One of the most popular articles I wrote last year was a bit of a surprise. Inspired by Legend of the Five Rings, I came up with 20 questions for deeper character creation. A year later, it is the most-read page on my site!
The first question in the article is ‘What do you look like?’ I’m normally quite opposed to focusing too much on this sort of thing – it’s characterization, not character – but it’s a good starting point, and you can really go into depth with it. So, in this post, I’m breaking down every aspect of your character’s appearance to get your inspiration going.
While this is written with games like D&D and Pathfinder in mind, most of it is adaptable to other fantasy RPGs. Heck, you can probably use it for science fiction or modern games, too!
Let’s start with stuff that’s written on your character sheet: ability scores, class, species.
Three of your ability scores are physical: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution. As suchh, these ability scores will have an impact on your physical appearance.
- A high-Strength character will be muscular: big biceps, broad shoulders, etc. A low-Strength character would not only be less muscular but may even appear frail or fragile. Bear in mind that a character with Strength 20 is about as powerful as a polar bear; a character with Strength 3 is about as strong as a house cat.
- High-Dexterity characters tend to look lean and lithe, perhaps with long limbs and a focus on flexibility. A low-Dexterity character might be bulky or more rigid somehow. Dexterity is most apparent in a character’s movements, however, which are graceful, precise, and quick in a high-Dex character and laboured or lumbering in a low-Dex character.
- Constitution can feel a lot like Strength, but they are different. A high-Constitution character looks generally ‘hale’ with bright eyes, healthy skin and hair, etc, and might have a sturdy build, whereas a low-Constitution character might look sickly, pale, or lifeless – maybe exhausted or ‘low energy’.
If you want a general sense of scale for each of these descriptors, the following guide might help:
- 3 to 5 is an extreme weakness and severely limiting.
- 6 or 7 is a significant weakness.
- 8 or 9 is below average, but not especially so. It might not even be immediately obvious.
- A score of 10 to 11 is the human baseline.
- 12 to 13 is above average, but not especially so. It might not even be immediately obvious.
- 14 to 15 is a clear strength.
- 16 to 17 is exceptional.
- 18 to 19 is nearly unmatched, almost unparalleled.
- 20 is peak performance and bordering on the superheroic.
What about class and species? For species, think about how you are typical or otherwise of your chosen kin. Dwarves, for example, tend to be shout and stout with long hair and well-groomed beards, but your dwarf could be different. You should also study the lore of your world. In Eberron, for example, dwarves are showy about their wealth and may bear symbionts.
Your class is usually apparent to others through your equipment, so let’s think about that next.
Your character’s equipment might reveal something about their occupation, background, and personality. Let’s go through some examples, starting with character classes first:
- A barbarian probably wears minimal armour and carries a heavy weapon like a greataxe or greatsword. They might wear furs or pelts as part of their outfit.
- A bard probably carries a musical instrument and is otherwise lightly armed and armoured. They might carry a notebook or parchment for songs, spells, and poetry.
- Clerics tend to be more heavily armoured and will carry some kind of holy symbol on their person. Paladins may look similar but with a more warlike weapon like a sword.
- Druids, conversely, are probably lightly armoured and carry a druidic focus like mistletoe or a staff. Rangers are similar but will probably carry a bow or some kind of melee weapon.
- Fighters are a varied lot but tend to carry serious weaponry like swords and axes.
- Monks tend to carry very little at all – perhaps a single staff or some throwing weapons.
- Rogues wear light armour and wield finesse weapons like daggers, rapiers, and crossbows. They may have lockpicks and other tools on their person.
- Sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards tend not to carry armour or weapons but will have a some kind of arcane focus like a wand, rod, or staff. A wizard will have a spellbook of course.
- If your world has them, an artificer is probably armoured in something like half plate or scale mail and likely carries some kind of toolkit or simple weapon. They may even wield a pistol or musket or have a mechanical companion!
What about background? There are nearly 20 backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook alone, so I’m not going to go through every single one, but the equipment section of each entry is a good starting point. A noble is going to have fine clothes and a signet ring; a criminal might have a dark hooded cloak and some lockpicks.
