Every gamer has been there; you’ve been conscripted for a new campaign, and you have no idea who you want to play. Maybe you know what role in the party you’re going to fill, or maybe you have full freedom to choose, but you sit there staring at a blank character sheet at a loss.
My method for building a character has always been to come up with the backstory first. This may seem counterintuitive, but as a storyteller, I’ve always preferred to make the character to fit the backstory, rather than write the story for the stats. I usually start by flipping idly through the races pages, reading the bits about their culture (this is especially a good method for 5th ed, as they’ve made a determined effort to include more culture for us to build on). As I read the page, i start thinking “what would make someone from this culture become a bard? Or a fighter? What about a sorcerer?” I keep a blank sheet of paper next to me, and jot down ideas as they occur.
The sheet might read something like this:
“Dragonborn fighter–was a slave in a gladiator pit, made enough money to buy their freedom, therefore disdains slaves who stay enslaved. Cocky, Naive, wandering in search of work
Half elven bard–father a disgraced human noble who drew the wrath of his family after a distinctively non-human baby arrived on the doorstep with his name on it. Dresses as a man to avoid the family that still hunts her
Gnomic ranger–grew up in a remote village on the edge of a mountain. Fell in love with and married one of the humans that guided people up the mountains and through the pass. When she died of old age, he decided to leave the place reminded him of her and explore, using the skills she taught him to keep her legacy alive”
After I get 5 or so, I stop. (more than that is just too many to choose from). Although they’re just a couple rough sentences, details about them have begun to form, even personality traits. I know if I want to play someone with a chip on their shoulder, I’ll play the dragonborn, and if I want to play someone older and wiser with some sadness in their past, I’ll play the gnome. If I want to play someone with a tragic backstory that could come back to haunt them, I’ll play the half elf. Sketching out the story can give you an excellent sense of who you want to play, and you begin to get invested in them and have a sense of who you are before you start the game, which gives you a huge edge in role playing.
Odds are you’ll be drawn to one character sketch in particular, and it’ll be a pretty easy choice. (sometimes you’re stuck between two. I recommend making both, and then hey! You’ve got a back-up). You can also choose the character based on the campaign: if my DM was starting the campaign at a hiring fair or with a mercenary contract, the dragonborn would be my choice, but a chance meeting in an inn would suit the half-elf or gnome better. Or maybe the DM will have a specific detail that helps you, like that the campaign will involve a slave rebellion or intruige with nobility.
Once you’ve made your choice, you can use that backstory to build the character in game terms. Say I’ve chosen the Gnome. I know he’s a ranger, so a lot of my choices are going to be basic, logical ranger choices. But he’s also older: he’s already had a lifetime with someone, so im going to put a higher value in wisdom that I would normally. He comes from the mountains, so Im going to outfit him with gear that makes sense for mountain trekking. I’ve decided that his wife had an animal companion and, so his animal companion is going to be descended from hers, and mountain native: probably a mountain lion or goat. When it comes to picking spells, im going to choose ones that would make sense in a mountain environment, such as endure elements or jump.
Backstory is especially helpful when choosing skills. If you are playing a system that gives you a ton of skill points to dump into things(i.e. Pathfinder or 3.5), it gives you a place to put extra points. My gnome lived a quiet life at home for years while his wife was off adventuring, so I would give him a profession; maybe as a tanner. He also lived on the mountain and was used to search and rescue operations, so I’ll put a few points in use rope and heal. (If you’re playing a 5e, where your skills are determined by your race, class, and background, ask your DM if you can customize your background skills to fit your backstory). You can use your backstory to justify some really unusual and out there skills choices as well; there really is nothing like whipping out an unexpected skill in front of your party and being able to launch into the story of how you learned it.
Obviously, creating a character in this manner isn’t going to work for everyone. But if you want to get into a character and enjoy the game regardless of your skills and abilities, it’s a great way to engage your creativity and make a truly unique character.