Building a Better Character Questionnaire


Advice


When it comes to character questionnaires — those long bullet point lists of character-building questions like "what is her greatest fear?" and "does he have any enemies?" — I find that my preference is for 5-10 questions. Any longer than that and things begin to feel like homework. My question for the board is this: What are the most important questions to ask your players during character gen? What are the most useful ones to think about while you're fleshing out a character concept?

Comic for illustrative purposes.


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I have to admit that I was turned off of this method the first time I encountered it. I had just rolled up a fresh new barbarian and my brother (who was DMing) told us about this questionnaire thing that was in his recent edition of Dragon Magazine. You answered a bunch of questions about your character and it would give you some insight into your character's personality. Things like "how does your character decorate their home?".

I answered all of the questions honestly and was presented with a result that was almost completely opposite how I had envisioned my character's personality. I thought about changing my answers to make the personality match but those answers were not how my character would answer. I basically ended up ignoring the results of that questionnaire and never went back to them for purposes of character creation.

I have found the character background generator presented in ultimate campaign to be quite useful. I can roll dice to answer questions about things I may not have thought about. After all, you can't pick your parents, or how you were raised. I find it helps color the character's personality by adding depth. Why does the character dress in all black? was it because they actually had a tragic background or is it because they trying to distance themselves from their very plain upbringing and "embarrassing" parents.

It can make for more interesting roleplaying as you're less likely to make your character a cliche.

That being said, I'm curious what other player's experiences have been. Maybe it was just a bad questionnaire.


I'd say that I have a few approaches when it comes to designing a character.

I often start with a mechanical concept that I think will be interesting and powerful, like some wicked combination of Feats, Spells, and Class Abilities that will make the character awesome at Tripping, Grappling, and/or Full Attacking. Then I map out which features I build in first and how, then I look at the whole mechanical composition and ask myself, "Self, what is this character like as a person?" For instance, I made a 3.5 character about the Elusive Target Feat, a 3.5 Feat which gives you a Free Action Trip Attempt whenever you Provoke an Attack of Opportunity by Moving out of a Threatened Square, so of course I also took Improved Trip and Combat Reflexes. I decided a big 2handed weapon with the Tripping quality would be best, so I picked Halberd.

So then I was thinking Halberds are usually used in closely ranked infantry formations, most famously in coordination with Swiss Pikemen, but this character doesn't fight like that: this character runs around skirmishing and very individually. Who uses Halberds like that? Scottish Highlanders, do, only they don't call them Halberds, they call them Lochaber Axes. So, my Fighter is a Highlander. "Halberd? You call this a Halberd? Do you think my kilt is a skirt and, I'm a Swiss Miss? You come over here and say that, and I'll put a skirt on you, by God!"

Sometimes, the character starts with a personal concept. I have made a character modelled after an American military hero. I made another to make a feminist comment on women born in Fire Horse years. I'm currently playing a militaristic, imperialistic, Halfling mercenary who is utterly convinced of the racial superiority of Halflings.

Another thing that happens is that I often have 2 lists of character concepts: one that stems from game mechanics ideas and the other from roleplaying ideas. So, I will often create a character by drawing a line, matching a concept from the mechanics column to one from the roleplaying column or vice versa.

A questionnaire might challenge your players to consider new things about their characters. It might help inexperienced players scaffold their ideas and help with the whole process. It might get in the way by imposing a structure on players whose imaginations do not fit into little boxes on a questionnaire.

Another thing I might caution you about. A lot of the time, a good player only gets to know his character gradually through roleplaying, and this can be the richest part of the gaming experience. A lot of people I talk to about character design are bothered by my emphasis on exploiting game mechanics, saying "I prefer to roleplay!" My answer to them is that you roleplay by roleplaying! Character designing happens before you start roleplaying. I'm not going to tell you how to roleplay your character, and I'll thank you not to tell me! That's why I will often start with game mechanics, and I'll let the characters tell me how they are to be roleplayed.


LordKailas wrote:
I have found the character background generator presented in ultimate campaign to be quite useful. I can roll dice to answer questions about things I may not have thought about. After all, you can't pick your parents, or how you were raised. I find it helps color the character's personality by adding depth. Why does the character dress in all black? was it because they actually had a tragic background or is it because they trying to distance themselves from their very plain upbringing and "embarrassing" parents.

