This is a random topic compared to my usual posts, but it’s one that’s been knocking around in my brain for a while. I’m currently in five campaigns (that meet with varying degrees of regularity), I’ve finished several one-shots and two long-running games, and have two more on deck for the summer, so I’ve had plenty of experience coming up with whacky characters and navigating the dilemmas that the DMs throw at as. I’ve only DMed a few times myself, but I am always in storytelling mode, so this was really just the natural result of exposure to the clicky-clacky-math-rocks. This is less focused on mechanics, and more geared toward player dynamics and character creation, but I hope you find it useful!
1 – Motivation > Everything Else: No matter how min/maxed your build is, or how traumatic the backstory, if your character doesn’t have a strong reason to A) follow the plot and B) stick with the party, then the game will never get off the ground. (I don’t mean splitting the party to go explore or multitask on problem solving. I mean joining and staying with the party in the long run). Though they don’t have to like the other PCs, even the most hermitish or paranoid need to need them around to achieve a common goal. There’s a reason musicals almost always have an “I Want” song. You can still write a passive character with motivation – but think about what’s keeping them from chasing their desires, or why they yield to other’s ideas. Figuring out this one trait puts everything else into context and clarity.
2 – Write Walking Contradictions: The Race/Class/Alignment setup of DnD means there’s an infinite possibility of combinations in character creation. There are some players who like to min/max their PCs – meaning that they choose certain combinations in order to create almost game-breakingly powerful characters. My approach is the opposite – I create a backstory and motivation first, and then pick traits that would best help me tell the story I want to share. Another method is using random generators to end up with some truly wacky combinations. This is a great exercise in pushing your creativity to subvert tropes and cliches.
Let’s illustrate this with some examples! I wanted to play a bard who didn’t flirt, so I made them a robot instead, and following an off-rails train of thought ended up with a Toy Soldier warforged bard-barian.
One of my friends wanted a powerful build but a personality too goofy to take full advantage of the character’s potential. We got Jam(e)s – a fighter-sorcerer with an intelligence stat of 5 who forgets he can do magic and attack more than once, and decided the best way to hide from his arson charges was to take the ‘e’ out of his name.
I hate lying in real-life situations, but lying to the party gives me a chance to practice my acting, and it usually results in crazy plot twists. My current characters include an arcane trickster changeling rouge with several alternate personalities, who runs a crime ring MLM where they work with themself for themself, and an airbender who hid her bending from everyone but the DM.
3 – Practice your Acting: Writing is hard because you need to be a know-it-all, regardless of your own stats. Authors are just shy showmen – we want to tell stories, but because of our stage fright, we hide behind the page instead of sharing it on a stage. But it’s not enough to say a character is witty and charismatic, you need to show that bantering dialogue for it to be convincing. Now, what a character does in seconds might take you weeks to invent, but if you want to get better at character voice, learning how to roleplay with a group of trusted friends is one of the fastest ways to force you out of your comfort zone. Even if you can’t put on an accent, practicing a different rhythm or turn of phrase can go a long way to helping you define what distinguishes one character from another.
4 – Balance the Party: I mean this beyond “make sure you have a healer” and I don’t mean that straightforward characters can’t be fun – one of my favorite PCs, played by the same friend who created Jams, was a plain vanilla lawful good human fighter named John Johnson, who became the team dad when paired with a group of maniacs. For each PC that’s got an “oops-all-plot-hooks” backstory, there’s another PC who’s just there to party. I’ve also encountered situations where two characters have scarily similar experiences but totally different worldviews, and become foils to each other. The dynamics that can result from priority clashes lead to interesting character development. Remember how I said the first thing you need is a motivation to stick with the party? How do you deal with antagonists who begrudgingly have to work together?
5 – How to Deal with Failure: While there’s usually not dice rolling in novel writing (though if you’re stuck, why not?) sometimes you have to let your characters screw up. What’s their first reaction? Fight, flight, or freeze? Some characters might prefer to solve problems through clever roleplay or quick puzzle-solving using an arcana or investigation check. Others might prefer to jump straight into combat. Here’s another way to introduce contradiction – what if your wizard is trigger-happy and his first instinct is to cast fireball while the barbarian tries to clear a path to the exit? Are they trying to do max damage and kill the enemies, or incapacitate them long enough to get what they want? How a character responds to a crisis can tell you a lot about how they think, and in a DnD game, you decide on the spot. If you’re stuck on a plot point, set a 1 minute long timer. Commit to whatever you come up with in that time and see if it works! Often your gut instinct will inform you.
6 – It’s OK to tell a Slightly Shitty Story: There is no one right way to play DnD, and there’s no way to edit or retcon huge chunks of the lore. One might wonder why ttrpgs are so popular, especially when they’re competing with polished work like finished books and movies – but I think the authentic goof-ups are part of the charm. Setup and payoff don’t exactly match up most of the time, but that’s ok – as long as you enjoyed playing, the story was worth it. Have fun!
Do you play DnD? Tell me about your favorite PCs and their exploits. I wish you many a fun session and real-life inspiration points. If you feel so generously inclined, you can support my writing by leaving me a tip on my Kofi or donating using the secure box below. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing!
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