The most important thing to me for my player characters is to fit within the world and campaign the character is created for. This is true whether it is for my own character or the characters of those who come to play at my table. It’s not an issue with novel writing, or other stories in which you are working mostly alone to create a story, nor is it an issue with video game RPGs— you are given a set list of options which are easy to include into the game. This same mindset ought to be what TTRPG players come to the table with: what is the world and campaign I’m about to enter into? Who can I create which fits with those expectations and what I want to play?
This is my stance every time I sit at a new campaign. Where are we and what are we going to do?
Besides a lot of the standard steps, an important step which is overlooked in base Dungeons and Dragons 5e character creation is the need for character goals. This is an idea I first saw in the Dragon Age TTRPG and in the Prophecies section in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount as created by Matt Mercer. On page 199 of that book, the step of creating goals is described as follows:
“Write down three aspirations or goals you have for your character, and which you want to achieve over the course of the campaign. A prophecy goal should have two parts. First is the goal that your character wants to attain. Second is a sense of what complication might ensue once the goal is met– for good or ill.
One of your prophecy goals should be an immediate goal, one should be long term, and one should be a goal that concludes your character arc at the end of the campaign. You don’t have to decide on all three goals at the start. You can choose your immediate goal now, and think about the other two while you get a feel for the tone of the campaign.”
While some ideas are presented for Wildemount, all of which could be adapted to fit any setting, most players probably have some ideas for what they want their character to do— though I will admit that some players will struggle at first if they aren’t used to storytelling. The consequence part is particularly difficult for a lot of players. Who wants to assign the difficult for their own character?
Some prophecies (goals) are easy to come up with if you also have a secret (as seen in works like Keith Baker’s Eberron Confidential) which you want to come to fruition. It’s also easy if you have a character who has something mechanically happen at level 2 or 3. Having a goal explanation for what happens at level 3 will make the character growth more meaningful as you level up and give you a decent First prophecy goal. “I want my character to join a Druid circle or find a Druid mentor.” “I want my character to have a moment in which they connect to their ancestors in a deep rage— putting them on the Barbarian path of the ancestral guardians.”
Other initial goals might be as simple as: “I need 200gp to get out of debt.” This goal is meant to be as simple as possible. They can even be something which is done completely on their own. This is merely the start of your character’s journey while you as a player and they as a character feel out the world and the campaign.
And it might not come for a little while. We were about four sessions in before one character finally said, “I’m supposed to be one of two warforged created for a specific purpose— I want to meet the other one.”
If your character has a secret which could be part of their prophecy, decide if that secret would eliminate your character’s primary tension (making it the 3rd and final goal), or not (making it the 2nd, long term goal). It might even create SEVERAL goals. If you don’t know yet, you might work with your DM and/or wait until you have a better idea– likely after completing the first goal.
If you are Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, your secret is that you are the rightful heir to Gondor. The second goal is getting the reforged blade of your ancestor to gather an army of the dead. The third goal is becoming the king of Gondor. (Note, however, that he didn’t try to murder hobo his way onto the throne.)
Another idea to keep in mind with all of these is that your goals should progressively require increased effort and likely include more members of your group. While the first goal, getting 200gp to pay off a debt, doesn’t really require you to interact with anyone, the second goal should be more involved: it should take a side quest of its own and it should need the help of an NPC and/or someone of your party. To put it again into the terms of Aragorn, he could not have completed the mission without the help of Legolas, Gimli, and Elrond. (This isn’t to say that first goals might not include a side quest, but usually it won’t be quite as separated from the story.)
A third, final goal, following that idea, should be the culmination of your character’s story; it will involve choices, side missions, and (probably) your party’s participation. Aragorn gets to become king at the end not only because of his destiny, but because he chose to embrace his destiny after the main story plot moved his character to do so. (It’s arguable that his player didn’t even really decide on his second and third goals until after Helm’s Deep, pretty late in the story!) But he takes his friends on a side quest after receiving the sword to complete goal #2. What else but to fully ascend the throne? He defends his homeland on the frontline with the army of the dead he raised, released them to hold to his oath (as a good king), led a final battle against the forces of Sauron, and survived to be crowned and married. All of that, those big Aragorn story moments, deeply involved the other characters and their success.
A good rule of thumb would be to have the next goal created the session after you complete the last goal, but this isn’t necessary. While not required, it gives a good idea of the maximum amount of time you have to create a goal. The risk of not having goals come up at around this point is that your DM might not be able to incorporate your goals in a reasonable time as the campaign continues— especially if they are running a published campaign.
The Dragon Age TTRPG manual has a great walk-through of creating character goals, which I break down to roughly these points:
- Curiosity: Strive for goals which pique curiosity. Why do you want to do what you want to do? Why does your character seek the ancient artifact or revenge, instead of going about a normal life? Centering your character’s arc on the “Why?” question fuels your character roleplaying and gives you something to talk about. The fulfillment or failure of the goal, even a long-term goal, shouldn’t necessarily be the end of your character; it should feed into the question, “What’s next?”
- Surprise: A goal isn’t usually sure thing and the machinations which get you to its end are often complex. Sometimes the dice don’t cooperate. Sometimes finding your father means you find him as a henchman to one of the other PC’s villains. You won’t always see goals culminate in ways you expect, but you should keep an open mind as you play. This also means that if you don’t come up with the idea of a consequence for a character, you’re open to the DM coming up with the complications for you.
- Consider the Three Pillars: Most of a TTRPG involves the three pillars of Combat, Exploring, and Roleplay. Consider how these might be a part of your character’s goal. How does my goal affect the overall story that seems to be going? How does my goal affect the other character goals? Where might you have to go in order to accomplish it? Who might you have to fight or avoid fighting to accomplish it? Which NPCs or player characters can help you? Some of this might end up being the prerogative of the DM, in the end, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind.
- Complication: Not written in the Dragon Age TTRPG is an important aspect of the Character Prophecy Goals is the complication. As much as getting the goal is important, consider what drawbacks or responsibilities are inflicted on your character if they achieve their goal.
If you are a DM, you might be wondering, “But how do I incorporate this? How do I reward these?”
Ideally, this comes at character creation— but it’s never too late to ask a player what they want their character to accomplish along these lines. In fact, it might even be easier for the player to come up with a second or third goal since they are further into the world and the campaign.
Whenever these goals are invented, obviously altering them to ensure they fit with the setting and campaign, you try to ensure there are opportunities for them to reach these goals. Create a side quest. Create some characters. Some of this is easier if your campaign is open ended, but most can be adapted pretty well with being set within a written campaign (though there are obviously more constraints about the story).
Once characters complete a goal, in addition to that cool feeling they get for completing a part of their character’s arc, I’ve been working to allow them to pick one of the following options:
- For the next 1d10 days (in-game), your character gains inspiration whenever they finish a long rest. (This inspiration expires without giving any XP benefit according to the house XP rules if you use my XP house rule.)
- For the next 1d10 days (in-game), your character has advantage on saving throws to avoid being frightened. Halflings and other brave characters become immune to the frightened effect for this time.
- For the next 1d4 days (in-game), your character’s weapon attacks deal an extra 1d6 damage of the weapon’s type.
- For the next 1d4 days (in-game), you may cast one spell per day without expending a spell slot.
- Your character reaches their next level, so long as they wouldn’t reach another level within this session. Their new XP is the exact amount they need for their new level; they do not gain XP otherwise this session. Your character does not need to expend the cost or time for training. (This is easiest when you use a milestone system of leveling— just give them a level! It’s a reward you might restrict if their goal is, say, to reach level 3 as mentioned before.)
I hope this helps you tell great stories at your table. Thank you for reading!