Watchtower's Guide to Characters

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Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by Mayonnaise » Mon Sep 08, 2014 2:33 am

Credits to DM Watchtower for creating this guide on the old forums! Original thread!

So I'm going to be writing up some extensive guides that discuss broad aspects of the game, and using them to give advice on how to improve in small ways that will collectively improve the server in dramatic ways.

Feel free to give your own advice, or expand on a piece of advice I've already given, but please do not post nitpicky corrections or inflammatory reactions; I'm happen to receive those responses, but they're best left to PMs. Thanks.

The next entry will be about Interaction and Conflict, followed by Leadership. After those two, I'm open to ideas about what else I can add.

Before I begin, here are a few useful related threads written by players:

Guide to PvP - A rather handy guide to PvP from Hin Are Friends Not Food. It covers a lot of basics for newbies, as well as tried and true methods that will improve your interactions. I'll be reposting this link in my next installment, Interaction and Conflict, as it's a lot closer to that in terms of content.

The Literature of Roleplay - A guide to expression and interaction by Seven. This will likely be more relevant in later installments, particularly the one I'll do on Story as well as bits of Interaction and Conflict, but the advice contained within is useful, regardless.

Watchtower's Guide to Characters

-Play Style
-Back story
-Character Sheet
-Protagonists, Antagonists and Side Characters

Play Style

The first thing to establish with a new character is the play style you want to pursue. For most people, this is obvious; anyone who has been on the server for a while typically knows exactly what they’re getting into with a new character. Do you want to be a highly political character who regularly interacts and impacts many different characters? Do you want to have some simple, detached action and adventure with a group of friends? Do you want to be a loner? Hunted? Loved? Hated?

Your play style is directly reflected in the broadest archetype of the character you come up with. For most people this is obvious, but nevertheless, it’s an important thing to take a second to think about. Managing your expectations is an important part of anything that must be achieved with a group of people all making their own individual decisions. If the primary thing you have fun with is farming the spires and crafting weapons, you probably shouldn’t allow your character to be a Cordorian Councilor; the responsibilities of one will take a back seat of the priorities of the other, and in the end, nobody is satisfied- including you.

Back Story

Many players spend a lot of time working out the history of their characters before they arrive on the island. Extensive histories are established with very specific details… and nobody will ever see any of it. The most important part of your character shouldn’t be his history, but rather, what his history did to him.

A character’s psychological profile is far more important than the specific history that gave him that profile. Why? Because everyone will be impacted by the former… few will learn anything about the latter. You can have the most detailed history on the server, but when you’re standing in the Merchant District saying “…”, it’s not going to mean anything to other players. Instead, imagine what that history did to your character. Did it change his speech patterns? Is he more or less trusting of others? Is he forgetful? Does he want revenge? Does he hate father figures?

The trick is to work backwards. Start with a unique voice that would be fun to play, and then work backwards to (loosely) decide what the source of that voice would be. The best characters are often those who have very defined personalities but no specifically detailed back story; this leaves things open for development. I’ve found that after playing the character for a while and I’ve discovered which quirks and habits work and which don’t, then I’ll know what to enhance, and I’ll have a better idea of what the source of those habits should be.

None of this should imply that you shouldn’t have any back story; the gruff loner with the mysterious past wouldn’t work terribly well if that mysterious past didn’t actually exist. But recognize the difference between a character played specifically to raise questions about his past and a bland character who you insist is deep merely because you researched seventeen different sources of lore just to create him.*

*I’m not criticizing lore fiends; I too do lots of research when I make a character. But the research is less about how obscure I can make my character’s history, and more to figure out interesting characteristics to pick up on that’ll make for the most unique experience for other players.


This sounds like it could be quite similar to the above two points, but there’s a fundamental thing to stress that won’t be covered (necessarily) by broad character archetypes or well-written back stories. Your character’s personality is, simply put, the voice that other characters will hear. It will be reflected in your character’s opinions, in his goals, in his interactions and reactions. And it’s exactly where most people get themselves into trouble.

