Guide to Holistic Heroes
This is my own particular method for character generation. I'll start by defining the key elements of a good character. All these elements must be present and respected if you want to make a character that'll get the most out of the game. The vital elements are as follows: Concept, Story, Character, Mechanics, and Execution. These are all vitally important to building a good character. What good is the greatest background ever written if your mechanics are all but ignored and your character can't actually do what you want him to be able to do? What good are masterful mechanics if your character is nothing but a fighting machine with all the personality and back-story of a plank of wood?
The part that makes this a guide rather than an exact method is because there's no precise way to go through the stages. I usually end up going a different route for every character I make. But no matter how it goes, Concept in one form or another has to come first because without concept you have no roadmap, no plan. And in the end, Execution always comes last, because it represents your actual role-playing. The stuff in the middle -- Story, Character and Mechanics -- can all come in at any point and often change as one influences the other.
In all stages, communication with the DM at least, if not other players, is important. Find out what kind of character is needed, what the DM is looking for when it comes to back-story or power level. You want to create a character that fits both into the party and into the DM's vision of the game. That's not to say you must collaborate highly with everyone involved, but you shouldn't go in blind.
Now that we have that worked out, let's start at the beginning.
This is the beginning, the key that unlocks the door, the blueprints to creating a character. Without a clear concept, you may as well just roll all your character traits randomly off of charts...in some games you can do that (and it can be interesting) but I've always found it unfulfilling. Fortunately, D & D has no such tables, so you get to decide what you want and how you want to do it.
Concept Can Come From Anywhere
Your concept is your core idea. It is what you want to build a character around. That core idea can come from anywhere and anything. It can be mechanical, it can be story, or can even be character-based. "I want to build an adventuring lumberjack" is just as worthwhile as "I want to build an awesome two-weapon thrower" or "I want to build a grizzled, no-nonsense outdoorsman." And there's nothing wrong with combining them. If one idea is good, two of three can be even better.
When I was starting out, I actually felt guilty for wanting to create a character around a mechanical concept. There are people who will try to tell you that if you don't start with a story then you're not doing it right. Don't worry about them. There is no right or wrong concept. It is only when you let other aspects of your character slide that you start going astray.
Any or all of the above-quoted ideas can make for a fun character. For my example character I'll endeavor to exploit all three at once. Our character will be a grizzled outdoorsman...a lumberjack turned hero who uses two axes equally well up close and at a range. Fortunately, these three ideas mesh well with one another.
Let it Blossom
Once you have your seedling idea, you can start working to expand it a bit before you get down to brass tacks. Think about the three central character aspects (Story, Character, Mechanics) and get some germinal ideas for each one. Think up a brief summary of what your character is and what he does.
Our character was born on the frontier in a lumber camp. Timbering is in his blood but something tragic took him away from his old life. He's grizzled and tough like old rawhide. The harsh life and his personal tragedy have toughened him. He fights with the weapons of his trade, hatchets. This will require both ranged and melee feats.
Don't be Afraid of Change
Sometimes parts of your character will be influenced by things as you build it. This means sometimes you have to change parts of your character to keep up. Concept is no exception. If the mechanics can't back up your concept, or you can't think of a good story, or any decent character traits, then you're going to have to try something else. Sometimes the answer is readily apparent, other times it may not be. Don't be afraid to start over if you must. But keep your notes; you never know something may come to you later.
THE MIDDLE BITS
This is where things can get a little chaotic. There's no set order in how to proceed. Things can bubble up from anywhere at any time. And as these things come up they can change other things. If you can't find mechanics to back your story, you might have to change your story to match what you can find. If your story includes something that might impact the character in ways you hadn't originally envisioned, you should change the characteristics. Don't be afraid of change, it happens all the time.
Since it's hard to simulate this organic stage in textural format while still keeping the reader sane, I'll just stick with the arbitrary order I came up with from the beginning.
