In fiction writing, there are three generally accepted character arcs: change, growth, and failure. Of course, in writing novels, the author can plan and plot this all out for maximum effect. In the collaborative storytelling nature of role playing games, this is much more difficult. The player may want a growth arc, but is continually givenÂ choices that lead to either change or failure. Before I dive into the nuances, let me explain the different types of arcs a character can experience.
The series of events in the story leads to a change within the core of how the character acts within, reacts to, or views the world around herself. Something integral and incredibly different comes about in the very nature of the character. Sometimes, it’s something held deep within the character that finally surfaces, and other times this comes about through strong external forces being applied to the character to force the fundamental change.
These changes can include the coward becoming brave in the face of adversity, the introvert leading troops into battle after an inspiring speech, the “farm boy” stepping up when needed to be the hero to overthrow a despot. These changes don’t have to be world-shattering. Even the “class nerd” gaining the courage to ask a a pretty girl out to prom can be monumental to the character.
Keep in mind that this arc is how the character changes within their world, not how they change the world around them.
This is the typical arc for most PCs. They grow in ability, power, prestige, and honor. However, I challenge players and GMs to find ways to evolve the characters’ internal traits to be stronger and better, not just the numbers on the page. This can be done by taking the noble squire and giving them greater responsibilities within his honor code, or putting more folks within the care of a friendly healer. These external changes to the world around the character can bring about strong, internal changes to the PC.
If a player wants a growth arc for their character, they need to plant seeds in their brief backstory. Then they need to make sure the GM is aware of the seeds and where the player wants them to grow. Then it’s up to the GM to weave in moments and NPCs from the backstory for the PC to take advantage of. This is a bit more work for the GM, and a careful balance must be put to use to ensure one PC is not always in the spotlight. However, the player will be more invested in the game through their growing character, and this leads to more fun for everyone at the table.
This is another popular arc for PCs. When I talk about failure, I’m not talking about the “natural 1” on a d20 (though, that can be a catalyst for a shift in the character). The best example in fantasy role playing literature of a failure arc is that of Lord Soth from the Dragonlance realm. He was a powerful knight who fell from grace through a series of events and ended up becoming one of the most dreaded undead in all of D&D lore, the Death Knight.
Going through failure arcs for PCs is tricky in nature because it usually ends up with the player handing their character over to the GM for an extended period of time, if not permanently, while the former PC turns into an opposing force as an enemy NPC. This is not always the case, but it is a very distinct likelihood. It all depends on how things play out.
Failure arcs typically happen to those with some decent power or ability already in hand. It’s hard to start out as a dirt farmer and fall much lower than that. That means these types of arcs are a slow burn with a long build up. Anyone interested in a failure arc for their character must be prepared to wait for the payoff, but it can be very interesting when it happens.
As GM, I tend to use the failure arc on a PC-turned-NPC because of a player leaving the group. It’s interesting for everyone at the table to see a former ally show up at a pivotal moment (the group usually expects assistance) and then the ally turns out to be an enemy in disguise. I don’t always play the betrayal card this way, but the times I’ve done it in the past, it’s been incredibly rewarding for everyone at the table.
Find an arc for your character. It will make playing them quite a bit more fun as you see the core of the character’s traits evolve with the statistics on the sheet of paper. For GMs, find ways to allow characters to change over time. Perhaps the salty rogue has a heart of gold and will eventually evolve into a shining paladin. It sounds like a long stretch, but I’ve seen it happen.
How do you see your characters change and evolve over time? Let us know in the comments!
I believe Elric was conceived as a literary version of your “fail arc” scenario with a delightful ambiguity stirred in – Elric was doomed and knew it, but was not necessarily a failure – at least most of the time.
I value ambiguity perhaps more than I should. My main RPG for years has been Delta Green and the very best home brewed story arcs are the ones my players* end just as they realized that their heroic, world-saving actions were indistinguishable from those of the evil buggers they had been going up against for months.
* -all excellent I should add lest anyone get the idea I am claiming all the credit
The Brave – Lost to Real Life but welcome back any time they would like, with their memorable moments:
Jason – “I am *not* a ****ing cultist!” and “Put the Vice President in the van, and please stop him eating his secret service guy”
Melody – Best ever wool-over-other-players’-eyes pulling
Kevin – The Cheesy Radio Cannery Escape and The Agent Who Shifted
Mike – Indomitable player award and Special Guest Scene Steal of the year
Justin – Owning the Tiny Hand spell backfire and “This character doesn’t dual wield pistols. He dual-wields dynamite.”
Daniel – Locking himself in a room with a morphed shoggoth and living through it and figuring out “The Village” scenario
John – For being sensible right up until he senselessly destroyed the visible universe
Matthew – For going into action wearing hiking boots and shorts
The Few – the current cast, with a selection of my fondest memories:
Chris – The astounding climb check. The mix tapes from hell. Never going mad unless it is a vanishingly small possibility.
Stephen – The attempt to psychoanalyze the newly-mad mini-sub pilot … over a vox radio connection
Matt – The rain of frogs incident. The Lake (and team) Vaporization Fiasco.
And a cast of special guest stars (one adventure or so) too long to mention.
All a distinct pleasure to have at the table.
My style is very player-driven and flexible, where the party is primarily acting on the world rather than reacting to it. I made sure there was an overarching goal for each “season” so the players had direction, but it always came from the PCs’ stories. Hereâ€™s my experience with these character arcs in a player-driven campaign:
I started with a “mission control” NPC who would give them a handful of quests to choose from, all of which furthered the characters’ individual goals. The party could steer these missions by adding or changing goals, and as the as the group got to know the world I transitioned to just a list of hanging plot threads and gave them free reign. By having them decide a direction for next session in advance, I still had plenty of session structure and time to prepare.
Character progression was likewise player-driven. Rather than track XP or hand out levels arbitrarily, a mentor NPC gave them level-up challenges and theyâ€™d decide if they could manage those challenges within their current quest. They could also request personal challenges for targeted individual growth, and they gained substantial power through clever use of their time and resources.
The result was that mechanical and narrative growth and change came through the PCsâ€™ chosen goals and deliberate efforts to improve, rather than from me seeding it in. Iâ€™d throw in catalysts, but I tried to keep them open-ended.
We had two party members turn villainous, but their players kept running them. The â€œFailure Arcâ€ wasnâ€™t the end of their character arcs, just a twist along the way. One was planned â€” one player was heading to college partway through, so he was secretly the overlord all along. Heâ€™d been controlling his forces from the shadows, and he stayed connected to the game by controlling his forces openly. Even the opposition was player-driven! These two players got to have a lot of the fun of DMing and eat their PC cake too.
I read Dungeon World right before I started, and while it didn’t really affect my direction it solidified some concepts I’d been using subconsciously. In particular, “play to find out what happens” and “draw maps, leave blanks”. It’s been a blast sharing ownership of the story and not knowing what will happen going in to a session. “Season 2” had an unexpected major twist mid-season an early season finale, but watching it play out naturally was way more interesting for everyone involved.