D&D has a lot of options for customizing a character with different abilities and personality traits, but not as much as far as built-in mechanics go for role-playing said character. At the end of the day, D&D was originally a monster hunting/sword and sorcery game that eventually adopted a more narrative focus in the most recent 5th edition. As a result, there are plenty of rules and guidelines for combat and spellcasting mechanics, but when it comes to encouraging social engagement and character development, it’s actually a bit lacking outside of d20-based skill checks. Sure, the DM can reward players for creative role playing with things like Inspiration and lore drops, but that’s difficult if the players are having trouble knowing where to begin in the first place. It’s very easy to feel like you’ve been put “on the spot” when you’re faced with social interaction but not yet used to role-playing. I’ve seen many a player simply freeze up, paralysed by the seemingly endless options ahead of them and not yet feeling comfortable enough in their PC’s “skin” to roll with the punches. In those situations, it then falls to the DM to try to coax the player into the spotlight, which is made even more challenging if the player doesn’t know their PC’s motivations in the first place! It can become quite the awkward cycle.
That’s not to say that you can’t have a role-play and narrative-heavy game of D&D! It just requires a little more structure here and there. The wide-open nature of the game is both my favourite aspect and the most challenging, as it leaves plenty of room for creative interpretation, but that can be intimidating for newcomers who may need a little more guidance. Here are some things you can incorporate to help players and DMs alike really explore character growth and avoid that dreaded “deer-in-the-headlights” feeling!
Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws
We’ll start with something that’s already built into D&D Character Development, but is frequently left untouched after the first few games! These categories allow you to come up with some examples of unique personality traits, character flaws, and closely held beliefs or convictions your PC has about themselves, the people they interact with, and the world around them. Here are some examples, using one of my own PCs: Kreevali the Aaracokra Ranger (Horizon Walker subclass).
- Trait: If there is a weird tunnel or passagway, I will investigate it. Fate doesn’t reward hesitation!
- Ideal: It’s important to be self-sufficient, but the health of the flock is of utmost importance.
- Bond: I will do anything to ensure the survival of my team.
- Flaw: My recklessness can lead to disaster…and there have been troubles in the past that I feel responsible for.
Much of the time, players will use these during the early stages of a campaign, but then not use them past the first few sessions, or forget that they can use them as guides for role-playing. These are meant to provide an initial idea of how a PC will react in certain situations, and what drives them, but too often they fall by the wayside…especially if the chosen traits aren’t conducive to the scenario at hand.
Another pitfall lies in never changing these elements over the course of the game. There should be instances of character growth and evolution as the party overcomes challenge after challenge. Wouldn’t it make sense if the traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws evolved over time? For example, Kreevali started out very reckless and a bit cavalier when it came to following the rules. Unfortunately, that behaviour landed her in hot water…now she has become much more cautious as a result and will sometimes overcompensate in an attempt to appear more mature. Therefore some of her behaviours and values will likely change.
It’s always good for both the players and DMs to reflect on how events will shape their characters’ perceptions of the world, and allow the initial personality elements to change over time! DMs can even use these elements to deliberately expose players to decision points that will lead to character growth.
I’ve mentioned this tip before, but it’s worth repeating! The Dungeon World game gives examples of Bonds that link character backstories to that of another party member. This creates built-in relationships or objectives that a player must act upon during role-playing scenarios.
For example, Kreevali’s first (accidental) venture was to the Feywild, where she met an Eladrin named Velavyre. Velavyre taught her how to speak Sylvan and was there when Kreevali took her first flight and a young fledgling. A good Bond for this relationship could be that Velavyre is the only one who can help Kreevali feel care-free and adventurous again.
As a player, this means that I should allow my character to loosen up and maybe give in to some of Velavyre’s wacky antics, rather than give her the cold shoulder the way Kreevali would towards strangers.
As a DM, I would use this sort of bond to purposely create scenes for Velavyre to get into trouble, just to see how Kreevali would act. Knowledge of these bonds would also give me opportunities to challenge players and the strength of their convictions.
Similar to “Ideals” in the first section, Beliefs represent the character’s core assumptions about the world. This idea comes from the The Burning Wheel RPG and, mechanically speaking, is used as a way to not only represent beliefs about the world but how a character would act upon them (in a similar fashion to goals, described below).
An example of a Belief for Kreevali would be that Earth-bound races are more short-sighted than the Aaracokra people, and are too easily swept up in petty squabbles. To show how Kreevali acts upon that Belief, I would have her be more impatient, sometimes even critical, of non-flying races. She’s quite haughty…
As a DM, I would take that Belief and find ways to challenge it. Maybe Kreevali will find a non-flying NPC who can outsmart her, and force her to reconsider her previous assumptions.
Another Belief that wouldn’t necessarily change in that same way, could be that Kreevali believes that there are other Horizon Walkers outside of her own tribe. The related action would be that she is going to try to find them and learn from them.
As a DM, I would take this and use it as player motivation. I’d drop hints and clues to the presence of others who can traverse the planes for Kreevali to explore and expand her understanding of the role she has been given.
Goal-Setting is one of my favourite ways to help players find their PC’s motivations. These can change after each session, and are most effectively organized into short and long-term goals. For example:
Kreevali hasn’t seen Velavyre since she was a fledgling, and was never able to find a doorway to the Feywild again. During our very first session, who suddenly appears but Velavyre, sent into the Material Plane by some powerful being! Some good goals after this encounter could include:
- Short-Term: Keeping Velavyre out of trouble– she’s never been on the Material Plane before…(Wow is this what your cities look like? What’s that smell? Who are those people? What is this “money” thing?)
- Long-Term: Finding a doorway to the Feywild to help Velavyre get back home
As a player, setting goals gives me something to work towards during a session, and helps create a sense of direction for my PC’s actions. If I have goals, I will be less likely to freeze up at a decision point…I’ll simply think about the problem and decide whether or not it relates to one of my goals. If it is unrelated, and unrelated to a goal of one of my allies…is it something I’d still be interested in?
As a DM, this gives me something to pull from when creating scenes. If I know my players’ goals, then I know what inspires their PCs to action– this makes it much easier to weave compelling stories and challenges for them! You can also tie goals to milestone levelling…if a player is able to satisfy one of their chosen goals you can reward them with character progression. This will also help their character’s traits evolve in interesting, and sometimes unexpected, ways!
That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope you find these examples useful 🙂 Remember, with all of the open space in the D&D mechanics, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at other systems for house rule inspiration! Your game is your own. As long as you’re having a good time, customize it to your heart’s content! Finally, don’t forget to share some more ideas in the comments below!