Learning About the Characters

by Mike Shea on 12 August 2019

The first step for Dungeon & Dragons game prep recommended in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is to review the characters. The characters are the primary interface between the players and the world. For each player, their character is the most important aspect of the game. Thus, it behooves us DMs to not only do our best to understand the characters, but help the other players understand them as well.

Before we begin any other preparation activity we can spend some time reviewing the characters. This helps us get their backgrounds into our minds before we start building out the rest of the adventure for our next session.

During the session, however, we can do some things to elicit more details of the characters so us DMs and the rest of the players can better understand each of the characters in our story.

Today we're going to look at a few ways we can learn more about the characters in the games we play.

What's Their One Unique Thing

If we want to make our characters truly unique in the world we can steal an idea from the excellent roleplaying game 13th Age. Beyond being a wonderful d20-based superheroic fantasy game, 13th Age includes a ton material to steal and throw into our existing Dungeons & Dragons game. "One Unique Thing" is one such example. In 13th Age, each character chooses one unique thing about their character; one thing, often fantastic, that makes them unique in the world. For example, in one such game I had a paladin who was actually guided by the ghosts of three hags only I could see.

We can bring this idea right into our D&D games if we want. We can ask, often during our session zero, what makes a player's character unique in the world. We can keep this somewhat mundane or make it as fantastic as the world allows depending on the theme we're shooting for in the campaign.

Tales Around a Campfire

The game Savage Worlds includes an interesting mechanic for players to talk about the backgrounds of their characters. At some point in the adventure, when the characters are around a campfire or the like, a randomly-selected player can pull a card from a deck. Depending on the pull they can share a story of love (hearts), victory (diamonds), tragedy (clubs), or loss and defeat (spades). This rewards the character with some sort of boon. In our D&D games we might reward inspiration, for example, or some other interesting effect to that character, maybe even a boon from the Dungeon Master's Guide that lasts for the day.

Ask Guiding Questions

Aother option is to write down one question for each character during the character review in our game prep and then ask it at our next game. We don't have to do this every session but it might be fun once in a while. Our questions can be specific, with a veto option by the player if they have some other aspects of the character they want to discuss. Here are some examples:

"Shelby, what made you leave Ahoyhoy?"

"Stone, what happened on the ship when all those civilians died?"

"Feski, how did you learn about your ancestor, Fausto the Reluctant?"

"Truth, when did you decide to end the source of the Death Curse?"

"Fromash, when did you find your true connection with the preservation of the natural cycle of death?"

Write down the answers when you get them and add them to your game notes for your next prep session. Doing this every few sessions can define interesting details of the characters we would otherwise never know and gives those details to the other players as well as us.

Downtime Activities

If the story of our game offers some in-game time between sessions, we can ask the players what their characters did during that time. At the beginning of the session, even before our strong start, we can ask for a volunteer to tell us what their character did during this downtime. Maybe they conducted some research in a library. Maybe they spent some time with an old flame. Maybe they talked to some seedy contacts in the rough bar in the docks district. Sometimes these descriptions might lead to a skill check to see what they learn. It's a perfect opportunity to drop in some secrets and clues depending on what they do and how well they do it.

These independent montages may help us learn about the character while they get something done. The players are filling out a piece of the world right in front of our eyes, while, at the same time, telling us more about their character than we otherwise know. Sometimes these events might completely change a session, which is perfectly fine for us flexible DMs.

A Little Bit At a Time

It helps us when we learn about a character a little bit at a time. We might often start D&D games with large backstories for characters (when we do them at all) but the most interesting characters evolve over the course of the game. We don't need huge backstories. A little bit each session lets us all watch characters grow and evolve as we play.

This is particularly true in convention games. Our friend DM David talks about this his article with the pithy title How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less. We can ask for more than a race and class, instead asking for a line or two that describes the character. Even in one-shot games this helps us add some flavor to the overall adventure.

A Greater Understanding of the Characters

All of this is intended to help us, and the other players, get a better understanding of the characters in our story. The more we know about them, the more they can interweave into that story. We don't need a novel's worth of material, sometimes just a line or two can do it. Spend time next game getting to know a thing or two about the characters in your world.

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