Category Archives: Role-playing Advice

Role-playing 109 – Character Improvement

After a few sessions of gameplay, you should be in a position to be thinking about character improvement through gaining new skills and abilities. Depending on the system/ruleset this can take many different forms, so this article will be vague (in keeping with the theme of most of these articles) but should be mostly relevant, no matter which system you’re using.

Full disclosure, I play to explore the narrative and different mental states, so that will be where most of the article focuses. I know, however, that this isn’t the only reason people role-play, so I’ll try to do my best to offer advice on a few other ways of determining character improvement.

Without further ado, let us begin.

My first step when thinking about character improvement is to consider my character’s backstory. This is especially true with the first chance to ‘level up’. Because it is the closest to your character’s history, this ‘level up’ should probably represent the culmination of why your character has become involved in the game in the first place.

For fantasy systems with spellcasting, the choice of your first few spells can really help determine your character’s relationship to the game. For other systems, perhaps their initial foray into the game allows them to improve a skill or two that they want to develop.

Beyond that though, are the basic building blocks of personality that arose during their backstory and that you might have been exploring during play. When in doubt, use these to determine how your character improves. As a rule of thumb, choices made during ‘level up’ should reflect how your character feels about themselves, their place in the player party and their place in the world.

A few examples of this would be Muse, my D&D character, who usually selects spells related to obfuscation and word-play because she thinks of herself as a spy/social infiltrator. This is why she multi-classed as a Rogue when she began to practice her training again. Another example would be Christine, a much loved (and much damaged) Call of Cthulhu character who never thought of herself as more than a researcher and never learned any way to defend herself beyond basic unarmed self-defence. The dice may have a played a part in Christine’s development, due to the way CoC levelling works, but as it suited her character, it worked out well in the end.

Beyond making choices that reflect how your character feels about themselves, it is worth considering the needs of the player party. If there is an aspect of your character that could be improved to cover an area of the party’s skills that is lacking, it may be worth considering. This option also has the benefit of driving your character development in a manner which you haven’t planned and will make things fresh again.

Sticking with Muse as an example, our party doesn’t have a dedicated healer so at the last level up, I replaced her one damaging spell with a healing one. I decided that she had realised that, even though her goals didn’t align exactly with the rest of the party, she needed them alive to be able to get what she wants. She may not like relying on others, but she recognises the value of teamwork. Originally, she was going to be so consumed with vengeance that she would have happily left most of the party by the wayside.

The third choice in this method is just pick what seems cool. Role-playing games are, at their core, fantasy. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where there hasn’t been a skill or ability in the rules that didn’t exactly fit with the character but didn’t seem cool enough to warrant going the extra mile for. In my experience, you can usually find a way to rationalise learning new things that your character wouldn’t necessarily learn in the normal course of things.

This is why Christine chose to learn how to dance, I rationalised it as a way to blend in with the high society cult leaders we encountered.

Other approaches to role-playing and character improvement include making characters as efficient as possible. There are plenty of guides and things online to help with this, but this method of character improvement highlights making your character as good as they possibly can be at the one thing (or few things) that they do.
This typically works best when everyone is on the same page about what you want to achieve with your character but usually involves choosing one a prescribed number of options depending on the role you want to fulfill.

You may also make a choice based entirely on what other people recommend, or on what the party needs at that moment in time. This requires a lot of communication, but can produce a well-rounded party and great synergy.
A party that is built to solve any problem will likely have little trouble with any one thing for long, so this approach is usually favoured by groups that know one another well and happily adapt their characters in response to the changing situation of the game and the party’s needs.

The last one that I can think of right now is character improvement to alter the story. This is a method of determining your character’s improvements that requires a lot of communication with the GM.
This could come into play where your character is working at cross-purposes to the rest of the party, has wildly differing goals, or where something your GM would like to happen relies upon a member of the party being able to do a certain thing.
This approach requires you to surrender some control of your character in order to have them more entwined with the story as a whole. As such, it should not be undertaken lightly but can have a great payoff if done well.

