On the table of D&D, who doesn't like their character to have epic stories like those in the novels? However, have you found your D&D games not capable of producing one single good story? Have you found your D&D games kinda always the same after years of playing? I recently took a break with my 6-year D&D group because of that. I want to find a solution, so that I can enjoy the game again.
TL,DR: The 5e books and rules, despite of having adequate material of building a character, lack of material of building character arcs, and therefore most players are not capable of making their characters a meaningful addition to a good story.
Side note: How to tell if a story is a good story? Well, can you write down your adventure and publish it as a novel
That others are interested in reading it and also in finishing it?
That there is very few plot holes (character actions making no sense, etc.)?
Background of my D&D group:
We have a very good and experienced DM. 30+ years experience of playing; good story teller; good actor for NPCs; care about everyone having fun; always well prepared; good at balancing the game, and open to house rules for balancing the game.
We have 6 players. We are all good friends and co-workers. We all act mature most of the time. We have good communication in and out of the games. We have good variety of play styles but no one is extremist. Most of us would willingly compromise a little for others to have fun.
One player has most fun by making awkward and funny scenes.
One player has most fun by role playing personality traits.
One player has most fun by dealing massive damage in combat.
One player has most fun by riding along the story with others.
One player has most fun by playing "clever".
Then there is me, having most fun by creating memorable stories.
I wasn't chasing the story when I started 6 years ago. I built all kinds of characters in all kinds of ways: built characters around certain concepts, built characters around certain mechanics, built characters around backgrounds, etc. But after a few years of in-depth play of quite a few characters (and we finished a few official modules), it feels kind of boring.
I found that for almost all the characters I built, it's mostly enjoyable around level 5-10, then I would lose interest.
Level 5-10 is the most interesting for a lot of reasons:
Your character gets enough tools to play with. You always have options to choose from in every situation.
Your level progression is giving the character significant boost in terms of power level. And the characters are not leveling too slow.
All classes are pretty balanced in those levels.
When getting close to level 10, the leveling took too many sessions, and the gain isn't that much. You kind of play with the same set of class features for months. The roles of each character in the party become stabilized, so most encounters, either social or combat, feel repetitive.
And it's not just me. Most players in my group feel the same way. In every module we played, after level 7, 8 or so in each module, players start building and switching new characters.
So this original problem of "losing interest around level 10" got me thinking, and this was about a year ago: how can I make my character interesting in long term?
So this was the time when [Captain America: Civil War] movie came out, and it was such a blast to me that they made these two characters, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, so interesting. There are tons of semi-professional analysis you can find online that explains how they did it, and the answer is: character arcs.
Here I won't get into the detail of character arcs and dramatic narrative structure. You can simply google it. What struck me is that: if we look at the beloved D&D characters in the novels, Drizzt, Elminster, Raistlin and Sturm, they all have very obvious character arcs; but there is none about character arcs in the 5e core books at all.
Then I tried this idea: when I build my character, I will plan ahead an arc. And I think it really worked.
My first attempt was a gladiator who has no problem with fighting dirty and only cares about himself and his own ambition. Even though he is a fighter who's very tanky, he's not going to hold the front line for others because he cares very much about his own safety.
I planned two possible arcs for him to go: naturally, he will develop a bond with the party members, and slowly he becomes willing to be the tank and protect other party members; but if the party doesn't have his back or betrays him, he would not hesitate to betray the party.
It all went according to the plan at first. Some party members had better attitude towards him, and he developed bond with them first, and at some point, he would charge in front in a combat.
Then in one combat, he charged into a group of foes but none of other party members followed him, so he was left alone, out numbered by the foes, and then he got charmed by the enemy spellcaster and compelled to turn against his party members.
And that was a complete fallout: party didn't trust him anymore and saw him as an traitor, and he got no choice but fighting against the party (and he fought dirty). At the end the foes are defeated, and he almost killed all other party members and became the sole surviver. Well... almost. After some close fight and some unlucky die rolls, the surviving party members over powered him and eventually killed him (which was a decision between killing and knocking down).
Although the story for this character ended earlier than I hoped, it was a very good story narrative, and I really enjoyed this character.
