ST 332: Helping Players Grow and Evolve Their Characters

There are multiple opportunities in the MES to encourage players to build characters with depth, conflict, and ambition. But not all character concepts fill out in the same way. Some character concepts start with an inkling of an idea that doesn’t get filled out until game starts, or ones which are created so that the player can enjoy one isolated aspect of the total game.

In order to engross a player into the actual story being played out in the game, they have to be involved. However, nobody wants to be the inconsequential third wheel in a story. They all want the story to be about them. And they’re right to want that, because story is what happens to characters. That means, no matter where the story comes from, the story is the characters’ story. The story is about what happens to those characters.

In order for it to be theirs, things have to go both ways. For the story to have meaning and impact, the characters must grow and evolve.

Finding The Seeds Of Change

Frequently, encouraging character growth can start at the time that a character is written up. It’s one thing to look over a character sheet to check to make sure that it’s within the rules and doesn’t have anything on it which might break the game, but it’s another to have actual insight into the character. That’s why the Character Creation Document available in MES venues is useful. It helps identify who the character is, what goals they have, and why those goals exist.

But when that document isn’t available, discovering hidden character motivations is a matter of observing the character’s decisions in play and talking it over with the player. At the very least, it’s important to understand the basic concept of the character and what the player expects for that character out of the game.

Whichever way it’s done, the key thing to recognize about a character is their motivation. Motivations can be very simple or nuanced and complex. When motivation isn’t readily visible, it’s time to dig a little deeper. What does the character fear? Is there a loose end in their background that they might be looking to close? Is there an injury, either physical or emotional, that they may desire closure for? And, for all of those questions: why?

But this isn’t entirely a storyteller’s decision. Storytellers should work with the players in order to build interest in their characters. Sometimes, motivation isn’t clearly obvious to a player, either, and it takes some brainstorming to start generating that motivation to move the character forward. This way, the player themselves can become an active participant in looking for ways for their character to have their own story.

Watering The Seeds

Once both player and storyteller are cognizant of motivation, avenues can be created to see those goals through. Simply providing the means to an end isn’t the best way to do that. In a role-playing environment, it’s better for stories to have an episodic quality, where there are constantly hooks into more stories. Solutions to one problem might create new problems to resolve, or may be imperfect and thus the problem has to be revisited. The idea here is that story has its own flow, and it’s easier to keep that flow moving than to restart it once it’s been stopped.

A method of preventing that story from stopping is to consider how the motivations of multiple characters relate to one another. In this, a storyteller will find both allies and enemies, all entirely in the players’ hands. One note of caution though: it’s important to ensure that characters in conflict don’t become players in conflict. Using well-maintained character interactions to raise and interweave these character motivations helps them become alive as stories in their own right. And those stories are even more the character’s stories than anything that a storyteller puts on the floor.

Sometimes putting additional plots on the floor helps bring those motivations into better light. Characters aren’t always so easy to wrap into ongoing storylines on their own, and when that happens, it’s time to give them a little push. This is where a storyteller can introduce a new story to the characters in such a way that it puts these more reluctant characters front-and-center in a way that makes them essential to the entire game. Think of this like episodes of a television show that focus on a previously minor character, elevating that character’s importance to the overall story.

Weathering the Storm

The tricker bit to encouraging story to be about what happens to characters is when a storyline might actually be detrimental to a player’s character, not necessarily as the resolution of one storyline but the beginning of the next. It’s a good method to use when a character’s background doesn’t necessarily have enough conflict to bring motivation forward, or has elements that can be put together in order to generate new conflict for the character to see through. But it’s understandable that not all players will be amenable to putting their characters through the ringer.

When a storyteller finds a player who is not only willing but excited to put this sort of story on the floor, it can be a boon for the game as a whole. Not only does that character get to be the center of attention — even though it’s not necessarily positive attention for the character — but it also draws other characters in to that story. Thus a whole new thread is drawn to weave into the overall story-fabric of a game.

It’s important, though, that this sort of thing should only happen with the player’s consent. The storyteller is basically putting a character at a serious disadvantage through no fault of their own. Some players will want to have details regarding why or how this negative action is taking place, and that is perfectly understandable. Before a storyteller takes this sort of action, they should sit down with the player and discuss it. Specific details of how the plot might play out might not be necessary, but the storyteller should be forthright on what risks are being introduced to the character by putting such a plot on the floor.

Sometimes it may prove difficult or even impossible to gain that consent, or the repercussions of actions may arise in game which are favorable for both story and for the continued development of the character. In these instances, a player may feel that it’s time to simply retire their character. Of course, it’s their prerogative to do so, but if they do, it’d be ceasing the development of their character. In times like these, it can prove difficult to encourage them to continue. The key word here is “encouragement,” though. One of the key elements of stories we enjoy is observing a character rise from hardship, and playing a character through that experience can be just as fulfilling.

Remembering The Journey

Whenever a character reaches a milestone on their path of constant change, it’s nice to have a token to mark the occasion. In stories, these milestones are the little climaxes of a character’s journey. Giving the character a symbol of what they’ve been through — a scar, a trophy, or something similar — is a method of letting them remember that story and the changes that came to them along the way.

As these tokens build in your game, they continue to be reminders to the characters and to the players of where they’ve been and who they were. When a player can observe their own character’s growth, it becomes more than a game. It’s greater than just a thing they do with friends, or an excuse to be somebody else for a few hours. It becomes a story which is important to our hearts and minds. Thus, reminiscing on these stories is no longer about the things a character did or how many enemies they’ve defeated, but it’s about how they’ve changed and grown along the way; that’s what story is about.