The problem is that people often, without thinking about it, develop characters to think how they would think; players who like to give advice will find themselves doing it in character. Horny players will make a lady’s man. Argumentative characters will play loud-mouthed freedom fighters or obnoxious Halflings. While these are all legitimate ideas for characters, the issue comes when players begin to mistake their own reactions for that of their character’s. Too often do I see conflicts between character devolve into pedantic arguments raising points that the characters in question wouldn’t realistically notice or care about. Your 8 INT barbarian probably won’t be able to quote the dogma from four dozen deities, nor would he be able to effectively cite lawful precedent during his meeting with Cordor’s council.

To be clear, we’re all guilty of this. All of us. I refuse to believe that there is a single long term player who hasn’t at some point fallen prey to this habit. It doesn’t make you a bad player, it makes you a human being. It’s perfectly understandable. What separates good players from bad players is how they recognize it and deal with it.

The easiest method is simply to make characters who always diverge from your opinion in at least one very major way. If you are chaotic and lack respect for authority, make a lawful good paladin. If you are lawful by nature, make a shifty, amoral rogue. If you’re horny, make an 8 CHA half-orc. (Or a dwarf. Ew.) This isn’t necessarily to challenge yourself, but merely to guarantee that the character you’re playing is a character, and not a voice box for your OOC opinions about what should be happening. If you start off disagreeing with very basic aspects of your character, you know you’ll never trap yourself into your OOC opinions about your character’s experiences overwhelming your sense of who that character is or what they would or wouldn’t do.

At a later point I’ll discuss abstract player goals and how to reconcile them with your individual character goals, and it will directly relate to the point here. But for now, consider my advice: Arelith is a fun escape, so allow yourself that escape. The next time you have an IC argument, try giving your character an opinion that you don’t share.


I can’t tell you how many alignment discussions I’ve seen on the forums, nor how many times I’ve seen really great players who regularly interact with one another bring up drastically different opinions on how they feel alignment should or shouldn’t work. My goal won’t be to try and give you one more opinion on how I think you should treat alignment, but rather, some suggestions on maybe how to look at it and how it relates to your character.

Alignment isn’t arbitrary. If it meant nothing, we wouldn’t have it. In its most basic sense, it’s a way to restrict broadly inconsistent concepts. Paladins can’t also be Blackguards. A Champion of Torm can’t also be an Assassin. You get the idea. Now, take that intention and broaden it to fit other aspects of your character. Would your lawful good paladin really be meeting with shadowy denizens of the Underdark without shoving a sword down their throats? And, if he did, wouldn’t he be hating himself afterwards for not being able to smite him like he should have?

Too often is alignment seen in extremes; the thing to ignore completely, or the thing from which you can never depart. Instead, I never see alignment as what dictates every single character action (nor the opposite, obviously), but rather, what dictates how the character feels about his actions. A chaotic character will probably hate being made to obey a place like Benwick’s very strict laws, but since he’s not an idiot, he’s going to obey them, because he really needs to buy a sword. He’s just going to be miserable as he’s doing so. And maybe next time he’s more likely to buy that sword from another source.

To put it more simply, a lawful good alignment should suggest that if you had to do something chaotic, it would bother you; it doesn't dictate that he'd never do anything chaotic. If the choice between actions were between a lawful one and a chaotic one, a lawful character would obviously lean toward the lawful act; but that doesn't mean he would rather die than do something chaotic. Only absolutely extreme characters would have a view like that, and while those can be interesting, they certainly shouldn't be common. Think Rorschach from Watchmen; he's a guy who would rather die than compromise his own ethical code. He was also totally unstable and crazy. Should ever character walking around the island be that nuts?

I don’t see alignment as a gentle guideline you can sometimes use; it’s a very important aspect of your character. But rather, its interpretation, in my opinion, shouldn’t be limited to “obey” or “ignore”, but instead used to pull your character in interesting, compelling ways. Just as in real life, sometimes we do things our personal ethics dictate, and sometimes we are forced to do things that conflict with that, because we don’t want to be arrested/fined/die. Arelith is no different, and conveniently, that personal conflict is the breeding ground for many great stories, if you handle it properly.