My second attempt was a very classic coward-to-hero arc. It was the Tomb of Annihilation module and the character was an archaeologist with absolutely no combat skills but a good heart. He will run or hide or turn invisible in every fight (but his class features are very useful when it comes to exploring historical stuff).
I planned this arc for this character: he realizes the danger of this expedition in Chult and starts learning to use a sword; then in some combat while he was cowardly hiding, he may get a chance to ambush some badly wounded foes and manage to give the final lethal hit; slowly he built up his confident in combat and his bravery; eventually he becomes a hero.
The gameplay was very enjoyable. There were funny scenes of him trying to escape each combat. There were exciting moments of giving the final blow. And then there was this moment that he sacrificed himself to distract a red dragon in order to buy time for his friends to escape.
After that, I convinced our DM that he has so many utility class features that he can make himself useful and the dragon would possibly keep him alive. Later on, he returned to the party (when it was towards the end of the module), and would complete this module with a completed arc.
I felt like it doesn't matter what level this module was, I would really like to stick to this one character all the way, because of the arc that will be completed along with the module's story (even if the arc is such a cliche).
What's the catch?
There are many reasons why the D&D rule books don't have anything about the character arcs.
First of all, players don't pre-design the story line. They are not supposed to know the story. As a result, sometimes it is tricky to design a character arc, because character arc is usually how the character interacts with the story. I found it often an issue that the planned arc doesn't have chance to be developed, because the story is simply going to another direction.
So when we build a character arc, its development is better to be independent from the story, which really limits the options. If you want the arc development related to the story, it's really up to DM to decide how much plot can be revealed in order to design the arc.
Secondly, D&D is usually a multi-player co-op game. As a result, it will be more complicated than the single-main-character dramas to have character arcs. It would be a challenge to DMs how all these arcs of PCs intertwine with each other. A lot of time this may end up with conflicts between PCs, and it won't be fun for everyone if it's not handled right.
In the background section in PHB, it says that it's important to think about: what changed? which is really a good driving force (but not the only driving force) to an arc development. Also the personality traits, ideal, bond and flaw compose a good starting point of an arc.
Unfortunately it doesn't rise the other important question: giving "what changed" and the initial character description, what could this character reasonably become at the end of the journey? This should be a multi-answer question (because we don't know the storyline). The answer template would be: if X happens over and over again, the character will have this trait; if Y happens over and over again, the character will have that trait; if Z happens, even only once, the character will have that trait; etc.
Based on my limited experience, there are different types of arcs, and for each type, there is some easy steps to build an arc that is story-independent.
The positive arc
I would recommend giving the character more than one flaws, then pick one flaw and build conditional scenarios to "fix" the flaw gradually.
Flaw: being coward in combat. Flaw-fixing scenario: luckily giving some foes the final blow.
Flaw: like stealing. Flaw-fixing scenario: bad consequences of me stealing, which has negative impact to myself or ones I care about (party members for example).
The negative arc
I would recommend giving the character more than one flaws, then pick one flaw, and plan two things:
conditional scenarios to "fix" the flaw gradually
conditional scenarios that would trigger a fallout of this flaw
Flaw: I don't trust anyone. Flaw-fixing scenario: fight side-by-side with party members. Fallout scenario: party members betray me.
Flaw: I secretly hate another party member (maybe my own agenda of joining the party is to seek chance to destroy his/her reputation). Flaw-fixing scenario: that person loves me back. Fallout scenario: that person somehow takes something/someone what I always wanted.
The flat arc
The flat arc is a tricky one. This is an arc that doesn't have any change. But because it is conflicting with the environment, it is actually hard to remain unchanged.
A great example is Steve Rogers in MCU. His character wasn't really changed through out the movies, but he believes in righteousness and freedom, which is conflicting with the modern society.
Sturm in Dragonlance stories is a similar example. He believes in nobility in knighthood, while the knighthood in his era isn't about nobility anymore.
Choose an ideal that is greatly conflicting with the environment (society, politics, etc).
An example that I played:
This is a weird one. Environment: My DM decided that after the dragon war (in Rise of Tiamat that we finished), all the dragons are gone missing for some unknown reason. Kobolds are enslaved by other species like mind flayers, drows and beholders. My character: a kobold whose ideal is to serve a dragon. He refused to serve mind flayers and left his clan to go on an adventure to seek for a dragon as his clan's new master.
