Why defining your character by “being good at” sets you up for disappointment — and how to rethink your character’s strengths.
It’s Friday night, and the beer-and-nachos group is trooping down to their DM’s basement for another session of their weekly dungeon crawl. The DM sits down behind the screen and begins to describe a plain stone chamber with a single locked door.
“I pick the lock,” says the rogue.
“Roll for it,” says the DM.
The die tumbles and clatters across the table. Everyone peers at it. Three.
“I’m going to try again,” says the rogue.
This time, it’s a natural one.
“Your pick breaks off inside the lock,” says the DM. “Tough luck. What’s everyone else doing?”
“I’m going to kick down the door,” says the fighter, already rolling a die from palm to palm.
The rogue sits back. “This is bullshit. I hate it when my dice screw me over. My character’s supposed to be good at this.”
It’s Saturday morning, and the high-octane heavy-roleplaying group is signing on to Discord and Roll20. The DM narrates the party’s arrival at a new city, and describes how the guards greet them with suspicion and hostility.
“I wave back!” says the barbarian excitedly. “ ‘Hello! We’re here on behalf of the adventurers’ guild, and we’re looking for someone named…’ ”
The barbarian and the NPC guards trade thinly-veiled threats and oblivious goodwill for a few minutes while the rest of the party waits. Suddenly, the bard drops off the Discord call.
One of the other players sends the bard a private message. Everything okay?
I’m so salty, the bard responds. I made this character to be the party face, someone who can sweet-talk anyone into anything. And no one’s given me the opportunity to do that all game.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, and the actual-play campaign is live, with dozens of viewers watching the stream in real time. The DM, aided by beautiful graphics and fantastically responsive sound effects, is spinning up an image of a mysterious floating orb.
“Can I tell what it does?” asks the wizard.
“You can roll Arcana for it,” says the DM.
There’s a pause. “I mean. I’m pretty sure I should know what it is. My character only spent the last twenty years of his life apprenticing under the most well-known magical artificer on the continent — ”
“You can roll for it,” the DM repeats.
The wizard rolls. So do the party’s sorcerer and cleric. It doesn’t matter what the numbers are, at this point. Any information the wizard gets will feel like a letdown.
We play TTRPGs in order to have fun: to indulge in a power fantasy, to uncover mysteries, to play out tumultuous romances with other characters, to puzzle out optimal combat tactics, to cheerfully dump trauma on a character and live vicariously through their personal growth and healing. We play TTRPGs by becoming someone else: someone who can do things that we cannot.
In game systems like D&D and Pathfinder where a character’s class contributes the bulk of the mechanics that are used in everyday gameplay, that character class—what the rules allow them to do that others cannot — takes on an outsized importance in our conception of who a character is. It’s easy, natural, and tempting to center a class identity and allow it to define our characters: not only in the present game at the table, but also as a sort of unswerving foretold destiny for that character from birth. The rogue who grew up on the streets, scraping by through pickpocketing strangers or running small-time heists for the Thieves’ Guild. The druid or ranger who grew up in the trackless woods, learning the rhythm of nature and the habits of animals and how to tell medicinal plants from poisonous ones. The cleric who was raised from childhood in the temple of their chosen god, committing prayers and rites to memory. The wizard who was whisked off to serve as an apprentice in a tower almost as soon as they could read, either alone or with a whole roving schoolyard band of peers. Even though classes and background features are ostensibly mix-and-match, the fact that the small mechanical perks from backgrounds are much less relevant in normal play means there’s no strong reason not to simply choose the default “matching” archetypes. Those archetypes are, after all, the most straightforward lines between a blank canvas and the shape of who a character needs to be by the time you sit down at the table.
Some DMs take it even further, discouraging players from writing backstories of any appreciable complexity. “The most interesting thing that happens to your character should happen during the campaign, not before it” is the standard rationale. The result is that the character’s past and background remain fuzzy and undefined; if you never determine what your character has done, then you never quite rule out what they haven’t, either.