This, 100%. Sometimes, I know just about everything I need to about the character's personality and I need a bit of randomness thrown in to make the character unique. Sometimes, I have a great concept that I want to build towards and don't have a clue as to how to create a personality to go along with it. Using the Ultimate Campaign, I am able to build a character from the ground up in a setting, give them a foundation, and find inspiration on how the character was pushed towards something I had in mind.


What's all this world-building poppycock? Back in my day we made 20 character sheets of nameless bland-faced adventurers and we liked it that way!

In all seriousness however, I find these sorts of 200 question long character interviews are better for people who actually make rather well fleshed out characters as it helps fill in crack and gaps to solidify the character as a person and not just some deity's chewtoy of tragedy.


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Frankly, as a GM, I don't need to know that sort of thing. I ask about things that will actually matter when creating or running scenarios, and even then everything's optional. It's handy to know the PCs' organizational ties and maybe one or two close relationships, but I really don't care what Their Greatest Failure was unless they already have some idea of it and specifically want to include it.

In fact, that's a better approach to me. Instead of asking all of this stuff just in case it matters, ask "What details about your character would you like me to specifically work into the game in the near future?". Only ask a specific question when you know you'll need it.


Just want to chime in about how awesome Ultimate Campaign's character generator is, especially for new players. I break it out whenever I introduce a player tabletop RPG because rolling dice is always more fun than parsing out rules. I even use it for my own characters to generate info that I want them to have, but I'm too lazy to figure out on my own.


I feel the kind of minor details found in these questionnaires are better filled out during roleplay; I usually don't actually know the answer to these questions until I've played the character a bit and seen how she really interacts with other people.


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I tend to fill in the blanks as I play the character and get to know them.


I usually roll d20+d8 (or d30) twice to determine the character's name. This roll generates "A"-"Z" twice, which I use to pick a character name.

To me, I think up a concept, often with a class, that I want to play. I then build up a beginning character that starts down the path to this concept. I never decide the whole 1-20 level breakdown. Usually, I don't have a detailed backstory until I have played the character for several sessions. This is partly because I incorporate what the rest of the party is into my character's personality. This lets me define a personality that works with the party.

As a GM, I think class, race, level, and main play style would be enough. All else would be added in as play evolved.

/cevah


Cevah wrote:
I usually roll d20+d8 (or d30) twice to determine the character's name. This roll generates "A"-"Z" twice, which I use to pick a character name. /cevah

My names tend to be fairly carefully considered, lately.

I named one character Sir Blank, because I couldn't really think of anything.

I find some names here and there. I just learned a new word: inamorata, which means "female romantic interest." So maybe a Bard named Nina Morata?

I have a Mystic Theurge named Lauren Ipsum. "Lorem ipsem" is a term that refers to filler text that shows you what a font looks like.

I have a grappling character named Olga Blakovitch who is named after an--ahem--performing artist.

I named a character after Leigh Ann Hester, the first woman to be awarded the Silver Star for individual valor. My character's name is Hester Estrella.

The most controversial year in the Chinese Zodiac is the Year of the Fire Horse. The Japenese name for Fire Horse is Hinoeuma. I made a character named Yuki Hinueoma. "Hinoeuma" is not her real name. She never tells anyone her real name because it would shame her family name were she attached to it. After killing you she will bow her head and say, "I am Hinueoma. I bring misery to all men." or "My dowry is my sword." She named her sword "Homewrecker," but sometimes she calls it "Dowry."

For my Halfling Fighter/Rogue I wanted a German name that was very ostentatious and arrogant-sounding. Do you remember Prince Tarn of Hablock from Red Sonia? My character's name is Carl Wolfgang von Grignrsbane. Some of you will remember the name "Grignr" from the Eye of Argon.