This setting will potentially lead to interesting interaction when this character encounter other kobolds, the party that is on a mission related to dragons, and other species that would like to enslave him.
Does the solution work?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, it keeps my characters interesting through out the campaign, if the planned arc is to be completed at the end of the campaign. In this way, the leveling is not the only reason of playing this character any more. When leveling slows down after level 9 or 10, this arc gives me a reason to keep playing it. I want to see what this character becomes, and how he will interact with other party members and the story. Because the character is changing, it doesn't feel repetitive any more.
But no, it alone doesn't make the story a good story, because I'm the only one doing it, and there is an opposing force preventing it from becoming a good story.
This opposing force is the player enjoying to play "clever". This friend of mine has the play style that through out his different characters, he always tries to creatively exploit spells and items. He very much likes to explore the unintentional usage of those in game, in order to create hilarious unexpected moments. Really, it's just a play style and I'm not opposed to it, but factually it is an act that prevents a story from being a good story.
If you read those beloved novels, you will almost never find the characters in the novel intentionally try to abuse spells or items, because that may make the story less believable and reasonable. The characters may find unexpected effects of certain spells or items and use them later, but that's always a plot that you bury a seed first, then use it for a later drama. But often players with this play style will improvise those usages and expect DM to let it work in their ways.
Now I know a lot of people out there like this play style, and again I'm not personally opposed to it. It is a lot of fun in a way. However I also realize it's just a fact that this play style is not compatible with my play style at this moment (the play style that wants to write a good story). That's why I took a break with my D&D group. I hope I can find a solution.
But maybe not having a good story is not a big deal. After all, I did prolong my enjoyment with my characters by creating an arc for them. Writing the whole story is, by its nature, a collective effort of DM and all players, and I shouldn't force others to give up their play styles. We don't have to have the same goal. It's just a game after all.
I’ve played a few rpg’s based on tv shows. Each game session was structured like an episode and story was brought to a conclusion at the end. Interspersed within the episode would be scenes that advance a story arc that could stretch over several episodes or even an entire season. Some arcs would include all the characters, others would focus on one or two of the characters.
With D&D, it can be difficult to do this unless the players enjoy this style. They can feel railroaded by the plot and some may lose interest if their character isn’t directly involved in part of the story.
If you want to advance character arcs that do not include all the characters, try saving 15 mins at the beginning and end of the session for them. Have player 1 come early, player 2 stay later one session, then player 3 early and player 4 late the next. That way everyone gets a chance to roleplay outside the group without cutting into party time. It also allows characters to have a few secrets that they don’t have to disclose to the other players.
I like this idea, but I think you dont necessarily need your flaw correction idea for this.
In my experience, most goals a character could have can function as an arc in the campaign. If a character wants to get rich, what happens when they do get a lot of gold? If they start getting way more gold than they had before, they are fulfilling part of their goal and character arc.
In my home game, I have a player whose character wants to find a mythical sword, and will do almost anything to get it. I have a player who wants to kill a dragon on their own. What leads up to this, and if they are successful at it still creates a character arc, and their character (and their characters motivation) will change once they reach it.
Just wanted to come in here and say that I really enjoyed this write-up. Thanks for seeding the brain with some ideas. I went looking on the internet for instances of people talking about how to build character arcs across a campaign in D&D (not unlike what happens on shows like CR), but found very little discussion about it.
I've been trying to do the thing you say is difficult - interweaving character stories with a main story. I've found that it's mostly successful as long as you keep some loose connection to the main story. Even a complete deviation to focus on the character story isn't a bad thing now and again, as long as you bring it back to the main branch.
You're approaching this as a player, but I'm approaching this as a DM. My approach so far has been to flesh out the backstory with the player at the beginning of the campaign, and then as they familiarize themselves with their character, ask them what general directions they'd like their arc to go in, without needing to get into specific details. I think this will do for now as a test, but what I'd love to know more about is what mechanical techniques or shortcuts people can take to write arcs easily. I find myself starting from a blank piece of paper everytime. Love what you posted; I'll see what of that I can build on!