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Five Facets of a Compelling D&D Character



It’s Wednesday night. The Eldar I campaign is about to begin and a new story is about to unfold in this new world. I set the scene, describing a port town in the early hours of night being hit by a fierce storm. As powerful waves buffet against the docks and rain creates muddy puddles in the streets, I ask the Players to introduce each of their characters. Who are they, where are they, and what are they doing? I ensure that my own entrance into the campaign does not overshadow their’s; after all, they are the stars of this story.

In Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon Masters are not the protagonists. Neither are their myriad monsters, nonplayer characters, fantastical locations, might deities, or mystical magic items. Instead, the spotlight shines on the pieces the Players brought with them to the table: the Player Characters. These venerable heroes, wily looters, and lucky adventurers are the centerpiece of all that happens. Every battle, every conversation, and every exploration is carried out in some way by them. Thus, it’s important that these characters are compelling, no?

If you create a compelling character, it greatens the joy and entertainment of everything in the campaign. You’ll be more invested, along with the rest of the players at the table. In this installment of Legendary Lessons, I’m going to help you do just that! Let’s discuss five facets of a compelling D&D character.

Of course, the first step is to create your character. Pick a race and class, then give them a little bit of personality. Use Chapter 4: Backgrounds in the fifth edition Player's Handbook. Bookmark it, too. We'll be referencing it a few times throughout this process! Choose a background like acolyte or sailor, select or roll randomly for an ideal, a personality trait, a bond, and a flaw. After that, continue below.

1. Part of the World

Unless you’re playing an amnesiac, your character was a part of the world before the campaign began and they remember it. You didn’t just emerge from the ground, sword-in-hand and ready to adventure. A path led to who you are in the campaign. The Backgrounds chapter in the fifth edition Player’s Handbook oozes inspiration, but you need to cement yourself as a part of the world you’re playing in. Speak to your Dungeon Master about your hometown, a few people you care about, and some people you hate. Don’t just let your backstory sit on your character sheet; implement it into the actual game!

If you’re a wizard, maybe the school you attended is nearby and you can contact its administrators for assistance. Rogues might be a part of a prominent thieves’ guild or a dirty, up-and-coming gang who lairs in the sewers beneath the city. The half orc antipaladin who imprisoned your best childhood friend and brought him before his infernal master could return to the story and become a villain in the campaign. Maybe you can hitch a ride from your friend, the stable owner.

All of these examples connect your character to the world and make them a part of it. And if you’re a part of the world, then you’ll care much more about it; as a result, so will the other players and your DM. These stories, people, and places from your background can also help shape your personality. Side note: these background elements don’t need to be created before the campaign begins. D&D worlds are constantly changing and being built upon. Don’t be afraid to create NPCs, locations, and plots on the fly.

2. A Reason to Be There

It’s not a good feeling when everyone gathers around the table to play D&D and then a character decides he doesn’t want to be a member of the party or go adventuring for an arbitrary reason. In fact, I’d say it sucks. When we play D&D, we do so under a usually unseen and unheard agreement that we are, well, there to play D&D. That means all of our characters want to go on an adventure, make a cool story, fight evil folks, and find magnificent artifacts. You need to make sure your character has a reason to be there, a reason to be an adventurer.

It doesn’t matter how simple or how complicated your reason is. Perhaps you just want the bounty being offered by the local monster hunter, or maybe you are desperate for revenge against the hill giant who crushed your award-winning hog. All that matters is that you want to be in the murky swamp where the medusa supposedly hides, or in the depths of the hill giant’s cave, knee-deep in pig bones and half-eaten cows (the giant doesn’t like cows).

This doesn’t mean your character can’t disagree with what the party is doing, but that disagreement shouldn’t bring the game to a standstill. When it does, it fractures the wonderful experience that is D&D. Try not to fight about where to go next or what quest to take too often and once the next action is decided upon, don’t fret. Instead, come up with a reason why you’d want to be there! It’s D&D; anything is possible.

3. A Fatal Flaw

Not everyone is perfect. That’s a good thing. Perfect characters make for imperfect, uninteresting stories. Imperfect characters, on the other hand, make the most interesting tales. Therefore, give your character a fatal flaw! And no, not a mechanical one; not being proficient in longbows isn’t a flaw (unless you play it up, a lot!), but being unable to resist the temptation of what lies behind the next door or what’s kept in the priest of Pelor’s lockbox is! Flaws are gold mines for Dungeon Masters because they’re easy ways to make your character act or do something incredulous.

