Change in character
Often there are comparisons made between tabletop role-playing games and fiction, and though there are a lot of differences, there are similarities as both can be storytelling mediums. One similarity is in the importance of characters and character growth or change.
In fiction, character change is often thought of as a character arc, a transformation inwardly or outwardly or both during a character’s journey, during the character’s story. The same can apply to our characters in RPGs.
Practically every RPG character played more than once will experience change and/or growth. Most gaming systems offer some sort of capability for characters to gain in experience, knowledge, abilities and powers, so at the very least a character will change from a mechanical point of view, often displayed outwardly during play.
However, RPG characters can also change inwardly. They do not have to stay the same, and the only thing limiting them in such a regard is their players’ inclinations or imaginations. It would be natural for a character who exists throughout a long campaign to change somewhat emotionally and mentally, and many players will approach their characters from such a vantage point.
Some players will not opt for change, and that’s okay, too, but they might consider the fun they’re missing out on by experiencing and taking part in character growth. Even serialized characters who appear in many stories over a long period of time and who can seem not to change much from story to story, do tend to change over the years and within a given story’s arc. For example, Batman from the 1940s isn’t the same Batman of today, and the Batman of a Bob Kane tale isn’t the same Batman of a Frank Miller graphic novel.
Also, keep in mind change isn’t always for the better. Good men go bad, paladins turn to the dark side, and even angels fall from grace. A character who turns evil can provide their own form of entertainment and character study for the player and for others at the gaming table.
Speaking of good and evil, morality and alignment systems like that found in Dungeons & Dragons don’t have to limit the potential for character change. There is a lot of leeway within the alignments, and it is not impossible to actually change a character’s alignment, though for the sake of believability this probably shouldn’t be done often or too quickly.
What’s the point?
Why have your character change?
First of all, as mentioned above, it can be fun. Building a character emotionally and mentally can be as entertaining as the mechanical aspects of any RPG. How a character responds to other characters and to situations can lead to conflict and resolution, the stuff of great drama, the stuff which draws many of us to our favorite books and movies.
Secondly, character growth can also allow for player growth, and it can allow the player to experience situations and emotions they might not normally face in the real world. Even the darker sides of reality can be faced at the gaming table with relative safety. You, and your gaming companions, might be surprised at what you can learn about yourself.
Then there is the believability factor. Yes, we’re playing in fictional worlds, often speculative worlds, but each of us in our own way (and to our own levels) expects a certain amount of believability at the gaming table. You might not care that your character’s magic longsword is twelve feet in length and weighs fifty pounds, arguing that this is just fantasy after all, but generally you will expect your character to be able to breath air, drink water, etc. Meaning, believability in an RPG is somewhat relative, but it is still there to some extent or other, and for many players it would seem logical for any given character to change over time.
There can be other reasons for having your RPG character change, as many reasons at you’d like. Maybe you just want to try something new. Maybe you want to experiment. Maybe you’ve grown bored. Maybe you just want to drive all the other players crazy. Whatever a player’s reasoning, it can be done, and if done well, everyone can have a good time with it.
One example of change
To be blunt about it, because of where he grew up and certain tragic events from his past, Israel is a racist. He is a human who barely tolerates the non-humans around him. Never out-and-out insulting, he still never calls non-humans by their proper name, but refers to them either by their profession (“doctor,” “engineer,” etc.) or refers to them by their race (“dwarf,” “kobold,” etc.). He does not hate the other races, nor does he wish them physical harm, but he does tend to think less of them and feels they should know their place as subservient to humankind.
As can be expected, Israel is not necessarily a likable character, and more than once he has crossed words (or more) with other player characters. This has been intentional on my part as I wanted to explore such a character, but not an evil character, someone who still has likable and remarkable traits and who has the potential for change. My thinking early on was that events and people will likely change Israel, but that those changes don’t have to be for the better, though they could be, that much will depend upon how others react to him and how events will affect his view of the world.
Nearing a dozen adventures into this campaign, Israel has indeed changed. His change has been one of the heart and mind, and actually, some of it came rather suddenly (despite my advice above).
As Israel is commander of an Aethernati team sent on adventurous missions, he finds himself not only constantly surrounded by those of other races, but that he is often the only human present. This has caused him to become more familiar with the other races. It has opened his eyes, made him realize others are not all that different from himself and his own kind. This shift in viewpoint has been a gradual one, one that until recently he has not been willing to admit to himself.
His more drastic shift in thought came near the end of a recent adventure in which several events had occurred which pushed him towards a mental and emotional (and perhaps spiritual) change.