Story is just as important to your character as any aspect. Story influences all other aspects, just as other aspects can come back and influence your story. But the most important role that story has comes in the influence it has over the final stage, Execution. Your background helps to drive the character in play. Not only does it color his views and influence his decisions, it also provides a good DM with plot hooks for later use. A good DM should always to try work with the backgrounds of all his players. A player who skimps on background cheats himself and the other players down the road.
Be Considerate and Helpful
Because the DM can and should take from your background, you should be considerate and helpful when you write it. A grandiose, epic background is nice, but you have to remember that there are other players. A DM can't do their backgrounds proper justice if yours becomes the focus. Likewise, if your background is too muddied and complex, the DM might not want to delve into it. To this end you should be careful to make your character important, but not the center of the show. And be sure to be helpful! A good DM can come up with plot hooks from anything, but it never hurts to give him some pre-built hooks. Make sure you have enough juicy bits to entice the DM to grab them up and use them for the game, but don't write the whole campaign out for him in your background.
Be Thorough, But Brief
A good background should cover all your bases. It should explain your character. Why is he the way he is? Why does he have these mechanical aspects? Why does he look, feel or act the way he does? These are all important questions and they should all be explained.
But be careful. There are some among us, myself included, who are prone to turn a simple background into a story in and of itself. And while this is not necessarily a bad thing, you do have to realize that you're not the only reader. Your DM has to read it too, and if he doesn't feel like reading a novella about your character, he's not going to react well when you give him one. You can have a great background full of meaty hooks, but if your DM doesn't feel like reading it all, that work has gone to waste. This is why communication, at least with the DM is important when developing your character.
Your character is a product and your DM is the consumer. It's your job to package that character in such a way as to be appealing to him. Know your audience. If your DM likes long backgrounds, do your best to write one. If he prefers brief ones, then abridge your epic. But you should always take time to write down something. Don't think that the two pages of numbers attacked to your clipboard are your whole character. You need fluff and crunch.
Our character needs a background that covers his bases, but to keep from boring our audience, it needs to be brief.
Our hero was born in a small logging village at the foot of a great, forested mountain. He grew up the rough and tumble life of a lumberjack lad. He played in the woods and streams; he wrestled with his friends and learned the ways of the woodsman.
As a young man he took his place in the lumber camp and became one of the best tree-cutters for a hundred leagues in any direction. But he played as hard as he worked. Our hero made top showing every year during the lumberjack games that his community held. His best area of all was in throwing the axe and he became well known for his ability to hurl two axes at the same time and still hit the mark.
One day when he was out clearing the woods, a band of murderous orcs raided and sacked his village. He and the other men saw the smoke and rushed back as fast as they could but they were too late to prevent the bulk of the slaughter.
When the ravening beasts had been driven off, our hero finds that his family was among the ranks of the dead, except for his younger sister who is missing. They searched for days but fund no trace of her. Crushed by the loss, he sees no reason to remain in the village and instead takes to the road to pursue new opportunities and, perhaps, revenge.
Not bad. Short, punchy. It's got hooks: what happened to the sister? What happened to the surviving orcs that were driven off? It's got explanations for his gruff personality and his fighting style. It's pretty good. It'll probably get tweaked a bit though.
Character is what I call the various traits like appearance, personality, various personal choices and drive that can't really be defined in the rules and yet aren't wholly the realm of the story. Much like Story, Character influences the decisions and choices that your character will make. Without this element, you've got a mindless automaton that kills or is killed at the whim of the dice.
Character is what your character does, likes, feels, wears, looks like, etc. and WHY. Some of the why is explained by story, but there are things that a person just feels. Not because of experience but because of who they are.
It Comes From Wherever it Comes
While it is true in the organic sense that character is often the result of background, it doesn't always have to be that way when you're creating a character from scratch. You can start with the character traits you want then design a story to fit them. Or, you can start with the story and let that guide your character traits. And sometimes the character traits that develop by either method can in turn come back to influence the story. You may have intended for something to be a certain way, but then you realize that the person you created just wouldn't do that, so you change it.
The important thing is that it's there and that it fits in neatly with the other aspects of your character.
