Successful Player Characters in D&D and TTRPGs


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How to Define PC Success in Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Success is a nebulous term in gaming, especially ones without a specific “win condition” like many Dungeons & Dragons campaigns or similar tabletop roleplaying games. You don’t “win” the game in the same way that you can in most board games and video games, even if there’s an end goal to the campaign.

So how does one go about defining success in an RPG? I think it’s possible.

I’m going to outline a few ways to define player character (PC) success below. These are metrics I use to assess how well a character worked in a particular campaign. The lone caveat is that these aren’t the only valid criteria for success, nor do they have to be what you use.

That said, I think defining success can lead us toward better character creation in future campaigns, so I see a ton of value in establishing criteria.

Mechanical Success

Modern RPGs have trended toward a focus on the narrative elements, but for many systems—including the largest, D&D—mechanical and combat elements still play a huge role in the game.

This one may be the most personal of the bunch, because one person’s favorite class to play is someone else’s least favorite.

For example, I like playing classes that reward a lot of oblique thinking and creativity. So I shy away from classes where it’s easy to pigeonhole them into a particular role or function. Conversely, I have massive amounts of fun with D&D 5e classes like the Artificer and Lore Bards, because the diversity of options available to them is staggering, even if they aren’t the most powerful in the group.

Conversely, I’ve chafed at classes and archetypes without as many of these creative opportunities. Maybe that’s my own lack of inspiration rather than the game’s shortcomings, but it’s still a sliding scale upon which I measure a character’s success.

Narrative Success

Here I’m talking about the PC’s personal narrative. Did you have enough material in their character to explore it in a nuanced way? And if the campaign was, say, dozens of sessions, was their personality interesting and deep enough to sustain the roleplaying for this entire time?

Some of this burden is on the player to create that nuance during the campaign, not just at character creation. Figuring out how an event would affect your character can be a great way to add roleplaying depth.

But you can also set yourself up for success through careful choice of background elements and personality traits. Combined, they can determine whether or not your player character is a narrative success.

Group, Setting & Campaign Dynamics

This might be the most important. How well did your character work in context?

I don’t think it’s hard to identify a character that is mismatched with the campaign or setting. An evil, self-serving character will struggle in most heroic, do-gooder campaigns. Or a brooding, lone wolf type will struggle in a campaign about working together with various NPCs and faction allies.

The interpersonal dynamics of your group matter as well. This is why I’ve done a video and article on figuring out why your group is together.

We could find plenty of other examples, but hopefully the principle makes sense by now. Does your character “fit” in ways that make them seem like organic extensions of the world around them? Or do they stick out like a sore thumb?

Sometimes, I think a character will fit, but they don’t fit quite as well as anticipated. Other times, I develop unexpected chemistry with other party members, and it works out better than expected. So an idea like a character’s “fit” can be tough to predict, but we can plan for success by building them in such a way that they have strong ties to the setting, campaign, tone, and other party members.

Case Study #1: Ahk-wa the Aarakocran Ranger
Campaign: Curse of Strahd
Ahk-wa was the eldest sibling in a group of Aarakocran brothers and sisters. She took on a bit of a maternal role, especially in contrast with the more impetuous youngest siblings. This dynamic created a lot of great interpersonal tension, but also genuine investment in the other characters and their fates.

Mechanically, she served a useful role within the party, and was able to parlay her skills and damage-dealing efforts into a lot of crucial moments. Her mobility—at times enhanced magically—also allowed for a lot of creativity in encounters. In terms of synergy, Aarakocrans and Rangers go together wonderfully.

The gothic campaign created a darker tone, but also made for an excellent juxtaposition of the “fish out of water” group of bird siblings. Hilarity mixed with the dour tone in equal amounts.

Mechanical: Success
Narrative: Success
Group/Setting/Campaign: Success

Case Study #2: Abbadon Cain the Tiefling Celestial Warlock
Campaign: Baldur’s Gate: Descent to Avernus
Abbadon’s patron was Zariel. Or rather, Zariel when she was an angel. His background was therefore set up for a crisis of conscience as Abbadon slowly learned of her fall from grace. It allowed for a lot of nuanced roleplaying opportunities.

Mechanically, celestial warlocks get pushed toward healing. This is a bit of a mismatch with the usual warlock class. While I don’t mind a challenge, Abbadon’s utter lack of damage output (or ability to take damage) pigeonholed him into an ultra-specific role. I performed the same few actions a lot.

Within the group, Abbadon tried to uphold the light, but the adventure is very much skewed toward those who are willing to be morally nebulous. Several party actions even before we got to Avernus were at direct odds with his personality; a tension that we made work, but was never fully resolved.

Mechanical: Failure
Narrative: Success
Group/Setting/Campaign: Mixed

Case Study #3: Robbie (Tam) the Changeling Monk
Campaign: Eberron Homebrew
Robbie was a changeling whose real name was Tam. He was on the run from a series of nefarious groups, and had occupied a new persona (Robbie) in order to try to remake his life. He had some limited ties to his past in his new life, risks associated with his adventures related to his identity, and was hiding his true identity from the other PCs. Lots of intrigue.

Mechanically, I’d planned a multiclass with Wizard for specific roleplaying purposes, but it made for a wildly sub-optimal build. I spent a lot of fights unconscious, to the point where it became a running joke. I never got fully into the multiclass, since we TPK’d before it came to fruition.

His ties to the world were strong, and he was surrounded by potential friends, enemies and allies at every turn, and sometimes was unsure of allegiances. This intrigue lent itself well to the somewhat noir tone of many Eberron adventures.

Mechanical: Failure
Narrative: Success
Group/Setting/Campaign: Success

Extrapolating From Case Studies

I’ve had other characters, mostly successes on all three, but I highlighted the three above—with only one that was a full success—because I think the failures are more instructive.

For example, is being underpowered a problem? Not necessarily, but if it means you’re not pulling your weight in encounters, that can start to feel frustrating across numerous sessions. Robbie (Tam) produced frustration mechanically. Abbadon pulled his weight mechanically (and then some, on a few occasions), but that particular character build lacked opportunities for creativity. So that was a different issue.

In this way, I can craft PCs that are more likely to be successes for me across the board. Which also means they’ll be better companions for my fellow players, and better fits for the campaigns we run.

For more content, or just to chat, find me on Twitter @BTDungeons, or check out my other reviews and game musings!