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If you're a dungeon master, then you need all the information you can get about the player characters at your table. If you've noticed that getting meaty details out of your players feels like pulling teeth, though, then what you need might be a character creation document.
While I talked about these in the post Make A Character Creation Document For Your Game (Seriously, It Helps) some time ago, what I didn't suggest in that post were the kinds of questions you should include in said document. While the following questions are the ones I've found most helpful, they should be seen only as a starting place; you can never have too many questions on these lists.
For more lists like this one, check out my 5 Tips archive!
#1: What defining moments have you experienced?
Characters are complicated, and they've lived entire lives to get to the point where we meet them in the first session. An easy way to get a handle on who they are, and what makes them tic, is to give them what I call defining moments.
I first laid these out in The Defining Moment: An Easy Way To Get A Grip on Who Your Character Is, and the concept is pretty simple. You look at an important experience your character had, and ask how that one moment defined them. Or, if you want to do it in reverse, take an important habit, quirk, or personality trait, and ask what set that in stone?
For example, when they were a kid and bloodied the town bully's nose, did they realize they had the power to stand up for themselves? Did they realize this was no longer a game when they took command of a small militia unit after the commander took an arrow to the throat? Or do they always fastidiously clean their guns because the one time they really needed them to work they misfired?
Generally speaking, I'd recommend asking for at least 3 defining moments in a character's life up to this point. It will ensure you have some depth to the individuals who turn up at your table.
#2: What are you afraid of?
Fear is an essential part of characters, but too often it's something that players don't spend any time on. So make them take a moment to think about what fears their characters have.
It's important to make clear, here, that you're not just talking about phobias and jump scares (but those are okay, too). In addition to surface things like, "Hrothgar is afraid of big dogs," ask your players to dig deeper. What are fears that can drive their character, or which might be so deep-seated they don't even acknowledge them to anyone else? For example, is Jaken constantly trying to seem smart and world-weary because he's afraid he'll always just be a rural dirt-grubber? Is Valthen more afraid of looking like a coward than he is of dying, leading the sorcerer to take dangerous risks?
You can get a lot of mileage out of these things.
#3: Who raised you?
Every character, no matter how badass or powerful they are as adults, was once a baby. And as a baby, they needed someone to care for their basic essentials to ensure they could survive to become the character currently at the table.
It's important to remember that the people who raised you weren't necessarily your parents, either. As I said in Who Raised Your Character, And How Did That Shape Them?, this could be anyone. Whether you were taken in by an aunt and uncle, adopted by a wandering monster hunter, brought up by a gang of cutthroats in the low-town district of the city, or raised by wolves, fairies, or fairy wolves, someone was there to get you food and make sure you didn't die.
So make sure your players take a moment to ask who raised their characters, and how that affected them. If they were brought up by a wizard, for instance, they might be surprised to learn that other people have never so much as seen real magic. Or if they were raised by an uncle who didn't really want them around, they might have learned quickly that no one else cares about them, and so they come across as deeply cynical. Early experiences can cling for life.
#4: How did you learn your skills?
Player characters are unique individuals, and they often have skills and powers that separate them from the general population. They may be potent spellcasters, light-fingered thieves, deadly warriors, or the chosen of some divine force. However, someone had to teach them to master their skills, and control their powers. So make sure your players know who their teacher (or teachers) were.
This answer doesn't have to be in-depth, but you should feel free to let players get as detailed as they want to with it. Some might be content with, "He did two tours as part of the king's army, and now he works as a bodyguard," or, "She just finished her apprenticeship with Argorn Blackstaff, and now she's a journeyman wizard out on her own." Nothing wrong with that. More detail is useful, but not a necessity.
Make sure you get a real answer from players whose characters have in-born powers as well. It's perfectly acceptable to say a character is self-taught, but if that's the case ask who they got their books from, where they trained, and what "accidents" they had during their periods of trial-and-error. Do they live out in the woods, near a blasted "practice" field? Do they have scars from where their early attempts misfired? Don't let them duck the question.
#5: What things matter to you?
Player characters are the protagonists of the campaign, and as such it's important to know the things that drive them. The answers you get to this question will be the hooks you can use to drag the party along toward the places, events, and decisions you want them to make.
My recommendation is that you ask for at least 1 deep thing that matters, and 2-3 shallower, surface-level ones.
