Roleplaying Tip #4: Character Arcs

One way to get the most out of the actual roleplay of an RPG is to be invested in the character arc of your character. Though the GM has a campaign in mind and controls the world, thereby controlling most of the plot, each player is responsible for her own character.

Arguably, the best stories are character driven, so much of the burden to create a good story falls on the players having a good character arc. Of course, the GM must be willing to indulge character arcs and incorporate character building elements in the campaign, but for him to know what you want out of the character, you have to let him know.

Define Your Character Arc

The first thing is to decide what you want your character arc to be. It can change, of course, as the campaign goes on and you get a feel for the character, but it is important to start out with an idea of how you want things to go and make sure the GM knows as well.

An effective place to define the character arc is in the character’s backstory. Your motivation can be as simple as getting rich or as complex as seeking the approval of other party members or a deity. Here are some examples of character arcs defined in backstories:

  • Hooblah Gooblah: “He is on this journey in order to find his true love, a new job, and a new name.
  • Bofran Crystalbeard: Rebuild the order of Korgaran. “He later discovered corruption in the temple and realized he had to cleanse it to gain favor.
  • Harding Prostus: “Once they had carved a territory to house the merchants, thieves, beggars, vendors, and so on they had rescued, Harding became convinced that he and his companions could provide a more permanent and satisfactory solution.  They would build up a new empire.”
  • Mildrik Gillenshrig: “to find things hidden and hide things close to being revealed.”
  • Rife Delynshire: “It was his talents that made him think he deserved more, though.  He could be like the great men in the stories minstrels told at feasts and carnivals, he could live that life.”
  • Enrick Loghsmyth: “However, he never forgot his charge to protect the impenetrable puzzle safe, though he knew not what was inside.”
  • Margra Vonderbronzkelch: “Ashamed, she fled into the night the day before the ceremony, finding a place among humans as a warrior, calling upon the power of her deity to make herself a name her father could be proud of.”
  • Peter Reiner: “He ran away from home, aiming to make his name as an adventurer before returning to redeem his familiy.”
  • Dimon Malig: He will have inner conflict as he seeks the approval of the other party members and to satisfy his own greed.

Each of these characters has personality traits that are negative, with an opportunity to shift their attention to positive traits over the course of the campaign. There’s a character arc right there. These guys are protagonists in their stories.

Play Your Character Arc

Now you’ve told the GM what you’re planning for your character arc, you have to go for it! Most of the characters above haven’t actually been played, but I do have some good examples from our test campaigns of players sticking to the character arc.

  1. Hooblah Gooblah‘s player (a girl) consistently had him flirt with the only female character in the party, despite her spurning. She also looked for a niche in the party and laid claim to the flashiest items, ready to build a new name for her character.
  2. Bofran Crystalbeard‘s player has mostly applied his magic to building devices in order to prove his mechanical skill to Korgaran. He’s been unwilling to ask Korgaran for help with mechanical puzzles even though that’s his purview; he doesn’t want to annoy him.
  3. Jethrob “Jeth” Al’Arwenyon’s player wrote up a substantial backstory about Jeth’s chip on his shoulder, he was raised on stories of his family’s ancient royal heritage. In play he looked down his nose at other characters and was constantly looking for opportunities to restore his family’s kingdom, even at the cost of the others.
  4. Renoldo Erkerin’s player set him on a quest to avenge his dead wife. He was constantly looking for signs of the mages who had killed her, and flew into a rage when they began meeting mages wearing the same robes.

These players have the most fun when they are in character and pursuing the character arc. Their personalities drive much of the action and conflict in the game.

The Game Master’s Part

It’s important that the GM be willing to indulge the character arcs and provide plot points that help make the arc happen. Here are some examples from test campaigns:

  1. I’ve given Hooblah Gooblah flashy items and I’m toying with heroic nicknames people could start calling him. If things work out right, I’ve got a love interest ready for him in the form of Talik Capbane, if I can get the party to Pliinreuk Cavern with coming hooks.
  2. I’ve got a whole slew of Korgaran opportunities for the party. Their campaign is in the face of the efforts of many evil deities and if they are successful, it could mean a Korgaran resurgence for Bofran Crystalbeard and his people.
  3. I had only the briefest outline for the Jeth campaign setting, and so I took his backstory about an ancient kingdom and ran with it. The setting became one of the ancient cities from the fallen kingdom with resources and clues in place for him to lead a rebuilding.
  4. The evils faced by the party in Renoldo’s campaign are extremely multifactioned. I simply modified a faction to include the mages who murdered his wife.

When the player’s character has a real reason to be on the campaign and the player has a part in the story, there’s a lot less conflict at the table and everyone has more fun. As a GM, try to pay attention to player’s backstories and throw them a line every now and then.

Darths and Droids has a great example of a player and a GM collaborating on character arc, check it out. You might need to start further back, but that’s where they come out and say Anakin’s character arc is being done in collaboration with the GM.

Was this helpful? Let us know in the comments below.  What else can you do to have a character arc as a player?  What character arc might you dream up? As a GM, how can you incorporate character stories in your campaign?  Please share below!

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