I don't need to tell you or anyone how to make a character for a roleplaying game. It's natural to human invention to play pretend and to invent with great facility imaginary figures of all kinds. But I do think it is an interesting topic, and I hope that by putting my method to words and sharing it you will tell me your interesting stories about beloved characters and what you loved so much about them.
|Coil Killer, a treasured PC from an OSE campaign|
This is about characters, above and beyond the numbers that your system of choice mandates.
As an exercise, start by only writing down interesting details about the character's appearance or the appearance of their belongings. You need at least one detail, and if it's good you only need one. As a rule, hair/eye/skin color is not considered interesting unless it's beyond the normal range for humans. If you can get away with it, and in the OSR scene I play in there's a fair chance, you can totally just decide that your human fighter comes from a group who has spikey Star Trek faces or periwinkle hair.
Some aspects of appearance that are almost always interesting if done boldly include scars, tattoos, shield designs, hats, masks, staves, belts, exotic weapons, and religious symbols. When I say "done boldly," I mean the sort of thing that would be funny to see if someone drew your character as a stick figure. Scars should be big or prominent or weirdly shaped. Belts should be made of weird material or have a funny buckle or something.
Some traits, like heterochromia (eyes of wildly divergent colors), are sometimes seen as cliche or lame. Ignore that concern. Playing an evocative thief with 2 hit points is a different experience than writing the protagonist for your novel, and the other people around the table are on your side from the beginning. Besides, just like in life, you shouldn't take your PC completely seriously, and you should be able to laugh at them.
Behaviors and habits fall under this category. Many tables of 100 habits and personality quirks have been written, and many of them are too weak for our purposes. These should be the kind of habits where if you saw someone do it on the bus you talk about when you get home. Referring to yourself in the third person or constantly rubbing your hands together are both fine, but they don't count as interesting in this stage. What if they point a knife at people when they're thinking, or compulsively scratch graffiti while keeping up conversations, or wear head-to-toe red.
Because you're playing an OSR game where danger is real and making good choices is important, every PC should, at least sometimes, be curious, clever, and collaborative. Because you're playing a game with your friends where danger is pretend and making good choices is boring, every PC's personal life should be a disaster laden with hasty promises and extreme courses of action.
Some good traits for PCs to possess include indebted, repented, lustful, nosy, reborn, vengeful, despairing, gluttonous, gullible, innocent, brutal, horrific, miserable, desperate, morbid, uncouth, heedless, jealous, shameless, prodigal, uncertain, grandiose, suspicious, ambitious, excessive, particular, burned, irresponsible, ferocious, frivolous, uninitiated, bitter, sinister, disdainful, casual, deprived, spineless, swaggering, excitable, intolerant, overpromising, intemperate, venal, impulsive, undiscerning, exploited, shocking, romantic, feral, plundering, untrustworthy, sanctimonious, underestimated, scandalous, disorganized, fickle, chaotic, amoral, lonesome, insidious, tawdry, hopeful, and melancholy.
It's fun to have relationships with the NPCs and the other PCs, but depending on the campaign that may be tricky to plan. Usually your DM won't object if you write out a list of your immediate relatives. They are usually keen to let you be in debt to or in love with or the bastard offspring of a major NPC. Generally, you should seek relationships that oblige your PC and put them in awkward positions while providing them with the occasional opportunity. There are a lot of opportunities in playing another PC's squire, or their cook, or their barber, or their biographer. Two immediate relationships would be a good minimum.
In some games, DMs are enjoying the private fun of designing a region. If you ask them about a cool place for you to be from, they'll have a few good leads. In other games, the DM doesn't want to bother with that, but they'll typically give you leeway to describe where you come from. Betray their trust and declare that your homeland is the only one that manufactures crossbows, or that kobolds love you because your hometown was the ancestral seat of their ancient heroine-queen. Allude to a horrible war that swept across the world just last year. Do all this, but be gracious when the DM adulterates you.
If all goes according to plan, you are going to be saying this name out loud a million times, so make sure it's easy to pronounce. Starting with a stressed syllable is advisable, as is keeping it shorter than four syllables. Other people are going to misremember your PC's name, and if you insist it's spoken only with a French accent you will probably be disappointed.
Much advise about names is false for our purposes. Name yourself something similar to another character. Name yourself after them, even. Use excessive apostraphes and hyphens (again, as long as it's easy to pronounce). The name doesn't need to "say" something about who the character is. It's a tag that will achieve semantic satiation quickly unless it's evocative and strong. Give yourself a silly name. It will seem normal eventually.
You usually don't need a surname, but it's fun to have extra name to say. You can just add "of [Hometown] if you want. Avoid the fantasy convention of giving yourself a compound surname like "Surestrike" or "Bronzebellow" unless it's really juicy. If melodrama is your thing, an epithet might serve you better, such as "the Arrow" or "the Thick-Thighed." Using your profession or hair color or whatever as a proto-surname is cool as well. Two names is a good minimum.
Never underestimate a stupid/powerful name. Furthermore, it's fun to have nicknames, titles, and sobriquets.
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