Rewards: 6 Ways To Help Your Players Develop Compelling Characters During Play
From Johnn Four, patreon.com/johnnfour
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1188
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
A Brief Word From Johnn
Marcus, a good friend and an awesome roleplayer, recently taught me about a different kind of reward for roleplaying while we were planning a co-GM session. He explained to me that it’s rewarding for players to have the spotlight at the game table where everyone’s attention is focused on them for a minute or two at a time, while they have their character perform heroic deeds, or amazing feats, or just plain old parleying with a wily NPC.
And he’s right. From personal experience as a player, it *is* rewarding being the center of attention and basking in the glory (of a successful action) or suffering the good- natured jibes from the other players (after a botched action).
So, he inspired me to write an article about types of rewards other than experience points, skill points, and loot.
But, as I began writing about “Rewards For Good Roleplaying”, I discovered that one tip: “Help Your Players Develop Unique Characters During Play”, was worth an issue all unto itself. Thus, this week’s tips were born. 🙂
I hope you enjoy these tips. If you do find them useful, I’ll follow-up by publishing the rest of the “Good Roleplaying Rewards” tips I was planning.
I would also be interested in hearing how you reward players during play, aside from the “tangibles” like experience points, skill points and treasure.
Send your reward tips to: [email protected]. Thanks!
How can we help players develop interesting and unique characters during play?
A player who really enjoys playing their character is almost always enthusiastic and makes more fun at the game table.
And feeling engaged and excited, plus having fun, is pretty much the best reward of all for roleplaying.
Here are a half-dozen ways to help players develop more compelling characters.
1. Go The Extra Mile
A little musing on each character goes a long way.
Aside from all the plotting, planning, and map drawing you may do between sessions, also spend a few minutes thinking about each player’s character.
Most GMs never do this.
This is something I rarely did either. But now, with a camera in every phone and digital tools for players, I can get character sheet snapshots quick and easy.
Between sessions, refresh your memory on:
- Backgrounds and Origin Stories (for tie-ins)
- Special equipment (for treasure and puzzles)
- Most powerful abilities (for encounter building)
- Session notes (in case you forgot a detail)
Also just sit back and picture the PC’s current state. Are they rested? Covered in ichor? Been trapped underground for a week? On the run? Celebrating a victory?
A trap I like to pounce with is when the party re-enters civilization. How does the PC seem, look, and smell to the fine citizens of Dungeontown?
It probably won’t be pretty.
But in seriousness, if you invest time understanding and imagining the characters, you will include them in play more often in detailed ways sure to engage players.
Compare a standard merchant transaction where the character leaves 100 gold pieces lighter carrying some shiny armor, to an encounter where the smith refuses service until the PC is clean.
“Oi, you’re nacht comint in t’here like dat!”
“Ye smell like tha dead. Yer got some disease, from th’ carnage trough ye be swimmin’ in, no doubt about it! And ye ain’t stinkin up me place!”
Roghan, the smith brandishes his hot tongs and waves them in your direction like he’s purifying the spot you’re in.
Two dogs come sniffing around you and one begins to lick the blood on your hobnail boots.
A boy screams across the street, dropping the basket of produce he was taking to market. His hand is over his mouth and nose, and he’s looking at you like you might murder him.
Ok, ok. I hammed that up a bit. But the point here is, maybe for the first time, the world reacts to the character’s existence.
And I’ve found when the world “sees” the characters, players respond in kind.
To accomplish this, practice between sessions picturing each character in their current state.
Soon you’ll be able to summon to mind, in great detail, each character.
This will give you a plethora of details and cues for great roleplay. And therefore, more compelling characters.
2. Think Outside of the Game Rules
Many roleplaying game rules do not cover character growth beyond experience points, skill levels, and standard equipment purchases.
For example, in D&D 5E character Ideals, Bonds, Personality, and Flaws probably never change during the campaign.
In the core books, at least, I do not believe there is any mechanism to fix a flaw via roleplay and get XP for that.
So you’ll have to think outside the game rules to make characters feel dynamic, and then teach your players to do the same.
The tip about scars below is a prime example.
Another example is to introduce a small new Flaw for each fumble on a saving throw. And let players roleplay overcoming their flaws for some reward during gameplay.
To prevent player frustration though, make it clear from the beginning that you, as game master, have final approval on all character developments that go beyond rule boundaries.
That way, players won’t feel like you’re getting personal or being arbitrary if you start disallowing or modifying player-driven character changes mid-game: they expect you’ll have a say in things right from the start.
Tips #4 & #5 below are examples of thinking “outside the box”.
3. Organize Your Character Development Ideas & Plans
After studying the character sheets and thinking up how you can help characters change and feel dynamic, create a Bingo card of character development ideas.
What are your favourite books and movies?
I guarantee the best ones have great character development.
Who they are at start is not who they wind up being at end.
Regardless of special effects, cool world, and twisty story, if the characters don’t change you feel like something’s missing.
Our hobby isn’t about reading and watching.
We play to find out what happens.
Therefore, we cannot script character evolution. Players control that.
So what can we do to get the best of both worlds — character development in an interactive game?
