D&D — How to Make Interesting Player Characters

A couple of friends have asked me recently (for different an unrelated campaigns, even) about how I make a player character that I am excited to play. It’s worth noting that they were relatively inexperienced, and while they knew what D&D is and how to play, they didn’t have enough experience to know their options and how to capitalize them for maximum anticipation. I’ve talked about this a bit, but haven’t made a full blog post about it, so here it is, oh friends of mine from the future that have asked me this same question.

That said, this guide will be geared towards those players. I would say the majority of people who play D&D regularly as a hobby tend to have a backlog of possible characters they would like to play and are simply waiting for the opportunity to pull them out (like me). Even if that is the case, though, maybe they’re not as fleshed out as they could be, and this guide will help you learn more about that cool idea.

Here we go.

Step One: Identify your Rule of Cool. This can be anything. Maybe your cool thing is casting spells on your enemy to make them think you’re their friend. Maybe it’s the too-cool-for-school rogue that only feels happy when she’s stabbing somebody. Maybe it’s a backstory, like your parents were murdered by birds and now you are on a quest to kill every bird for revenge. It doesn’t matter what it is, just search deep inside your soul and find the answer to the question “How do I achieve maximum coolness?” because everyone should be able to feel cool when playing their heroes.

  • To follow along with an example of my own characters, one of my Rule of Cool things was that I wanted to play a Lawful Evil character. Somebody that is selfish and manipulative, but still helps the party. (We’ll get to that part.)

Step Two: Identify how your Rule of Cool manifests. How much of that thing is narrative, and how much of it is actually gameplay mechanics? Wanting to murder every bird is narrative, because it doesn’t have any influence on what race or class you are. Wanting to mind control all your enemies does inform your class, though. You’d be hardpressed to make a barbarian whose main purpose in combat is to mind control, for example. Once you figure this out, you can more easily identify what parts of your character you still need to figure out.

  • My Lawful Evil character was a dark elf, or a drow, because in most common lore, dark elves are lawful evil. So this Rule of Cool informed race, which helps inform backstory, but there is no hint of class yet.

Step Three: Find the ‘But’. This is the critical point in which your cool idea becomes an interesting and nuanced character. The idea here is to fill out the rest of your basic character concept with something that significantly contrasts your Rule of Cool idea. Maybe your mind control character is a big dumb goliath. Maybe the guy that wants to kill all birds is, secretly, a bird. Maybe your edgy rogue character secretly just wants to be loved. It doesn’t have to make sense (yet), it just has to be interesting enough to get you interested.

  • My drow still didn’t have a class here, so that’s what I used for the ‘But’. Lawful Evil drow? What if he’s a bard that sings songs and inspires people around him? How does that work?

And now for Step 4: Use those two mismatching ideas, and find a way to make it work. This will pretty much always tell you the basics of their backstory and make filling out details easy. How did this dumb goliath get mind control powers? Why did your edgy rogue turn to stabbing people when really they’re just lonely? Why does a bird and his parents get attacked by other birds? The idea with the ‘But’ here is that it allows you to ask specific and direct questions that inspire their own answers. The Cool idea and the But idea should be mismatched in a way that asks these obvious questions.

  • How does a lawful evil drow become a bard? Easy, he found himself orphaned on the surface (for reasons that aren’t important so I don’t care yet) and was adopted by a nice noble family. They loved him and cherished him. Gave him an education and taught him music. He hated it, because he wanted to have a cruel, twisted life so that he could use that hatred to be edgy and drow-like. Instead, he had a cushy lifestyle he was too embarrassed to talk about. Which is a fun secret to keep from the rest of the party!

And you’re done! …ish. It’s important to note here that none of this process actually nails down anything concrete. It can, but really the point is to figure out all of the important basics for your character and then decide what you want later. Our friend that murders birds still doesn’t have a class, for example. Our mind controlling-goliath has a few different options regarding class. Our edgy rogue can still be any race, and there’s lots of room for growth and exploration regarding their backstory.

That’s pretty much it. Getting interested in your character is really just a matter of brainstorming the right questions and coming up with answers that add depth and dimension to your character. The specifics can always be more refined later.

Poem — Tea for Who?

I once thought that I knew who
I was put on this world to be,
But then I was thrust into a new view
And ’twas not my cup of tea.

