A few weeks ago, or maybe a couple of months ago – I really can’t remember – some time ago, my podcasting partner in crime – Fiddleback – and I had a discussion about character arcs – and the lack thereof – in current movies. I don’t remember what episode it was, so I can’t point you to it. And maybe you don’t even know about that podcast. And this introduction is a gigantic mess already, isn’t it?
Let me start again.
I do this podcast with this guy. His name is Fiddleback. The podcast is Digressions & Dragons. It’s different than the other podcast I do with the same guy, the GM Word of the Week, which you may or may not have heard of. And when I say it’s different, I don’t just mean it’s got a different name, and it is a different podcast, I mean that the two podcasts are remarkably different in format, content, and even in my involvement. For example, I’m allowed to actually talk in Digressions & Dragons. I don’t just write the scripts. Also, there are no scripts. Basically, it’s just me and Fiddleback babbling about whatever we want to babble about for one or two hours. Which is another major difference. Word of the Week is rambling, but it’s tightly focused rambling that fits into your commute and lasts no more than 25 minutes. Digressions & Dragons is the sort of crap I would NEVER listen to because it’s just two a$&holes recording an unfocussed phone conversation. For TWO F$&%ING HOURS. Who has time for this s$&%?!
Anyway, you should check it out. I’m told by the people who listen to that it’s very enjoyable. I wouldn’t know. I don’t listen to it. Hell, I barely pay attention when I’m recording it.
The thing is, we record the episodes about two weeks before they get published, and we cover A LOT of topics in each episode. We’re rambling for two hours, after all. We’re going to wander far and wide. And because I don’t have the time to listen to it because I have an actual life, I can never remember what we talked about when. Or even whether we talked about something at all. That’s why I absolutely f$&%ing LOVE when some Twitter moron decides to comment on some tiny point we made in an episode that we recorded two weeks ago without giving me any f$&%ing context. Seriously, I love getting Tweets like this:
SomeTwitterMoron: Actually, you were thinking of the doctrine of mens rea and also the table you were looking for is on page 36. Hope that helps.
No. It doesn’t help. You try relating that crap back to a five-minute chunk of a two-hour conversation you had something in the past three weeks that you were BARELY paying attention to.
The point is this: I have a vague memory of discussing character arcs in movies and books and TV shows. And it was probably part of Digressions & Dragons. And it might have come up because it was something I was troubling myself over as part of the process of trying to get my new personal campaign off the ground. You remember, that campaign where I did all the armor s$&%. And weapon s$&%. And magical implement s$&%. Yeah, I was also troubling over narrative mechanics. That is mechanics that impose a proper story structure on things. And that’s because one of the players in the group, who I will call Angelina Contessa Luisi Franchesca Banana – no, f$&% that joke, her name is Lisa. I’m not typing that out over and over. Lisa. We’ll call her Lisa.
Lisa mentioned that she liked certain aspects of narrative structure. She didn’t say it in those words, but she did. And one of the things she liked was the idea of a character growing and changing over time. Not just becoming more powerful and gaining levels and new abilities and s$&%. Actually changing as a person. And I realized that movies and TV shows weren’t the only places that had absolutely lost the concept of a character arc.
And so, I sat down and troubled myself over what a narrative mechanic that encourages that sort of character arc bulls$&% might look like. And then I went and added one to my game.
And THAT is what I’m writing about today.
Long, Rambling Introduction™ done. Let’s get to the actual article.
The Missing Arc
So, what the f$&% is a character arc and why am I babbling about them? Well, you’d be forgiven for not knowing anything about them. Because they are something Hollywood seems to be trying to do away with. Especially in heroic movies that are afraid to make protagonists – especially certain types of protagonists – look weak or flawed or human in any way. Okay, that’s unfair. It’s not just about that weakness thing. It’s also about how things translate for an international market and also about fitting everything into the structure of a long-running franchise instead of just writing a complete goddamned story. And honestly, I don’t want to get into why there’s been a gradual downplaying of character arcs and the psychological implications thereof. Let’s just focus on what they are, why they are good for a story, and why RPGs really need to address the issue better. Especially if they want to sell me on that “collaborative storytelling” bulls$&% that game designers keep going on about as “the real purpose of the RPG.” Which is a f$&%ing lie.
