A while ago, Adamus released a blog post detailing ten questions that he asks his players in order to create dynamic stories and engaging characters. Recently, I did a similar practice, and asked ten of my own questions as part of a session zero for my latest story-based campaign. This is due to some profound discoveries I’ve made about myself and my relationship with Dungeons and Dragons, including that I’m energized by story developments over combat, and that my focus on mechanics has been motivated by story reasons, not quantitative ones. I want to tell my character’s story, not have it told to me by the Dungeon Master.
The centerpiece of all my favorite stories is the characters. A hackneyed plot can be saved by unique and deep character development, while often the opposite can’t be true. I tend to reject stories that have deep world building that lack great characters. So what makes a great character?
Personally, I find my favorite characters to have the following traits:
1) Great characters have some kind of conflict, whether it’s the conflict of their view versus reality, or a conflict between what they preach versus how they act. However this conflict manifests, it’s something that hangs over their head.
2). Great characters learn as they go. They aren’t the same person at the end of their story as they were at the beginning. I find characters that repeat the same mistakes over and over again to be frustrating, especially if the lesson they learn is the same one. That doesn’t mean their character has to do a 180 every time they fail, but there should be some kind of change, even if it’s gradual.
3). Great characters have a goal, even if it changes as it goes. Sometimes I’ll hear, “My character doesn’t have a goal. They’re just in it for the coin.” THAT’S A GOAL! They do stuff because they want stuff. And just because they start a journey where they’re in it for the money doesn’t mean they don’t create attachments and relationships as the story progresses. In fact, that may create a conflict that they learn from, changing their goal as they go. It can be a cycle.
Obviously this is a gross reduction of the complexity we could discuss when it comes to great characterization, but the last point I’d like to make is that none of these traits have to be big in scope. Some of my favorite stories are more intimate, personal journeys than they are grand quests that span the globe. Aang’s quest (from Avatar: The Last Airbender, now on Netflix and you should totally watch it) to convey his feelings to Katara is just as if not more important to him than defeating Fire Lord Ozai and saving the world from the Fire Nation military. Another great example is the Mandalorian, where the titular character’s quest of protecting Baby Yoda (don’t care what his canon name is) tends to be more praised than the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker. The rise of stakes does not mean the rise of investment, and often it’s the little changes that make the biggest difference.
So with that in mind, the ten questions I asked my players were intended to ignite their creative energy and deepen their understanding of the characters they wanted to portray. I started by asking my players these questions sequentially, gave them some time to let them simmer, and then worked through each question with the players in one-on-one follow up conversations. That way, they wouldn’t feel silly in front of other people. It was just them and me.
Here are the ten (and some of them have multiple parts):
1). Where were you born, and who was your family? Are any of them still alive?
2). Did you grow up in poverty, nobility, or the middle class?
3). How did you come upon your current profession (character class)? Who trained you?
4). Who else helped or hindered you along the way?
5). What’s your character’s view on politics and religion? (Ambivalence is a perfectly fine answer)
6). What is your character’s current goal(s)?
7). What does your character regret?
8). What lie does your character tell themselves to make things easier?
9). How does your character see their story ending?
10). How is your character acquainted with the party, or what about the mission hooked them in?
Now the first six are standard fare session zero questions. There are plenty of content creators that have spoken eloquently to the value of considering those factors when designing a character and their story, especially if you want to prepare your players to be situated in the world.
Question 1 allows the DM to give you extra information on your home town or region that you as a player can leverage in-game by calling out specific details that heighten the table’s immersion.
Questions 2 and 5 may heavily impact your outlook on the world and social dynamics.
Question 3 grounds your character’s abilities in the world.
The second half of Question 1, the second half of Question 3, and all of Question 4 help create NPCs that the DM can use as informants, allies, and even possibly rivals for your character.
And, Question 6 gives your character a motive and direction to create their own objectives if they so choose.
You’d be surprised how many players have trouble with Question 6. Until they get into gameplay, goals may feel abstract or silly. After all, the DM gives the party their initial mission that then helps the players leverage into proactive goals, right?
Questions 7 and 8 are the ones I noticed give my players pause. At Session Zero, nothing about them seemed too out of the ordinary, but in one-on-one conversations, every single one of my players had to take extra time to answer them. They’re hard questions we as a culture don’t have enough practice in exploring in an articulate way, and by making Dungeons and Dragons a safe space where you get to make an entirely new person to explore these questions, it can give us judgment-free practice to ask these questions of ourselves.
