Recently I was invited to join a game of Dungeons and Dragons. It's been years since I've been involved in a game, and it surprised me. In my youth I spent multitudinous days and nights in the creation and exploration of my own fantasy worlds, but after many failed attempts at games in my adult life, I figured that it was behind me. Luckily for me, that is not the case.
Most of the time I've spent in D&D has been as a Dungeon(or Game) Master. As the DM, you're effectively the Alpha and Omega of the multiverse the players occupy, shaping the laws of reality as you see fit, describing the scenario and environments they encounter, and inhabiting the lives and minds of every non-player character. So, naturally this gives you a lot of power and that may sound exciting, but... something something power, responsibility. It's a heavy weight upon you. The players depend on you being good at what you do, because you're in charge of their fun; so, you'd better bring it kiddo, the pressure is on.
There's tons of things to do as the DM: designing the world, encounters, traps, history, plot, and treasure hoards. But there was one task that I always loved more than the others... Character building. I revel in the process of creating a character from nothing. I'd devour rulebooks and supplements, looking for interesting mechanics or abilities. For example, I'd created a psionic-switch Scout/Elocater that could take a 10-foot step as a free action without provoking attacks of opportunity, and use the movement to trigger it's skirmish damage bonus dice while still taking a full attack action(kudos to the 1% that understood that); or a Wizard/Cleric that was so devoted to magic in all forms that he worshiped the concept of magic at large. He used his spellbook as the divine focus for his cleric spells, and kept the book literally chained to himself at all times. Now those two characters are not only different in concept, but represent a pretty definitive division in my character design philosophy.
The first is pure mechanics. It's all about maximizing damage potential in an interesting way. Gotta get those dice rolling, baby. As an actual character, though, it existed in a vacuum. There was no reason for it to be what it was other than to satisfy my need to make something powerful, so in the end it was more dice than personality. The second, I worked on when I was much older. He represents me working to build an interesting person. The character concept came first, and I made choices that actively weakened it's power and abilities in service of developing a personality.
I found the second method to much more rewarding, and I believe it helped me to be a better person. It made me begin to think of other people in a new way, they had complex, layered personalities and putting myself in the role of someone else felt enlightening. Through this character building I was able to conceive perspectives vastly different from my own, and try to understand why someone would think that way. Since then, I try to imagine what causes people I meet to behave the way they do, since I often won't get to know them as well as they deserve. It's been a useful tool as I've slowly learned how to relate to others and has paradoxically made me less cynical as I've gotten older.
Over the years, I've rolled up dozens of characters. As a DM, I made villains, comrades, monarchs, and countless townsfolk for my players to interact with. But, in the end, I only clearly remember the image-obsessed, paranoid, arrogant, magic-worshiping wizard/cleric Darien Brightwind (yes, that was his name, judge me as you will). I occupied his skin, I thought with his mind. I knew this guy, he felt real, and as such he means a lot more to me. But, to my everlasting disappointment, Darien never had a chance to go on his own adventure, because I was the DM and my players had to come first.
I'd like to say I was good DM, I worked hard to give my players their chances to shine, and let them have their fun. I hope they had a good time with me at the helm, but I always felt mediocre because my heart wasn't in it. Don't get me wrong, I had a blast playing with my friends. Seeing them light up when I would describe, in visceral detail, the result of the critical blows they landed on their enemies, is something I'll cherish forever. I just wish I had more a chance to do what I enjoyed the most, building a character and living out their exploits.
Now it's nearly time to begin a new adventure. My freshly rolled half-orc Paladin Algor Calad, takes shape and focuses more clearly in my mind as the days pass. I hope it will prove to be a chance for me to get out of my own mind and maybe live in someone else's for a time. I think we could all benefit from some time spent as someone else. Maybe it could be someone wiser, tougher, more courageous than we are. Creation is a powerful thing, and if you can create a new perspective, and it helps to change your own... that builds character.