And isn’t it just a little sad that I’m the one who keeps saying “collaborative storytelling is bulls$&%” and yet I’m the one who actually seems to understand a thing or two about narrative structure, why and how it works, and how to cram it into a game. I’m better at supporting YOUR lies than YOU are, story gamers. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
Sorry. I got a little worked up there. Okay. Character arcs. What are they? Why are they? Focus, Angry. Focus.
On the surface, a character arc just refers to the fact that a character changes as a result of the story. But that surface understanding won’t get you far. Lots of characters change through their stories. But few characters these days have real arcs anymore. There’s more to it than just a change. See, the “arc” part of the phrase refers to a story arc. And a story arc is a self-contained sub-story inside the main story. A character arc is a self-contained sub-story centered on the character. That is, it’s the story of the character’s transformation. And as a story, it has a beginning, it has a climax, and it has a resolution. And very often, these stories take the form of the character overcoming a personal demon. In fact, the way it usually plays out is that the character HAS TO overcome a personal issue because they can’t resolve the main story otherwise. Or else, resolving the main story empowers them to overcome their personal issue.
Take the original Ghostbusters. Because that’s an example of a really well-done character arc. Actually, four of them. At the start of the movie, you had the three main characters: Bill Murray, Ray Stands, and Egon Sprinkles. Murray was a con artist. He was always looking for his next score. He was even called out for exactly that when he was fired from the university. He didn’t care about anything except getting whatever he wanted – money and women – in the easiest way possible. Ray Stands was an immature man-child who could not function in the real world. He was excited about what he was doing. But he was excited the way a child would be. That’s why Bill Murray was able to talk him into taking out a mortgage against his family home in exchange for his own real-life firepole. He had no real sense of the consequences of his actions. Worse, Egon Sprinkles only cared about what he could do. He didn’t care about right and wrong. He had no sense of morality or the consequences of his actions. He ruined his childhood toys to see if he could. He tried to drill a hole through his own brain because he knew he could do it. He built highly dangerous nuclear devices that might kill him and his friends and blow up a city, and neither tested them nor warned his friends of the danger until they were already unleashing them on unsuspecting maids in a hotel. And every warning he did issue was mainly along the lines of, “oh, by the way, before I forget…” In short, the Ghostbusters were terrible people. They were awful. And Ernie Winston only wanted a paycheck.
In the end, they confronted a god that wanted to destroy the city. And they were not equipped for that s$&%. And then, it turned out that the only way to defeat the god was to do the one thing that Egon had told them would kill them all. At that moment, the decision to “cross the streams” to save the city was the moment each one of them overcame their failings and turned into a hero. Bill Murray actually cared about Ellen Ripley, who had been turned into a dog. Ray Stands felt guilty for his careless, childish brain screwing up everything by conjuring a giant monster to stomp the city. Egon Sprinkles had to confront the fact that his technology – which could save the world – would actually have a price, a consequence, and that price would be terminal. And Ernie Winston was there too.
Their transformation was what allowed them to win. And that’s why, in addition to being a piece of comedy gold, Ghostbusters – the real one – was also an extremely well-crafted narrative.
Character arcs are important parts of stories because stories are essentially about people. And character arcs are about transforming yourself through hard work, dedication, struggle, and sacrifice. They are about BECOMING a hero through self-empowerment. They are about getting your own s$&% in order and confronting your own flaws and then being able to impose your will on the world. That’s pretty awesome.
And they very rarely happen in RPGs. Which is a shame, because they should be what RPGs are all about. I mean, what is BETTER than that?
Generally speaking, in most RPGs, especially in D&D and the like, players create the characters as heroes. That is, they create the character they want to play and then play that character. While characters in RPGs do change through the course of the game, they generally change in external ways. They establish relationships, and they deal with the consequences of their choices. That’s what a role-playing game IS. Interact with the world, make choices, and deal with the consequences. Transformations are small and gradual. The character gets better at making good choices. But rarely is there the moment of reflection that leads to a true transformation. Characters in RPGs grow, they evolve, but they are rarely transformed. IN GENERAL.
