The Blank Slate: Creating A Character When Inspiration Eludes You

Something rather scary happened to me on Saturday night. Something I never would have thought a geek girl of my stature would experience. I was thisclose to a complete freak-out and crying fest.

I sat down to a blank character sheet…and couldn’t think of anything to put on it.

That’s right. I – the co-owner of an RPG company – could not come up with a character concept to save my life. My husband couldn’t either. It certainly wasn’t because we didn’t want to play the game. We’ve been looking forward to it for some time, ever since our friend asked us if we’d be in if he ran a Mage: the Ascension campaign set in pre-WWII Europe. But when we settled in at the table with our lovely new character sheets before us, we both sat there for a couple of hours with nothing written on them but our names, while the rest of the players were long finished with stats and were already putting detail into their backgrounds.

In retrospect, we could have made the situation a lot easier on ourselves than we did. Here’s what I learned about overcoming difficult character creation, so hopefully you don’t have to go through the same painful experience I did.

What’s The Stumbling Block?

When you were in school, there was likely a point where you didn’t understand a certain bit of math, science, or grammar, and needed help. How much help was your teacher/tutor/friend able to provide when they asked you what you didn’t understand and you just insisted, “All of it! I don’t get any of it. I just don’t get it!”? Probably not much. Once you calmed down and said, “OK, I don’t even know where to start, how do I know if I’m supposed to solve for x or y?” your helper finally had a starting point and was able to get to the root of your struggles.

The same goes for that blank character sheet staring back at you. Unless you are having a complete mental shutdown (not that there’s anything wrong with that), there are probably just one or two things that are truly messing with your ability to create. Perhaps it’s a new game system that you’re not familiar with, and the rules and options are overwhelming. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’ve played this game many times before, you might be fighting to think of a concept you haven’t already played in another campaign. It might be a setting that you’re not used to, such as a modern setting when you’re used to playing in a fantasy setting. Or it may be the prospect of having a new GM or new gaming group is making you unconsciously nervous. Any of these things can staunch the flow of creativity and make you feel like a bumbling newb. Once you determine what is actually tripping you up, you can acknowledge it and move on.

Address The Problem

Realizing what’s making the character creation difficult for you is great, but now that you know what the problem is, you have to deal with it. How? That depends on what your individual trouble point is.

Unfamiliar rules are confusing you? Ask the GM or another player for a Cliff Notes version, or if something specific is really confounding you, ask for a detailed explanation. Played in more Pathfinder games than you can count? Look through the class options and think about one that you’ve never played before, or one that you could play very differently – like a cleric of a completely different deity, or a two-weapon wielding ranger instead of one with a bow, or a character of a different alignment than you usually play. If the setting of the campaign is perplexing you, think about a favorite movie, TV show, or book using a similar setting, and draw some inspiration from that.

If you’re nervous about a new GM or gaming group, get to know them! True, you can only get to know people so well in a 4-hour character creation session, but talk to them, and not just about the game. You’re going to be spending an evening a week with these folks, and who wants it to be awkward? No one, that’s who. If they remain anonymous faces across the table who you can only identify by their character’s name, your discomfort is going to last well beyond character creation.

Brainstorm! Out Loud!

So you’ve figured out what’s holding you back in creating your character, but man, you still can’t quite get rolling. You feel like if you just had a tiny seed of what your character should be, everything would click and you’d be filling in that character sheet faster than your mechanical pencil could keep up. Instead of banging your head against the table in frustration, why not throw the topic out there for everyone?

There’s no shame in turning to your fellow gamers and saying, “Hey, guys? I’m having a hard time narrowing down a character idea here. What are you all playing?” If you find out from them that there are already going to be two rogues in the party, that might push you back toward that bard you were kind of thinking about. Or if it turns out that no one is playing a healer, maybe that would be a good thing for you to play.

To take the brainstorming even further, if you’ve got an idea you want to expand on, but are stuck, open the floor to suggestions. “So I’d really like to play a ranger with two weapons, but I don’t want to be a Drizzt copycat, ya know? I was thinking shortsword and dagger, but I don’t know…got anything better?” Sometimes you’ve been thinking so long and hard on something that you start tripping yourself up, and a fresh set of eyes, so to speak, is all you need to find that perfect idea.

Is it cheating for someone else to come up with elements of your character concept? No more than it’s cheating for a GM to hand out pre-generated characters. You’re still driving the bus, here. You’re going to make that character your own. So what if it was Bob’s idea for you to be a celestial bloodline sorcerer instead of a draconic one? Did Bob decide that Ethyn is a sharp dresser and great dancer? Nope, that was all you.

What Was My Problem?

Mage: the Ascension was a new game system for me, and while I’ve played Vampire and Werewolf before, Mage had so much more stuff that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it all. My husband had a character concept, but couldn’t figure out how to make the character do what he wanted with Mage rules. I was also having a hard time thinking of a character that would fit in pre-WWII Europe, and was a little nervous about playing with a bunch of new people (they’re all members of our club, so I know them, but aside from my husband and the GM, I’ve never really played with any of them before).

So we sat there stupidly for a couple hours, staring blankly at our character sheets and getting more and more frustrated. Once we finally admitted what problems we were having, and started talking to our GM and the other players – who have all played Mage many times before – things started making sense, gears started turning, and just like that, we created a brother-sister magic team, both members of the Cult of Ecstasy, with me as a soothsayer/fortune-teller and my husband as a Houdini-esque magician. And we both were left kicking ourselves that we’d made it so hard by not realizing what was wrong and asking for help earlier in the evening.

Lesson learned! And let my lesson be a lesson to you, too. Remember, gaming should always be fun. If that blank character sheet is stressing you out, take a deep breath and try to figure out why. Your creativity has not abandoned you – sometimes, you just need to try to tap it in a different spot.

Have you ever struggled with character creation? What other tips do you have to help a player who’s fighting with their character sheet?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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