So Many Characters, So Little Time: a DMs Perspective on Memorable Characters
by Roger Hannah
Holidays and upcoming campaign prep have kept me quiet for a few weeks so it is nice to be returning to the blog. As a DM, I enjoy the challenge of heavily integrating the origins and personalities of my players' PCs into the overall story arcs of my campaigns, provided that contributes to their fun in playing. It's a tall order sometimes but, since this is supposed to be a collaborative story, it gives my players a more solid buy-in to the tale we are weaving.
Of course, so much of this hinges on the amount of effort your players invest in creating their characters. The hardest part for some is just deciding which character they wish to play, especially if they, like most of us, have a ton of character ideas bouncing around in their geeky brains. My son struggles with this issue quite a bit. He has changed, tweaked, and changed again in prepping his character for our next campaign. As the DM on the receiving end, this has become a bit maddening but you don't want to kill that amount of creativity and sheer love for the game. I asked him about why he was struggling so much and he replied that he just wanted to have a "memorable character with an exciting part in the story." That is often a challenge for all players, I think. We all want and hope to have those "campfire tales" to make these fictional entities we've created as immortal as they can be. At a certain point, though, we all have to choose and lean into one of those roles if we want to have the epic outcome the party would like to experience. How, though, do we make that character "memorable"?
Volothamp Geddarm, Drizz't Do'Urden, Tanis Half-Elven, Raistlin Majere, Grog Strongjaw, Scanlan Shorthalt, Vax'ildan & Vex'ahlia. You know the names of these well-known characters if you've been involved with D&D at any point in the games history since 1974. All of us as players aspire to have our own beloved PCs even if they are known only to our own gaming groups. Some, myself included, keep their old character sheets and regale their kids with the glorious tales of Hrethric, Reorx Hammerforge, Bolan Silverblade, Gescild FitzHerde, and Odo Took. This is all fine and good but what makes those personalities "memorable"? In large measure, it is just the experience of playing them and, most importantly, having fun while playing them. It is really the memories we make with those around the table that make those PCs so special. There are some things you can do to encourage that type of experience.
Keep It Natural
DMs know only too well that you can plan all you like but, in the end, you can't anticipate what your party will do and they will likely make you scramble when they do something you didn't expect. Mr. Potter says it best:
The same is true for players. You can develop a great back story, with elaborate history and NPCs crucial to your character's motivations and personality, only to have the DM ask you to tweak it because you can't yet see the world or the story in their head. This is all part of the game process so don't get freaked out about it. You have to trust the collaborative nature of this hobby to help you develop your character as they interact with the DMs world and with the other players. Don't beat yourself up or think your character is going to be boring or bland because you have to wait to see what happens. Consider how you think they would react to different situations and let that play out in game. You will likely find your character developing in a very cool and memorable way that you didn't expect.
Stay True to the PC
When writing an adventure, it is key that you not get caught up in a specific story arc. The players will make choices and decisions that will inevitably affect what happens in the tale you are spinning. If you try to anticipate, it will drive you mad. The best course is to develop your NPCs and think about their motivations, remembering all the while that their plans and machinations will continue in your world, regardless of whether or not the players choose to interact with them. Players need the same approach. Create your PC's personality and motivations while thinking about how they will react in certain situations. When you take that to the table, it will help you in improvising the role-play when faced with actual game situations or challenges. Especially if your PC has a personality, outlook, or world view than you do personally, stick to that as authentically as possible. Doing so will reduce the pressure to "make" your character interesting (they will get there on their own if you just let them) and make it easier to just enjoy the game without stressing over your back story not being "cool enough".
Patience Is a Virtue
Most important of all, give your character time to develop. This is not an exact science, of course. Some PCs come together almost effortlessly. I have a monk/cleric, Freya, who is loosely based on Buffy Summers and Black Widow. My ideas about how her personality might work and so forth were in place before I played her so I had a stronger starting point than with other PCs. Most of my others have all taken time to get interesting. Think of it like the protagonist of a novel or movie. Even if you initially like a character, they may not stand out as particularly memorable during the opening chapter or credits. What makes them interesting is their whole journey. If you give them an engaging starting point (for example, a mountain dwarf who discovers he is cursed with wild magic) and add a dose of conflict (the dwarf's clan is wary of magic and expels him from their society), that's really all you need to be on the way to memorable moments. Play the character, see how they develop as the PC interacts with the DMs world. Be patient during those sessions when you feel the story is passing you by with no role for your PC. Remember, everyone else at your table is wanting their "moment" in the story too and the DM is trying to do that for everyone. It's definitely a significant challenge to do well and today might not be your PC's day. Your "moment" also may come in a way that you don't expect so be ready to roll with that and see where it takes your PC.
I'm not going to lie. There are some characters I've played that never had their moment and, based on my failure to recall even their names, proved not very memorable. Did I still have fun playing in those sessions? A thousand times, YES! That's the true heart of the game anyway. Having the ones that don't really work makes you appreciate even more the ones where they get their time in the spotlight. With the dwarven sorcerer I mentioned, I did not expect him to stand out, especially in an abbreviated, sequel to the previous campaign. As I played him, though, I started engaging with the idea that he felt he needed to transform himself to be what everyone in his clan expected him to be, prompting me to focus his spells in the school of transmutation. He ended up having a journey from feeling he needed to change to belong to seeing this "curse" as being central to who he was and an aspect to be embraced, not rejected. It worked on this occasion but that's not always what happens. The best advice I have is to focus on the fun and don't sweat it if your character does not get the moment you expected. Just commit and follow that journey to the end. Remember, it only takes an ill turn of the dice and you'll be coming up with your next PC anyway. Happy rolling!