It can happen. Hell, it’s happened in games I’ve run. Mainly because I made it happen. Along with the player playing the character. But it’s not an integral part of the role-playing game experience. It’s the exception. And that’s because of two things. First, character transformations are entirely up to the player playing the character. That’s also how RPGs work. Your character is yours. It’s sacred and sovereign. Second, role-playing games are often more like ongoing franchises than like self-contained stories.
That second bit is tricky because a good character arc is the sort of thing that happens once a story. And usually, it happens either in the climax of the story or at the start of the third act. The Ghostbusters decide to sacrifice their lives to save the city. Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer and decides to rely on magic he doesn’t really believe in instead of technology. Eddie Valiant throws away the bottle of booze before he decides to chase after Victor Von Doom and rescue Roger Rabbit and the Princess. There is a moment when things have hit their darkest point, and the character recognizes their flaw, their weakness, and overcomes it so they can succeed. So, they can be ready for the challenge of the climax.
In an ongoing story with no definite end in mind, it’s hard to know when that transformation should happen. Tony Stark can’t just keep relapsing into an irresponsible, nihilistic drunk at the start of every new adventure because his transformations feel more insincere every time. Yes, it’s realistic. But it’s also unsatisfying from a story perspective.
And that brings us to the first problem. The fact the character arc is something that the player must do because the player plays the character and makes all the choices. And that means the player needs to set up the arc at the beginning of the story, identify when the moment is right, and voluntarily have a transformation. And doesn’t that whole thing seem just a little bit contrived? The answer is yes. It is contrived. And that’s the antithesis of role-playing. Role-playing isn’t about scripting a story in advance and playing it out. It’s about making choices and seeing where they take you.
So, in the end, we have to discard the idea of character arcs altogether, right? You just can’t have them. They just don’t work in RPGs. Oh well. Darn.
As if I EVER admit defeat that easily.
The Saddest Narrative Mechanic Ever
Let’s talk a little bit about narrative mechanics. A narrative mechanic is a mechanic that doesn’t represent some physical reality in the world and doesn’t serve to create a good game. Instead, it serves to impose a narrative structure on the experience. We’ve seen these mechanics. Lots of games these days have them. Or try to have them. But the problem is – well – I would say the problem is they suck. But that’s actually unfair. And I’m actually going to try to be fair here. The problem is they are new. Unlike the simulation-based mechanics that run the game parts of RPGs which have had 40 years of evolution and were themselves based on wargame mechanics that evolved for, like, a goddamned century or something. Seriously. H.G. Wells wrote a table-top wargame in 1913. It was called Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and For That More Intelligence Sort of Girl Who Likes Boys’ Games and Books. Yes. That was the full title and subtitle. And man do I love that.
Consider, for example, the mechanics of combat initiative. They exist to impose a particular structure on the game that makes the game work as a game because a crazy, chaotic free-for-all wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t be fun. There’s no reason why you also couldn’t use a mechanic to impose a structure on the story of the game to make it more satisfying. And some games actually do that. Though some games haven’t come very far with it.
Consider Fate, for example. And I’m not going to bash the game here. I’m actually going to praise it for something it does pretty well. Lots of people have written about the Aspect system. That’s the system whereby every character – and also lots of other story elements – have short narrative descriptors attached. Your character might have an aspect like “I know everything about the world that you can get out of a book.” That descriptor serves to tell us something about the character. And usually, it’s something both good and bad. The good side is that the character is full of factual knowledge and has read books about everything. Neat, right? But the bad side is that the character clearly has zero experience in the real world. It implies that their knowledge is only book knowledge. They are sheltered, inexperienced, naïve. And that’s good. That’s how Fate Aspects are supposed to work. They are supposed to say lots of things and have both positive and negative aspects.
Aspects in Fate affect the game in two ways. Primarily. I’m simplifying. First, the player can call upon an aspect of theirs when they think it would be beneficial. For example, when the character finds a book written in some ancient language and tries to translate it, the character is justified in taking a bonus because of all their book smarts. They know about this culture and language because they know everything you can learn from books. Second, the GM can impose penalties or create difficult situations based on those same aspects. So, when your character is wandering around a giant, cosmopolitan port city and trying to find his way around and deal with the locals, the GM can point to their lack of worldliness and impose a penalty on their attempts to navigate. Or point to their naivete and use that the make them a target of scam artists or thieves or slavers or whatever.