Character is Personality
How does your character act and feel? What alignment is he? Why is he that alignment? Does he have a deity? Why does he worship it? These are important things to know. Anyone can pick a deity and write it down, or pick an alignment because they think it's less restrictive, but why does your character have these traits?
Character is Description
Description has little or no mechanical impact outside of what your stats are and what kind of armor and weapons you're using, but it's still important to your character. Looks can help define the character, and they can also be deceiving. There is no stat for appearance, and that's a good thing. Just because you have high charisma doesn't make you good looking and vice versa. Beautiful people can be mean and selfish, and ugly people can still have powerful personalities.
What about your character contributes to his overall appearance? Does he have a scar? What color is his hair? Does she have a sweet, girlish smile? What kind of clothes do they wear? Is she the type who looks like trash but cleans up nice? Does he dress flashy?
Character is Details
What kind of adventuring gear does your character have? Why does he have it? What does that say about him? Is there something you think he should have? Give it to him. Character is the sum total of multitudes of tiny details that add up to make a human being. We can't cover them all but we can do our best. For example, there's no mechanical advantage to a whetstone, just the loss of a CP and a pound of extra encumbrance...but any warrior worth his salt will have one to keep his weapons sharp and free of nicks. There may be no rule for keeping weapons sharp, but your *character* is a person, not a set of mechanics. He's going to want to keep his weapons sharp.
Our hero started off with some Character traits that were decided upon from the beginning, but the story has made an impact on them too.
Our hero led a rough and tumble life, which is why he's got such a gruff, no-nonsense attitude. He needs a name that reflects that. Something short and tough. Griff works fine. It's gritty, it's gruff, it's grizzly...in fact, it's grrrrreat.
But there's another side of him. The trauma of losing his family has given him a hard, bitter edge when it comes to those who prey on the innocent, as well as a soft, sentimental spot for those who are helpless. An interesting paradox that can be great in play.
The battle also left its physical mark on the young man. An orc blade slashed him cruelly and left a scar that runs down form the left side of his forehead, barely missing the eye and down the cheek.
He comes from wild lands and chafes under the yoke of laws. On top of that, he's too bitter and jaded to be wholly devoted to the path of righteousness. Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to survive. To reflect his wild and self-concerned side, we're going to make him Chaotic Neutral, but he tends to lean more towards good than evil. His intentions are usually good, but his methods leave much to be desired.
He always likes to be prepared though, so he has a lot of camping and survival gear. He likes to keep his axes sharp and his leather armor well maintained.
As far as actually playing the game, mechanics are probably about the most important aspect of the character. But you all know as well as I do that it's more than just a game, it's a role-playing experience. So in the big picture, Mechanics become an important aspect of your character, but no more or less than any other. This doesn't mean you should downplay the mechanical aspects of your character, however. Just as you would take pains to carefully craft your background story or character description, equal attention should be paid to your mechanical aspects.
This is the stage where you select a class (and race if you haven't already) that best fits your character, then fine-tune it with feats and skills. This is also where you generate and arrange your attributes. If your character is strong then put Strength as your top priority. IF he's dumb then put Intelligence on the bottom of the list. Sometimes though the numbers just aren't with you. Either your stats are too low or too high or too uniform. When that happens you need to either adjust your story or ask your DM if you can reroll.
Mechanics Aren't Just Being Effective
Some people go overboard with the mechanics as they try to create the most effective character, regardless of anything else.
While it is certainly no crime to have a character that is good at what he does (and in fact, the game is often a lot more fun if you have a character who is good at something, rather than just generally inept), you need to balance mechanics and story. If a feat or class helps your character be more effective, but makes no sense for him to have then you need to think twice about it. Why would your character make this choice? If you can't think of why your lawful-minded monk would change his life outlook and suddenly revert to barbarism then you probably shouldn't do it. Sure, the barbarian level would benefit your fighting ability, but if it doesn't make sense then you shouldn't take it.
And likewise, if you can find a good way to justify the mechanical addition then perhaps an alteration to your character's other traits is in order. Perhaps said monk lost his path and was driven to the brink of madness?
