The Danger of Internal Arcs with External Motivations

I had a realisation. Oh geez, I know, I’m going to look back at this post in a year and cringe. But my realisation was this: I make characters whose arcs are internally seeded but externally motivated. By that I mean that when I create characters, I build psychologies based on their past, their hopes for the future, their traumas and the poles they are dragged between – the people they are, the people they want to be, the people they fear becoming. That’s awesome, it’s super fun, I love making these rich characters*. I have these intense arcs to explore that will take them through emotional changes. Except…a lot of the time, I’ve struggled to get those characters to the point of an emotional change. I’ve usually resorted to asking another player out of character to intervene in their spiral of degeneration before they hit rock bottom, or instigating a scene with an NPC that will lead to that kind of change. My characters are always primed to change, but rarely have I made a character already in the process of changing, someone who realises that something is wrong and that they need to fix their life.

One of the reasons this realisation makes me uncomfortable is that it highlights my tendency to blame others for not caring enough about my character to act as catalysts for change until I ask them, or decide that in-game events haven’t given me a reason to spark a character development. More often than not, my characters are delusional, stuck in their patterns with no reason to pull themselves out of a swandive. I don’t know what that says about me (something something external locus of control) but I think the idea of relying entirely on others for my character’s change is a potentially unsatisfying way to play. There are, of course, exceptions: games like Monsterhearts and Masks thrive on the idea of reacting to circumstances and trusting that the story will provide enough grist for the mill when it comes to your character’s development. But especially in a live game context, finding the fun can be difficult enough without trying to force everyone else to propel your story.

When I started roleplaying, I never relied on other people’s interference to make my character fun. I built backstories that informed my reactions, and had fun running around interacting with the world. That was anxiety making me actively push other players out of my life because I didn’t trust them with my Precious Character. I moved on from that, growing more confident as I got older and gamed with communities where I felt safe, but I think I swung too much the other way. I still build NPCs into my backstory who can always act as a strong emotional link if no player characters form bonds with my character, but I always have some dark secret waiting to come out, some trauma that I need to work through, and because I come from a background of writing novels, I always expect that the narrative, the GM’s use of NPCs or other player characters will provide the catalyst. As a result, I have often been frustrated by the lack of forward motion on my arcs. That’s anxiety in its own way as well – the fear of freewheeling without planning your arc juxtaposed with not allowing your character to be a sufficient catalyst for that arc in and of themselves.

There’s very much a sense of ‘should’ with that kind of attitude – this game ‘should’ give me that opportunity. If you’re lucky, it will, and I’ve had some amazing games where players mutually helped one another guide characters through complex, heartbreaking arcs, or where the GM has worked with me to tell a story that hits me hard in the feels. But the flipside of expecting that kind of attention is that it’s really, truly upsetting to acknowledge that this beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant character that you love dearly just doesn’t matter to other people. Like, you matter out of character – a good group of players will care about you and want you to have a good time. If you have an invested group of friends who find enjoyment in a collaboratively-told story, you might find that your character is loved by other players. But you can’t rely on that, or expect it. It isn’t your friends’ job to love your character and give them the space to grow – it’s yours.

I’m unsure how to proceed now: I don’t know how to make a character who isn’t a big bundle of potential developments with no get up and go. I guess I can try looking harder for motivation in the events and conversations that happen in the game, regardless of whether they are dramatic enough to force a change. But I’m so used to building characters who are not aware of their own mental and emotional prisons that it feels cheap to give them the key from the start. We watch so many shows and read so many books where characters’ changes are the result of trauma, or love, or a terrible decision they have to make. But games aren’t books, or TV shows – they are far more mercurial, which is why I love them. Unless you want to only play Story Games where you can engineer your character’s arc without any reference to what happens in the rest of the game, you’re going to be disappointed if you expect the world to provide your catalysts rather than building the will to change into your character from the start.

But we change as roleplayers over time: we learn our bad habits and (hopefully) figure out how to move forward. There is no reason I can’t change this myself – but I also need to be willing to experiment, and maybe to fail. Maybe I will go through a period of feeling disconnected from my characters. Or maybe it’ll help me (and the people I’m no longer putting pressure on) to have a better, more satisfying game experience.

*Yes, I’m aware there’s a whole school of thought that character backstory or psychology that doesn’t directly impact play or other players is pointless, and I agree to disagree with those people.

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