It is in the nature of roleplaying games that there will be disputes
about what is the most central to such games -- is it the setting, the
world in which the game takes place? Is it the plot, the story that the
game tells (World of Darkness and many other White Wolf games bill
themselves as "storytelling" games rather than roleplaying games)? Is
it the challenge, the part that makes it make sense to call it a game?
Is it the socializing, the fun of it, that makes us all want to play
again next time?
All of those are important, yet what I find the most important, is the
character, the "role." Creation and portrayal of characters is, to me,
what RPG's are all about.
There are as many ways of creating characters as there are players. For
example, players vary tremendously in how much of the creation of the
character is done by the player at the outset, versus how much is filled
in as they go. This resembles the difference between classical music
and jazz -- where a classical piece is written note by note, with the
pitch and duration of each specified discretely, and performed precisely
as written, a jazz piece is laid out loosely and improvised within those
boundaries. A "classical" player might view the sketchy creation of a
"jazz" player as hardly even being a character, depthless and
unplayable; a "jazz" player might conversely see a "classical" player's
details as too confining to allow any enjoyment. Both must try to be
understanding and tolerant of the other, especially when they play in
the same game; a game-master of one school must especially try to be
tolerant when he or she has a player of the other, and trust their
player (or at least give them a chance to earn the trust).
A brief list of some other axes along which character creation varies:
Normative in the setting vs. unusual in the setting
Example: a normative player would play a human fighter, thief, mage or
cleric, perhaps an elven figher/mage or gnome illusionist in AD&D; an
unusual player would play a ranger/bard or an assassin/amazon or some
other fancy kit or multiclass, or want to play an Orc PC or a felinoid
or a lycanthrope etc. A normative player would play a werewolf in a
Werewolf: the Apocalypse; an unusual player would play a Fomori, or a
Naga, or a Rokea...
Combat-oriented vs noncombatant
I think this is self-explanatory
Similar to the player's real self or similar player's previous
characters, or widely variant characters
Some players play the same character over and over, while others play
completely different characters each time. I usually find that over a
long run, though, even those players who play what seem like widely
varying characters, there are some personality traits that never vary.
Either the player is not interested in exploring variations of that, or
it is something they (perhaps naively) assume is universally true, or
it's just so ingrained a part of them that they can't / don't want to
play any other way.
Internal vs external
A player who creates a character internally usually starts with an
intuitive feeling of how it would feel to be that character. Then they
work their way out to how their character is perceived by others, what
they do and say, and their history as it would have happened given their
nature. A player who creates a character externally usually starts with
an idea of how the character fits into their world and society, how they
act, what abilities they have, and works their way down to what the
character says and does from there, sometimes but not always going as
far as determining how it feels to be the character at the end.
After some contemplation I discovered another thing that I always do
when creating a character, though I have not gone so far as to inquire
whether others do this as well. I will have to ask around and see
whether this is just me, or known but rare, or common, or universal.
When I create a character I always make up one or more facets that are
sympathetic, that make me bond with the character, and able to put
myself in their place well enough to figure them out; and I always make
up one or more facets that are unsympathetic, that allow me to detach
from the character and consider them dispassionately.
Without the 'good side' I would find the character uninteresting and
uninspiring, boring to play, since I couldn't get into their head and
really role-play. Without the 'bad side' I'd find the character
impossible to disengage from, and probably take things far too hard that
were IC, making it hard for me to maintain that vital "firewall" between
IC and OOC feelings/knowledge/behavior.
Going through my list of characters mentally, I realized with what
clarity I'd been able to do this. In addition to the benefit explained
above, having good and bad sides to all my characters makes them feel to
me well rounded, lends drama to stories about them, makes them better
tragic heroes or villains, and makes them more like real people (who all
have good and bad in them).
So, to the many lists of character-creation questionnaires I have seen,
I'd add this one: What do you like about your character? What do you
dislike about your character? Why?