For example, Hanavar Breakwater might seem to be driven by a pursuit of money and comforts on the surface. Deep down, though, what he truly wants is social advancement and recognition. A hefty reward will get him on the trail, but no matter how wealthy he becomes, he would risk everything for a chance to be knighted, or raised to the aristocracy.
Whether it's patriotism, a desire for fame and glory, or just a hunger for a bigger challenge, all of these things can work quite well. On the flip side, threats to one's family or friends, paying off old debts (for those whose word is important to them), or just learning secrets might be what it takes to get someone out of the tavern.
#6: What do you believe in?
This question can be taken several different ways, and there's no wrong answer to it. However, you might want to make clear to your players that this question isn't just about their character's religious beliefs, or lack thereof. It's also about their personal morality, and what their guiding philosophy about life and the world is.
For example, Jadar Breakbones may honor his ancestor spirits, and local, tribal gods. He also believes that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak, and that this is necessary because the world is a harsh, cruel place that requires people like him to act as a shield for those who can't defend themselves. On the other hand, Henna Greenbottle may not pray to any gods at all, instead opting to attune herself to the natural world. There is no malice in the world as a whole, she believes, but only the order of nature. A balance that must be maintained, especially if someone attempts to control it, or to escape it.
This one can get a player deeper into their character's mindset, and it can set up contrasting views of right and wrong. Look for early warning signs of friction here, and try to address problems before they become issues if you can.
#7: How many knives do you have?
If you never read Build Your Backstory Using "Knife Theory" then this one might seem confusing. The general gist of this is that certain, notable things in a backstory are referred to as knives, and as a dungeon master you can turn those knives on the player character in order to make them act.
For example, if a character has mysterious powers whose origin is unknown, that's a knife. Missing parent they're trying to find, that's a knife, too. Secret lineage that ties them to a particular noble house, oh, that's a big knife.
To make sure you have enough material to work with, request a minimum of 3-5 knives in a character's backstory. Make sure you provide a secondary list for your players as to what is and isn't a knife if you want to go this route.
#8: What is your small legend?
In my post Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend, I pointed out that most player characters have done something (or are something) that should garner them a reputation. So ask your players what their characters' small legends are.
Is Dario Hightower referred to as the Black Bastard of Low Ridge, because his mother was the lord's mistress? Is he particularly touchy about that fact, which has marked him as a violent man not to be trifled with? Do most people know Ginny Rivers by name, or only as the Witch of Whately Wood? Do they whisper about strange rituals and bizarre lights in the forest, and if so, how much of it is even true?
Getting your players thinking about how the rest of the world knows their characters, and what reputations are following them around, can lead to interesting developments.
#9: Who (or what) has your loyalty?
Every character has loyalties. Some of them are to people, some of them are to ideals, and some of them are to organizations. Ask your players to name who and what their characters are loyal to, and the degree of loyalty they have.
For example, say a character is a member of a gang. How deep do those loyalties run? Would they kill for that gang? Would they die for them? Did that gang raise the character, giving them purpose and meaning, or are they just a mercenary running with this crew until the money stops flowing? If a character joined an order of knights, are they a true believer in its ideals? Or are they just there for the prestige and the fighting?
Again, I'd recommend asking for 2-3 loyalties of varying strength. Loyalty to oneself would count, but a player would still need other options to round out their answer.
#10: What would break them?
In my 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins, I made sure that players asked what would make them fall from grace. Even if they resisted the temptation, it was important to know what obstacle might make them lose their powers, or turn all the way to the other side.
This isn't unique to paragons of righteousness, though. You should ask this question about every character, because it's helpful to know what experience, event, or choice would fundamentally break them, and alter who they are forever more.
While that sounds sinister, it's important to remember that this doesn't have to be a big, operatic moment. It doesn't have to be the murder of a loved one, torture at the hands of one's enemies, or something similar. Sometimes it can be small things that end up breaking a character. Being betrayed by those they cared about, finally getting the treasure only to realize they're alone in the world, or just watching the good their deeds did erode to nothing, with new evils replacing the old ones like a fresh tide coming in.
Every character has a breaking point. It's worth asking what that point is, and if it were reached, how it would change the character. Because even if that moment never comes, it's important to know it's out there.