A short while ago, Jonathan explained his process for designing a campaign arc, so definitely check that out if you haven’t!
However, in that post, we also talk about how our processes for designing a larger arc (something that would be a TV season rather than a singular episode) are quite different.
So in this post, I’ll be providing you with a different model for designing larger arcs which, in D&D, will usually comprise the story in a particular location and/or your character’s journey from one level to the next.
First, by character-driven, I mean two different things.
- In your one-on-one game, your primary character is basically always going to be the main character, or protagonist, that your whole plot revolves around.
- For designing an arc, I like to add someone in, an ally or an antagonist character, who’s going to shape the plot of this portion of the narrative. They’re going to introduce some form of conflict and, through interactions with the primary character and central party, move the story forward.
Conflict is Key
Stories arise from conflict, which is usually a combination of internal and external forces. For setting up your character, I’ll lay out some options and ideas below that would allow them to serve as an ally or an antagonist to the party.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that either an ally or an antagonist can create both internal and external conflict. How deliberately they do this will shift depending on the character and situation.
In the previous post for this series, Jonathan explained how to flesh out a location and the events unspooling there to create an arc for your longer-running campaign.
For me, though, this process begins with envisioning a character.
Lots of the time, I pop over to my handy dandy Pinterest board and look through the gorgeous fantasy art there and across the site. This example links to an upcoming adventure. There are several locations included, but as you can tell, there’s a strong presence of a character throughout.
That narrative began for me with envisioning the character, a dark druid named Yvayne who’d had to sacrifice the other eleven members of her Circle, one per year, in order to prevent a curse from descending on their homeland.
I knew I wanted to create a dark druid character, and from playing with the images of her that I found online, she began to take shape, as did her difficult backstory and current position, serving as the twelfth sacrifice herself.
So, now that I have a character, I can move forward with her narrative by figuring out where her personality would intersect in interesting ways with my PC.
Ally or Antagonist?
What if this character worked best as an antagonist? For instance, if she were murdering her Circle without their consent or planning to bring something evil forth through dark magic, that would be a really easy way for the adventure to go.
Or, should she be an ally? Are there interesting intersections between the primary character or party’s goals and hers? Could she offer them ethical challenges or ambiguous decisions?
How much more powerful, or how much weaker, is she than my characters? How interested is she in getting their help?
Individual and Global
The nice thing about this design process is that your character’s development, especially their backstory but also their motivations, can serve to enhance the detail and lore of your world.
Since you’re digging deep into someone outside your central party, you can use their backstory to explore how their lives were differently shaped by people and events, often by cultures and locations utterly separate from your main characters.
Introducing a new character with a fleshed-out backstory can add diversity and detail to your world, making it feel fleshed-out and vibrant.
Playing with Time
Another possibility that your new arc character’s personality and backstory can bring to the table is examining how they were shaped by larger historical and political forces from several thousand years before. We talk about that further in this post, exploring multiple timelines in your world’s development, but I thought it was worth mentioning here as well.
There are many different types of villains for D&D, and it can be especially fun to plan an arc around them. Very likely, your campaign is already highly influenced by a villain character, the BBEG [Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal] or a totalitarian society, etc., but bringing in minor villains for arcs can be a really useful and exciting way of conceptualizing the next movement in your plot.
Story is all about conflict, and villains are really good at creating conflict for your characters.
Perhaps the primary character has been forced to make morally ambiguous decisions or to face a no-win situation. If one of the victims of those situations were to confront them, they might not pose a physical threat to the characters, but they could certainly provoke some doubt and self-searching.
For instance, there have been multiple occasions where my character was unable to save an innocent person who was near a combat. One such situation led to a political assassination where my character had been misled by the assassin and actually helped her arrive on site to carry out the deed.
Needless to say, this was followed by deep grief and self-doubt as my character questioned her own role and aptitude as an adventurer and as someone who was trying to do the right thing, but failed.
Those parts of a campaign that inspire internal conflict can be some of the most powerful. And playing two-person RPGs uniquely enables the primary character to explore internal conflict that might take the spotlight away from the other players in a group setting.
This is what we think about more often in D&D when we’re planning a villain. Tabletop role playing allows us to put evils in the world in a physical form and creatively conceptualize ways of bringing about something positive instead.
We’ve written about accidental villains in campaigns, and they can provide a good mix of internal and external conflict.
But maybe you want someone the players will have to work more decisively to combat, either through physical force or political maneuvering.
Some of the scariest villains, or the most engaging, can be on the same level as the characters.
We can talk about villains in terms of tiers of how powerful they are. Depending on how long you’re planning on running your campaign, the BBEG villain might be Tier 4, so they’re basically as strong as a god. They might even be a god for that matter!
But the villains who are relatively on par with your heroes or perhaps just slightly ahead of them can provide some really intriguing combat situations for them to face. This will especially be the case for villains who are fully realized—they have a motivation and purpose behind what they’re doing.
Does your villain think that what they’re doing is bad? Regardless, there should be a purpose behind their schemes, however misguided motivations are. Even if the reason isn’t a very good one, it should still exist.
Thanos from Avengers and Mother Gothel from Tangled are two of my favorite contemporary villains.
Thanos has a plan, albeit a cruel one. If 50% of life were wiped away, problems like overpopulation, limited resources, and global warming might disappear overnight. If we were this type of villain, we might ask: How far am I willing to go to guarantee a future?
Mother Gothel is much more selfish in her motivations. She wants to stay young and beautiful forever. But what makes her so powerful (and horrible) is the emotional manipulation she inflicts on Rapunzel to prevent her from trying to leave the tower or believing that she can make it in the world outside. Beyond misleading her about the dangers she might find, her lies about Rapunzel herself, that she’s believed throughout her life, are what make this villain so insidious.
There are so many possibilities for characterizing and developing your campaign arc character. So much of life is about the people we encounter. We’re shaped by others in myriad ways, for good and ill.
When I’m designing a campaign, I like to work out who that one character who’s going to forever change my PC’s life is. Whether an ally, a villain, or somewhere in between, I want to make sure she moves the plot forward by sparking internal and external conflict for my character and being detailed and complex herself.
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