Roleplayer #13, February 1989

"Where Do You Get Those Crazy Characters?"

by Walter Milliken

There's no doubt about it – character design in GURPS can be very complicated. Players new to the system can be intimidated by the wide range of options, and often miss useful advantages or skills. Novices, or experienced players used to character class systems may have trouble finding starting points for designing their first few PCs. The following are some of the techniques I've used to develop characters.


First, you need an idea. You don't need a complete personality yet, only a simple concept around which the whole character will be built. When I design a new character, I usually mix several of the following sources to get the initial concept:

Literature, Movies, and Television

Stereotypes are the familiar literary roles from bad fiction, and are also similar to "character classes" used in some other games. The big, dumb, barbarian fighter, the crotchety old wizard, and the lantern-jawed Space Patrolman are typical examples.

These characters are best used as NPCs, or in "silly" games, where they can be overplayed. Taking a stereotype out of its literary genre can be interesting, though. While Gonad the Barbarian can be tiresome in a fantasy campaign, he's fresh and new in a Space game.

Anti-stereotypes are stereotypes turned upside-down. What about a genius swordsman, a free-spending dwarf, or the scientist who's in it for the money? A favorite mage character of mine is a 15 year-old kid – an inversion of the "crotchety old wizard."

Another interesting anti-stereotype is a character who wouldn't normally be an "adventurer"; pick some unlikely sort of person as a starting point. One of my modern characters is a slightly scuzzy ex-used car salesman.

Stealing a character from a story or TV series can sometimes work. One of my more unusual fantasy characters started out as a Roy Rogers clone. Make sure you file off the serial numbers, though – otherwise you're likely to find your playing creativity stifled by other players' expectations of the original. For this reason, I don't recommend trying to play characters taken directly from existing fiction.

Another variant on this idea is playing an idealized version of yourself. This normally works only in a modern game setting. If you do this, don't try to duplicate yourself too exactly – that way you won't get into arguments with the other players about what you're really like in game terms!

Playing with the System

Extremes in attributes, advantages, disadvantages and skills can be used as a central character feature. An attribute below 8 or above 13, an advantage worth 20 or more points, a single disadvantage worth -20 or more points, or a skill at level 20+ will all greatly influence a character's life. Think about how such an extreme characteristic would affect the PC and his interactions with other people.

Experiments with game mechanics can sometimes yield interesting characters, although they can produce abusive designs, too. These PCs are best suited to "one-shot" games. Be prepared for the GM to reject experimental designs in a campaign game.

Campaign Considerations

Profession can be a good starting point, since it will define a set of skills and indicate which attributes are important. Some excellent suggestions concerning professions can be found in several GURPS sourcebooks, including Magic, Horror< and Space.

Background is for the player who likes creative writing. Start with the character's childhood, and create a biography for him up to the point where he enters play. The PC's parents, teachers, and early experiences will mold his character and dictate what skills he is likely to learn.

Party composition is sometimes important. I've created characters just to "fill out" a group of adventurers by providing needed skills. I find this type of character one-dimensional and unsatisfying to roleplay, although some have taken on a life of their own. On the other hand, a party that already has several big, dumb fighters probably doesn't need another one . . .


One more thing needs to be determined at this stage – why is the character going to get mixed up in adventures? The answer is usually related to either profession or a disadvantage. Character motivation is as important a good roleplayer as it is to a good actor.

Advice for the Novice Designer

There are several things that will help the player new to the GURPS character design process.

You should have some knowledge of the campaign setting and your character's background before picking advantages and skills. Ask your GM if he has a "Campaign Plan" form. If not, discuss the game world with the GM or other players before designing a character. Understanding the setting is more important to developing a good GURPS character than it is in most other games.

When you pick advantages and skills, it often helps to page through the Basic Set, listing each one that you come to that looks interesting. When you finish, review the list and throw out things that don't seem to fit the character's background.

Studying existing character designs can be rewarding. There are complete characters in the Basic Set, GURPS Magic and the Car Warriors supplement for Autoduel.

The GM and experienced players are excellent resources, too. It helps to design your first few characters with the aid of someone who's familiar with the system – they will point out omissions and shortcuts, and their familiarity with the campaign will assure the character fits in well. Also, experienced players and GMs will often have "surplus" characters they are willing to show newcomers as examples.

Polishing the Character

Once I have the broad outlines of the character, I work out the details – picking any remaining disadvantages and quirks, and balancing point costs.

My final design stage is to look at the completed character and decide how he got to where he is today. This adds to my "feeling" for the character. During play, more of his past and character comes to light, adding depth and dimension. But the seeds of a good character are in the conception.

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