Character Sheet

This is similar to alignment, but less difficult for players to grasp (but ignored just as often). The fact that you have skills and attributes isn’t just a measurement of how effectively you can dispatch things with your uber build. Like alignment, it’s an intentional limitation meant to make your character more realistic, with just as many (or more!) weaknesses as strengths. If you want to pound the ever-loving hell out of things, you’re probably going to have to sacrifice your charisma. If you want to be the most brilliant wizard of all time, you probably aren’t going to be able to lift much more than a coffee cup unless you have loads of magical help.

A character’s most interesting and unique qualities come from his weaknesses, not his strength. When I see a barbarian with 8 charisma being sociable and popular, I have to groan a bit, because he’s avoiding some compelling character development and potential conflict just to be in high school. What sounds like a better story, the guy who can hit things really hard and gets along with everyone really well, or the jerky guy who people have to put up with because he’s a powerful ally?

Being a jerk is just an easy example; one can extend that to any number of scenarios. You have a friendly wizard with high charisma and very high intelligence, but low wisdom; so why would he make all the right decisions? It sounds more fun if he was absent-minded and forgetful and not terribly forward-thinking. Maybe your high intelligence, high wisdom character has low charisma, which makes him a very pragmatic leader, but probably not a very friendly one. Or maybe your low-constitution rogue is very sickly, and has developed a small obsession with eating healthy, lest he become ill. You get the idea.

Skills are the same way. When I see characters with no Perform singing amazing songs or characters with no Bluff score constantly lying to people, I have the same reaction. As a player, your priority should be to figure out how your character sheet impacts your character and his story; it’s not just a thing you can ignore that tells you how effectively you can chop someone’s head off. Remember that thing I mentioned earlier about separating yourself from your character? Diving head first into the RP of your character’s mechanical weaknesses is a giant step toward making that happen.


A quick note about depth; there’s room for any amount of it on Arelith. Having a unique voice doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with having a lot of character depth; sometimes it’s alright to be two-dimensional. Some of the best characters I can recall are the ones who were predictable and relatively shallow; sometimes you just want a big dumb half-orc who hits things to be a big dumb half-orc who hits things, or a cackling mad scientist to be a cackling mad scientist. I have no criticism for those who bring more depth to it than that, but please don’t mistake depth for skill, or a unique voice, and certainly don’t mistake a lack of depth for a lack of skill on the other player’s part. The world needs its two dimensional characters just as much as it needs anything else, and frankly, on a story told on such a grand scale with as many different inputs as Arelith has, two-dimensional characters are often essential to bridge the gaps in everyone else’s serious business story telling.


This is a fairly simple idea, but also easily-missed. And once again, it has more than a little to do with your ability to separate yourself from your character. Your character has convictions; even a lack of convictions can be a strong conviction in and of itself. Given that the server is all about fantasy adventures, your character’s convictions can have an impact probably stronger and more dramatic than what you’ll see in real life (unless you’re secretly the President or something). As a result, being consistent in your character’s actions and reactions is that much more important. If your druid hates necromancers, it’s not good if he suddenly has a change of heart when your best OOC friend makes a necromancer and wants to grind.

I see this pretty often, and it comes in two varieties. The first is what I describe above; a character’s convictions shifting to be whatever is convenient for the player’s mood. This comes from a lot of places; unwillingness to risk a loss, laziness, a shift in mood, or just lack of judgment. All of it is wrong, and most of it is easily-solved. I certainly understand the pitfalls, but I also have to remind you that this isn’t a single player game, and the fun of a group-storytelling atmosphere is that you don’t get to decide what happens next. So don’t drop those convictions. Play your character, and if that character isn’t who you’re in the mood to play right now, roll up a new one who is. No, you can’t kill players as effectively as your level 30, but with a good party the swamps are just as fun as Baator. And if killing players is your priority, you and I have bigger issues than what this guide can effectively solve.