There are lots of flaws listed in the Backgrounds chapter of the fifth edition Player’s Handbook. Pick one of those and ensure you play it up. Just because the flaw exists on your character sheet doesn’t mean your character is flawed. It’s up to you to include it in the game itself.

Are you a devout cleric of Torm who is dedicated to their temple and its people? What happens when all signs in a foul plot to murder the town’s mayor point to your temple’s leadership? If you are truthful about your flaw, if you play it up, you won’t immediately skip over to the temple and bang on your priest’s doors. You might defend them, come up with excuses, and try to speak with them alone. Even with the evidence piling up, you might refuse to indict them. Perhaps a confrontation between them and your party comes to blows...whose side are you on? Dramatic, no? That’s the point! Fatal flaws make for great stories and great D&D.

4. A Dangerous Secret

Similar to a fatal flaw, all D&D characters should begin the game with a dangerous secret. No, this doesn’t need to be a catastrophe-causing, devil-summoning, terrifying secret (note: need to be); instead, it can be something that could hurt you, someone you know, an organization you’re a part of, or something else. Work with your Dungeon Master. Maybe they can hand out a few important secrets to the plot that you know about but need to uncover more information to utilize properly. If that doesn’t sound compelling to you, try creating a riveting secret based on your tumultuous past.

5. Close Friends and Hearsay

My final tip for creating a compelling D&D character is to connect them to other characters in your party in one way or another. It’s also the most optional. Not all groups want to begin the campaign knowing the other members of the party and that’s fine. Sometimes, though, interparty connections can lead to spectacular stories. I’ve not played many tabletop roleplaying games besides D&D but I’ve heard this is a common thread in many of them and I definitely understand why.

Here’s a table of potential connections to other members of your party:

A Compelling Character

Meet Morgash: he's a half orc warlock and my next D&D character. Morgash was raised in the cellars below the Font of Knowledge in Waterdeep. He was left there as a babe by his mother or father, eyes red and veins black. The priests there took him in and tried to cure him of his sickness. They thought they succeeded; they were wrong. For the first thirty years of his life, Morgash assisted the clergy of Oghma from the depths of the temple, sorting tomes, cleaning relics, and learning about the ways of Waterdeep from below. Upon examination of a particular artifact found in the depths of Undermountain, the evil inside him stirred. Without warning or explanation, Morgash left the Font of Knowledge in the night and traveled to the Yawning Portal, dead set on entering the dungeon that lurked below the establishment. Here is the breakdown of Morgash:

Personality Trait

Morgash is horribly awkward in social situations and talks in third person.

Ideal

Morgash's patron's artifact hides in Undermountain; it leads to the patron's salvation and power and domination. It must be found.

Bond

Morgash's patron hides inside him. It has always been with him. Morgash would do anything for it...does his patron believe the same?

Five Facets

  1. Part of the World. Morgash has lived in Waterdeep his entire life, though much of it has been spent beneath one of the city's greatest temples. He has relationships with the priests of that temple, the temple itself, and knows of the troubles the city has endured the past three decades.
  2. A Reason to be There. Morgash is a warlock whose patron desperately wants to find something in Undermountain. The patron hiding inside Morgash has finally awakened and forced Morgash to the Yawning Portal. But was he forced, really? Morgash's patron has always been within him, speaking to him, helping him. Morgash would do anything his patron asked...
  3. A Fatal Flaw. What I just stated in the sentence prior: Morgash would do anything his patron asked, without question. This could lead to some unfortunate confrontations or terrible situations.
  4. A Dangerous Secret. When interacting with the party, Morgash knows he must hide who and what his patron is. They can know he's searching for something below the Yawning Portal, but what it is and why it is important can remain a secret. If that secret gets out...bad things might happen.
  5. Close Friends and Hearsay. The other characters have not been created for the adventure yet, so I'm not connected to any of them. Maybe one can be a priest from his temple who is also delving into Undermountain. That would lead to some interesting experiences, especially if the priest was alive when Morgash was dropped on the steps of the temple.

In Summary

The first and arguably most important step to playing in a great D&D game is creating a compelling D&D character. Here are five facets of a fantastic character:
  1. Be a part of the world.
  2. Have a reason to be there, to be a member of the party.
  3. Make sure you have a fatal flaw.
  4. Create a dangerous secret to hide.
  5. Connect to other members of the party.
You now have a compelling D&D character! All that’s left is to bring them to the table and hope everyone else had done the same.

Until next time everyone, farewell!

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