To learn that you have never stood
Where you say you had grown up
Would mess with your head for good—
It sure overfilled my cup.

All those friends I thought I knew,
Had all just been a dream.
A clever reconstruction, brewed,
Though that place had no cream.

To push ahead, I know I should,
But still I want what never was.
Things are better now than childhood
But I want to scream—as the kettle does.

(Proud to say I slammed this out in 15 minutes, though the sloppy flow probably makes that glaringly obvious. It was an hour past my bedtime before I even started. Whoops.)

Prompt: https://www.deviantart.com/sandara/art/Tea-Party-800368122

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D&D — Campaign as Storytelling

Hello again, friends. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about Dungeons & Dragons directly (or at least not something that had a specific correlation to my Aleor campaign), and I’ve been having some thoughts I’d like to share.

Obviously, I’m a storyteller. I’ve been writing for about a decade now, so I theoretically know my way around a plot. It’s been interesting to explore plot development through what I would consider to be my first real experience as a dungeon master. Aleor isn’t the first campaign setting I’ve done, but it was made to be in the world of D&D, and is built to be a ‘world’ much more than a place for stories to exist in.

The problem with that last part is that I still want those stories to happen. I have visions. Dreams, if you will, of amazing scenes and climactic moments to share with my players. Before the campaign even started I had an inkling of an encounter involving the three party members fighting alongside (or as?) good-aligned dragons against a big bad. Part of the problem with cool ideas like that is that I can still do that in this campaign, but the location that encounter would happen in hasn’t even been mentioned in passing to the players. As in, they aren’t geographically close enough to have even heard of that place.

Now, I know you’re just going to yell at me to move that encounter closer if I want it so damn bad, but there’s the rub. Aleor is a world full of cultures, and that location was built with that encounter in mind, and simply moving three powerful dragons to another place in the world just because it is more conveniently timed on my part would ruin the entire pacing of the story. They are only level 5 at the moment, after all. Level 5 characters don’t get to be allied with powerful dragons.

But the thing that frustrates me quite a bit is that the current arc of the campaign—the story they are wading through right now—has some really cool moments and scenes I’ve been looking forward to for months, and I want nothing more than to skip to the good parts. But I can’t. Things need to take time in order to make the narrative flow well, and in order to give those moments the most impact.

It’s a little sad, because I obviously want to make the “in-between” sessions and encounters interesting and meaningful. I’m very leery of turning the campaign into “The Encounter of the Week”, just stringing combats together and arbitrarily throwing suitable creatures at the party to fill in the time.

I don’t care what’s guarding the door, but I can’t wait to reveal what’s behind the door. Problem is, if I don’t make that guard interesting (not powerful—interesting), then the reveal will just be neat rather than amazing.

D&D should be about the fun moments you create and the stories you tell afterward. I’m trying so hard to tell interesting stories, I just get so impatient!

D&D — Why Do You Play?

Dungeons & Dragons means a lot of different things to different people. It might mean wish fulfillment of getting to be your own Mary Sue. Maybe it means number crunching and being as powerful as you can be (which is wish fulfillment in its own right). Maybe it means escaping reality by doing good and saving the princess. Or maybe it just means hanging out with friends.

I think everyone comes to role-playing games like D&D because it’s the ultimate sandbox in a lot of ways. Depending on who your dungeon master is, the only think limiting your abilities is your creativity—you can do what you want, as long as it’s not impossible within the rules of the world (which may or may not coincide with the rules of the game). “Choices are infinite—consequences are mandatory”.

For me, D&D is about two things. I love the escapism it provides in allowing me to pretend to be people wildly different from myself, and since I’m a storyteller at heart, it also lets me feel like I’m part of a crazy adventure in a fantasy novel than simply writing one.

I feel as though I’m in a weird minority in the community. The vast majority of people I’ve interacted with in regards to D&D aren’t (particularly) interested in the story, or when they are, it’s always in the framework of their character. For me, the story and the character are often two separate entities entirely. I built a character that is fun to pretend to be, not one that has an intricate backstory that has strong connections to the world they live in.

I have a few friends that with whom I share D&D stories on a regular basis. I’ve certainly considered inviting them to the game that I run, but deep down I know that they wouldn’t have any fun. At its current state, the Aleor campaign is a lot of talking to normal townsfolk rather than an epic adventure of heroes and villains, and I can’t accommodate a player who wants to be a Jedi.

