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Character Development and Story Flow

Greetings everyone,

And welcome back to another "episode" of the RPG Carnival. This month is about Character Development.

Character Development is usually classed as the events that shapes a characters personality (often embodied by the Hero's Journey), but here I'm going to apply it to something slightly different - in this case, the mechanical advancement involved when your character increases in power or ability, regardless of the system.

As some of you might have noticed, letting the story influence the mechanics, such as skill set, isn't that easy to do in 5e (arguably it can be done in Pathfinder 2, due to the feats that you get at each level).

So instead, we are going to focus on systems that allow you to do this in a slightly more fluid manner. These are things such as SLA Industries' S5S system, the Basic Roleplaying system and so on. In essence, systems that do not use levels to determine how powerful your character is, but where it instead is up to the skills of your character as they increase individually. (You can argue that this happens with things like Aberrant and the World of Darkness games as well).

And what I want to make a case for is letting your story dictate your choices here. To take an example that happened a little over a month ago, where my local group and I were playing Call of Cthulhu. Now, CoC does this pretty well, but here is where we ran into it as we were sitting at the table after the session:

Player 1: So when do we increase in levels?

Player 2: Well that depends on what happens when you roll now. You roll for each skill that you got the check for, and then you see if they increase. You kinda need to fail the skill check to increase it, which is odd, but it does make progression slower as you gain power.

Player 1: What do you mean? I don't get to put them where I want? But I wanted my character to get better with a rifle, so I can use it next time.

Player 2: Then your character either needs to start practicing it in their off-time, or they need to start using it during the game.

Player 1: But that means I'll suck. Why would I do that?

Keeper: That's kinda how it works in real life too dude. You weren't good any good at Counterstrike the first time you sat down either. It took time.

Player 3: He still sucks...

*laughter all around the table*

Player 1: OK, I see your point, but doesn't this mean that you run into trouble as your opponents increase in level?

Keeper: There aren't any levels. You're ALWAYS in danger. But yeah, it means you need to think about what you're doing. But it also encourages you to take chances.

The conversation continued on for quite some time after that, but what I wanted to show here was an example of where the story trumped the "gaming of the system". The player would be rewarded for doing his story (in this case, learning the rifle), rather than by arbitrarily putting points in rifle and now suddenly he was as good as an Olympic level skeet-shooter. By letting the story dictate his actions, those actions then had consequences and rewards in the system itself - his character started to shoot with a rifle and took lessons, so he got better at it.

Now there are two ways to go about it - one is like above, where the player takes a concious choice about the direction his character goes, but I often find that the more engaging way of doing it is to see where the story takes you. For example, in CoC, your character might find themselves spending a lot of time at the local library, hunting down background information on an old haunted house, but that hadn't originally been the plan. That had been the plan for one of the others, but he got hurt and is in the local hospital leaving it to you. Personally, at the end of the session, I would then hope for (and try for) my character to become better at research (or Library Use as the skill for this is called in CoC). He used it and got practical experience, and it marks a natural evolution for the character, rather than a forced one down a predetermined path.

This can also be somewhat applied to more rigid level-based systems. Many players like to plan out and optimize their characters from level 1 through 20 (or however long the campaign goes for), but I personally prefer taking it level by level. Sure, I might have an idea of where the character is supposed to go ("He's going to be a raging barbarian with a greatsword, and I want him to wrestle dragons", but I might well divert from that idea along the way ("Well, we spent a month at that druid enclave, and the barbarian DOES like nature. How about picking up druid levels?") so that there is a more natural progression to it, rather than the static. The 5e ranger might be the both best and worst example of it with the favored terrain from Natural Explorer. They could, if the player wants it, spend the entire campaign in terrain that they're not specialized for and continually choose terrain that they have no use for. Conversely, they might choose their terrain based on the campaign itself like a "Oh, we start near the woods. Cool, I'm taking forest." and then choosing the ones they have since been in ("We traveled through a desert and a swamp on the way here, I'll take one of them") rather than ones they're about to see ("there's coast up ahead though, I'll grab that instead, as I'll have immediate use for it").

Anyways, just food for through when playing your characters. :)

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