The other easy, natural, and tempting tendency when creating a character, of course, is to create a character who is stronger, smarter, braver, wiser, and surer than ourselves. It’s the fundamental power fantasy of escapism, after all. We want to play characters who will succeed where we fail and shine where we are mediocre. We make our characters inspirational and aspirational even as we play them ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we pattern our characters after fictional characters in other media. This is perhaps the most insidious mistake to make in character creation. Books, films, shows, and video games all feature storylines and characters who—because of the power of a planned narrative, developed towards a specific creative goal, with the leisure of outlining, workshopping and revisions—never need to worry about their actions falling short of the aims of the story. These fictional characters may sometimes fail to achieve their own goals, sure, but even their in-universe failures need to be meaningful components towards moving the larger narrative along. This is simply not an atmosphere that we can expect to replicate in a setting with four to eight people sitting at a table improvising a story together with minimal prearrangement of narrative goals and no ability to edit what has already happened to better support what will happen.
So, too often the end result is a character who is defined by what they do and expected to heroically excel at it, based on a pile of unexamined assumptions about their experience and skills, the belief that everything they’ve already done in life has been steadily setting them up towards what they should be able to do now, and the unsupported expectation that they will develop along smooth and satisfying story arcs going forward.
And then, of course, they run into uncooperative dice, or a partymate who wants to do something mechanically similar, or a DM who has different ideas about what the character should or shouldn’t be able to do without a roll. And if there is nothing to the character except what they’re supposed to be good at doing, then each of these things can feel like an attack on the character’s very existence.
Why is this a problem?
Obviously, first, you can’t control die rolls. That’s the entire point of rolling dice. Any roll you make has a chance of failure. And while individual failures will always feel at least a little bad, putting yourself into a position where every failed roll also undermines the core of your character concept is unnecessary self-sabotage. Conversely, every roll also has a chance of success, and the giddy joy of improbable successes is one of the highlights of play; predetermining that your character is owed success because they are “good at” something is not only unrealistic, it also flattens the sense of scale for how challenging—and impressive—success at heroic tasks can be.
Second, staking your character concept on being the party authority in a certain area pressures other players not to branch out towards those roles. And this kind of social pressure at the table can lead to awkward constraints that make no sense within the story. A cleric whose stated goal is to spread the faith of the god they serve, but whose companions can’t become too interested in that god because “that’s my character’s thing”. Characters passing up opportunities to become sturdier and stronger because the “party tank” will feel threatened and upset about losing “the one thing I’m good at doing”. And of course, the ugly consequences of the concept of a party face: an implicit statement to the rest of the group, I have to be there, to talk to all the NPCs. Only I get to do this. It’s far too risky for you to engage with them at all.
Finally and fundamentally: being good at something is not actually a character trait. Even if it were always mechanically supportable (which it isn’t) and always socially considerate (which it also isn’t), “being good at” something is not enough. It does not tell you who your character is and why they’re interesting. It does not give you any kind of window into your character’s psychology. It certainly does not provide any sort of guidance for how you can play your character in the kinds of mysterious situations, never-before-seen complications, surprising twists, and unexpected choices that make up the majority of campaigns. And it will never be the reason why the character makes a lasting impression on you and your table.
So what can you do to avoid this? How else can you think about developing your character in a way that doesn’t rely on what they’re supposed to be able to do?
Ideally, we need to return to base assumptions, and acknowledge that a character is not their class—just as you are not your profession. D&D and Pathfinder may implicitly encourage us to think of characters in terms of their class and (to a lesser extent) race and background, because those are the mechanical decisions made at character creation and the mechanical levers that get pulled during gameplay. But there are so many other ways to approach thinking about who someone is. Who are you, beyond just someone who works the job you do? What are you interested in? What are your hopes? What funny childhood stories do you have? Who are your closest friends? What have you learned from life so far?
In the next few posts in this series, I’ll lay out a few different systems for developing a dynamic character from the inside out (or the outside in!), with a special focus on their psychology and social development. I’ll draw from the lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years in LARP and twenty in TTRPGs, and present a variety of options so you can try out what’s best for you. I’ll also talk about how to roleplay secretive characters, or evil characters, in a way that’s respectful and fun for everyone at the table.
But let’s say you don’t want to tear your character apart and rebuild them from the ground up. You’d like a quicker fix. What can you do?
