Chinese Elements for RPG Characters (1/2)

This post is the first of two which looks at hijacking the five elements of the Chinese philosophical tradition for this purpose. Today I’ll simply outline the “personalities” of each element. Next time (probably in a fortnight), I’ll look at the tradition and fixed interactions between the elements and how to use these to develop a fun set of characters.

Perhaps it’s a function of the Sydney/Melbourne/Canberra roleplaying scene of the late 1980s and 1990s but I think that the five character party works best for convention gaming. There’s no chance of the two-two deadlock when four characters are used or the two-on-one smackdown of three characters. Five seems to be a magic number which just plain works.

In short, here’s the basic personality types of the Chinese elements:

  • Metal: righteous
  • Water: smart
  • Wood : kind
  • Fire : polite
  • Earth: trustful

Here they are again in more detail. While an individual, normally containing a balanced mix of all the elements, may have an excess or lack of a particular elements which dominates or shapes his or her personality, I suggest you stick with one element per characters. After all, as game designers, we don’t create balanced people  for our games but thinly disguised stereotypes. I create characters which always have an excess of the element.


The words which describe a metal character are: righteous, faithful, courageous and chivalrous. They are brave, disciplined, trained, organized, authoritative, determinative, routine, firm, resolute and have an urge to win.

Characters with an excess of metal are brave and tend to act before thinking. They are rule-bound and tend not to understand the finer aspects of art and culture. While this does not mean that they are thugs and bullies, this sort of fault is often laid at their door. They live in a black-and-white world of action and decision. Grace, mercy, the keeping of confidences find it hard to get a look in.


Water-type characters can be described as smart, wise, frank, and resourceful. They have good memories and try to understand the situation before they leap into action. They are driven to travel (to broaden the mind) or, incongruously, meditation (to focus it). The need to understand the world is key.

Characters with an excess of water are smart, sly, tricky and are often found to be the ones plotting dark schemes. But they don’t only live in the mental world. The world of the senses and the sensual always holds an irresistible attraction for them. Politics and religion do not interest them except in that they are pathways into the heart of existence. The claim is often made that they are selfish and only interested in what concerns them.


Wood-type characters are best described as compassionate, steadfast and understanding. They are the characters likely to be found giving or collecting alms  to help the unfortunate and making donations. But it’s not all hippy love-ins. These are the characters who are the most organized, logical, practical, and independent.

Characters with an excess of wood are often inflexible, prejudiced and biased. They know how the world should be and may become angry when others do not agree. These are the characters which see themselves as holding society together whether by keeping the hospital running after the apocalypse or by smashing the state. They key is that in both cases they are motivated by a concern for the effects of the story on the lives and welfare of ordinary, everyday people rather than kings and princes.


A Fire-type character is courteous, eloquent, polite and expressive. They are the energetic and passionate artists. They are the emotional vampire who feed off the presence of others. They are always the at the party, if not the centre of it. They look for immediate gratification and the attention of others.

Characters with an excess of fire are talkative, excited and excitable. They are smart but restless and are always looking for new experiences and sensations. They are have short fuses and are quick to anger. A brief explosion of emotion resets their emotional spring which immediately begins winding up for the next outburst.


Earth-type characters are best described as trustful, loyal and responsible. They are honest and (unlike most player characters) keep their promises. A sense of honour and duty is paramount for an Earth character. They ruminate on events and are slow to act, preferring to get it right the first time rather than moving or acting pre-maturely or unnecessarily.

Characters with an excess of earth may be stubborn and inflexible. They tend to be the cheapskates who can’t see why one would pay good money for a lavish banquet and a simple sandwich will satisfy hunger just as effectively.

These five personality types provide a range of attitudes and viewpoints on whatever is at stake in the scenario. They guarantee that there’s enough diversity of opinion to inspire intra-party bitching soars to the stratosphere but provides enough commonality of thought that all the characters can still band together to get the job done.

In the next post (in two weeks time), I’ll look at the traditional way these elements interact and using this in your scenarios.