How to add depth and drama to your character

Many, many gamers play D&D and nothing else. Some gamers will play anything but D&D. Others will play D&D for the most part but mix it up occasionally with other systems. I’m probably in this latter group.

Even if you don’t play other systems, it’s well worth reading them. It’s a great way of sparking ideas and finding new ways of doing things. You start to realize how D&D has ‘trained’ you to think about RPGs in a particular way, and other ways of doing things may be better.

And so to Hillfolk, a game of Iron Age drama by veteran game designer Robin D Laws. (I’ve been a big fan of Laws for a long time. If you haven’t looked at Hamlet’s Hit Points, Feng Shui 2, or Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastery, you really should.) Hillfolk was launched via Kickstarter in 2012 and published with Pelgrane Press a year later. Like Fate, it is an example of a game where (to quote RPGamer) ‘mechanics don’t so much get out of the way of roleplay as provide a supportive foundation for it to happen.’ What I’m stealing from Hillfolk today are three tools for dramatic storytelling: dramatic poles, desires, and defining relationships. We might call them the three Ds.

Drama is conflict, and internal conflict makes the most compelling drama. Laws suggests that you create a character who is torn between two opposed dramatic poles: sides of your character that are at war with each other. He gives examples like Tony Soprano (‘family man or Family man?’) and Casablanca’s Rick Blaine (‘selfishness or altruism?’). A pole might be an identity (‘king or tyrant?’), a character trait (‘loyalty or ambition’), a destiny, or some other abstract principle. ‘Favour the emotional over the abstract,’ Laws advises, ‘the simple over the complicated.’ In Hillfolk, playing out your poles at the table is a way of earning bennies; in D&D, we might award inspiration. The key, of course, is not to roleplay one pole but the tension between the two. It is the contradiction that makes your character dramatically interesting.

Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942)

I have written before about alignment in D&D, and I have also argued that your character’s background traits – their bond, flaw, and personality – are of more narrative importance than their class and species. (Consider how many of our favourite characters are human fighters – perhaps the most popular character type in D&D.) In my next D&D game, I would be tempted to use dramatic poles as an alternative to the alignment system and make it the primary way of earning inspiration in game.

We might flesh this out with two more ideas for Hillfolk: your desire and defining relationships. Neither is radically new, but both, in my opinion, are an improvement on the Player’s Handbook approach.

Your desire is the emotional reward your character seeks from others. Laws distinguishes between practical goals and deeper, interior objectives. ‘Find my father’s killer’ is a practical goal; ‘quell my anger’ is an emotional desire. Rather than seeing bonds and flaws as separate, we can think of emotional desires as a kind of weakness because they can make our characters vulnerable to others: to paraphrase Hillfolk, we place our happiness in their hands. (After all, if we had complete control over our emotional desire, there wouldn’t be any desire – we would have ‘the thing’ whenever we wanted!)

As with dramatic poles, the simplest desires are often the most powerful. Hillfolk suggests love, power, approval, respect, for example.

Finally, let’s think about defining relationships. Many of us create our characters in a vacuum; we turn up to a session with a character sheet and learn about the rest of the party as we play. That’s fine for a one-shot maybe, but if we’re planning to invest in a long-form campaign, shouldn’t our group have firmer foundations? Hillfolk encourages us to define our relationships with the rest of the party, be they familial, romantic, professional, or some other bond.

Arya and the Hound in Game of Thrones (2011–2019)

Let’s put it into practice.

  • Westra Windriver is a human fighter.
  • Her emotional desire is to make a difference. This is what motivates her actions.
  • Her dramatic poles are hope and despair. She is torn between a belief that she can succeed and a fear that she will fail.
  • She is defined by her relationships with the rest of the party. She is a loyal childhood friend of the party cleric. The rogue is a mysterious and unpredictable ally. The sorcerer is something of a frenemy, and Westra has been drawn into a reluctant rivalry with him.

Dramatic poles, emotional desires, defining relationships: for me, the three Ds make for better storytelling than the traditional alignment system. But maybe storytelling is less important to your group, and you just want to slay monsters and steal their loot. That’s also OK! The beauty of RPGs is that they only become ‘complete’ when we finish them at the table. Use what you like and disregard the rest.

What tricks do you use to give your character depth and drama? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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3 thoughts on “How to add depth and drama to your character

  1. I was thinking quirks and quotes. I love the tips and considerations above and think they’re great for a PC. As a DM creating lots of NPCs, I try to at least give those guys quirks and at least one quote. It helps me to remember their distinctive voice.

  2. Anymore I don’t actually write alignment on my characters. If I have to give one I just go with CN. I come up with quirks and backstories. I’m in two games currently. Playing a bard in each. First one has lost memories of a physically abusive father that his best friend, a Feywild denizen, murdered. Then he was dropped off in Waterdeep after he had learned magic and music. His feywild memories are fading too. The other is a demigod, son of Aphrodite and an elvish princess. Step father’s (elven dad and Hephaestus) didn’t want anything to do with him. Mortal mother died young, and Aphrodite is not one to teach. So I have a “horny bard” who has no idea what to do in the bedroom, and has no fear reaction and has a serious superiority complex. So I’m already doing a similar thing with mine.

  3. Taking a card from the FATE system, having a defining four or five words that define a character, especially NPCs, is a great way for the DM to be able to switch characters easily without losing details.

    “Good guy gone Bad”, “Friends first, unless the pay’s good” etc

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