Got Character? Give Them Pain and Suffering

Ever notice how the pain and suffering of some of your favorite characters in books, TV, movies or campaigns – and how they deal with the unenviable hand they’re dealt – is exactly what draws you into their story?  Frodo, Aragorn, Buffy, Angel, Selene and even Conan. 

There’s something about experiencing their struggles and trials first-hand, from every angle, that leads us to being sympathetic and even identifying with their scars, skeletons and fears.  They leap off the screen or from the pages – or in D&D, they vault right out of the game and gameworld, capturing your imagination. 

You root for them because of what they’ve gone through, who they are because of it and who they become.

In your D&D stories, whether you play or DM, you too can bring your characters to life by getting right to the heart of their pain and suffering.   

Want to avoid that throwaway character feeling, especially in these dangerously crunchier, gamier days?  Start with character backgrounds – either selections from the online D&D Compendium, or the classic, written kind.  Then try the following and you’ll never look at your latest character as just a great big bag of numbers again!

The Pain of the Past

First, when selecting or writing your character’s background, make sure there’s an element of pain, suffering, loss or tragedy involved.  (Use the D&D Compendium keyword search utility to your advantage!)  Not only is it more realistic, who wants to write about, hear about and play a character that lived a perfectly uneventful life?

Here’s an example background for us to work from:

Early Life – Social Outcast

Campaign Setting: General

You were the butt of many jokes and treated poorly by your peers. Have you revenged yourself on your tormentors, or have you moved past the pain?

Associated Skills: Bluff, Intimidate

Published in Dragon Magazine 383, page(s) 80.

Now that you know about what awful things were the catalyst for how your character will look at the world, it’s time to leverage those dark, haunting events forward into the present: game session #1.

The Pain of the Present

How does your character feel about his past pain and suffering today?  This is a critical point in your campaign: your character’s genesis is still raw and his or her first adventure in the world is upon you.  His or her story is about to be told.  Set the tone for your character’s view of the world right now. 

Fortunately, some backgrounds in the Compendium include some thought-provoking questions to help you answer this question.  What questions help resolve the character’s present views on being a Social Outcast?

Have you revenged yourself on your tormentors, or have you moved past the pain?

The exciting part for you here is how many different ways you can answer these questions to address the present. 

For example, perhaps you decide Aedyn, your cleric, always thought he was too weak and clumsy to settle the score against all the bullies that would beat him up and take his coppers on the way to his temple each morning.  He still carries that embarrassment and fear with him, and doesn’t talk about it with anyone.

Or perhaps Aedyn has, by the start of your campaign, has become deeply spiritual despite his young age.  He has forgiven those bullies and now fearlessly breaks up similar brawls at and around the temple halls and surrounding streets and alleyways.

How your character looks at and deals with his past pain and suffering today helps you understand his or her motivations better, and as you can see, can take you in some intriguing directions from both a character development and potential adventure standpoint.  The possibilities that this present attitude gives us naturally leads us to what’s next as your character’s story actually begins.

The Pain of the Future

Now that you know what happened and how your character looks at it today, it’s time to take your character’s growing story to a whole new level – to the future surrounding his pain and suffering.  You have an exciting opportunity to add rich, deep layers to your characters here, making them quite complex.  Making them feel real. 

Ask yourself, how does this character’s story end?  How does she resolve, once and for all, by the end of the campaign, the pain and suffering that once plagued or still plagues her? 

Let’s look at the same questions that helped us figure out the character’s current attitudes as the campaign begins:

Have you revenged yourself on your tormentors, or have you moved past the pain?

Here’s where you get to add a twist or hint of future, greater thoughts, plans or dreams as the campaign and your character’s story really begins.

For example, while Aedyn had become deeply spiritual and forgiven the bullies from his youth, he sometimes wondered if there would be a fight he couldn’t break up around the temple.  Crime had escalated in recent months, and murdered children were being found in alleys, meticulously buried under garbage.  What sort of monster or monsters would kill children and then go the trouble to bury them in filth?  Aedyn suddenly wasn’t so sure he could protect the children from harm anymore.

Or perhaps you take a longer view of the future with Aedyn:

One day, Aedyn vowed he would find out what became of Tarken, Voel and Scrims, and use his divine magic to deliver the beating those bullies so deserved.  They had taken his confidence from him then, but now Aedyn was widely considered the most talented temple acolyte in a generation and his power was growing by the day.  Soon, Aedyn would have magic strong enough to rip apart all the bullies of this evil world, limb from limb, and he would not hesitate.  He sometimes wondered if he savored their inevitable demise a bit too much.

Notice the adventure hooks and characterization you’ve already started to weave. 

In the former example, there is a hint of a villain or monster threatening the very children Aedyn now protects so vigilantly - no one was able to protect him in the same situation when he was young, so he’s passionate about this.  There’s also a hint of that old fear and doubt – something out there is so strong and vile that he’s not sure he can challenge or overcome it. 

In the latter example, we learn Aedyn wants vengeance quite badly, to the point where he sounds like he’s willing to go a bit too far and even sounds sinister.  How far will he really go?  Your campaign is the stage where we get to find out!

Bring the Pain 

Remember you can expand upon your character’s pain and suffering on your own or collaboratively, whatever way inspires you most.  Do this and you give yourself and your DM plenty of dramatic roleplaying scenes and adventure ideas to work from - all by adding just a few extra background lines that explore your character’s past, present and future pain.

How about you and your characters?  What epic character pain and suffering stories or storytelling tips do you have to share?

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