Has this article been useful? Which methods do you favour? Let me know in the comments section.

Role-playing 105a – How I Write the Story

This time around, I’m going to go into more detail about how to design your story. As previously mentioned, because I’m trying to be as system neutral as possible, I will use broad strokes to describe my typical process.

This article will take you through the brief step-by-step method that I usually use when designing campaigns. Feel free to use any and all of it for your own purposes. If you feel like anything is missing or could be improved, let me know in the comments. Each step will be illuminated with an example, using the D&D 5th Edition campaign that I am drawing the Actual Play posts from. Those posts are still taken from the Starter Set but will eventually reach the material discussed here.

The first thing to consider is what you want to play. You aren’t going to enjoy writing, and playing through, a campaign that you personally aren’t invested in.

When writing my campaign, I really wanted to have something grand in scope with a huge, world ending threat at the end of it. I know it’s not very original, but it’s something I’ve wanted to run for a while, and it’s not too difficult for first time role-players to deal with.

The second thing is you NEED to write something your players will enjoy. This can be done through discussing things with them, just by picking up on what they enjoy in the first few sessions of play, or through their characters.

One of my players is a Ranger with ‘undead’ selected as her favoured enemy so that was pretty obvious. All of my players also enjoyed their interaction with the Nothic so I decided to play off of that and have scope for more Nothics later in the game. Nothics being wizards from Netheril, the empire that used to rule the Sword Coast, suggested to me that Netheril could play a large part in what’s to come. I know that my players like history so I felt fine adding Netheril in.

The obvious thing to do is to have a Lich, or similar, from old Netheril be the main antagonist. So I ran with that. I came up with a name of vaguely Latin origin and decided that Netheril was a pseudo-Roman civilisation.

This gave me a history to things (an Empire brought down from within, ruins and remnants all around the area they are exploring, customs and traditions that are accepted as fact but that no one can explain) and gave me an idea for my grand scope. Graeco-Roman gods were frequently extremely human in their behaviours, to the extent that political leaders were often identified as divine themselves and nothing was seen to be wrong with that.

My thought process then ran to ‘what if?’. In this case, it was what if the emperor was actually a god? What if Netheril was ruled by an immortal, divine being? What happened to it?

These questions lead me to the third step; throw a spanner in the works.

An antagonist, to some extent, should do this already, but more than that, this means do something unpredictable.

In this case, I decided time travel was the way forwards.

Netheril, the God, was ripped from his time (leading to the collapse of the Empire) by the Lich (themselves the last scion of a noble family wishing to resurrect the glory of Netheril) and brought forwards into the timeline of the game.

The fourth thing is to decide on rough tiers of experience. Each section of the game should feel appropriate to the player character’s abilities.

In D&D, PCs get stronger and stronger, becoming powerful heroes. As such, things should scale with them. There are rough guidelines given in one of the core books and I ran with those. Levels 1-5 are covered by the Starter Set and represent the PCs coming into their own. Levels 6-10 are designed to cover the heroes realising the threat of the Lich and racing to stop him, reaching a crescendo with the Lich performing the ritual to summon Netheril. Levels 11-15 will, hopefully, see the heroes flung backwards in time and working to take down Netheril (the empire) from inside, contending with mythical heroes and divine beings. Levels 16-20 will (assuming we make it that far) have the heroes facing off against Netheril, gaining allies and bringing order back to a world in thrall of a god.

Into this framework, I inserted a variety of combat, social and exploration based encounters designed to hit the main plot points and narrative milestones of each chapter. Around these encounters, I will insert more sandbox based things that arise during play, to give the players a sense of agency. Something important to note is that whilst the non-sandbox encounters are, by their very nature, less flexible, I’ve designed them in such a way that they can occur in a variety of situations so that the players don’t feel funnelled into one particular course of action.

So that is my rough approach to campaign design. Obviously, it’ll change from game to game, but these are the points I try to hit every time and can be applied to one-shot games, as well as campaigns.

I hope you find the above helpful.