Now to pause for a second, let me make this clear: D&D is not therapy. It can feel therapeutic, but it is not a substitute for therapy. Your friends are not therapists, and even if they are, a recreational game is not the place for dealing with very real issues of mental health and wellness. What I’m saying here is that tabletop role-playing can be a launch pad for personal growth and development, but I will repeat: This is not therapy. Therapy is therapy. D&D is D&D. Both are valuable, both have their place, and there are many professionals much smarter and much more equipped than me that can speak to D&D’s relationship to therapy as a supplement, not a substitute.
With that out of the way, we have another interesting thought experiment with Question 9. How does your character see their story ending? This can be an easy one to dismiss by saying “They don’t think about that”, but if forced to come up with an answer, what would you say? It’s another hard question, but again allows for a safe space exercise to really map out your character’s arc. And just like any of these questions, the answer can change over time.
And then Question 10…is just more standard stuff. Build an adventurer, someone who can at least have a coworker relationship with the party if not an invested friendship.
Really, the meat and potatoes of these questions are 7, 8, and 9, and how they can inform the answers for earlier questions. I can’t tell you the number of times having conversations that a player would give me a regret and I would reply “Does that inform your goal?” or “That sounds like someone that hindered you along the way”. These questions aren’t disconnected from each other.
Now just to give an example of how these questions fit together, let’s go back to talk about our Last Airbender, Aang, and how we might answer these questions for him:
1). Aang comes from the Southern Air Temple, and his family is unknown.
2). Aang grew up with the Air Nomads, meaning he lives outside of the economic hierarchy of most communities. Technically, this also means he’s impoverished.
3). Aang was trained by Monk Gyatso, who taught him everything he knows about Airbending (abilities of which would be reflected in his character class). Later, he learns to communicate with his past life, Avatar Roku, in order to learn what it means to be the Avatar (again, reflected in his character class).
4). Aang is helped by the waterbender that discovered him, Katara, and her brother Sokka. He is often hindered by his rival, the Firebending Prince Zuko (we’re talking just season 1, so no spoilers).
5). Aang is technically the center of a loose religion dedicated to the Avatar, of which he’s a Messiah figure tasked to rebalance the world. He detests the War, and has vowed to defeat Fire Lord Ozai to end it.
6). Aang’s current goal (season 1) is to travel to the North Pole and learn waterbending, after which he’ll learn earth and fire so he’ll be properly trained when taking on Ozai.
7). Aang regrets leaving the Southern Air Temple, believing he could’ve helped fight off the Fire Nation invaders if he had stayed behind.
8). One of the reasons Aang is such a dynamic character is because of how he lies to himself. One of the best lies is “I’m just a simple monk” before entertaining a flock of young girls.
9). Aang isn’t sure how his story will end, but as he progresses through Season 1, he can at least see the end of his current arc: becoming a master waterbender.
10). Aang joined the party when Katara discovered him in the iceberg.
Now to drive this point home further, Avatar was awarded the Peabody award for excellent character development. Part of this is that Aang’s rival, Prince Zuko, can answer these questions as well (if not better) than the protagonist himself.
1). Fire Prince Zuko is the son of Fire Lord Ozai of the Fire Nation.
2). He was born into nobility and is accustomed to underlings following his orders.
3). He’s still being taught firebending and philosophy by his Uncle Iroh, who is his greatest ally on the hunt for the Avatar.
4). His father permanently scarred his face after publically forcing him into a duel after “dishonoring” him, and his current efforts are often hindered by the interference of the Fire Nation’s Commander Zhao.
5). Zuko believes the Fire Nation will win the war, and although he believes the Avatar is still alive, he rejects any worship of him.
6). Zuko’s current goal is to defeat the Avatar and regain his lost honor following the duel with his father, Fire Lord Ozai.
7). Zuko regrets having spoken up at a war meeting, where he criticized the heartless tactics of a high ranking Fire Lord officer. His father interpreted this as dishonoring his family, and the Fire Lord punished him in a highly publicized duel where Zuko was scarred.
8). The lie Zuko tells himself is that if he defeats the Avatar, his father will finally love him.
9). Zuko sees his story ending by defeating Aang in combat and returning home with honor, where he’ll inherit the throne of the Fire Lord.
10). Zuko met the party after seeing a column of light caused by Aang’s reawakening from the Iceberg.
Now you tell me. Which character sounds more compelling? I’ve done this exercise myself with the character’s I’m currently playing, and it’s revealed a lot about them and my preferences in character creation. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself too as you answer them for your characters.
I’m excited to hear your thoughts about this. If you found this blog through Facebook, make sure to comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Study Hard, Play Hard,
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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