The GM’s gotten everyone around the table – characters rolled, feats selected, classes discussed so the party’s as cohesive as it’s going to get. The coffee’s re-filled in everyone’s cups. The GM spins a story, lays out the setting, the beginnings of a place and time that isn’t your living room start weaving around the gaming table. Your characters meet in a tavern, or the palace, or wherever you’re having that first awkward ‘let’s all decide to work together’ moment.
The GM turns to the players, and says those fateful words: “Introduce yourselves, and describe your characters.”
If the groups you’ve played with are anything like mine, you’ve found this is the part where people flounder a bit. I’ve played with people who, while they can recite their character’s stats back-to-front and they might know how every feat interacts with their base attack, their characters are often described in terms of race and class. ‘Half-Elf Monk,’ while descriptive in terms of setting and system, hardly scratches the surface of what that character actually looks like. Having a more detailed idea of how a character looks can help blend the stats in with the living world being built through the story, and it can speak volumes (or not, if you’re playing a rogue/spy type) about who the character is and what they’re capable of.
I do a good deal of my gaming over online, play-by-post type settings. The current setting I’m playing in has (with a few exceptions) human as the exclusive player race – having a more in-depth description of the characters in the setting is practically a necessity. There are only so many combinations of hair colour and eye colour that can be made before that generic description starts blending together. Off the top of my head, I can think of four blonde-haired-blue-eyed characters, three of which are women. Without going a bit further in depth, that sort of thing gets pretty boring, pretty quickly.
Using the stats that the character is built around can be a great starting point – factoring in class and race, if the setting incorporates non-human player races, too. Games in the vein of Pathfinder often have general ranges of height, weight, and colouration for their player races, and while that’s a good place to begin, it still doesn’t really say a lot about a character. White Wolf games tend to have a section that gives a general description of what the average member of that faction might look like. But your character isn’t average, are they?
Take a look at the character’s stats. A high-strength character isn’t likely to be 5’10” and weigh 190 lbs. Sarah Robles, who is the strongest weightlifting woman in America at the moment, stands 5’10” and weight 275 lbs – and she can lift over 560 lbs. Put into Pathfinder terms, that means she’s got a strength of 25. She adds a +7 to every attack she makes with a one-handed weapon, and can break down a fairly well-made door with a roll of only a 10. With a strength score of 18, a character can lift Arnold Schwarzenegger. The higher the strength stat gets, the thicker the character will likely be (unless you’re playing with Superheroes, in which case, your mileage may vary).
Stats that measure a character’s grace and their endurance can be represented in different ways through appearance, as well – long-distance runners are often leaner and more slender than sprinters. Swimmers tend to have different musculature than gymnasts. And so on, and so forth. Looking to real-life examples of people whose stats might match up to that of a character can provide a good start for how that character is put together.
So now the description has moved beyond ‘Half-Elf Monk,’ and into something that breathes a bit more life into the numbers on the sheet. It’s time to add some detailing touches.
Does the character have scars? I’d bet they do – I’m not even a sword-wielding adventurer and I’ve got tons of the things. From the one on my cheek where I wasn’t being careful with a boxcutter when opening a package to the one on my finger where one of my brother’s friends bit me*, the one on my palm where I accidentally cut through fabric too far and snipped my skin open to the one on the back of my leg where a wild cat bit me, my skin is pretty well marked up. Consider your friends – I think we all know someone who, as a child, fell on their face and bit through their lip somehow. Now apply that kind of thinking to the character – in battles, in situations where they’re likely getting as good as they’re giving, and even at first level, it’s likely that they’ve already got a road map of learning experiences across their features.
Don’t forget about freckles and birthmarks, either. Now might also be a good time to figure out if they’ve ever broken any bones, and how well those bones were set. A broken nose is crooked forever if it’s not tended to, whereas hairline fractures don’t often leave visible marks.
What does their hair look like? This might be a better thing to look towards the race or class of the character to decide. While an Alchemist might wish they had long, flowing lock, if they mess up a formula, the resulting explosion means saying goodbye to any and all hair they might have possessed. And eyebrows. And eyelashes. A helm-wearing fighter is probably going to opt for something more sensible that can easily fit underneath their helmet without providing any additional neck-sweat, while a duelist who fights with as much panache as rapier might keep their hair longer, just to show off. In Warhammer, a dwarf without a beard is hardly a dwarf at all, while most high-fantasy systems hardly ever have Elves with any facial hair.
Giving a character a bit more personality through appearance doesn’t have to be a grueling thing. Considering statistics, background, and profession makes for a simple way to avoid the first-session trap of stammering out, “Um, I’m playing Elthiriel, she’s a Half-Elf Monk.” You get to be the cool player who can take a flat set of numbers and shape them into the adventurer who’s going to kick some ass – and give the other players at your table a clear image of who they’re fighting alongside.
*This happened in high school. Just sayin’.