Character Building 101: The Don’ts

Posted on December 26, 2012 by


At last the least prolific of the Dungeon Remastered writers returns! Was our hero waylaid by Orcs only to eventually earn their respect and his freedom? Was he swallowed whole by a ravenous Remorhaz and forced to hack his way out of its monstrous bowels? Did he get a job with short term disability insurance and move to a new city? Possibly one, or even all of these scenarios are true, but the important thing is that our hero is back with more advice-based magical treasure and experience.

Now that you’ve had several weeks to digest my post on what to do when building a character, I’ve decided to unleash the rich smorgasbord of Don’ts I’ve been holding on to. So, without further ado, Character Building 102: What Not to Do.

We’ve all had those experiences of frustration within even the most dynamic of D&D campaigns, moments that fail to live up to the epic story lines and well-formed well-loved characters; and that can happen for many reasons that are often well out of our control. However, I believe it’s possible to mitigate some of these issues through self-conscious character building practices and mindfulness of one’s roleplay style, tendencies, and even faults. We all have things we can work on as players, and while we may not be able to or necessarily want to wipe those distinctive issues away, tempering our tendencies can elevate the roleplay of the entire team. That said…


1. Don’t play a perfect character.


And that’s not to say “don’t play a character perfectly.” I mean, don’t play a character without flaws. I’ve already written that it’s important for character development and eventual well-roundedness for a character to have some weaknesses, some vices of mind or spirit. Flaws, judiciously applied, create chances for roleplay, for productive conflict, and opportunities for dynamic plot-based growth as a character struggles with and overcomes its flaws (or succumbs to them; whatever makes for great storytelling).

A flawless character creates opportunities for boredom, static character identity, and possibly even resentment from one’s teammates. This applies to characters that do everything well (making other people largely incidental), characters that are absolutely certain of their superiority in moral/mental/decision making realms, and characters built with the purpose of being better at combat than the other characters (which is largely a 4th ed issue, sadly).

Perfection means stagnation and the impossibility of change. Like the Talking Heads said “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Let your character start like Dante’s purgatory, full of flaws to be burned away and worked through gradually.

2. Don’t build an excuse not to roleplay.


Don’t be a quiet assassin with -4 Charisma who never speaks. Don’t be a human who refuses to speak anything but a poorly understood dialect of proto-abyssal. Don’t play a character that’s so dumb it can’t distinguish between friend or foe. Don’t be a psychic thief who’s Charisma is so high you constantly steal from teammates and lie so convincingly that they have no idea.

And I get it, sometimes you’re trying to make an interesting character, give it some deep felt flaw or super original backstory issue that makes it neurotic and paranoid into near catatonia, or unable to speak during the day, or won’t use weapons, wear armor or clothes ever, and maybe you have a damn good reason, but when it comes to roleplay these great ideas are trumped by the obtrusiveness and frustration they generate.

If you don’t speak the languages of the other party members and refuse to try, then you’re forcing others to adapt and play according to your rules; if you hang back in the shadows refusing to speak ever, then you’re just refusing to roleplay. These things aren’t fair to the other players and DM, and they’re usually not fair to you.

3. Don’t be too contentious


To quote my friend and fellow Dungeon Remastered writer Alex: “Having conflict is great, but D&D is part improv, and all improv actors know that disagreeing with everything makes a bad scene.”

I’ve always described D&D as improvised creative storytelling, and having done some improv, I like to think it’s the truth. One of the cardinal rules about improv is saying “yes” to other people’s suggestions, or “yes but-”

Saying yes, and agreeing to suggestions allows a story to move on and opens up more possibilities, while saying “no” kills ideas and stalls gameplay, not to mention the potential for hurt feelings and small resentments.

