Recipe for Roleplay: How to Cook Up a Compelling Character for LARP and Tabletop RPGs

Posted by Benjamin Aldercast on


  • Yourself
  • Maybe some dice
  • Probably a Rulebook


Preheat oven to 400

This is usually the first step, right?  Warm up to character creation by reading the rulebook.

When creating any character, it's important to know what game you're playing.  A pure-of-heart idealist might be right at home in a high fantasy setting, but they might feel a bit stifled in a gritty horror game.  A con artist might be a lot of fun to play in a larger game where there is always someone new to shake down, but playing a loner gets old fast in a smaller game with a single adventuring party.  Neither of these are wrong choices, but it helps to know how your character will fit into the game overall.

Mix known information into a large saucepan

Start with what you know.

  • Do you have some ideas already of who/what you want to play?
  • Have you decided on a class or set of skills?
  • Have you rolled dice and/or created stats for this character?

I find it easiest to draw upon my knowledge of my friends, family, and favorite characters from books and film when starting out.  Perhaps you want to model your character after Indiana Jones or your cousin Fred who has that strange habit.  We're not going to copy this idea wholesale in most cases, but it provides a great foundation to build upon.  This character can also serve as a fallback in the moment when you haven't made a specific decision about something.  "What would Sherlock do here?"

For extra flavor, add a complication or twist.  What if Mother Theresa had a gambling problem?  What if Scooby-Doo was the brains of the operation at Mystery, Inc.?

Stir in goals

Now that we've added a base to this character stew, it's time for the meat.  More than anything else, your character's goals and ambitions will drive your gameplay.

A good goal is long-term, achievable, and specific.  If you can accomplish this goal in your first game session, you will just have to keep creating new ones.  The longer you can make that goal last, the more gameplay that decision provides you, and the more satisfying it will be when you finally accomplish it.  An impossible goal might seem like a limitless supply of fun, but it will quickly dry up if you feel like you aren't making any progress toward it.  An achievable goal is one that has a direction you can take which will bring you step-by-step toward completion.  Specificity helps with this as well, as a specific goal informs your decision-making along the way.

Your goals will change over time as your character develops, as you discover new things about the world you inhabit, and as you accomplish previous goals.  Never hesitate to abandon a goal if you decide as a player that it isn't right for you or for your character.

Reduce to simple motivations

At this point, you should be starting to see the overall shape of this character, but how do you jump in and play?  Complex goals and abstract ideas don't translate well into moment-to-moment roleplay.  This is where motivations come in!

At their core, every person has simple driving factors.  In real life, these factors are the basis of our goals, but they can be hard to distill.  When creating a fictional character, it's much easier to start with your goals and ask, "Why?"  Why does my swordsman want to become the head of the town guard?  Is it because they seek recognition for their abilities?  Or do they perhaps want power and authority?  Maybe they think that's the best way to help people?

The best motivations are the simplest, often distilled into a single, actionable word.
"I want to conquer."
"I want to protect."
"I want to learn."

If your answer is too complex, keep asking why until you find that simplicity.

You can draw on this motivation any time you find yourself not knowing what to do next, and it can even help you form new goals for your character when your older ones are finished.

Season with weakness

Nobody is perfect, and a "perfect" character generally isn't fun or interesting to be around.  Define the flaws in your character, and play into them.  Some flaws might be informed by your character's skills and attributes, and the best flaws are set in direct contrast to your goals or motivations.  "I want to be the richest person in town" becomes much more compelling when it is challenged by "but I don't see the value in money and only trade in tangible things."  Flaws can also be simple, such as "I have a fear of dying."  A great flaw will regularly thwart your efforts and offer opportunities for other players to engage with them, but they should not be crippling to the point of inaction.  A would-be politician that doesn't want anyone to know their name might sound funny at first, but they will have a hard time campaigning and might never see progress.

If you're unsure, a good gut-check is, "have I ever known anyone, fictional or otherwise, who had that flaw?"  If not, consider some other options before you commit to it.  Don't forget that flaws can change just like goals do!  As your character grows, they can overcome these flaws and grow into new ones.

Let it simmer

Once you've developed this character, put them on the back-burner and check on them from time to time.  In your day-to-day life, occasionally ask, "What would my character do in this situation?"  You'll start to internalize them and get a sense for the parts of the character you like and the parts that need revising. You'll also get great practice reacting as that character, so you won't have to think quite so much later.

Serve without judgement

Once you start playing the game, you can put all these character traits you've created to work!  But remember, all this effort that you've put in is conveniently invisible.  If you decided that your flaw is that you don't care about anyone, but you see someone and want to help, it's okay to trust that impulse.  You are the only person who knows who your character is before you start playing them, so you can't really go wrong. Just go play, and leave any judgement about who your character is or isn't in the waste bin.


Ben Aldercast

Ben Aldercast has been swinging foam weapons since high school and telling people how to do things since 2nd grade. Sometimes he's been right, too!

1 comment

  • Good article. :) These days, I pick characters that I can have a good time playing and can nurture the players around me.

    Lisa Schaefer on

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