Keeping Character Concepts Loose
You’re starting a new campaign. Your group all sits down to create their characters, either collaboratively or on their own. You form an idea in your mind of the character you’d like to play… and the more you think about that character, the more they solidify in your mind. You start taking notes on their backstory and their personality, and by the time your group sits down for your first session, you know your character as well as you know anyone you’ve ever met. You know exactly how they’ll respond to any situation that might come their way, and you’re ready to roleplay them.
Beware... there's a chance you have just created a rigid character.
Spending a lot of time thinking about your character is not a bad thing, by any means. But too often, I see people come to the table with a character ready to go… but when they get to the table, they aren't prepared for what their character will do/how they will act around the other characters. Because there's something they forgot - their character is part of an ensemble, and not the main character of a story.
The most common version of this is something we've all seen before: the character is standoffish loner who doesn’t take any crap from anybody. I often see this PC show up when there was no Session Zero for the party to create their characters together... which means the characters are created in a vacuum.
I don’t mind characters who are loners, but when a player is so set in their mindset that the character "wouldn’t work with anyone," that’s when I get annoyed. I’ve seen so many games where friends of mine (who, I should say, I do like and enjoy playing these games with) play characters that just wander off on their own constantly. Their characters don’t consider themselves part of a team, so they just mosey off on their own.
If I never see another character like this as long as I game, I’ll be perfectly happy.
Loners are fine. Some of the coolest characters in fiction are loners (Wolverine, Batman, Han Solo), and that’s exactly why so many players gravitate towards making characters like that. But you have to factor in the fact that you are playing a collaborative game. Loners who never take anyone’s crap tend to wander off on their own, and that means you are not playing the game with your friends; you’re shutting them off, and making them feel as if you don’t value their contributions.
(And just a reminder, all those cool, fictional “loners” I named earlier? They always find themselves in the middle of large ensemble casts. Wolverine is a member of the X-Men, Han Solo joins the Rebellion, and for being a “loner,” Batman seems to keep joining teams and adopting new sidekicks. Because a loner who stays a loner forever isn’t very interesting.)
Another thing to consider is that characters can evolve. If you come to the table with a rigid idea of exactly who your character is, how they became the way they are, and what sort of character arc they have ahead of them, then you’re not opening yourself up for any character growth. And that’s not fair to you or to your fellow players.
The most important thing for any character in any media to do is change – maybe they make the right decisions, or maybe they fall short, but that’s what stories are about. And sometimes, your character shouldn’t begin the story as a hero, or as someone with a painfully obvious arc ahead of them – their journey can develop organically as the story unfolds in front of them, and as they work and fight alongside the other characters.
By the way, I want to clarify that this is a mistake I have made several times. It’s taken me a long time to realize that the characters who have the most growth over a campaign are the ones where I didn’t have a locked-in personality with no wiggle-room. I had an idea of who they were, but they found their voice once we actually sat down and started rolling dice together. Even for Sweeney on Friday Night Quests, I had to adjust my mental image of him a bit as the story progressed, and figure out his voice.
I don’t want to tell anyone that they can’t play the character they want, and no one can tell you that your character wouldn’t react a certain way. But when you design your character, you have to keep in mind that this is a collaborative medium, and that you don’t know what’s in store for your characters.
When you give your Dungeon Master your backstory, you can throw in some adventure hooks (“I crossed a gang of half-orcs, and now they’re out for blood”; “I have a sister who vanished when I was young, and last I saw she was being carried away by a black dragon”; “I’m the last prince of an ancient empire, and my goal is to build an army and take back my kingdom”), but if you sit down to your first session, and none of those plot hooks arise, it’s not because your Dungeon Master forgot; it’s because this isn’t a novel, and you’re not the only person contributing to the story.
Every other player at the table also has ideas for how they’d like their characters to evolve, and besides, your DM probably has a story they’re keen on telling. Their story might be related to your storylines, or they might choose to weave them into the story as subplots. If the DM does neither, and your character’s backstory ends up playing no role in the story, that’s on the DM; part of their job is to integrate the material they've been given and make a story that engages all of the players at the table.
If your DM has no intensions of using any of your characters’ backstories, then it’s their job to manage the expectations of you and your fellow players. When my friend Jay Jones ran his first campaign, he asked each of us players to come up with a dark secret our characters were hiding. As a result, we knew that some secret from our backstory would be relevant to the story in some way, though we didn’t know how. Even some of the pre-written adventures produced by Wizards of the Coast, like Lost Mine of Phandelver or Hoard of the Dragon Queen, provided a few personality traits or bonds that players could use to tie themselves into the adventure. Something similar could be employed in your home games, as a way to help the characters get in sync to the story.
The most important aspect here in open communication. You have to be able to talk to your fellow players, and your Dungeon Master, and figure out what is expected from your character. And please, for god’s sake, be mindful of the fact that you are playing a collaborative game. If you really, really want to play a selfish loner, have a rationalization for why you’re hanging out with a group of other heroes. I played a selfish loner for 20 levels, and I could always justify why he spent time with the rest of the team, so I promise you that it can be done.