Of course, with much longer time-frame, and a much more conflict prone medium than most short improv skits, arguments are a much larger part of D&D, and shouldn’t be done away with entirely. But too often I’ve played in games where a character will decide to disagree with the entire party and refuse to follow their suggestions, even at times disagreeing with the almighty DM. A part of playing with others is compromise, letting things go for the good of the game, and agreeing with others even if you don’t think it’s the correct roleplay decision. Don’t let in-game disagreements get in the way of playing, and don’t let them spill over to real life. Don’t be a jerk just to be a jerk (more on this later).

4. Don’t hog the limelight.


This is sort of an addendum to “Don’t play a perfect character.”  This point is also a mixed bag, and one of the more difficult issues to deal with.

Everyone wants to have an important character, and to be recognized for the hard, often agonizing work they’ve put into “Jimbo the Elf,” or “Roflcopter the Gnomish Prince,” and rarely does a character hold center stage for too long because of any malicious intent towards the other players. But there are opportunities for unspoken competition, and I know this has happened in my exemplary D&D group. It’s a natural part of having a fantastic and passionate group of roleplayers.

So how do you give everyone the opportunities they deserve to come forward without sacrificing aspects of your character, or missing the opportunities presented to you?

Be conscientious of other players. Do your best to know when you’ve had your time, or “arc” as we like to say, and when it’s someone else’s turn. This doesn’t mean you need to fade away; you’ll still be there in all your Gnomish glory, just, you know, tone it down. Sometimes, feel free to play more of a supporting role.

Most of all, don’t try to be the most important character all of the time. Don’t try to be the “main” character, unless there’s a spoken agreement with the DM and the group, and even then give everyone else their due. It’s not a popularity contest because there are no impartial judges, so don’t play like it is.

5. Don’t emphasize build over roleplay


Creating an interesting build is great; please don’t get me wrong, I love fascinating mechanics and nifty tricks for creating crazy effects. That’s awesome, but as with all things, there is a limit.

Creating a character should not be a mere experiment in breaking the game. Don’t put more time and work into building the stacked multiple attacks with extra special effects and built in defensive measures than you put into character backstory, strengths, weaknesses, name, personality, and emotive presence. Don’t play a machine that you’ve built to do one thing, even if that one thing is extra super cool. Don’t take every opportunity to break a character.

It’s nice to have options, but they create an arms race among the players for doing damage and having high defenses, an arms race that many players can’t win due to roleplay choices, or class choices. To some extent, the arms race in powerbuilding is hard to avoid, but it just exacerbates the problem when a player makes build a priority over characterization.

6. Don’t Be A Jerk


You’d think this step would be obvious. You’d think people would try to avoid being a jerk without provocation. You’d think that people wouldn’t actively try to derail a game through anti-social behavior. Have you met people? Have you played D&D with other people?

Things are not always so straightforward. This point will encapsulate many of the other points I make in this post, but it’s important to point out as clearly as possible. D&D, as with other roleplaying games, is a great opportunity to do things you can’t normally do in polite society, to escape the constraints you normally place upon yourself. Unfortunately, sometimes a player will decide to take this to its logical extreme (often resulting in extremely illogical actions).
– Don’t play an evil character just as an excuse to be anti-social.
– Don’t play a psychopath just to mess with your fellow players or the DM.
– Don’t, don’t don’t don’t ever cheat.
– Don’t steal from the other players without a damn good story reason (being a greedy fuck doesn’t count).
– Don’t use a plot event like a burning village as an excuse to rob npcs (unless that’s really what your character is all about).
– Don’t make decisions that are in obvious contradiction to your character or to the general trajectory of the game.

And I know you know what I mean. Time and time again I hear about a player that decided to contradict the idea of the game, to confound the DM at every possible turn, that builds a character as no more than a “fuck you” to the game and the other players. This kind of behavior is selfish, bratty, and not fun. This is a communal game, and unless you want to be unceremoniously kicked out, then treat the other characters with respect, treat the players with respect, and treat the DM and their game with respect.

Oh, yeah, have fun too. Definitely DO THAT.

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