Those are narrative mechanics. They impose a structure on the story elements, not the game elements. In this case, they impose good and bad consequences on the character based on their backstory, history, and personal strengths and weaknesses. And there’s a game that involves plot points and exchanging plot points for benefits and penalties and stuff like that. It all works. Well, it works okay. I have my misgivings, but those don’t matter here.
But Aspects are like the narrative equivalent of skills. They affect the game-play on a moment-to-moment and scene-to-scene basis. They affect individual actions and scenes. Sometimes, they linger a little longer, but those generally exist just to carry consequences of choices from scene to scene. What they don’t do – and this is a fine point – what they don’t do is affect the story on a macro level. That is, they don’t impose a broader structure on the narrative of the entire game as a whole. If you look back at Fantasy Flight Game’s now out-of-print Warhammer Fantasy RPG, you’ll find a slew of very interesting narrative mechanics that were way too fiddly but went beyond point-to-point mechanics. For example, there were rules for party relationships and tension rising and falling within the party. That was cool. And there was an imposed act structure on scenes and adventures that had actual game effects. S$&% got real in the third act because that’s how stories worked. And so, scenes were designed with a “third act reversal” built in. It was some pretty cool stuff I would have liked to see evolved.
Narrative mechanics have a lot of potential. But they are still in their infancy. They are still mostly small in scope and focused primarily on “incentivizing good role-playing,” a phrase which literally makes me throw up a little when I type it. Because it so misunderstands the nature, power, and utility of narrative mechanics AND what role-playing actually is, I can’t help but feel that anyone who uses that description as a design goal for a mechanic can only produce garbage narrative mechanics.
Oh, hello D&D Inspiration. I didn’t see you there.
Yeah. Look, I’ve already b$%&ed about D&D Inspiration. It’s a crap system for morons. It’s easily forgotten, poorly balanced and implemented, and utterly lackluster. And it was described by at least one of WotC’s designers as “there to reward good role-playing.” HORK!
If you really look at it, D&D Inspiration is just a half-a$&ed copy of Fate’s Aspects. Only worse. And that’s why I wrote a whole article about why Inspiration Sucks and offered 11 Different Ways to Make it Better.
You don’t have to go back and read it though. Because I cribbed the good parts of it for my home campaign and then figured out how to use it to layer Character Arcs on top of the rest of it.
Inspiration is the saddest narrative mechanic every included in a role-playing game. I can’t help but feel that the designers didn’t really mean it. Or want it. Or they included it as an afterthought. And they really did just take the Aspect system from Fate and say, “what’s the fastest, easiest way we can cram that into our Players Handbook?” But it’s the only narrative mechanic we’ve got, and we’ve got to start somewhere, right?
Angry’s Awesome Inspiration System 2: Narrative Boogaloo
First, let me tell you how Inspiration works in my games in general. Back when I wrote that article above, I came up with an Inspiration system I liked better than the steaming pile that someone had crapped into my PHB. And I’ve been tinkering with it ever since. It basically works like this.
When you create your character, you specify a number of traits that describe different personality aspects of your character. That’s not much different than what the PHB says, I know. But there is one important difference. I don’t use their default list, and I don’t tie it to your background, and I don’t allow those random bulls$&% background tables. I come up with a list of five specific categories of traits that are important for the campaign I’m running. Generally, two are Personality Quirks. They describe basic aspects of the characters’ behavior. Nothing fancy. The rest vary from game to game.
Currently, the other three are an Ideal, a Motivation, and a Flaw. You’ll notice that’s very similar to the PHB set of categories, except it dispenses with that Bond bulls$&%. Connecting characters to the world isn’t something that has to happen in every campaign. Depends on the campaign. My campaign is about swashbuckling adventures. I need to know why the characters want to go on adventures at all. Hence Motivation. Are they in it for wealth, glory, self-improvement, boredom, the greater good, whatever? Ideal is a bit different from the PHB version. Because I’ve given up on alignment. I mean, D&D gave up on alignment, it just doesn’t have the balls to admit it. So I have the balls they don’t. I just cut out alignment. Instead, I assume the characters are generally good-ish people, but that every person has one particular moral rule or code they will do their damnedest to never break, whatever the cost. “I can never allow a child to come to harm,” for example, or “I will always give to those less fortunate than me.” Finally, the Flaw is the thing that gets the character into trouble. In fact, it’s inspired more by Fate’s Trouble Aspect than by D&D’s crappy idea of what Flaws are. Your character might be a heavy drinker, for example, or cowardly, or lazy, or reckless, or overly cautious, or he might think he knows everything. He might never back down from a challenge.
