Character development in DnD

In all the DnD games I’ve played, I’ve felt there’s a tension between allowing the story to progress and the characters all helping each other participate in that progression. For example, we as players play a game because we want to enact a story even while we as a group compose its microscopic details. So the players’ intention is aligned with the DM’s.

However, I often feel that many stories often go very quickly from the introductory session to the more important parts of the story, forcing characters to cooperate for the story to progress, irrespective of whether the characters have sufficient incentive to do so. In other cases, the story would be solid but the other players will have essayed their characters in such a way that your character begins to resemble a tool to solve a problem rather than persist as a person of feelings.

One way or another, either the character feels clumsy to the player or the player begins to inject their resentment into their character – and ultimate both are opposed to the DM’s intention.

Role-playing is fun because it is – among other things – an exercise in handling this tension well. Successful role-playing is not just wearing the skin of your character but also contributing to the game without also tripping it. Some players are better at it than others.

One way this proficiency could shine through is when you’re good at keeping your in-character responses to in-game stimuli both appropriate and useful at the same time. Other players – such as myself – reveal they might be struggling with it when their spontaneous responses are out of line and they don’t realise it until after a session concludes.

Recently, I was able to identify a few attributes that could be interfering with how I handle this tension, to the extent that my characters often seem difficult to play with. One of them is my cynicism. I’m more cynical in real-life than a person of my age ought to be, a tendency fuelled by the way I think about the world as a journalist. It’s difficult to hope and hope again when cynicism pays off as often as it does. It’s also made for a surprisingly successful way to cope with the near-constant influx of bad news.

Some would argue that we must be skeptical instead of cynical, and nurture the ability to hope even in the face of a shit-stream. I think that’s simply using language to blunt our sharper edges. I have hope, too, for better days but I’m not surprised when they don’t turn up.

Anyway, such cynicism doesn’t directly drip down into my characters – it’s the way I handle situations as a result that does. My characters don’t purport to be cynical people but they inadvertently behave like cynical people do.

Often this manifests in two specific ways: a) unrelenting mistrust in the face of novelty, and b) evaluating each situation from scratch without factoring in the character’s emotional trajectory thus far. They regularly conflict with the DM’s intentions a) by conjuring mini-instances in the game where other players have to expend time to persuade me of what was always going to be the outcome, and b) by rendering my character somewhat, if not entirely, unpredictable (thanks to Chitralekha Manohar for helping flesh this out).

I never doubted that playing DnD would contribute to my overall character development (pun obviously intended), so this is an opportunity to figure out how I can chamfer my cynicism – and some ego with it – in the real and the fantastic at once. The question is how.

On a more superficial level, it requires acknowledging that DnD is a distinctly different form of storytelling than reading a novel is, and more similar to writing one. A character playing the game might not know what will come next – maybe not even what ought to come – as much as the DM will. But this information shortage doesn’t free characters from the responsibility to keep the plot moving.

As a result, there’s no way their responses to different stimuli are going to be 100% optimal all the time. It’s likely to be mostly suboptimal, and that’s okay. It’s like a novel-writing exercise but it’s never going to be identical to it. As Chitralekha said,

Because the dice play such a big role in DnD, meaning is made retrospectively, and events themselves are not logical. If you’re supposed to be super-stealthy but roll a 1, you retrospectively explain it saying, for example, that your shoe laces weren’t tied.

On a deeper level, the process of being a good player and a predictable character (as a proxy for an understandable character) can be catalysed if there exists a fixed set of rules to play ‘right’. Resolving the overall tension itself (as opposed to solving any other player/character problems) holds some clues to this. To recall:

[Mistrust in the face of novelty] regularly conflicts with the DM’s intentions … by conjuring mini-instances in the game where other players have to expend time to persuade me of what was always going to be the outcome.

Chitralekha described this situation as one in which the character who needs to be persuaded hijacks the DM’s control of the game and becomes a DM themselves. I like this way of framing the problem because it doesn’t propose to ‘solve’ the tension by getting rid of it, but acknowledges its existence and hints at a reasonable way out. For instance, as she said, a character can’t assume this mantle without also assuming the DM’s traditional responsibilities: to keep the story moving, to encourage the characters to act in a way that the DM wants them to but without forcing them to do so, and to ensure the players are having a good time.

Everyone must acknowledge that these conditions actively disqualify characters from being asocial, antisocial, attention-seeking or engaging in any socially non-cooperative behaviour in general. These are all flaws – except maybe the first one – that we encounter in other people in many ways on a regular basis. But in a DnD game, they give rise to decisions on the part of characters that are counterproductive to the DM’s wishes.

Let’s abstract this: is there a guiding rationale that unites the DM’s responsibilities? Chitralekha identified one, that DMs always reward good behaviour and punish – at least not-reward – bad behaviour in fair and appropriate ways. Are there any other ways, and if so, what could they be?