Roleplaying 101: Building character

I am building a new character for Pathfinder Society.

Last week I played with a pregen – Kyra, the Cleric – in an adventure set in the Hold of Belkzen. So this is going to be my starting point.

I am a cleric of Sarenrae from the Hold of Belkzen.

Belkzen is a land dominated by tribes of orcs. They lead a pretty hardscrabble life, but during the whole Whispering Tyrant thing that ended PF1 they fought against the undead hordes. Lodas of them died, but they saved the inhabitants of Lastwall from a fate worse than death. OK, so it was mostly death with a side order of undeath. Since my character isn’t going to be an orc – or a half orc – I’m going to be a human refugee, probably adopted as a child into the tribe of orcs led by Mahja Firehair – the Burning Sun tribe – that featured in the module I played.

This gives me a connection to a game world location, a time and a place.  

This would be the starting place for a character in fiction. When you are writing a story – who is this character, and why are they doing what they are doing? What is their motivation?

A character in a RPG is similar. But both simpler and simultaneously more complex. Some people will tell you to build an entire backstory – all tragedy and how many siblings you have and what your favourite pets name was. But we aren’t trying to give your character an online bank account – we are trying to establish why your character wants to be an adventurer.

Wants to put themselves into harms way.

Wants to fight monsters for money and rifle through their underpants for coins.

Most people do not do that.

Say you are sat at Fan Boy Three one day and somebody staggers in, badly beaten. They say a gang of kobolds has stolen their mobile phone and are heading to the Arndale. And they are armed with knives and crossbows. How many of you would grab up your own weapons and go out to kill those kobolds for £20. Not very many of you.

Thank goodness.

In Joseph Campbells Hero of a Thousand Faces, once you step out on the path of a hero you can never go back to your old life. Like Luke Skywalker, you are forever changed. You made your choice. Now you are the sort of people who wander from village to village and town to town doing deeds of derring do for gold or credits, carrying around enough money in the form of your equipment that you could pay the tax on a city for a year just with one ring. Level a city block without blinking.

That experience would change you.  

Your character is an exception. They are probably not... nice, in the way we think of nice. They may be good, or evil or neutral, but they are still driven to put themselves in peril, constantly, for gold or adrenaline. These are people who cling to each other through necessity, because nobody outside an adventuring community can understand them, or maybe even tolerate them.

And so the first question I must ask is who am I and why do I want to go adventuring?

My character is Fajra. She is a cleric off Sarenrae who grew up running around Belzken trying to prove herself in her adopted community of orcs, who probably thought she was pretty weak and scrawny. And now she has reached an age where her adopted mother – because my orcs are a matriarchy – has sent her off to ‘rejoin’ human society. To decide for herself whether she wants to continue living as an orc, or embrace her ancestry.

It’s a tough choice. But she won’t face it alone.   

Question two, why do I want to go adventuring WITH OTHER PEOPLE.

My character is not an island. Pathfinder and D&D – and their little wizard friends – is the perfect game because like in life, no one person can do everything. We aren’t Doc Savage – who famously has a band of companions comprised of the second best in the world, since he is the best at everything he does. A polymath, an omniexpert.

Roleplaying games are not like that. When you choose your character class you are not choosing your strength, but your weakness.

Like in life it is easiest to mitigate against weakness by joining forces with others who are exceptional where you are weak. Because together you are strong. This is why you never split the party. You might not like your adventuring companions – and they might not bond with your character either - but in games like Pathfinder Society, Starfinder and Dungeons and Dragons Adventurer’s League we’ll mix the tables up every session so you won’t always play together.

But when you do? You now have a history. Imagine your character as a living, breathing, flawed being in a shared fantasy world, a wary eye cast upon your companions, knowing that you have to trust each other to succeed.

Maybe in time you will become friends, maybe even lovers. Only time and the dice will tell.

Thirdly, I need to know what my character will do in combat.

Combat is a large portion of most fantasy roleplaying games, because, well, there’s this old adage that conflict breeds character. In combat everyone has something to do, there is a rigid round structure which means everyone around the table gets to be equally engaged. Sooner or later there will be conflict.