So those are the Traits. And they work with Inspiration. Just like in the PHB, in the Angryverse, Inspiration is something you either have, or you don’t. And it represents your character’s resolve, their inner strength, and their mastery over themselves and the world. It’s their drive to be the person they want to be. The person to be the person they think they are.
When they have Inspiration – and characters start the game with Inspiration – they can use that inspiration to take Inspired Actions. Basically, whenever they try to do ANYTHING in the game, when they think it aligns with one of their traits, they can say “hey, this aligns with me on a deeply personal level, give me a bonus.” And then they get advantage on the die roll. Or impose disadvantage on a saving throw. Or they get some other bonus depending on the situation if a die roll isn’t involved. I adjudicate it. Like, maybe, the ability to spend a Hit Die to heal right in the middle of battle. Whatever.
When they don’t have Inspiration, the character is at a low point. They are not as driven. They’ve lost some sense of control over themselves and the world. Big actions and big decisions take their toll, mentally and emotionally, you see? And that’s when they are prone to give in to their flaws. Or suffer setbacks from their personality traits.
Whenever they want to, they can claim a Setback when they feel one of their traits – especially their Flaw – might cause them problems. That might be a disadvantage on a die roll or grant advantage on a saving throw, or it might impose some other penalty. For example, if your character spends an entire night drinking, he might be exhausted the next day from the hangover. Claiming a Setback gives your character Inspiration. Because giving in to our flaws and weaknesses and bad habits is, in some sense, a coping mechanism that enables us to take control again.
The only other way to gain Inspiration – it does not come back once a session – is to accomplish a major victory. That is, when the characters complete an adventure or a major milestone in a longer adventure, they gain Inspiration if they didn’t already have it.
Obviously, that’s not the end of everything. As a GM, I can also impose Setbacks by building scenes around the negative aspects of a character’s Traits. I can suggest Inspired Actions and Setbacks. But the big problem with Inspiration being under the control of the GM – as it’s written – is that the GM has to remember 25 goddamned traits – five for each character – and look out for all of that s$&% WHILE ALSO TRYING TO RUN AN ENTIRE GAME! So, I mostly put it on the players to BUY and SPEND Inspiration by claiming Inspired Actions and Setbacks. And I use their traits in the planning stages of the game. I build scenes around their traits sometimes or build adventures around them. Especially their motivations. That said, I do have a handy list so I can watch for it when it does come up.
And over the three years since I developed the basics of that system, it’s worked pretty damned well.
But again, it’s a moment to moment mechanic. It doesn’t impose a greater structure on the game. And that’s what character arcs are.
Fix Your Problems, Break the Game
Where can I fit a character arc into all of that? Well, obviously, having a stated Character Flaw with a Mechanical Consequence is a damned good start. Because if we consider a character arc in a heroic story – which is what D&D stories are – they are about the hero overcoming a character flaw, so they are empowered to deal with a major threat, then the Character Flaw basically has to GO AWAY. That would be the moment of transformation, right?
The problem with that is that it actually works against the player. After all, their character’s Flaw is the primary way which they earn back Inspiration. Overcoming their Flaw makes it harder for them get Inspiration back once they spend it. They can still get it by suffering Setbacks from their Ideal or Personality Quirks or whatever, but that seems weird too, doesn’t it? They are still resorting to coping mechanisms. Just lesser coping mechanisms.
When you get down to it, a character who has overcome their Flaw is really in control of themselves. They know who they are, and they can impose their will on the world. They shouldn’t be subject to the whims of Inspiration. They should never have to Claim a Setback. In short, they are just ALWAYS Inspired.
