So I’ve discussed what constitutes a good character, and already gone in depth on how to make them fit with the setting and the party. Now comes the trickiest part, which is to ensure that they can contribute meaningfully in relevant situations. Sooner or later a character has to be good at something, and that’s a place where the rules can trip you up if you haven’t thought it all through. I’m going to try and make sure that this isn’t system specific, and the best way to do that is to think about it in terms of steps, each of which is constructed of a few questions. Answering these questions in any system will help you get a handle on how to make a character who’s good in this respect.
Step 1: Think About the Game
The big question here is “What are the aspects of the game?” What sets of situations will arise where your character will be able to contribute? 4th Edition D&D divides itself neatly into combat and skill challenges for example, while Shadowrun, as a caper game, can be divided into planning, execution, and aftermath. Figuring out what the dimension of the game are will ensure that when you decide where you want your character’s expertise to lie, that area is relevant to a significant portion of the game. A good rule of thumb is that if you find that characters spend roughly 1/4 of an average session or more doing the same set of activities, that constitutes an aspect of the game. A non-system specific example would be Robin Hood and his Merry Men. They have three aspects: robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, and chilling in Sherwood. Everything they do falls mostly within these activities.
Step 2: Think About the Character
Now that you’ve identified the aspects of the game, you have two questions to ask, the first of which is “In which aspect(s) should the party to rely on me?” This will determine the aspects that you want to focus on. To turn to the Robin Hood example, Little John is a front line fighter, and specializes in robbing from the rich. Friar Tuck, as a trusted member of the clergy, is better at giving to the poor. Allen a Dale, the bard of the forest, entertains the men with delightful songs and is highly skilled at chilling in Sherwood. Each of them can be relied on to take the lead in their aspect. It also doesn’t follow from this that they can’t do anything outside it. Little John plays lots of games with the men, Friar Tuck is a competent warrior, and Allen a Dale can redistribute wealth. The second question which is relevant is “In which aspects should I rely on the party?” If a character can do everything as well or better than the rest of the party, it becomes clear that they don’t need the party, which makes it harder to integrate them. This doesn’t mean that they can’t contribute in that aspect, but that it isn’t where they can be relied on to take the lead. Robin Hood for example, given his tendency for showmanship and the warrant issued by the Sheriff of Nottingham, often relies on his men to give to the poor. He can and does do so as well, but at a greater risk than Friar Tuck or even Allen a Dale.
Step 3: Hunt and Peck
Now that you’ve figured out the game, and prioritized the aspects you want to pursue, it’s time to hunt through the mechanics of actual character creation, whatever they may be. The question you always want to be asking is “How well does this help me do what I want to do?” For an ability to be relevant, it has to help you contribute in one of the aspects you hold to be important in some meaningful way. Pursue abilities which help your character be relied upon in the right aspects, and find ways to get them. There are other questions which become relevant, like “Does this help my character integrate with the setting or party?” and “Is this going to be fun to play?” The answers to these might lead you to re-evaluate step 2, and that’s fine. There will likely be cases where the mechanics can’t accommodate your goals in the way that you want them to. What matters is that the outcomes reflect the final set of goals you reached in step 2. For example, Allen a Dale needs to pursue abilities which make him good at chilling in Sherwood and giving to the poor, so that when his fellows call upon him to do so, he’s capable of following through.
These three steps certainly aren’t the only way yo ensure that a character contributes meaningfully in a game, but they’re the best way I’ve found to pump players’ intuitions about how they want to make the mechanics reflect their idea. How do you ensure that character can contribute meaningfully?