Finally, don’t overlook what a character’s equipment might communicate about their personality. For example, a character’s equipment might be polished or practical, symbolic or stylish; it might tell us something about their culture, wealth, or status, their demeanour, even their morality or values. A character might carry a collection of illegal items, for example, showing that they are willing to break the law for their own gain, or an old locket, hinting at a long-lost love.
Generally speaking, it’s nice to have at least one detail in your character’s description which somehow ties them to the wider world. Done right, it makes your character unique and memorable, and more than just an Xth-level species class.
Head to toe
OK, so you’ve gone through the text above, but you want MOAR! What follows is incredibly pedantic and unnecessary, but if it gets you thinking more deeply about your character – great. The list below is meant to get you thinking and is not exhaustive.
- Hair (or lack thereof). Colour? Black, brown, blond[e], red, grey, white, other. Length? Shaved, short, mid-length, long, extra long. Style? Straight, wavy, curly, kinky, coily; fine, full, frizzy, tight, loose. Cut? Bangs, bob, braids, combover, cornrows, dreadlocks, mohawk, pixie cut, ponytail, side part . . .
- Skin. Pale, olive, brown, dark, other.
- Eyes. Brown, amber, hazel, green, blue, grey, other.
- Facial hair. Beard? Stubble, chinstrap, goatee, Van Dyke, full. Moustache? Handlebar, horseshoe, pencil, walrus. Sideburns? Mutton chops, side whiskers.
- Height. Tall, short, average. You may prefer other adjectives here like petite, lanky, or statuesque.
- Weight. Underweight, slim, lean, average, chubby, heavyset, obese, morbidly obese.
- Body type. Lean, muscular, rounded, athletic, curvy.
- Posture. Stiff, slouching, relaxed, hunched, awkward, graceful.
- Injuries. Cuts, burns, missing teeth or fingers, a broken nose, an eye patch, a limp.
- Facial expression. Smiling, frowning, scowling, pouting, sneering, grimacing, sceptical, wide-eyed, blank, puzzled, anxious, sad, eager.
- Demeanour. Similar to above, but can be more of an abstract impression: confident, timid, reserved, gruff, warm, mysterious, intense, stoic, humble.
- Armour. Sure, you can just use the list in Chapter 5 of the Player’s Handbook, but it’s kind of weird and could be more precise. For example, maybe your ‘padded armour’ is actually a gambeson, and your ‘leather armour’ is really a jerkin. The Armourer’s Handbook does a better job here, in my opinion.You could call your breastplate a cuirass, and maybe it’s made of bronze, bone, or chitin. You can do the same for shield: is it a buckler, a heater, or a tower shield?
- Clothing. Head? Cap, hat, hood, headband, scarf, veil. Chest? Shirt, waistcoat, jacket, doublet. Hands? Gloves, mittens, bracers. Lower body? Skirt, trousers, hose. Feet? Boots, socks, shoes, sandals. Whole body? Robe, dress, gown, habit, tunic, kimono, tabard, cloak. And of course, all of these can be more specific. For example, gloves can be fur-lined, fingerless, supple,
- Accessories. Belt, sash, necklace, bracelet, rings, earrings, pouch, purse.
- Weapons. As with armour, Chapter 5 of the PH is a starting point, but consider the size, shape, material, and design of your weapons. Is it engraved, serrated, decorated, intricate? Is it light, elegant, heavy, curved? Is it constructed from bone, obsidian, crystal? And is it magical, glowing, etc? Weapons can tell a story in roleplaying games. TV Tropes has a whole page on this.
Having gone into this level of detail with your character’s appearance, do you share all of it with the players at your table?
Generally speaking, less is more here. In fact, once you have a good picture of your character in your mind, the real skill is in reducing it to two or three sentences. Be specific, be brief, and above all, focus on the details that tell us something about their character.
But don’t discount the extra thinking you’ve done. By really getting inside the head of your character, you can drip-feed other details as the campaign progresses. It’s easy to forget what other characters look like, but hopefully yours will remain vivid and real in everyone else’s head.
What have I missed from this article? Let me know in the comments below.
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