The second variety of this is often more broad. Your character, who has devoted his life on Arelith to a certain ideal, has reached the end of what he can explore within that ideal. Rather than end the story (more on this later), you decide he’s going to have a change of heart and redeem himself. Or become evil. Or whatever. While individual stories about these broad changes can be interesting, when you see it happen to every other character who has been around for more than two years it not only gets stale, but it dramatically impacts how other characters would realistically react to conflict. How can you really hate a villain when the status quo for villains is to eventually be redeemed? How can you really trust a “good” character when it’s quite likely that he’ll fall to evil in a year when the player gets bored of his story? Be mindful of the message you’re sending with your story… sometimes it just needs to end if you want to preserve the integrity of not only your character, but all the stories surrounding him.


That brings us to the next point: when to end things. There isn’t a trick to this beyond simply being self-aware. There are issues people have with this boil down to two things: ego and fear.

Ego sounds worse than it is. It’s simply the idea that “if I leave, things with my faction/settlement/etc won’t be as good without me." And while this may be true (it probably isn’t), it’s also alright. There’s a finite amount of space on Arelith, and sometimes it’s alright if things die; it’s just a way for a new thing to grow in its place. Maybe a new leader will come along and totally change the dynamic of your faction in a new and refreshing way… or maybe nobody will come along, and your faction will die, but all of those players will move on and find a new thing, and suddenly a new faction will come up that fills that void in a totally new way. Either way, it’s fine; let it happen. If your story is over, don’t stick around like it’s a job. It isn’t. Chances are you’re screwing up fun for other people, not just yourself.

Fear is a more simple idea; you’ve got a character you’ve played for a long time. You know every single hotkey, you’ve memorized ever slot in his inventory, you’ve got a nice fat bank account and a lot of influence. Suddenly you’re character’s story is told. He’s loved and he’s lost, and he’s risen and fallen, and he’s experienced a full story arc that a character like him can experience. But what’s next? How can you be expected to go to 0 gold and 0 items and no friends or influence anywhere? How can you go from farming the Spires to barely being able to kill rats? Because it’s more interesting, that’s how. Too often do I see characters faction-hopping and completely changing their goals and ideals merely to extend the life of a story that’s already told. Instead of going from Light Keep to the Arcane Tower to Bendir, maybe you can create a new character that experiences those new things. Refreshing your goals and ideals with a new character is healthy and more interesting; doing it with the same character you’ve played for three years is inconsistent and boring.

A final note: I don’t think every long-term character should go away just because they’re old. I can name a few character who I sort of hope never go away, because they’re as consistent in their goals now as they were five years ago, and those goals still have a compelling place in the overall story of the server. This is difficult to achieve, however, and often your story will have a natural conclusion. Don’t drag it out… create a new character and start a new journey. Remember, everyone starts with nothing. And it doesn’t take long to start making an impact.

Protagonists, Antagonists and Side Characters

This is something I’ve had a lot of conversations about recently. It’s one of those things that seems entirely obvious until you realize that you’ve never thought about it before. On Arelith, we’re telling a very large story in a very collective way, and as a result, everyone will have different ideas about how their character fits into that story in relation to how everyone else fits in. The goal is to reconcile your expectations with the reality, and how to have fun with where they meet. To this end, I describe characters in one of three ways: Protagonists, Antagonists and Side Characters.

Protagonists are the default for most players. You are telling a story, and naturally, your character is the protagonist of that story. He is the most important person in your world, and events on the island happen all according to his perspective. The thing to keep in mind is that most players you interact with have the same idea about their own characters. When you pass through Bendir and give a passing glance to two characters having a hushed conversation on the hill, you might be on an epic mission with more importance to your character’s life than anything he’s ever faced before, and those two characters are just a part of the world as you continue along that mission. But to them, you’re just a guy walking by while they discuss something that matters just as much to them as your mission matters to you. In other words, you are the protagonist to your story… but not to the whole island.