I recently made a 3.5 Monk Fist of the Forest who is under a Vow of Poverty. His name is Tristan von Schlissler. He used to be called the von Schissler. He was a wealthy landowner--head of the once-powerful von Schissler family--who had a highly profitable timber and textile industry, but he did not practice good conservation methods, and he depleted his whole land of the trufula trees that brought him lumber and fibers for his clothing. In penitence, he took his Vow of Poverty and eventually joined a Fist of the Forest monastic order, the Order of the Lorax. He eventually took a level in Sohei, which lets him enter a Frenzy similar to a Barbarian Rage, and he took a level in Bear Warrior, so he turns into a Bear when he enters his Rage, or rather, he turns into a brown-bar-ba-loot!

I am putting together another 3.5 character, a Half Giant Fighter/Psychic Warrior who uses a Heavy Flail for Tripping and Disarming and will do other things to get Attacks of Opportunity. The campaign setting is an alternate Earth, and I decided he is English. His name is George Miller, because I have him use a Flail. I suppose I could name him George Thresher. He also practices the Longbow on Sundays.


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Arachnofiend wrote:
I feel the kind of minor details found in these questionnaires are better filled out during roleplay; I usually don't actually know the answer to these questions until I've played the character a bit and seen how she really interacts with other people.

I generally want to know about half of the answers to the questions since that much provides useful prompts when improvising in character, but the other half can be filled in during play. So I'll read a questionaire or similar, but "skip whatever questions you want" seems like a good standard.


When I am behind the screen, I usually ask, before they tell me about the mechanical aspect, to tell me about their character in a way a close friend would describe the character. I let the player know I am interested in behaviour and personality - and not in background or origin, and even less in mechanical concepts such as class or alignment.
Day to day, at home, what kind of person are they? If they lived on Earth now, like you and me, who would they be?
I ask to be told about their [meta]humanity.
It isn't about their failures nor their successes, it is about colour.

I get answer such as « She likes the smell of baked goods. » or « He likes to be fashionable but isn't very good at it and doesn't like it. » or « He is a bit chauvinistic but doesn't realise it. »
The personality equivalent of the Warhammer table of physical particularities.
Colour^^


Agénor wrote:

When I am behind the screen, I usually ask, before they tell me about the mechanical aspect, to tell me about their character in a way a close friend would describe the character. I let the player know I am interested in behaviour and personality - and not in background or origin, and even less in mechanical concepts such as class or alignment.

Day to day, at home, what kind of person are they? If they lived on Earth now, like you and me, who would they be?
I ask to be told about their [meta]humanity.
It isn't about their failures nor their successes, it is about colour.

I get answer such as « She likes the smell of baked goods. » or « He likes to be fashionable but isn't very good at it and doesn't like it. » or « He is a bit chauvinistic but doesn't realise it. »
The personality equivalent of the Warhammer table of physical particularities.
Colour^^

I usually have to discover that about my characters as I'm playing them: what they liked to drink, what kinds of jokes they found funny, how they behaved in graveyards and when encountering beggars in streets, are they good or lousy tippers, I usually have to get to know my own characters gradually for detail like that.

Grand Lodge

I always design my characters from either a story or character hook before I even crack open a book to start looking at mechanics.

For example I had a concept in mind for a shy half-orc who talked to rocks...that evolved into an earth kineticist, who eventually took the Elemental Whispers wild talent and got a pet rock who talks back to him. He later got so enamored with rocks that he performed a ritual on the plane of earth to transform himself into a kind of quasi-oread.

Or I wanted to make a worshiper of Calistria, but I didn't want it to be the usually dominatrix BDSM queen that most people immediately think of when they picture a Calistrian, so I made a male courtesan using a mix of Warpriest and Vigilante. Very formal gentlemen, understands the rules of consent, doesn't blindly hit on everything that moves.

Sometimes I'll come up with a cool character idea, then end up not being able to come up with a viable build that I am happy with, when that happens I either move on to a different idea, or see if I can tweak it enough to make me happy with the usefulness of the character without sacrificing too much of the feel I was hoping for.

I have also gotten to the point where I know the rules of Pathfinder well enough that I can make some ridiculously powerful characters, so I will often start off by giving myself some sort of handicap to work around...like playing a strength based character built on a race that starts with a strength penalty. Sometimes this leads to some really fun character hooks...like my strength based gnomish monk who has pink hair and beard, and wears mostly pastel colored robes in pinks and purples...all the big scary guys in the tavern laugh at him until he rips off his shirt and beats them into a paste.