But if a choice makes sense from an in-character point of view, and also helps your character be more effective then more power to you.
Mechanics Are an in-Game Reflection
So if focusing on mechanics doesn't necessarily mean trying to make the most effective character, what are they? Well, Mechanics are an in-game reflection of your character. It's all fine to say that your character is, say, the greatest archer in the land, but without the Mechanics to back it up, it's all so much hot air. Mechanics should reflect your character's Story and Character elements, just as those elements may be changed by the addition of Mechanics. If you say your character can do something then he has to have the Mechanics backing him up. Likewise, if your character has a certain mechanical aspect (A feat, a class, what have you) then his Story and probably Character elements should reflect that.
Without good mechanics your character cannot do what you want it to do. But without good Story and Character, your character is nothing but a video game avatar randomly slaughtering whatever it happens across, with no more depth than the paper it's written on.
For simplicity I'm going with the default array for stats. 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Since he'll be fighting in both melee and at a range those two stats should be high. We'll make Strength the 15 to show his strength gained from working the rough and tumble life of a lumberjack, and Dex can be the 14. Most lumberjacks were actually strong but wiry types, able to scurry up trees like squirrels and dodge falling limbs, so this fits nicely. Con is next up since he led such a tough life he needs to be hardy. The next choice is hard to make. A good Wisdom score is important to a hunter as it reflects his sharp senses and awareness of his environment, but intelligence is important too. But his free-wheeling lifestyle and thirst for revenge reflect self control issues, so perhaps his wisdom can be a bit sub-par. We'll make him a cunning hunter if not a particularly wary one: Intelligence will be 12, Wisdom will be 10. Finally that leaves us with a Charisma of 8, but that's just fine. He is, after all, a gruff and unforgiving sort. That means he probably doesn't get along well with others.
Griff is going to be a human. He seems too gritty and tough to be an elf or halfling or gnome, but he lives in the forest and above ground, so that means he's probably not a dwarf. And despite his town's proximity to hostile orc territory, it doesn't make much sense for him to be a half-orc. That leaves human. As an added advantage, however, human gives him a bonus feat and skill point, which will help in fleshing him out more.
For class, I think Ranger fits him best. Barbarian has a savage, wilderness flavor too, but he's not that uncontrolled...at least not right now. Perhaps in the future he'll get in touch with his wild side, but for now he's too cunning to be governed by blind rage. He's a skilled woodsman and probably hunted quite a bit. To me that suggests the path of the Ranger. The Ranger's two-weapon fighting ability certainly doesn't hurt things either. The image of a dark and gritty hunter stalking his humanoid prey out of revenge is a haunting and powerful one, to be sure.
Since fighting with both axes in melee will be covered by second level, we should focus our two feats on the ranged side. After all, up until the village was attacked he was more of an athlete than a warrior, and his chosen sport was axe throwing. Since we said he can throw two axes at once we need a feat that can simulate that without two-weapon fighting. The natural choice seems to be rapid shot. If you have an axe in each hand and you have rapid shot then there's no reason why you can't throw them both. To get rapid shot, we need Point Blank Shot, which is fine since it further benefits our throwing ability, and makes sense since most axe throwing competitions would be at relatively close range.
The ranger also offers skills that are good for him. Profession, of course, can reflect his lumberjack skills. Climb, Swim and Jump all reflect an athletic background. Survival shows he's able to live off the land and track his prey. Hide and Move Silently are invaluable skills to a hunter. It's all falling into place, and since we made him reasonably intelligent, he can take a few skills at decent levels.
Later on the Ranger receives an animal companion. We're not sure right now how long he'll stay a ranger, but the image of him hunting his foes with his faithful hound baying at his side is a good one. So we'll get him a large dog (It says in the monster manual that the stats for the Riding Dog also reflect those of other large-breed working-class dogs, so we'll buy him one of those) and write it into his background. We'll say it's his faithful pet since his teenage years. Later on the dog can become his companion if that's how it ends up. We can also tweak his Character elements a little. Perhaps the dog is about the only being he respects or cares for who isn't a helpless bystander? You can easily extend his outrage at cruelty to those unable to fight for themselves to include cruelty to animals. I can already picture him growling out the phrase, "I can't abide a grown man who beats his wife or kicks his dog," as he faces down an abusive lout.