In my Wizard of Adventure program I have several tutorials on this exact topic for a framework I call Treasure Table (WoAs: start here at Module 1).
It’s essentially a Bingo card of opportunities, broken up into specific buckets for inspired adventure building, that becomes a prep and improv menu for your encounters and adventures.
We can get started on this today.
Get some paper or open Campaign Logger.
Make a page for each character.
Write all the character development ideas you can think of on their page.
Spend 3-5 minutes per character.
Keep these pages around so you can add and cross off ideas you use.
Next, choose the best idea for a PC who needs some spotlight time and integrate that into one planned encounter. Ideally, the first encounter of your next session.
Then mine your Treasure Table as you prep more encounters.
Roghan, the headstrong warrior.
They want a magic weapon.
- Idea: A signature legacy weapon.
- Idea: Weapon is part of their family heritage but father lost it. Quest for it.
- Idea: are gnomish. Add a gnome community nearby.
- Idea: Head-strong? Google for a table of insults to lure them into combats.
- Idea: Fighter school for when they level-up. Only this school’s planning a coup.
Next session in the first encounter I will set up a Discovery moment where the family’s weapon’s secret existence becomes known to the player.
That’s going to be a great moment for my player!
And you can see I wandered there in my brainstorming.
Wandering is good!
Write down everything because you can remove the bad ideas later. There are no bad ideas today.
Seek every opportunity to work a character development idea into your storytelling.
The exercise itself will give you top-of-mind ideas to help your players develop compelling characters.
And then your pages of ideas can be used during prep and play to further develop PCs.
I also found that, while brainstorming ideas for one character, I could re-use those ideas for other characters too.
If you choose this approach, within minutes of brainstorming you’ll have ideas written down for each character.
That’s some pretty valuable information for such a small amount of work because you can then generate ideas for:
- Campaign themes
- World building and hooks
- Plot hooks
- Adventure and 5 Room Dungeon seeds
- Encounters and conflicts
- Foes and NPCs to introduce
It’s great because these ideas are 100% personalised and customised for your players and their characters.
Two killer ingredients for great gameplay.
Who wouldn’t like that?
And with so many ideas floating around, the encounters you work on will sometimes write themselves.
4. Introduce Rare Or Specialized Skills
An excellent way of developing characters in new ways while maintaining game balance is to give them access to rare or specialized skills.
I’d recommend that the skills should be relatively minor and not very costly to learn so that the players are motivated to pick them up.
For example, climbing is a pretty standard skill. And when a player gives his character the climb skill, I bet he’s not jumping up and down with excitement.
However, imagine that, spread throughout the current campaign area, is a species of tall tree whose fruits have some medicinal value.
The fruits only grow on the top two branches and the tree has evolved a superglue-like tree sap as a defense against hungry ground creatures.
A local ranger or woodsman in the area has developed a special technique for climbing the trees without getting stuck.
Through roleplaying with the woodsman, a player negotiates training for his character to be able to climb these trees.
Technically, the character just has a slightly modified version of the boring old climb skill.
But the player won’t treat it that way!
The player will be very excited about that skill and feeling their character is somewhat special.
And every time a party member has their wounds treated with a fruit that has been gathered by that character, the player will feel a little shot of pride.
A couple of other skill examples:
- Riding tricks
- Astrology (assuming it actually works in your campaign world)
- Lip reading
- Gourmet cooking
- Fine carpentry (i.e. toys & boxes with secret compartments)
5. Give The Characters Scars
Tom Bisbee suggested in [Exit Stage Left: How To Plot Your Villain’s Demise — RPT#28] about scarring villains.
Feel free to scar the PCs too,
Scars represent and remind a player of their character’s exciting story.
And remember there are mental scars as well.
If you scar a PC though, try to get a feel for the player’s reaction.
Some players want to enjoy 100% control over their characters and might resent your tampering – especially if you are working outside of your game rules.
See Tip #1 about clearly communicating your refereeing style ahead of time to prevent upset players.
When scarring a character, start with something minor, like a nick on the arm after a heroic duel, a slight aversion to spiders after a nasty encounter, or some stage fright after a public speaking debacle.
If the player responds well, then continue scarring as your campaign progresses.
Our best play is to keep pressing on a weakness.
For example, the first time Roghan fumbles against a weird foe, we give them a superficial hesitancy at confronting that foe in the future.
“You peer around the corner and see ratmen! Remember those, Roghan? They nearly got you last time. Well, here you are again!”
That’s it. No mechanics needed. No mechanics imbued. Just some fun storytelling.
But then Roghan whiffs again!
After the battle, I might say:
“….and that’s all the treasure you find.
“Oh, and Roghan, it seems we’re getting a bit fumble-handed around ratmen, eh?
“Next time you choose to confront a group of four or more ratmen, I’d like you to make a morale check.
“If you fail, you cannot attack them that round.
“And if you critical, then you’ve removed the phobia and will get a few XP.
There’s good balance here with gameplay.
And the player will get a reward if they beat the flaw.
Meantime, we’ve generated some potential great future character development roleplay.
6. Ask Your Players Questions To Help Them With Development Ideas
I think the best situation is when a player wants to develop their character in new and different directions.
