Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Player Character Story Arcs

The prototypical Dungeons & Dragons adventure or campaign has a “story” made up of the events that spur the player characters to action, the monsters and challenges the face, and the rewards received once the objective is completed. Often, this means that the “arc” of each player character is essentially the same in any given adventure: it starts with what got them into adventuring and ends with what rewards they get out of adventuring and/or retiring.

A more meaningful character arc shouldn’t be so impersonal, and the tools already exist in D&D 5th Edition. This article provides some variant and optional rules to turn Backgrounds, Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws into an engine for crafting a more personalized story arc for each player character, as well as an alternative method of gaining Inspiration: Flashbacks.

Roleplay VS Roll Play

Can we just drink beer and roll the dice, PLEASE?!

BIFTs as Story Elements

The simplest method of using Bonds, Ideals, Flaws, and Personality Traits (BIFTs, for short) as story seeds is for the players and the DM to discuss them. It can be as easy as the DM scouring the PCs’ character sheets and mining this information when developing adventure material, especially for setting stakes or determining quests (and/or quest-givers), or as involved as the DM asking a lot of How, When, and Why questions about each PCs’ traits to build a shared backstory.

Personality Test Fail

Every Bard’s worst nightmare when rolling for random Personality Traits.

Utilizing this information to fill in bits and pieces of the campaign world, and as the fodder for recurring NPCs and plot ideas, will make the choices of each player more meaningful, and may even allow the DM to leave some of the particulars of world creation to the players. Why develop a whole tribal society for the Barbarian people of the Icy Steppes if a player can do that for you? Plenty of things that a tribe, culture, or race holds dear can be determined by the Ideals and Bonds of a character, and for added spice, you can have them contrary to the player’s traits, highlighting how the player character is unique.

Another method is to handle this on the fly, as a corollary to the system for rewarding Inspiration. When a player would normally be rewarded Inspiration for roleplaying one of his or her character’s BIFTs, the DM can use that moment to ask for more details. It doesn’t even have to be about that specific occurrence of the trait coming out, but instead done in an effort to fill in gaps in the campaign world, drive the character’s personal story in new directions, or perhaps cause the character to evaluate the trait in question with regard to current events, monsters, or NPCs in the campaign.

Example: One character has the Sage background, with the Personality Trait “I’m willing to listen to every side of an argument before I make my own judgment.” The party is trying to broker a truce between xenophobic Wild Elves living relatively peacefully in a swamp to the north, and the party’s hometown nobles that are under siege by an encroaching army of orcs and dragons.

The PC in question calls for order as heated discussion is about to flare up into full-blown argument, and therefore the DM rules they get rewarded with Inspiration for good roleplaying. But, the DM asks a question before awarding Inspiration. He might ask:

  • What’s another example of you calling for order in a heated exchange, but this time centered on your party?
  • How did your character learn first-hand to listen to both sides of an argument before making a judgment…perhaps from a hard-learned lesson?
  • When did you first hear about the Wild Elves’ strict societal rules on honor, and thus your unique ability to bring order to what was about to become an argument?

Each of these questions is fairly specific, but leaves a lot of room for the player to fill in details.

Players may seek to add things that the DM can overrule, or suggest things that might be errors in their character’s point-of-view, but discussion can lead to any of these details adding excellent flavor to the campaign world and the character’s backstory.

Variant Rule: Flashbacks

BIFTs are great fodder for determining how to roleplay a character. That said, their connection to the Inspiration mechanic is tenuous, and therefore it’s a simple matter to change how Inspiration is awarded. One option that can help propel stories and give players greater control to craft their character’s backstory and apply it to the events of the current adventure is through Flashbacks.

Flashback for Sega Genesis

I played the crap outta this game, but now I just have flashbacks to how crappy it was.

In this case, Inspiration isn’t rewarded for good roleplaying or clever attempts to defeat enemies or circumvent traps. Instead, a player can call for a Flashback sequence, which is a simple, short scene framed by the player. Once the Flashback is completed, the character gains Inspiration, which they can then use as normal.

The DM determines the end of the scene, and has the ability to call an end at any point, though discussion with the player in question should fill in any hanging details. A Flashback sequence should be appropriate to the current situation or encounter that the character is involved in. It should explain how the character gained an ability, item, or piece of knowledge appropriate to overcoming the task at hand.

To frame the scene, the player need simply answer one or even a few of the following questions, and then the DM and player can propel things forward from that starting point:

  • What interesting thing can the flashback tell us about the motivations of the character as they apply to the current situation?
  • Has the character encountered a situation like this before, and how did they fail to handle it properly?
  • What is one potential cost of failure during the current situation, and how would that be similar to some other cost the character has faced in their life?

It can be as short or as involved as the DM wishes, whether it’s a simple case of the player narrating some past event of the character’s adventuring (or pre-adventuring) days, a discussion of possible ideas for the character’s past influencing the event, or a full-blown encounter of its own, in which the other players perhaps take on the role of NPCs, monsters, or other characters (hirelings, familiars, etc.). The DM can even vary this based on the flashback, makings some clear-cut and quick, while others are more involved scenes, though it helps if the DM has a “default” choice for the complexity of Flashbacks.

Example: The characters are attempting to overcome a puzzle that involves moving enchanted jars into hollowed alcoves that feature the symbols of the various Arcane Schools of Wizardry. Each jar must be opened or otherwise investigated, which can sometimes spring traps or subject the party to danger.

The Wizard in the party calls for a Flashback, seeking to gain Inspiration to then use on an Intelligence (Arcana) check — or a saving throw! — that’s likely to come up as the party examines and moves these ensorcelled jars. The DM is okay with it being a quick Flashback sequence.

The Wizard’s player decides to weave a short tale of his apprenticeship, wherein his mentor taught him about the Schools of Wizardry…the hard way!

“Evocation? He singed my eyebrows off with a firefinger cantrip. Divination: spied on my familiar for a week, so he knew about all the cheese I had my rat steal from that jerk of a merchant, Hulden! For transmutation, I was turned into a frog for a month!”

The DM awards the Wizard Inspiration, but not before missing out on his own brand of humor: “As your Familiar might say if he could talk, that was a pretty cheesy story.”

Flashbacks are a great opportunity for players who like long, detailed character histories to show some of that work, rather than relegate it to a notebook that most of the other players will not see, or gain little insight into during the events of the campaign as they unfold at the table.

For players less interested in heavily developed character backgrounds, this is a great chance for them to answer a simple question, like what their apprenticeship was like, why they no longer have any close relatives they are in contact with, or perhaps the first time they were introduced to a magic treasure, a monster, or some other aspect that may seem mundane now, but was new to them at some point.

How do you use BIFTs to drive the story? What do you award Inspiration for?

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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