An RPG I’ve always admired but rarely had a chance to play is AEG’s Legend of the Five Rings, now published by Fantasy Flight Games. With a rich setting focused on honour, family, and clan, characters in L5R weren’t just a race-class combination: they were unique, well-rounded individuals with depth and thought. You could all be samurai from the Crane Clan but with completely different motivations and outlooks.
I’m by no means an expert on L5R, but I believe ‘the game of 20 questions’ has been a part of its character creation process since its first edition in the 1990s. It’s a neat concept that I wanted to incorporate into D&D.
D&D, of course, is not a narrative game by default. If we look at the three pillars, its rules for combat are highly codified, exploration less so, and roleplaying . . . well, it’s largely optional. But for some players, roleplaying is an incredibly important part of the game, and they strive to be more than just, say, another elven wizard. If this sounds you, bookmark this page, because it could be a useful tool for future characters!
This list is not definitive, of course. Feel free to tweak the questions to your own specifications. I particularly recommend adapting these for questions based on the setting or adventure you are using. For example, in Eberron, I would want to know what your character did during the Last War, and in Rime of the Frostmaiden, I might want to know your greatest secret. Adapt accordingly. Share your ideas in the comments.
1. What do you look like?
Superficial, I know, but a mental image is important, and your character’s appearance tells us something about them. Is their armour polished and clean? Are they tattooed or scarred? I go into this in more detail in this post here.
2. Where do you hail from?
Village? City? Which nation? Did you grow up there, move around? How did it affect you?
3. Who are your family?
It’s something of a fantasy cliché for every character to be an orphan, so think about the alternatives. If your parents and siblings are still alive, what are they doing, and how do you get on with them?
4. How did you fall into your profession?
And by ‘profession’, I essentially mean ‘class’. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has tables at the start of each class section which might give you some ideas.
5. What is the most important event of your life so far?
It’s possible to go a bit overboard with this – a 1st-level character probably didn’t slay a great red wyrm singlehandedly, for example. But there must have been something interesting to have happened to you.
6. What is your alignment?
If you’re not sure, read my post on alignment to see if helps! It can help to think in terms of characters from film. ‘Sure, I’m a good guy, but am I more Gandalf or Superman kind of good?’
7. Who do you worship?
More important in some settings than others, but it can be fun to think about. Do they pray to Waukeen, or Olladra, or Mystra, or Pelor . . . ?
8. What is your biggest flaw?
One of the most essential questions on this list, in my opinion. (I wrote a post about this in 2020.) A character without a meaningful flaw is a boring, boring character. Dig deep. Give it real thought.
9. What is your greatest fear?
Another very important question. It could be a well-known phobia like heights or spiders, or it could be much more unusual. Talk to the DM if you want to tie it to something in the campaign.
10. Who is your greatest enemy?
If you’re 1st level and just starting out, you might not have a mortal enemy. But of course, it doesn’t have to be someone who wants you dead. It could be a competitor, a rival, a frenemy, or an old flame.
11. Are you a member of any factions?
Or do you aspire to be? What is your relationship with them?
12. How do your ability scores define your personality?
The 3rd edition Player’s Handbook had a great section on this. The ‘mental’ stats are most important here: Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. If yours are above or below average, that can give you ideas for how to roleplay your character. Tip, though: don’t overdo it. Intelligence 9 doesn’t make you Forrest Gump. Go here for a sense of what low ability scores really mean.
13. What motivates you?
In particular, why do you go on adventures? Money? Stories? Proving yourself? Protecting others?
14. What do you most despise in others?
Selfishness? Impulsiveness? Hypocrisy? Sloth?
15. What is your greatest ambition?
It might be helpful to think of this in terms of your class, perhaps. If you’re a wizard, do you want to disappear off into the multiverse and become the next Mordenkainen? Or do you aspire to lichdom? As a cleric, do you want to build a temple to honour your deity, or serve as their right hand?
16. What’s the worst thing your character has ever done?
Theresa May, the former British prime minister, said hers was ‘running through a field of wheat’. We can all do better than this.
17. What is your greatest secret?
Possibly the same as number 14, above. Consider who knows this secret; perhaps work with the DM to weave it into the storyline somehow.
18. What is your character’s voice?
Alec Guinness once said that he didn’t truly inhabit a character until he knew how they walked. Well, for D&D players, we’re generally sitting down – but we have our voices.
19. What do you think of your companions?
Good players know when to share the spotlight, and if everyone thinks about how their character interacts with the others in the party, the experience is richer for everyone.
20. How does your character relax?
Possibly a bit of an odd question, but if your character is going to be more than a race-class combination, it’s important to think about what they’re like outside adventures! What are their tastes, hobbies, interests?
Bonus question: why?
I saw this first as a good tip for world building: ‘For anything that’s true in your world, ask “why” twice.’
Try it: Why did the Last War happen? Because King Jarot’s children refused to recognize Princess Mishann as heir. Why? Because she was seen as weak. Why? Because . . . (over to you, Keith Baker!)
You can do the same with any of the questions above. What do you despise the most? Laziness. Why? Because my character had to fight for everything she ever achieved. Why? Because she was left to fend for herself in the rat markets of Sharn. Suddenly much more interesting, no?
Ultimately, this post is a starting point, not an end in itself. In fact, the game of 20 questions is something you can always come back to. Has your alignment changed? Do you have a new motivation or flaw? The best characters are not static but evolve over time. Come back to these questions to see how you’ve grown.
What questions would you add to the list? Share your ideas in the comments below.
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4 thoughts on “Deeper character creation: the game of 20 questions”
Is there a downloadable pdf for this?
Not currently! Maybe I should make one for the DMs Guild?
I met this questions a decade ago in Shadowrun first edition. Maybe you can hunt down the book or the pdf. But be cereful, the dark forest of the internet is full of evil data thieves and ugly worms.
I think so..this is very helpful, and something I may hand out to players before session zero..
As a DM, if I got half that info answered I’d be very pleased.
I have so often used players deepest fears against them as telepathic monsters mine their subconscious for weaknesses to exploit.