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.
The Luke Skywalker that confronts Vader in Return of the Jedi acts differently than the Luke Skywalker we first met in A New Hope. He is the same person, but he has evolved. His character has been shaped by his experiences – by the death of his family, by the revelation of his father’s identity, by the sacrifice of Obi Wan – and this is reflected in the way Mark Hamill portrays him. Similarly, think about all the experiences your character has undergone as he has leveled up – is he really the exact same person he was at the start of the campaign?
Consider the following three player character arcs from one of my campaigns:
Thovinion begins the story as a haughty intellectual that looks upon others with disdain. But after many bonding moments with his new party members, he grows to respect them, he learns the value of others, and his character softens. Thovinion’s player had planned this arc from his character’s inception, but some surprises along the way offered narratively exciting setbacks to his development.
Melocal begins the story as a worshiper of the goddess of death and has no qualms with taking a humanoid’s life. But after a near-death experience in which he learns that his soul is being claimed by an evil deity, he realizes that he has not been following the will of his goddess at all and learns to be merciful. Melocal’s player didn’t consider this character arc until the the near-death experience – that was the inciting incident that spurred both the player and the character into action to think up the desire for character growth.
Lyvin begins the story as a wide-eyed youth eager to become a hero like those in the tales told by bards. But on his journey to becoming such a hero, he realizes that there is more to it than the glorified stories tell – he loses friends, he is forced to make morally questionable decisions, and he realizes that the world can’t be neatly divided into “heroes” and “villains.” He ultimately grows disenchanted with the idea of being a hero and turns to alcoholism. Lyvin’s player had planned for his character arc to end with Lyvin living out his dream, but came to realize that a tragic ending would serve as a more dramatic conclusion to this arc.
As you can see, not all arcs have positive endings, but no arc is ever the end of a character’s story until you decide it is. When one arc ends, another begins.
The figures above depict these arcs visually, relative to the progression of the campaign. Thovinion’s arc followed the vision his player had developed at the start of the campaign; when the campaign ended, the player conceived of a new arc that would span the next campaign. Melocal’s player didn’t conceive of an arc until late in the campaign, but rather than try to squeeze all that character development into the final act, he envisioned a long journey of personal growth that would extend far into a future campaign. Lyvin’s player started the campaign with the mindset of a sweeping arc that would span multiple campaigns, but changed the direction of his arc as the plot developed, ended it when the campaign ended, and set himself up for a new arc in the next campaign.
What we see is that the length and progression of a character arc is independent of the length of a campaign – it can start at any time and end at any time. By having multiple ongoing arcs across different characters, players and DMs alike have multiple vectors of engagement within the story. Greater engagement results in higher player retention, less campaign burnout, and increased desire to see how the story develops. Best of all, character arcs serve as the greatest way for players to significantly contribute to a campaign’s story and take ownership in a truly collaborative tale.