Often, as a Role-Playing Game enthusiast I find myself watching as a player crafts a character up from scratch only to see a loose empty framework with a draping of cliche. And while that is fine for some people, as some do enjoy less flavor and more action and numbers, it often bothers me. Nowhere worse have a seen a series of rules that seem built around such bland & empty characters than that of 4th Edition D&D.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I have been a fan and supporter of D&D ever since I was introduced to it in 2nd edition. And nobody I know fought harder when 4th Edition was released to remain open-minded and convince people to give it a chance and try it out. Even when areas of it seemed lacking I persuaded desperately among my core player-group to bear with me and house-ruled several things. In the end though I had to concede - while 4th Edition lends itself to fast-paced games whose strength is firmly rooted in action, a lot of D&D's signature strengths were now weaknesses.
In 3rd, and 3.5 editions D&D was marked by a depth of flexibility and ability for a player to thoroughly detail his character's various aspects and traits to breath a rich and vibrant life & history into them. With 4th Edition, a player's alignment was narrowed to only a select segment meant to emphasis 'only heroic high-fantasy and adventure.' Drama is conflict, by definition, and not all adventure is clean and neat pure heroes on horseback riding forth to dispatch some barbaric beast. The best stories ever told, or played in for that matter, all have aspects that deal with a depth of character and some drama. Be it a high and mighty Paladin from a bloodline touched by a celestial heritage forced into a horrible moral dilemma that in the end allows him to be victorious but to loose his very Paladin-hood. Is he still a noble figure, yes, could he possibly atone for his deed, again yes. But the fact still remains, that the moral dilemma still occurred, and that event, no matter how long it's consequence affected him, still had an impact. Not only that, but it made for a more dynamic story that allowed the player to actually look into the deepest aspects of who his character was and react, but also to see that character grow and be changed.
A few months back I was introduced through a friend to something that to me that has revived all hope in the legacy of D&D; Paizo's Pathfinder RPG. Returning to 3.5 Edition and revising it to improve on all it's faults and further fortify it's strengths it has shown me a far superior rule-set that lends itself to characters who are quite literally what their name implies they should be. After my initial review of the material I became fascinated by a simple thought and set myself to a simple exercise as proof. Many players craft a character from scratch with the sole concept of some cliche-based idea, for example they immediately start off thinking an Elf should pursue certain class-roles like a wizard, ranger or druid and tunnel their imaginative vision accordingly. With many of the advents in Pathfinder I came to quickly believe that if one had a clear concept of who they wanted to play, the framework itself would allow that personality to be crafted as any race or class easily enough to still be that person. As opposed to something else with the same name.
Case in point, years ago I tried the same experiment with a Specialist Wizard in 3.5 who focused his arcane talents of Divination. The Wizard in question was a scholarly man with a desire to literally know everything. He sought to seek out all learning and knowledge he could. With that goal in mind I built 3 versions, one shaped by the campaign setting of Forgotten Realms, one vanilla-suited for Greyhawk and a third forged by Eberron's recent war-scarred history. while the rules allowed each one to be similar in many ways, each of the three differed in ways that left them more than subtlety different. The experiment was very interesting to me to say the least and helped me establish an understanding of sorts.
Pathfinder immediately reminded me of the little exercise, and as I was already looking to test Pathfinder out among my core group of players presented an interesting opportunity. It gave me an idea to not only test Pathfinder's new flexibility but also to help remind my players, especially some who still struggle with fully fleshing out a character's, that they are more than just numbers on a sheet. So I presented a simple challenge:
"You are approached by local Thieves' Guild members seeking to form a freelance group to break into a vault and retrieve something. Without using any mention of race or class as a description, describe who you are and why they might approach you."
I then further complicated things by assigning a race and class to the player and entreated them to build the person they described within the confines of the race and class provided. In theory the player would have then been having to focus on the personality/persona they described and build their character around it, as opposed to simply building it around some arbitrary concept of default class/race stereotypes. So far it has proven to have yielded some fascinating character concepts.
Try it the next time you go to make a character for a game, consider describing a character without the limitations of class or race and then build what could best fit, or even as a challenge what would least fit and see what comes of it.