But this isn’t Fight Club. Not all Pathfinder characters have to fight. Maybe you are a healer like Kyra? I knew from playing Kyra that she isn’t really optimised for combat, and I kind of like my characters a bit more toolkitty. In an online game you never really know who you will be playing with – what if everyone turns up with a gnome Bard? I’m going to want to fight, and probably in the front line.

There are lots of options in Pathfinder.

I prefer the Cloistered Cleric build, because it gives you domain spell access which will give me a fire ray spell at first level. Sarenrae is the goddess of fire and healing and truth and stuff. I want to lean into that. The opposite of Cloistered Cleric is Warpriest, but I won’t be as cleric-y and heavily themed. But there is an option of being a Half Elf and then taking Ancient Elf as an ancestry feat, allowing me to start with a dedication feat  – in this case I’ll start with Champion Dedication, giving me extra skills and the ability to wear any armour.

Sounds tanky. I like it.

Now as a character I want to bring all the mechanical elements of my character into her personality. Hmm. Ancient Elf. Elves are really old, so they have lived many lifetimes worth of experience and this is them accessing that. As a Half Elf? Sometimes the mechanics allow a thing that doesn’t fit quite so thematically. Reconciling this is part of my job building a character.

I decide Fajra’s birth mother was an Elven Champion who died fighting Tar Baphon and her spirit lingered after death because of the powerful necromancy surrounding the Whispering Tyrant. And Fajra went on a quest to free her mother’s spirit, but the only way to do that was to allow her mother to partially possess her. So her ancestry can be Ancient Elf, and those memories are accessible to her thematically as well as mechanically.

And that gives her a bit of a shtick.

Now she isn’t just driven to prove herself to her adopted family, but she has a ghost family legacy to live up to too. No wonder she is an overachiever.

The fourth question I ask myself is, what does my character do out of combat? This means, what skills and abilities do I have, why, and what is my personality like? Haunted by the spirit of my dead Elven mother is certainly a good start there. Normally I’d probably pick a social skill like Diplomacy, but here I have gone for Intimidate and Performance, some Crafting, some Athletics and Survival – I lived among the Orcs for a decade, and I am pretty au fait with the whirling scimitar dances sacred to Sarenrae.

Fajra means fiery in Esperanto. I had to fight to be accepted among the orcs, so I figure I probably have a quick temper which goes with the whole fire theme. Did I mention I can shoot fire? I can shoot fire. My weaknesses are knowledge skills and lores. Temper has a dual meaning when it comes to fire, so I figure after all that time having to prove herself to the Orcs she grew up alongside, she has a desperate need to prove herself to literally everyone. To temper herself, as it were.   

To bring out my personality I’m going to lose my temper every session. Because this is a team game and I am a team player I’m not going to lose my temper with the other player characters. The fifth rule is that your character should be fun to play with and your fun shouldn’t come at the expense of other people around the table.

When I am around a table I look to other characters I can spark off. If there is a void around a table, playing a character with a strong personality can fill it. But in an ideal world your character gives enough space around them for other players to roleplay, and by roleplaying your character it encourages others around the table to roleplay theirs.

You can’t all play sociopathic loners. Though some people sure as hell try!

In a regular campaign the more information you give the GM the more story hooks they have to work with. But also the more closed those story hooks become. I like to give enough flexibility so I have room to grow – otherwise there’s a tendency to end up making Max Branning from Eastenders – characters with so much plot and backstory it’s almost impossible to find enough air for the character to breathe.

And thus, evolve.

Always remember at every step your character needs a reason to adventure. And a reason that ideally can’t be easily sated. To recover your father’s sword might seem like a strong motivation, but what happens after you do? Pathfinder Society is ideal for that – you are all members of the Pathfinder Society and you travel all over the world on behalf of the society solving mysteries and helping people. Sure, sometimes that might feel a bit artificial. You aren’t so much of a fantasy novel as you are an episodic TV show.  But hell, I’d tune in every week if it was on Netflix.

Hey – and you can tune in too!

You can download the Pathbuilder App and start building your own Pathfinder characters online.

You can sign up for Warhorn and find free to play pathfinder games all over the world, and then play in them using Roll20 and Discord. And when Fan Boy Three is back open for in store play, the first Sunday of every month is Pathfinder Society play. Maybe you’ll even meet Fajra on a table.

(Tell her I sent you)