But many players don’t know how to do this.
Or they feel uncomfortable doing it because others aren’t doing it yet or are worried about offending you.
A great way around this problem is to ask the players probing questions that lead to development type answers.
Not only will your questions draw out great ideas from players and spark off the whole process, but they also represent your implicit approval on the issue, which some players may need before letting loose.
Here are some questions examples:
How do you feel…
- How do you feel now that you’ve lost twice to these pesky ratfolk?
What have you learned…
- What have you learned now that you’ve encountered these ratfolk twice?
What do you think…
- What do you think about that crazy woodsman’s ability to climb those sticky trees?
Deeper Characters Means Deeper Gameplay
Helping our players expand their PCs beyond character sheets and statistics will have a dramatic effect on your game, pun intended.
First, it encourages great roleplay.
Second, it gives everyone more material for storytelling.
Third, it helps everyone at the table have more fun at every game.
Six great ways to help your players develop compelling characters include:
- Go The Extra Mile — Imagine each character in their current state and roleplay it
- Think Outside of Game Rules — Extend character sheets to note and track character growth
- Organise Your Character Development Ideas & Plans — Create a “Treasure Table” Bingo card of great ideas
- Introduce Rare or Specialised Skills — Give players more agency in interesting yet balanced ways
- Give Characters Scars — Use consequences of play to gamify character development
- Ask Players Questions to Help With Development Ideas — Set an example and drive the process
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Use “Cut Scenes” to Add Depth and Suspense, Plexiglas GM Screens & The First Session
Tip: Use “Cut Scenes” to Add Depth and Suspense
First of all, thanks for the excellent web site and emails. I just discovered your page through a banner ad that showed up on my page, weregamers. Check it out. It has lots of cool character portraits and a monster or two, with more to come.
My GMing tip takes a page from the video game industry. I’ve found that “cut scenes” or mini-movies are a great way to heighten suspense and add depth to a story line. Sometimes I just use one in an adventure while other times there’s one at the beginning and in between chapters.
The idea is simple: describe a scene to the players which has importance to the campaign or current adventure, but does not include their characters. Leave out names or details which will give too much away. This is a good tool for providing direction to a confused party. On the other hand, a more organized party must do a bit of role-playing, as they cannot use information gained from the cut scene to alter their characters actions.
The best one I have used involved negotiations between 3 kingdoms of Humans, Orcs and Dwarves. The humans were hosting negotiations to avoid a war between the Orcs and Dwarves which the humans really wanted to avoid. The party was a mixed group attending the treaty talks. When the Dwarven ambassador is poisoned suspicion falls on the orcs of course, and the party sets about solving the crime.
Meanwhile, here’s the cut scene: The Orcish camp outside the city is buzzing with the snores of sleeping orcs. No one stirs as a slight earthquake washes across the camp. As it intensifies, a few shouts of warning are heard. With an explosion of rock and dirt the ground beneath the Orcish ambassador’s tent is swept aside by a 20 ft tall earth elemental who proceeds to pound the ambassador and his guards to pulp and then melt away into the earth. The dwarves have taken justice into their own hands.
Obviously the GM should go into a bit more detail when it is appropriate. I have also had fun with very vague cut scenes where two shadowy figures meet on a darkened rooftop and discuss matters of arcane or illicit nature without mentioning names or places. This can tease the players and hook them into the storyline like you wouldn’t believe.
Tip: Plexiglas GM Screens
From Zero Kol
One of my best tools was my folding GM screen. I make a point of saying “folding” because it was made from 1/4″ thick Plexiglas and the “walls” had metal posts in the bottom so it mounted in the base (also made of Plexiglas). I clipped my charts and tables to the inside of the wall and then used the base to make quick notes on what was going on. For the encounters I would make a quick chart of the monsters (each with their own ID #), their level, total hit points, damage taken, and initiative.
This saved me from messing up or misplacing the sheet once the encounter got under way AND since I was writing in grease pencil it was easy to change and erase after the encounter.
Keeping with the Plexiglas theme, I went out and bought a 3 foot by 4 foot sheet with 1″ square grid in it and mounted it under a sheet of that magical clear material. Using water based colored markers (yes, the ones that smell like fruit), I could draw anything I wanted on the Plexiglas. To indicate height I would write the objects height inside it, thus a green spot with a “3” in it was a bush but one with a “12” in it was a small tree.
The Shadowrun Supplemental
From Adam J.
Tip: The First SessionIn regards to: [How To Keep Your Butt In One Piece While Adventuring In The Wilderness — RPT#47]
Johnn said: “I always find the first session to be the toughest as everybody is still getting used to their new roles. So, I had a specific strategy: Have the players arrive with their characters pre-made so we could start playing right away.”
I take a much different approach – the first session of any new campaign is just that – making characters, figuring out how they knew each other, defining locations, contacts, goals, and doing any “before the campaign” roleplaying that’s needed. It also gives the GM some prep time before the first actual gaming session to work out any resources that he may not have realized he needed, and reading up on any relevant rules.
I find that this greatly reduces the “My character hates your character!” syndrome and leads to much smoother campaigns.