Days of High Adventure
DMs and Players: Give Your Characters Arcs

CJ Miozzi | 18 Aug 2014 19:00
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Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder have robust rules to govern the progression of a character as she becomes more powerful throughout her journeys. But one factor that often goes overlooked by both players and Dungeon Masters alike is how that progression changes who a person is and their outlook on life. Whether it's a player character or a recurring NPC, a well-written character with an arc is one that will remain fresh and compelling throughout the course of a campaign.

What drives a campaign forward? Story. Without story, there is no meaning to progression. Sure, the thrill of finding loot and gaining XP can satiate the thirsts of some players... for a time. Sure, killing monsters and overcoming traps are fun challenges... while their novelty lasts. But all that power, and all those challenges, mean nothing outside of a greater context. Whether it is improvised or scripted, a campaign's story is what keeps everyone coming back for more. And above and beyond the overarching plot, a campaign's story also encompasses the personal stories of its characters.

Often, players find themselves more engaged in character stories than campaign plots - and it's only natural. We are people, and we empathize and engage with other people. "Will the Kingdom of Galefridus fall to the demon army?" is a high-concept plot question that may interest players, but won't necessarily engage them. "Will Sir Thorald, the fallen paladin, find redemption?" is a story that will almost certainly engage any player that knows, sympathizes with, and likes Sir Thorald.

An example of a classic arc is when a character starts a story with a fatal flaw that holds them back, and by the end of the story, they have overcome that flaw. While I encourage players to enter a campaign with a rough character arc in mind, the simple act of progressing through a campaign affords enough material to draw on to build an arc of personal growth.

Let's consider the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke Skywalker, over the course of three movies, goes from being a simple farmhand to a powerful Jedi. In game terms, we would say that he gained experience points from overcoming challenges, leveled up and unlocked more of his Force abilities, and ultimately wound up with a lot more hit points, skills, and abilities than when he started. But on top of that, he also gained more confidence, more purpose, more wisdom, and by the end of the trilogy, he has grown not just in power, but also as a person.

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