The first thing to change him came about when Israel and his companions were captured by a village of halfling savages who were also possibly cannibals. Being a vengeful sort, Israel initially wished nothing but harm upon these natives. He fully planned once he returned to his homeland to call for an extermination of these people and destruction of the forest in which they lived, which probably would fit in with his leaders’ plans anyway. However, upon gaining his freedom, Israel recognized that despite having been knocked unconscious and tied up, these halflings had actually treated him and his companions fairly well, that the original attack had come as a matter of defense (and maybe as a means to gather food). At the very least, these halflings had treated Israel and his friends honorably, or at least as close as such savages could come. Realizing this had caused Israel to shrink his temptation to vengeance, and it had given him more upon which to think concerning non-human races.
The second event that brought change in Israel is related to the first. When the adventuring party made it back to their air ship and related what had befallen them, the ship’s captain gave Israel the option of calling for destruction of the forest where the halflings lived. Though this particular ship was the largest and most powerful of its kind, Israel had not realized it had enough firepower (both magical and black powder) to decimate the entire forest. He was being handed the opportunity not only for his revenge, but for the chance to wipe out what he and the people of his homeland would consider a lesser people, a people who stood in the way of those who had a rightful claim to the land. Not only was Israel given this opportunity, but he was given it with immediacy; he would not have to wait to give a report to his betters in his home city of Theopholis, but could act now, which was what his gut told him to do. Israel had but moments to reflect before he would have to answer the captain. He could tell by the looks in the eyes of his adventuring fellows that they would not agree with burning away the forest, but he could not let that sway him for the decision was ultimately his alone and he had to decide what was best for everyone even if they did not agree with him. He decided, however, not to burn the forest and slay the halflings. The decision had become a religious one for Israel. Raised in a city of fundamentalists who were not quite fanatics, there had also been some who had been truly pious. Israel had had to decide if he wanted to be the kind of person, the kind of man, who would wipe out another race of beings, that he would destroy their home and slay as many of them as possible. In a matter of moments, he decided he did not want to be such a person.
The final event which brought about change in Israel came just before returning to the air ship. Several adventures earlier, the group’s dwarf, Roz Rakheta, had insulted Israel by insinuating that Israel was a coward. Because the party had been in danger since then, Israel had let the matter slide. But it had been a matter of honor, and Israel could not allow himself to be so insulted. Once reaching relative safety, with the air ship on its way, Israel slapped Roz’s face and told her to choose her weapons. Roz put up her fists, and Israel threw a punch. Roz did not try to block or evade the punch, but allowed it to land directly upon her face. Then she did nothing, just stood there with her arms lowered. She would not fight back, saying she knew she had goaded Israel and the others by her harsh words, but felt it had been necessary at the time. Basically, she was saying she had crossed a line but with a purpose, and now she was willing to pay the price. Israel was humbled. By all rights, or at least by his rights as an officer in Theopholis, he could have beaten or even slain Roz. Instead, he saw the nobility in her, in a dwarf and a woman. He also lowered his arms, nodded, and stepped away. Not only had Roz gained his respect, but she had taught him a lesson.
So, Israel has changed, and is still trying to change. Most of those in his party do not trust him, and some are outwardly disliking of him, but he is trying. He recognizes his former patterns of thought were erroneous, that not only humans are capable of nobility, that not only humans are worthy of life and liberty. He still has a ways to go, old habits to break, but at least now he is on a different path. Will he win over all of his fellow adventurers? Maybe, maybe not, but that is really besides the point for him personally as his path is now also an inward one. Time will tell how it plays out.
Such is my example, and one from a dozen or fewer adventuring sessions. Character change does not have to be as drastic nor as inward as that of Israel Amadeus, but it can be. I’m enjoying playing the character, and generally I think the other players are enjoying it, especially as they’ve had more than a few chuckles at Israel’s expense.
Remember, in most games nearly all characters change, even if just mechanically, and change can be good, it can be fun. Also, remember that mechanical changes can also bring out mental and emotional and maybe spiritual change. Your first level wizard isn’t going to have the same mindset upon reaching tenth level. If nothing else, they are going to feel a lot more powerful, and that affects how they see the world.
Roll with it. Try different things. Don’t ever feel you are stuck with the same old character, because you can change that character, though hopefully in a way that makes some sense. But whatever you do, Stay Nerdy!
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A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, beer tasting and recalling fond memories of his late wife and their beagle baby, Lily. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.