The island’s story is bigger than any one character’s story, and some respect for that is essential. If you find yourself only telling your story, all the time, and never giving an inch for other characters, then it’s time to reconsider your approach; if everyone else’s story isn’t respected, they’re not going to respect yours, and soon you’ll find yourself alone. The other end of this is paying more attention to everyone else’s story than your own (more on this later); the end result is that when something significant does happen to you, those players will now be loyal enough to give your story the weight and attention that will make it compelling and powerful.

Antagonists are quite similar to protagonists, with the specific different being that they’re built to be the thing that people pursue. Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not talking about Good vs. Evil, or Heroes vs. Villains. Some of the best villains are the ones who think that they’re the protagonists, or the ones who follow exactly the same trajectory as the protagonists, but with a fundamental difference that puts them at odds with whatever morality or society deems acceptable. Antagonists are different in that they are built to eventually fall. Their goal is wrong (to you as a player; they’ll likely think they’re doing the right thing), but it is pursued, and that pursuit by its very nature puts them at odds with the target protagonist(s).

Now, this seems more rare, but it’s not; it’s simply rare to find one played well. Too often antagonists are interpreted as “I’m a bad guy so I can kill lots of things”. It’s a favorite of PvP hounds, and skilled story tellers are often more likely to flock to Protagonists or Side Characters, which leaves a giant gap in what an antagonist can be. When you see a conflict last for ages with no resolution or perhaps a distinct lack of conflict entirely, it’s likely due to a lack of well-played antagonists.

Antagonists should strive to be something more than PvP machines or characters who can get away with doing anything they want simply because they don’t have moral objections to anything; they should be a very carefully-played tool meant to breath real life into the stories of protagonists. It’s lonely and difficult and often frustrating… but it gets easier, especially when people begin to recognize that you’re an antagonist that they can rely on.

Side Characters are a very different thing from the rest. Very-talented players often inhabit these roles, as it often allows them to impact more than being a Protagonist, and it tends to be an easier path than being an Antagonist. A side character isn’t a protagonist; they aren’t necessarily pursuing their own story, or at least, their own story isn’t the dominating force in their lives. Side Characters don’t have to be simple peasants or merchants, which is what often comes to mind when the term is used. Typically it’s exactly the opposite; Side Characters are often those who lead settlements or interact broadly with many settlements or factions. They are the characters who empower protagonists and provide targets to antagonists.

Side Characters tend to be a less obvious path for players, especially newer ones, but it also tends to be the most rewarding as it’s a very easy way to get validation from other players. There is no more powerful thing than when a character outside of your story voluntarily pursues your own story with you; suddenly that story is bigger than your character, and this thing you created from nothing now has a real, quantifiable life of its own. Side Characters are the ones who make this happen. They bridge the gaps between Protagonists and/or Antagonists.

This isn’t to say you can’t mix and match; skilled players will know how to achieve all three seamlessly while remaining consistent and compelling. More skilled players will know how to do that without stepping on anyone’s toes. The best players will know how to do that in a way that improves everyone else’s story in the process.

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Re: Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by UUD-40 » Sun Jun 14, 2015 7:55 am

This post was recommended to me by someone I was RPing with.

After reading it, I have to ask - why is this not stickied? This is some really good, well thought out advice.
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Re: Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by Mayonnaise » Sun Jun 14, 2015 1:53 pm

Mostly because when I posted this, I wasn't moderating this forum section. However, I can't seem to be able to sticky things anymore. Tsk. Will have to check on that.

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Re: Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by MowerQueen » Thu Jul 16, 2015 10:20 pm

I never noticed until now that, ever since early on, I'm only ever really happy playing side characters. I'm trying to broaden my rp horizons and increase my skill so I'm very interested in the sections to come, thanks for the thoughtful post :)

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Re: Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by Eye_of_the_raven » Fri Jul 17, 2015 6:14 am

Very helpful post indeed, I think everyone should at least read it once.
Help this man sticky this fine piece of thread!
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Re: Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by Mayonnaise » Fri Jul 17, 2015 4:22 pm

It is stickied! :)

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Re: Watchtower's Guide to Characters

Post by The Kriv » Fri Jul 17, 2015 11:06 pm

* licks the back of the discussion thread to make it "sticky" *
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