Character Growth in Roleplaying Games
First published 10/9/2001; last edited 1/7/2005
Last month we addressed the subject of three-dimensional character creation - how to go about creating an RPG character that has depth and complexity to her, who's more than just numbers on a page. This time, as promised, we'll talk about something that should be a natural outgrowth of creating such a character: character growth. This is when your character grows and changes in response to things that happen to her during the course of the game you play her in. You didn't think it stopped with character creation, did you? The game itself is where everything gets interesting!
Brief aside: length of game
It can be kind of pointless to go to all that trouble to create a full, three-dimensional character for a short, one-shot adventure. Most people don't want to put hours, or even days, of work into something that they're only going to play with for a few hours, particularly if the interaction will be superficial at best. If you plan to play the character for a few months, or over a series of short adventures, then it's more likely to be worth the time it takes to create a three-dimensional character. A character in a too-short game won't make use of all that carefully-prepared background and personality. He won't have a chance to grow.
The Process Of Growth
Think for a moment about how you grow and change in your life. Things happen. You react to those things. Your actions have consequences. People react to what you do. All of these things affect how you grow - they cause you to change. Someone's reaction to what you do might cause you to re-think how you approach something. Someone else's reaction to what you say might cause you to develop new opinions that affect what you do in the future. Look back at what you were like one year ago, five years ago, or even twenty. You'll probably find that you hold a lot of opinions now that are a little (or even a lot!) different than the ones you held back then. Maybe you've changed so much that your old high school buddies wouldn't even recognize you any more.
Your characters go through all of these same things. Maybe your character is a nice person, but she really doesn't take life very seriously. Then she goes through some pretty hard times during the game - after all, terrible things have a habit of happening to player characters. It's the proverbial "PC glow" attracting trouble to the party. Maybe those experiences sober her up a little, cause her to grow up and develop a sense of responsibility. That's character growth. These are the ways in which your character changes in reaction to the events of the game, and they aren't very different from the ways in which you grow and change in your own life.
If anything, your character is likely to grow and change faster and more noticeably than you do in real life. Major life-changing events, for good or ill, change people, and characters in a roleplaying game tend to go through more than their share of interesting times.
Getting under the skin
This might all sound a bit complicated at first if it isn't something you're used to. How are you supposed to roleplay your character, solve the plot, and figure out how your character changes, all at the same time? That's a whole lot of stuff to concentrate on!
Luckily it isn't as difficult as it sounds. If you can get under the skin of your character - if you can learn to think like her while you're playing her - you might find a lot of that stuff (roleplaying, growing) happening automatically, without your having to think about it. Just take a little time outside of the game to think about what makes her tick. How does she think? What does she think about? How does she feel? Think about some of the sorts of things that might happen in your typical gaming run: How would she react to them? You can also go back and think about issues of character growth between gaming runs, so that you don't have too much to concentrate on during the game.
The more thought you put into these things outside the game, the more naturally they tend to flow within the game. You don't have to spend hours and hours obsessing over your character's every thought and whim, but it does help to put a little consideration into the matter now and then.
This is also something that will improve over time as you play a character - it takes time to adjust to a new character; it's a bit like wearing in a new pair of shoes. You might even find that you need to make small changes after you've been playing the character for a week or two, with the GM's permission, since often the concept doesn't entirely "gel" (or come together) until you've played the character a couple of times.
Expect the unexpected
Most of all, remember to expect the unexpected. Just because you've sat back and theorized for hours about how your character might grow and change in reaction to things, don't expect that suddenly the rest of the game will be predictable, or fall into place exactly the way you want it to. The whole point of character growth is that it happens in response to things that happen in the game. Unless your GM, your game world and your fellow players are awfully predictable (and so are the dice, for that matter), you can't anticipate every little thing that will happen.
If you aren't willing to allow for the possibility that things might not work out the way you expect, then you aren't really allowing your character to grow and change - you're just dragging her along a pre-set, rigid set of possibilities. All of that theorizing you've done shouldn't have exhausted your possibilities; it should merely help you react more quickly as your character when the unexpected inevitably happens.
Besides, if you're anything like most of the roleplayers I've known, you'll soon look forward to those unexpected moments. You'll know them when they happen - they're the ones where you find yourself saying something you just didn't expect on your character's behalf. Afterward you say something like, "I had no idea she was going to do that, but it makes perfect sense!"
It's in the reactions
Pay attention to the world around your character. Try to think like him, and speak from his emotions and prejudices. Growth comes from the ways in which your character reacts to the things that happen to and around him. So pay attention, expect the unexpected, and allow your character to surprise you now and then! It isn't a bad thing - it's just a sign of growth.