Finding the D&D group that you mesh with is tough. Since everyone’s playing for different reasons, the obvious, most accessible group to you may not be the best one for you. It may not even be the right one, and since the type of person to be playing the game tends to be the sort of person who doesn’t make a habit of socializing with strangers, it becomes very difficult to find the perfect fit, because for you that perfect fit might only be online with the help of meetup groups like Roll20.

For me, Critical Role is the pinnacle, most ideal version of what D&D could be. Other streams are entertaining, but in my experience, none of them are stories being told the same way that Critical Role is. If I wanted to mess around and goof off at a table with a bunch of friends, there are dozens of different board games we could play with way less effort. Dungeons & Dragons is the only one that allows me to alter my identity.

Voice Acting — Fantasy Script Samples 4

More voice acting sample monologues with which to practice silly voices! I’m writing these for D&D, but you can use them however you’d like. If you’d like me to add some to my list I would be happy to include them in the next post.

Previous posts can be found herehere, and here.

(Obviously you can do different voices than what I have labeled for each paragraph, I just made labels and wrote dialogues based on them.)

  • Optimistic Adventurer:
    I believe that an adventure should be more than killing a dragon and taking its treasure. The journey is more important than the destination, as they say. It isn’t the dragon the heroes defeat. It is the wonderful places they go, the friends they make, and the moments they share along the way. It’s the one-too-many pints of ale in the rundown tavern. The soft whistles of an undetected dart trap. The thankful smiles of the people helped along the way.

    I want to dance to every song I hear and tell a spooky story at every campfire I have. I know it won’t all be fun and games, but I think life can sometimes be most precious when it is at its most trying. I can tell that it isn’t my purpose to lie and wait for destiny to find me—I have to go and make my own, and even if I can’t solve every problem I’m faced with, I want happiness to follow in my wake as best as I am able, like sunflowers in the thick of spring.

    Life is what you make it, and I want mine to be like the ones told in fairy tales.

 

  • Surfer Bro, doesn’t have a care in the world:
    Well well well, if it isn’t my main man! What is up my dudes? How’s it going? I see you have a few tag-alongs this time around, that’s cool. It’s all chill, man. Listen, I know the last one I sold you wasn’t so hot, but I got a buddy of mine that says he’ll sell you a boat for eighty gold. This guy is the real deal, I swear. Matter of fact, he patched it up himself. Got a full mast and a working rudder and everything. And I know what you’re gonna say. You don’t want to pay that much money after the last time we talked, I get it, that’s chill. But hear me out. I like you guys, you really did me a solid by saving me from those thugs a few months back. So here’s the thing. I’ll front twenty gold to help you pay for it, and if it blows up, no big deal, that money is yours. If you like it, next time you’re in town you just pay me the rest of the dough and everything is solid. You guys game?

 

  • Ogre/Giant. Not too bright:
    Lookie here, Enk! We got a little peoples tryna sneak by! Says his name is… whadya say it was again? Nunya? Stupid peoples and their stupid names. What should we do wif em? I’m still kinda full from the last ones we ate. Maybe we could ask em to stay so we can eats em later? Whadya say little peoples? Do you wanna stay around so we can eat y—uh, I mean, we won’t eat you, oh hey. Where’d he go? …Enk, I lost the little peoples. I think the bugger ran off while you was distracting me. Shut up next time, okay? We almost tricked em!

 

D&D — Aleor Campaign Diary 1: The Night of Fire

(Here is the first of a series of posts retelling the story of my most recent campaign. I’m going to translate this into mostly narrative, but there will be a few D&D terms as well.

If you’d like to read the Lore intro to Aleor, you can catch up on it here.)

Our story begins in a tiny village called Soulrest. Little more than a pitstop, Soulrest is famous for its large inn, being a convenient place to rest for travelers between the region of Eastbend and what remains of the once-great Aloran Empire to the west. The town counts its population in the hundreds here. Everyone knows everyone else, and the most notable thing to happen in the span of a few months is when Ubin, the de-facto mayor, was uncharacteristically nice to some people.