But that would kind of… break things. Too much. The thing is, it’s okay to allow people to break the game. But you can’t let them BREAK IT. You know what I mean? Consider the impact it would have if every character could claim advantage, for free, on one die roll every game day. Or every session. Or even between every Short or Long Rest. Does that seem huge? Well, it is. But it isn’t HUGE! I mean, after all, D&D wants the GM to hand out Advantage to reward clever plans and smart actions, right? Advantage isn’t THAT hard to get. So, the designers expect it to happen a lot.
And that’s what the Character Arc mechanic can do. Once you have overcome your flaw and had your transformative experience, you regain Inspiration every time you take a Short or Long Rest. That is, you can actually take an Inspired Action – as long as it fits the core of your character’s being – once every other encounter or so. Your character is totally empowered to be who they are with nothing holding them back. They can unleash their core sense of self regularly and be ready to do it again with a few minutes of reflection.
And that’s what I wrote into my system. Basically, when you Overcome your Flaw and Become a Better Person, you gain Inspiration every time you take a Short or Long Rest. Done and done. You never have to Claim a Setback again. Though it can still happen. But you aren’t obligated to find ways to make it happen.
The Transformative Moment
So, how does a player Overcome their Flaw? I mean, if players are in control of how they play, why don’t they just say, “okay, I’ve given up the booze, give me Permanent Inspiration!” Yeah. It isn’t that easy. If they had that level of self-mastery, they wouldn’t HAVE a flaw, would they?
The thing, this mechanic is a part of narrative structure. It needs to come at a particular place in the story. Usually, it shows up in the gearing up for the third act. The place where the story starts making some climax-like noises. In a long-running campaign, it’d come a few sessions or adventures from the last adventure.
But that means the GM has to be in control of it. Once it’s time for characters to start “mastering themselves,” the GM has to take those flaws and write them into the heart of an adventure. Or at least a story arc inside of an adventure. The GM has to make the player confront the flaw head-on in some sort of significant way. Or create a major loss as a result of the flaw. Something that makes the character wake up. Whatever happens, whether it’s a crushing defeat and loss that forces the character to turn their life around or whether it’s a heroic moment where they leave the flaw behind and do what has to be done, it’ll be resolved when all is said and done. The character’s choices control whether it is a positive transformative experience or a negative transformative experience, whether they become a shining beacon of hope and optimism or a grim and brooding person making up for a lesson they learned too late, but the transformation happens.
And that’s okay. Players get to choose what action to take in combat, but they are no longer allowed to delay their action in 5E. When it’s their turn, their turn WILL happen. They just decide how it goes. The story structure – the GM – decides when it’s time to transform. The player decides – by reacting to what actually happens – how that transformation happens.
What that means is that there will come a point in the campaign where each player gets a serious amount of time in the spotlight to clean up their s$&%. It’s like in Mass Effect or Chrono Trigger where you do a quest for each of your characters, in turn, to get their f$%&ing acts together, unlock their best abilities and weapons, and then go kill Lavos. And I like that too. I think that’s a great way to structure a campaign.
In the end, it’s a very simple system. It empowers the GM to build personal experiences into adventures and empowers the players to experience actual growth and transformation. It imposes a narrative structure on a long-running campaign that ensures that the characters will be at the heart of the story. So, I guess we’re done.
The Non-Heroic Campaign
The whole Character Arc thing I’ve described was designed to fit into a campaign that is building toward a climax and an ending. You can easily fit it into an Epic Quest Campaign or into Curse of Strahd or whatever adventure path you’re running. Because you, as the GM, know when the end is near. And, in theory, you can even work it into a less structured campaign simply by knowing when the end is coming and shining a spotlight on the flaws.
But what about those Endless Games? The Adventure of the Week games? The ones that have no end in sight? Can you have character arcs there?
And what happens if, after Curse of Strahd, your players want to continue their adventures in Barovia with their same, psychologically well-adjusted characters?
Well, that’s easy. After the heroes’ big adventure, the thing that has been consuming their lives for however long – like Killing Strahd – the characters take a little break. Their new adventures start six months later. Or whatever. And they get to decide what they’ve been up to. But they’ve probably been at a bit of a loose end. Or maybe they were traumatized by the previous adventure. Or whatever. Long story short, they can have NEW flaws and have NEW arcs.
They just can’t have the same ones again. Because you and I are better than f$&%ing Iron Man 2. And so are our games.