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I view questionnaires as a tool. Sometimes its the right tool for the job, sometimes its not. There is no one way to make a character.


Is this the ultimate campaign geneator we're talking about?

https://www.d20pfsrd.com/basics-ability-scores/more-character-options/chara cter-backgrounds/background-generator/

That does indeed look like a saucy temptress of a generator. Cheers for the tip!


Slyme wrote:
Sometimes I'll come up with a cool character idea, then end up not being able to come up with a viable build that I am happy with, when that happens I either move on to a different idea, or see if I can tweak it enough to make me happy with the usefulness of the character without sacrificing too much of the feel I was hoping for.

I want to echo this.

I have a text file of backstories I think are interesting but haven't had a chance to put into numbers.

The stories are usually sparked by a life experience.

- I took my kids apple picking, and they were throwing rotten apples at each other. Wouldn't it be fun, I thought, to have a Pathfinder character than ran around pelting people with apples? Thus, my first alchemist was born.

- I find myself disproportionately being the "responsible one" in PFS, reminding people not to kill people we aren't supposed to kill. I imagined that various races would be totally justified to register complaints or file lawsuits against the Grand Lodge. Thus, my dead gillman reincarnated as a human was born. He's a melee-focused oracle in line with his past, but could have easily been a bard with Profession (barrister) in line with his mission.

I find that a lot of the details like how someone would decorate their room are a lot easier to imagine when you know the broad strokes of the painting. For example, because sound travels much better through air than water, my reincarnated gillman probably hates all the loud, obnoxious air breathers and has a little "aquarium" (no fish - it's cruel to keep them penned up like that; instead, it's mostly for the smell of sea water) in an isolated cabin on the outskirts of town.


DRD1812 wrote:

Is this the ultimate campaign geneator we're talking about?

https://www.d20pfsrd.com/basics-ability-scores/more-character-options/chara cter-backgrounds/background-generator/

That does indeed look like a saucy temptress of a generator. Cheers for the tip!

Yep, that would be the one. The only complaint I would have about it is that the alignment sliders don't offer a lot of flexibility. Meaning it may not be possible to achieve the alignment you were intending for the character.


Pathfinder Companion, Maps Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber; Starfinder Charter Superscriber

I must admit to not liking the moral conflicts/alignment charts either. So if your character faced no serious moral conflicts before he started adventuring, he defaults to lawful good? That doesn't seem right. You would have to "really enjoy" committing a petty offense to get your alignment even a single step away from lawful good.


Personally, I find it more logical that someone who has faced few, or no, moral conflicts as they grew to maturity would be more Neutral than anything else, simply by nature of being truly untested. The chart is only helpful if/when they have been involved in something involving it. Or, you know, for RANDOMLY generating something rather than deciding they had no conflicts.


(Isn't it also just a suggestion? I mean it's not forcing you to be a certain alignment.)

As a person who has trouble roleplaying and homing up with personalities, I usually start by thinking of 1 broad trope I want for the character (Ex: angel or sneaky). I then go through and think of the broad personality trope (impulsive, indesisive, etc.). The alignment Indetermine by either what fits best for the concept or what I feel would make the character more fun (or fitting)

For the backstory, I have a hard time with those so I looks at background generators and other random stuff (says some show inspires me).

*************
Now questions that would be good. I would say that questions of morality might be good, at least for determining alignment; For example: You have won vs an enemy what do you do? (A) kill them immediately, (B) let them try to convince you, or (C) spare them

Questions about how they were raised. Whether they had money or not, family or orphaned, lost someone dear, etc. These could help with some of the mannerisms the character has, and possibly lead to plot/story hooks.

Finally, questions about their likes, dislikes, and fears. For no other reason than to not be 1 dimensional.


David knott 242 wrote:
I must admit to not liking the moral conflicts/alignment charts either. So if your character faced no serious moral conflicts before he started adventuring, he defaults to lawful good? That doesn't seem right. You would have to "really enjoy" committing a petty offense to get your alignment even a single step away from lawful good.

Yeah, you should probably get a modifier (which could be positive or negative) based on "wild" your character was growing up. In this way if you were well behaved you're less likely to have had an event that pushes you in the Chaotic / Evil direction and vise versa.

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