Planning Ahead For (Tabletop RPG) Character Development

Whenever a tabletop story begins, Schrodinger’s character exists: are they just words on a page? Or are they a real and tangible being? As GMs/DMs, we’re tasked with providing the story canvas from which these characters can truly be brought to life.

So this week’s Worldbuilding advice is all about the process of providing that first breath of air into each of the characters. Learn to better weave their strengths and flaws into the overall tapestry of the story!

Nurturing Character Traits

During character creation and the subsequent Session Zero, GMs/DMs should be taking note of the player characters’ various attributes, traits, talents, goals, and flaws. What are the characters looking to accomplish? What’s influenced them in their backstories? What roles will they likely be playing in the party? And how might they relate to one another?

The answers to these questions are the fertilizer in the soil of your tabletop RPG’s story. They provide numerous ways to both test and cultivate each of the character’s growth. And, accordingly, the corresponding players’ enjoyment and investment in the story.

A character obsessed with revenge, for example, would do well to pick up the scent of their quarry early in the story to further their quest. Or a character desperately looking for their lost spouse, separated in a tragic accident, might also begin their journey there early. As the GM/DM, you now have what you need in order to seed the plot of your story with exactly what the players are looking for. And you can marry their perspectives into the natural flow of the tabletop RPG experience.

Track The Progress

As the story develops, keep a running tracker of these story threads. And in your worldbuilding, find ways to continue to creatively seed the story world with ways the characters can find challenge, nuance, and depth in how they interact with these various facets of their respective journeys. Add milestones to their quests, use conflict to create dramatic tension, and put various dilemmas in their way they must overcome.

And it doesn’t have to be completely 1:1 either. Let’s say, for example, the character obsessed with revenge. You don’t necessarily have to put the target of that vengeance in the direct path of that character. Instead, perhaps they come across another character who is also obsessed with revenge and sees its effects, negative and otherwise, on that person. And by so doing, has their life changed. Or maybe the character has a powerful dream/vision of themselves where they’re no longer obsessed and are forced to reflect on that new state of being…

From session to session, you can simply seed from the notes you’re tracking. And you can use that inertia to drive the plot’s individual twists and turns for the characters. It takes the pressure off you as the GM/DM to consistently improvise those evolutionary moments. And, frankly, does justice to the players who have invested in the story. Don’t short-change yourself or the players/characters. Track their story threads and use them accordingly!

Don’t Finish The Trip Prematurely

Either way, as the character’s journey begins, don’t finish the trip prematurely. Build up to that confrontation/moment of growth. Cultivate that journey and you, the players, and the story will reap the rewards. Focus on how those character attributes define who they are and how they interact with the story world. Seed the story world with potential to ping off those traits and via their choices, the players will naturally gravitate toward those elements.

The last thing you want to do is under-deliver these moments. The players deserve better. And candidly, so do their characters. Be patient. Consistently build up that suspense, that anticipation for the character arc’s climax that’s always right around the corner. Find ways to confront the player with compelling choices – the consequences of which pave the way toward these huge pay-off moments.

This planning is an incredibly important part of both your worldbuilding and being the GM/DM. I promise, you won’t regret this extra work if you’re already not doing it! Let me know how I can help you in your worldbuilding…

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