December 30, 2019

Character Arc Mapping

This week’s #worldbuildingMonday blog post is an extension of the character mapping process from a few weeks ago. This week, let’s delve more into that process and better flesh out how, within the character map, plotting out character arcs is a crucial step in this process as well.

For the uninitiated, a character arc is synonymous with the evolution of a character, and is often summarized as an ultra short story: “Bilbo Baggins goes from a happy and mostly content hobbit in the peaceful shire, to embroiled on a magnificent journey with wizards and dwarves to reclaim a lost treasure, to finding a ring of power, to facing down a dragon, to living through a battle with five armies, to earning the respect of the free world in Middle Earth, and ultimately, back home, to his pipe and cozy hobbit hole. Truly there and back again!” is an example for Bilbo, for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

That summary is what worldbuilders should most oftentimes use for their tabletop RPG’s NPCs – it provides the structure you need in order to really dig into how you’ll both flesh out their backstory, as well as ingratiate them into the story’s plot. Now obviously, as the GM, you won’t be able to completely script your story – no GM can given the choices the players maker – but the character arc mapping summary will serve as the foundation for your vision for that NPC as the story evolves and progresses.

And once you have that outline for a character, you can begin to fill in the pieces of how that evolution took place. Continuing the Bilbo example, just how did he come to go on a journey with wizards and dwarves? and why? What did he do with the ring of power? How did he fare against the dragon? What happened during the battle of five armies? And how did he earn the respect of the free Middle Earth? These questions will oftentimes serve as the genesis of creative thinking when you’re piecing together the fabric of both the character, and the story as a whole.

Naturally, some of the answers to those questions may not have yet occurred in the story. And that’s okay. Like an other plot thread the GM has that began during this worldbuilding phase, when something you’ve planned is in the future, it’s an event/circumstance, scenario that’s possible, not guaranteed. You’re playing a story with other people and, as often happens in tabletop RPGs, the twists and turns of choices and actions take you in directions you may not have planned for or expected.

Having these NPC character arcs mapped ahead of time better empower you as the GM to go with the flow because you’re already so familiar with the underlying infrastructure of the NPCs. You can pivot and react in real time because of that preparation – and your story and the players’ experiences are made all the richer. And naturally, these pivots form the branches of your story – and because during the pivot itself you had the infrastructure ready, that “tree”, that story is as healthy as it can be!

So invest the time in performing some character arc mapping for your major NPCs – you won’t regret it!