Anyone who has played the tabletop role playing game Pathfinder can tell you that half of the game’s fun is creating a character and watching it grow. Whether you’re coming up with interesting backstory, finding funny quirks, or choosing the perfect blend of feats classes, character creation is as much a part of Pathfinder as actually sitting at the table.
But how do you actually go about building character? There are two ways to go about designing a character, top down design and bottom up design. So... whazzat?
Top Down Design: Top down design involves breaking a system apart and using the pieces to rebuild it in a way that suits your needs. Through a gaming lens, top down character design is all about flavor. A top down design in gaming starts with a character idea created outside of the game’s system. Generally, this is either an original character or a figure from a comic, television show, book, or movie. The character is the then outfitted with rules from the game.
For example: Sofia wants to create Harley Quinn as a Pathfinder character. She looks at the system and decides that Harley seems like she’d be a Rogue because of her fighting style and mannerisms. Sofia gives her character the Throw Anything and Catch Off-Guard feats to imitate Harley’s style of fighting with props instead of weapon, and gives her points in Profession (Psychiatrist) to reflect her background.
Bottom Up Design: Bottom up design is all about using existing systems to create new things. For a gamer, this means creating a character from existing mechanics and adding a skin of backstory and personality to fill the character out.
For example: Matteo just bought Pathfinder’s new Advanced Class Guide, and wants to try out the Arcanist hybrid class. He grabs a character sheet and fills in all of his stats, maximizing his Intelligence score to make his spell casting more powerful. He also makes his new character an elf to further increase his Intelligence. He likes the idea of being an still being in melee, so he takes the Blade Adept archetype, puts his leftover ability score points in Constitution and Dexterity, and takes the Weapon Finesse feat. After finishing his character, Matteo thinks about what background his character could have. The character’s high Intelligence coupled with good physical stats and focus on a single weapon leads Matteo to decide that his character was a guard in the military, but left because there was nothing left to learn. During the first session, Matteo’s character brags about being the only one to make a reflex save against an area of effect spell, so he decides his character will be egotistical.
Neither of these modes of character creation are better or worse than the other. A character designed from the top down can be for more effective than a character designed from the bottom up, and vice versa. It’s all about the source of your inspiration.