The simplest change is taking “what your character is supposed to be good at” and reframing the question: What is your character interested in? Nothing else about them needs to change; all you need to do is conceive of them not as an expert, just as an enthusiast and lifelong learner. Failed rolls are no longer dissonant with the core idea of the character; they become setbacks that can harden the character’s determination to learn more. Success becomes more interesting as well: not just an outcome to be taken for granted, but rather, milestones to validate how far the character has come over time. This opens up a path forward for active character development, as well as allowing two similar characters to coexist and bond over sharing knowledge—or to become friendly rivals learning alongside each other, as a healthy in-game alternative to out-of-game contention to be The Expert.
Conversely (and additionally), you can focus on developing what your character is not good at when they start their journey. This opens up fertile ground for identifying your character’s insecurities and opportunities to grow, and exploring the way your character deals with them. Do they become defensive about what they don’t know? Do they dismissively proclaim that anything they don’t already know isn’t worth learning? Are they curious and eager to learn more? Naively prone to get themselves into tricky situations out of ignorance?
If you’re a DM and you’re noticing issues caused by overinvestment in the player characters’ abilities to “be good at”, there may not be much you can do to address it directly — but you can encourage styles of play that spur players to develop other aspects of their characters, and you can avoid DMing habits that make the situation worse.
If you’re just starting a campaign, ideally you can address this expectation before the first session. Be upfront about what kind of campaign you intend to run: how difficult challenges will be overall and how much your players should expect to need to optimize, whether failures on a small scale can be just as interesting as success, and whether failures on a large scale will end in a TPK or in opportunities to “fail forward”. And then keep those promises. If you avoid setting your players up to believe that the only value they can contribute to the table is high numbers, and they know they will have ample latitude for mechanical failures without game-breaking consequences, they may feel more reassured that they can create characters to explore that latitude and try out other ways to bring fun to the table.
If you want to implement house rules to encourage more nuanced characters, think about how to mechanically incentivize players to lean into other aspects of their character. Reward them for something other than just representing their class identity and the luck of their rolls. Instead of handing out inspiration points for undefined “awesome moments” or making you laugh, for example, tell your players to write their own short lists of inspiration triggers that play into what kind of personality they want their characters to develop.
You may also want to consider taking a page from indie games and systems. Blades in the Dark gives experience points for playing into character personality traits like how a character chooses to tackle a problem. In the Belonging Outside Belonging family of games, a player can choose to lean into one of their character’s weaknesses to get a token, which they can later spend to fuel a moment when the character can show their strength. And this isn’t even getting into all the systems that reject the pass/fail binary that underlies D&D and Pathfinder, opting instead to tell stories based on degrees of success: does that low roll mean you fail and nothing changes, or fail but find something helpful? How about succeed but introduce a new complication that makes things worse?
However, beware of the temptation to do pity narrations to justify PCs’ roll failures. Describing how the character was prevented from succeeding only because of an accident, or because they became distracted at the last moment, or as some other outcome of forces that the character can’t control, doesn’t actually mollify players’ disappointment and hurt pride. Worse, it reinforces the expectation that the default state should be success, that the only reason a character might fail is due to one-off outside forces, and that because these outside forces are unpredictable and unaddressable, the characters have no in-universe way to work towards improvement. (The same issue underlies the “take 10” and “take 20” rules: if the default assumption is the deeply unrealistic expectation that anyone will succeed on anything they might try, trained or not, if they’re just left alone and unbothered for a few minutes… then of course needing to roll and run the risk of failure will always be sour.)
The difference between pity narration and constructive failure is mechanical, and that is crucial. Constructive failure might look like a weakness the character spots in an enemy or a hidden handhold they uncover or a helpful clue that they could only have found by failing, a lesson-from-experience that visibly lowers the difficulty threshold for the entire party going forward. Or it might look like a house rule that invites the players themselves to provide brief reasons for their failed rolls — reasons that you reuse as personal story hooks down the road.
Ultimately, however, being hung up on “being good at” is an issue that the DM has only limited control over, because the root of the problem lies in player expectations.
So players: let me help you stop making your characters good at things. You might just find that it makes them much better at everything else — like letting you and your whole table have more fun.
Upcoming articles in this series:
- Psychology-Focused Character Building (“Face-Ego-Heart system”) [March 2024!]
- Behavioral-Focused Character Building [April 2024!]
Crafting the Mask is a mini-series of monthly articles focusing on roleplay theory and how to build dynamic and interesting TTRPG characters.