Content of the article: "Understanding Character Arcs and How it can Improve Every Part of your Game"
Tabletop roleplaying games are a collaborative storytelling experience. Often we put a lense to the collaboration portion of this, without focusing enough on the story. This is no surprise, seeing as no one individual, not even the game master, is ever in complete control of the story.
For many because of this the story can take a back seat in place of dungeon crawling, monster of the week type play, over reliance on modules, and what many of us refer to as "Diablo" style play. I'm not knocking these entirely. If it's what makes your group happy then by all means. But for many the reason this style of play begins in the first place is a fear and lack of understanding towards story progression.
Today, we'll be discussing how understanding character arcs can improve your game, both through the lense of K. M. Weiland's book; Creating Character Arcs, and some writing techniques presented in the YouTube series How to be a Great DM and Totally Not Mark.
Character arc refers to the path that an individual takes. This usually involves some kind of growth or regression either of themselves or the world around them. While there are immesurable different nuances, most fall into one of three character arcs;
The Positive Character Arc: Where one grows for the better
The Negative Character Arc: Which is the opposite
The Flat Character Arc: Where the individual does not change, but instead they affect others in some way
There are a few pieces to unpack for the first two. The Flat Arc is a bit different. We'll discuss that soon. Each of them can largely be broken up into a few specific categories;
The Inciting Incident: Sometimes called "The Wound" as this it the direction most stories take. It is the catalyst which starts off the arc.
The Lie They Believe: The character has some false sense of reality.
The Want: The goals the character sets. Someone once said that the only good story ever told is that "Someone wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it." Incorporate these difficulties into either your character or your story.
The Need: This is the development that would actually help them. Sometimes it's an underlying effect of The Want. Sometimes it's something completely different.
The Truth: This is the counter to their lie.
When you are a player, these aren't all things you necessarily need to consider. You'll probably only require the Incident and the Want. But as a DM, try to look at each of these for your players and NPCs. Let's look at an example and how this can be seen through the two different styles.
Vincent Amaterasu is an edgy Rogue who's parents were killed by a group of individuals who they've sworn revenge on. We've all seen this one.
The Inciting Incident: Their parent's murder.
The Want: Revenge on them.
As a DM we can control the world around this kind of character. We can effectively shape the rest of these for them. Do NOT disrespect the work they've put into their character, but let's work out a very typical response to this. Perhaps we learn that they blame themselves in some way? That might give us;
The Lie They Believe: That revenge will make them happy.
The Need: Recognition of loss and self acceptance.
Now we get to the Truth. The most impactful way to integrate this is to have it be relevant to your main plot. For example;
The Truth: Their death wasn't random. They were part of a secret organization that could be recruited to help fight the BBEG.
So we have all of these pieces. We've set the stage. It's time for the player to learn the Truth. How do we know whether this is a Positive arc or a Negative one? It all depends on the player's (character's) reaction. At some point in any arc involving their personal lie, they will face some kind of opposition to it. Afterwards they will either accept that truth and grow from it, or they will double down on their incorrect perception of reality. Using the example above;
Positive Arc: Vincent recieves a much needed catharsis, accepts their parents deaths and decides to work with the organization.
Negative Arc: Vincent cannot accept this and blames the organization for their deaths.
No matter which way your player reacts, let it. Like I said, arcs can be complicated. Positive goes negative goes positive goes flat goes positive and other nonsense a lot. In either case, once a truth is revealed to a character, you can use that truth to form another lie. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is a great example. Now that Peter Quill has saved the galaxy, his ego (get it?) leads him to believe how special he is. It is only after resolving to cast away immense power that he continues to grow. In those films he routinely flops between positive and negative development.
As a DM you can create these scenarios for your players to grow. You can also craft these scenarios from start to finish for your NPCs and antagonists.
Now, let's discuss the Flat Arc.
As I said, in a flat arc, the character does not change. They instead change the world around them. It's more popular than you might think. Harry Potter has a flat arc.
So what's different?
A flat character does not have a Lie that they believe. Instead, they have a Truth that the world believes is a Lie. With this truth they change, inspire, and bewilder others. They tend to be unwaving in their morals, whether good or evil. Goku is a good flat character. Frieza is a bad one. And yes, Frieza does have a truth in them, but I'm not going to spoon feed it.
It is exceedingly rare for a player to have a true flat arc at their inception. However a flat arc is a great place to put a player's character once a positive or negative arc has concluded. Introduce them to opposition to that truth and let your players engage.
To put all of this together, when writing a character, look for these things and moments to expound upon them. Learn about your player's characters. When playing a character, think about how it is they might develop. A basic understanding of these things alone can breathe life into your roleplaying experience
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