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Character Development in TTRPGs: From Backstory Character Growth

What makes a memorable TTRPG campaign? Well, in my experience it is the heroes that the players become, as well as the Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) that you, as the Game Master, take control of. The way you breathe life into your character (whether you're a player or GM) will impact the way that the story is told, hopefully in a positive manner.

Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Here, I'm going to look at how you can develop your characters in a campaign while drawing inspiration from the techniques used by fiction authors to create a well-rounded and captivating character. Please also check out last week's blog on how Crafting Memorable NPCs, as this one will focus more on the heroes of the story, rather than the NPCs.

Creating a Backstory

Every great character starts with an interesting backstory, one that provides an idea of their past, their motivations, and most importantly their desires — i.e. where they came from, why they do what they do, and what they want from this world. Just like how an author would dive into a character's past in a book, so can you when creating your character.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What events influenced you, when you were young?

  • What is it that drove you to become an adventurer? (After all, adventuring is dangerous)

  • Do you have any secrets? Are there any old rivals or conflicts from back then, that still lurk?

By answering these questions, you can bring life into your character, and you'll give the GM some material for them to weave into the story of the campaign. (Just don't always expect it to be in a nice way :P )

Embrace your Flaws

All interesting characters have flaws. Well, almost all. This helps your character feel more authentic, real, and relatable. By embracing these, you also leave room for your character to grow through the adventures. For some people, these games are a power fantasy, and for others a way to live out dreams, or even just deal with a boring day job. It makes sense to make your characters as relatable and real as possible, as it'll help you tell a more engaging story. It also makes overcoming the odds feel more satisfying.

Character Arcs

A classic storytelling element, and one that GMs should embrace, is the character arc, where the protagonist undergoes some form of growth or transformation: perhaps it is literal, like Captain America getting the super serum, or perhaps it is more like the Hulk learning to control his temper. Perhaps it is a journey, like Odysseus' long trek to get back home, or perhaps it is something else entirely.

However, between players and GMs, it's important to discuss what sort of arcs they envision for their character, as long as you remember that it might turn out very different from what you think at the start, and you are ready to adapt. And find ways to encourage this growth (this applies to both the GM and the player), as it's a collaborative effort.


Personally, I find this one to be the most difficult and challenging one as a GM. How do you make the players (not the Player Characters, which is an important difference here) about the NPCs that they meet, or even for each other? It's an opportunity to foster friendships, rivalries, and romance. But beware of the last one, as not everyone is looking for that to be part of a gaming experience. It is also very difficult (at least in my opinion) to get right (and I have my wife in my group!). But there is one more aspect to this, which is inter-protagonist relationships. Unlike a novel, a campaign has multiple protagonists (all the heroes), and they should each have equal "screen time". It's OK if it's not 100% balanced, as long as everyone at the table is OK with that, but each character should have "their moment". But, that moment might be in the inter-group conversations, where character talks to character, rather than character to NPC. Personally, one of my fondest memories in gaming comes from the Pathfinder 1 adventure Rise of the Runelords (though we played it before the anniversary edition came out, and I can't remember the specific chapter). The heroes there came upon a devil that had been trapped for millennia, and which was being used to power a large dam. It was nearly dead and would be if they left it, or activated the dam. Two of the players (as their characters), who were both good-aligned (but lawful and chaotic good) argued for nearly an hour over whether to let the creature loose: Was it good to let it go home, where it MIGHT recover its power (and then do evil)? Or should they put the creature out of its misery and drain it entirely (where it would simply dissipate into nothingness, and never come back), as that would prevent it from causing more harm?

It is moments like these that you'll remember.

Moral Choices

The little story above about my players illustrates that you can also have some interesting morality choices in your game. Arguably both sides could be said to be "good" options, but they were so at odds with each other that it's formed a core memory. These decisions can have far-reaching consequences, shaping the character's alignment and affecting the course of the campaign, and you should emphasize the importance of considering the repercussions of their choices, as it enhances the overall storytelling experience.

I hope that you can all see that the journey from the initial backstory to the conclusion of the campaign can be enhanced with just a little bit of personal growth for the characters, taking a good campaign to an exceptional one. And remember, the story (and the campaign) is not only the GM's responsibility but the players' too. So go out there and tell epic tales and unforgettable adventures, TOGETHER.

See you next time. :)

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