A multifaceted blog on RPGs

Character Descriptions in D&D

In D&D 4E on January 24, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Let’s face it, D&D isn’t a game for deep character portraits. Your character is defined more by encounter powers than by his or her personal traits (“what, you’re an elf? I thought you were a dragonborn, ah whatever, close blast 3, 2d6+5 fire damage, burn baby, burn!”). This doesn’t mean that character development is unimportant in D&D. A character with some background and personality adds to the gaming experience not only for the player, but for the other players and the DM alike. There’s some sound advice in the PHB about personality and traits, it’s short but goes a long way to giving you the basics. This post intends to add to that advice with some tips on generating a fulfilling character description. Read on for specific tips!

Why have a character description?

Why indeed. As stated, the D&D experience doesn’t necessarily require a more profound character description than race, class and level. In 4th edition, an overly complicated (?!) alignment system has been simplified into a one-dimensional slider with five steps of goodness/evilness, and perhaps this is just as good. D&D never was about character depth and social interaction, often resulting in people playing empowered versions of themselves, sometimes with funny ears.

This is fine. Everybody is having fun the “close blast 3 way”. Description however means hooks.  Hooks are good for the DM by giving inspiration for new adventures and ways to involve the character in the adventure on a personal level. In the same way, hooks are good for the player by giving them ties into the game world, a reason to care what happens. If the evil army is raping and pillaging matters a whole lot more to the players if their characters’ home village is next in line. Put shortly, a description ties a character into the world.

How do I write a character description?

To some this is easy, start in the beginning and write until you reach the character’s current age. The problem with this is twofold. First, it’s hard to write an interesting backstory with no source of inspiration. Second, the background can often take on a life of its own and not be connected to the actual character. I’ve had players who enjoy doing a background, perhaps more than they even enjoyed playing the character. They’ll give me a 12-page essay on upbringing and childhood traumas, but when you read it, it never mentions why he chose to become a wizard.

So, I propose that a background for a D&D character be written by using what you already know about the character, right there on the character sheet. To do this, you only have to answer a series of questions, all the hard information is already there:

Abilities

  • How has the character’s abilities affected him, the fact that he is stronger or smarter or more willful than most.
  • Can you think of an event where one of your high or low abilities played in

Race

  • Did the character grow up with members of his own race only? Multi-racial? Other race only?
  • How does the character relate to members of his own race? Does he have any special relations to members of other races?

Class and Skill Training

  • What made the character select his class? Does he have any sources of inspiration?
  • How did the character gain training in his class? Does he have a mentor?
  • Is there a special time when he selected his class, perhaps that makes a good story?
  • How did the character gain skill training in his skills? Is there a story to be told?

Weapon and equipment

  • Does the character have any signature weapon and equipment?
  • How did he acquire his equipment? Bought it off the shelf? Inherited it? Fought over it? Found it?
  • Is there some item he covets that he doesn’t yet possess?

Feats and Powers

  • How do the feats or powers make the character stand out? Are they paramount traits or just quirks?
  • Is there a story about one of the feats or powers?

The Rest

  • Add anything you like about personality, background, likes, dislikes, quirks and other. There are lots of good pointers in the PHB!

These are some tips I have to make your D&D character more fleshed out and interesting. Do you use any other techniques? Use the comments!

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  1. […] description I wrote of Saeth was spawned from working through Jens Alm’s character description questionnaire; the background could easily be tweaked to just drop into just about any campaign world.  I even […]

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