? Because I'd rendered myself totally ineffective by taking the class in exchange for a few re-rolls a day.

The die giveth... but not very often.
It's important to know who your character is, and what he or she is good at before you show up at the table. That said, you need to be sure that what you're good at is going to be valued, useful, and actually be required to advance in your game.

You could be the most cunning spy the world has ever known, able to assume new lives seamlessly and without a trace. If the whole campaign is nothing but kicking in the door and fighting progressively more powerful demons though, you're going to get frustrated that you can't contribute. On the other hand you might be the roughest toughest sum'bitch to ever step in the ring, but if your game calls for social maneuvering, diplomacy, and subtlety then the fact that you have no skulls to split or faces to re-arrange is going to make you feel unnecessary to this campaign.

At the same time mastering the Profession: Scribe skill is something to be lauded... but it might be more helpful to build someone capable of surviving an adventure before he or she writes about it.

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  2. I wish my players thought like this. This is amazing.