It looks like this character is just about sorted out.
Finally, after a bit of spit and polish and filling in the blank spots on the sheet we come to the end of character creation and the beginning of play. It's possible that I shouldn't bother covering this part since it's about building characters and we've already built ourselves one, but I think having a good character is more than just having a well-built one. Anyone can take a good character into a game, but you have to be able to play it for any of that work to matter, so here we go.
Execution is how you actually play with the character you just now built. This involves all three of the core aspects of a good character; Story, Character and Mechanics.
Your Story sets the stage for the beginning of your adventure, and if you do it right, it provides inspiration for future adventures. Don't forget where you came from, but keep one eye on what is ahead. Let his background color his choices by reflecting the experiences gained from it in our actions. If he was swindled by halfings in the past, he may be less inclined to trust them now, even if he's not the suspicious sort.
Your Character aspects provide the flavor for your character and guide his choices. Never do something if you don't think your character would do it, and always do something if you think he would. If you're playing a warrior then crack out the oil and whetstone and start honing your weapons during downtime, your warrior wouldn't be caught dead with a dull weapon. If he's a chatty sort start telling stories when the chance pops up. If you're playing a brave character then don't back down from danger.
Finally, Mechanics are how you do almost everything in the game. If your character isn't able to do what you want it to do then you need to pay more attention to your mechanics. Always try to fit the mechanics in with the other aspects of your character and vice versa. If you have a high diplomacy skill then be diplomatic. If you're a good fighter then make choices to enhance your fighting ability.
The best thing about actually playing a character as opposed to writing one is that you have no idea what will happen from one day to the next. As such, your character is going to react in ways you hadn't originally planned. Maybe he reconciles his issues from his past over the course of play? Perhaps he is inspired to take a different path than the one he started on.
Planning your character's future development is never a bad thing, so long as you realize you can't always stick to your plan. Maybe you wanted to give him a level of Fighter at third level, but he's developing a spiritual side now and Cleric might be a better choice. Deal with it, accept it, take it on.
If you end up with the exact same person that you started out with, then you may be missing out.
Time should do more than add levels and power onto a character, it should leave a mark on how he is played, and that mark will show in his Character and Mechanics, and maybe even his Story as perhaps he discovers things about himself or his past that he never knew and takes paths other than the one he had originally intended.
This is the most important part of execution. The game is all about fun. If you're not having fun then you shouldn't be playing. If things aren't going how you like then that's a problem for you to discuss with your DM, but remember the lesson above about change. Sometimes you just have to accept that things don't always turn out as you planned. But that's not always a bad thing. Just because you didn't end up how you once wanted doesn't mean you can't enjoy were you are now.
Don't forget that it's not all about you. If your character is hogging the spotlight then you need to make room for the others, because if they're not having fun then there's a problem. If they want to get on with it while you're still playing out your conversation with the innkeeper then don't be afraid to cut yourself a little short. If your character is taking all the kills then maybe he should pull back a little and rest while the others take point. I know it's tempting to put the focus on your character and be utterly unbending in what he would and wouldn't do, but sometimes you just have to make sacrifices for the sake of the team. Just don't let that take away too much of your own fun.
Anyhow, I hope all this was worth the read, and I hope it helps people take a new look at the way they do things. Always try to keep the big picture in mind. Don't load yourself up with massive backgrounds or tons of quirks or massive stats if you're not focusing on anything else. Always try to keep all aspects of your character in view and change what needs to be changed to make it all fit together. No one aspect is better than the other; it's only when things are taken to extremes that problems arise.
By creating a character that is balanced in Story, Character and Mechanics you can have a versatile champion that allows you to get the most enjoyment out of the game. You can chat up the barmaid, lament your lost family and still kick some butt, whatever the situation demands you can deliver.