There is no adventuring here. At least, not yet. But at year’s end the town gets excited for their yearly bonfire: a ritual called the Night of Fire. This holiday is held at the top of the ruined tower that overlooks the village, and a great bonfire is lit where townsfolk throw away things they no longer need in preparation for a new year. Jeremy Squips, a traveler from Eastbend, is staying at the inn when he hears about this event. He had planned on continuing on, but decides to stay an extra night so he can enjoy the festivities.

Our players, not yet heroes (or even adventurers by any means), are Balgraff Greyhand, the dwarf blacksmith, Sieg Warsen, son of the inkeeper, and Buck Holder, son of the cobbler.

Many of the townsfolk gather at the top of the old tower. Ubin has lit the huge bonfire, and its height allows it to be seen for miles. Then, one by one, the people go up to Ubin’s large red orb, touch it, then throw something into the fire. Not everyone does this, but a good many folk do. Jeremy chimes in with a bit of music to add to the festivities. Buck is given a box by his father to throw in. He doesn’t know what was inside, but he takes it. As soon as he touches the orb, it cracks, and for a moment everything stops. Ubin rushes up to him, but when he inspects the orb, there doesn’t seem to be any missing or sharp pieces, and Buck appears unharmed. The wise old elf appears clueless, but Buck swears he saw him nod to himself ever so slightly.

The Night continues until a loud explosion centered in town fills the air. They look to see the Happy Camper, the local general store, going up in flames. Everyone bursts into action, but none are as quick to act as Buck, Sieg, Balgraff, and Jeremy. They hasten down the hill and start doing all they can to fight the fire, throwing water pails at it and smothering it with whatever they can find.

When all is said and done, the fire is put out, but not before it destroyed the town’s beloved store. The smithy and inn were on both sides of the Happy Camper, and they sustained a bit of damage on their own. It’s a bad start to the new year, and to top it all off, Jeremy comments that he saw hooded figures running into the nearby forest immediately after the explosion…

To be continued…

D&D — Aleor, A Shattered Empire

I’m gearing up for a diary of my current D&D campaign, as we’ve just finished our 12th session and have spent roughly 40 hours in this world. Before telling the story of some lowly commoners, though, I thought: what better place to start than with an overview of the world?

 

Our story begins in the region of Aleor, named after the once-great empire that tamed much of the southwest portion of the large continent of Irumos. At its peak, the Aloran Empire spanned thousands of miles, and its growth was only hindered by deserts to the south, mountains to the north, and a vast chasm to the east.

At that point, the empire had consumed virtually every sovereignty in the region, but to refer to the Aloran Empire’s golden age as a time of peace would be a gross simplification of the details. When the Empire annexed lands into its controls, the laymen were largely unaffected, as the taxes they paid often remained consistent. Their lords, however, were then required to pay taxes of their own to their new kings, and so on to the Emperor themselves. This often bred conflict between local lords and kings, and the empire rarely intervened so long as it meant that they were getting their taxes.

But even beyond the infighting of men, the other forces of the world are always at work in Aleor, some more mysterious and more malevolent than others. The northern city of Dûnmarch fell prey to these forces in a sudden and violent eruption. In a matter of hours, what was once a bustling city built at the pinnacle of the Drowsy Peaks became an abandoned ruin in the deepest crevice of a fresh cavern at the mountain range’s base. A few short years later, what was once a small rain forest exploded into a voracious jungle, growing and overgrowing everything in its path, consuming the Lockjaw Peninsula despite the best efforts of the tens of thousands of people that lived in that region, including the capital city itself.

Hundreds of years later, the Aloran Empire is still prevalent, though it is a mere shadow of its former self. Its new capital is Ashfall to the the north, and though the city is one of the largest in Aleor, the empire itself has little influence on matters more than a few hundred miles outside of it. And though much the the region’s largest cities have fallen and returned to the wilds, new cities are forged. Aqila, the city of craft and magic, is now one of the leading centers of power in the region, rivaling Ashfall and Port Artellis to the south.

Much remains hidden about Aleor’s past, as the civilized world has only recently been starting to get back on its feet. Dark times threaten to persist, and there are forces that threaten to destroy everything now that there is no mighty empire to protect the people. With a little help, though, perhaps new fires can be forged to shine a light into that darkness. After all, one of the major themes for the campaign in this new setting is simple.

Reclamation.