I was asked by a teenage co-worker, about a month ago, “Do you play Dungeons and Dragons?” I proceeded to tell him enthusiastically, “I do play …
In preparation for an upcoming Pathfinder 2nd Edition campaign I realized something about the game: personal dynamic character development is lacking, mechanically speaking. Pathfinder 2nd Edition does have beliefs, likes, dislikes, attitude, and catchphrases that don’t HAVE to change beyond character creation. Yes, your character development is gaining new skills and abilities as you level up in the game; however, this does not include growth or change in goals, personality traits, or beliefs of the world. A good player will be looking for these moments of character development, and a better GM will create these opportunities for growth within play, but they aren’t reinforced within the game mechanics. Even D&D 5E was on the right track with the inspiration system as a player plays into their personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for the opportunity to reroll dice. The inspiration system isn’t perfect, but does encourage players to roleplay a bit further, which is better than Pathfinder. So I decided to take a look at a few games that have been sitting on my shelf that I believe create dynamic characters within the game mechanics and see how they achieve it.
Strong as Steel, Tough as Iron
Ironsworn is a FREE, yes free free, Tabletop RPG of Perilous Quests created by Shawn Tomkin that can be played in guided play (with a GM), co-op play (GM-less), or solo play. The game uses a modified Apocalypse Engine where the player rolls 2d10 (challenge dice) against a 1d6 (action die) plus modifiers to determine a strong hit (a full success), a weak hit (a success with a compilation or a minor cost), or a miss (a complete failure). The character is at the heart of the game. You swear these iron vows and go on dangerous quests throughout the low fantasy world of the Ironlands. These iron vows represent the convictions and goals of a character that put you at the center of the story. All marked on a progress bar on the character sheet. These vows are not static by any stretch of the means. When a player attempts to “fulfill your vow” and doesn’t roll a strong hit, the quest is either completed with a new truth revealed and progresses forward into a new quest or has dealt a major setback to the current quest. The vows of a character in Ironsworn are always changing and ever evolving. These don’t necessarily change the personality traits of the character; however, an Ironsworn character does have a spirit tracker that tracks the overall mental state of a character that players can play into. Since it’s free, try it today with the PDF version. Shawn is currently working on his sci-fi expansion Ironsworn: Starforged that is coming out March 2022, if that’s your cup of tea I’d highly recommend looking into that.
Walking the Thin Line Between Ordinary and Extraordinary
City of Mist is a cinematic detective RPG set in a gritty city of ordinary people and legendary powers. Powered by the Apocalypse Engine, players roll 2d6 to determine the outcomes similar to how Ironsworn outcomes work, with 2d6 being rolled against your modifiers City of Mist thrusts Players into portraying Rifts; characters that are a gateway between two worlds: the normal world (our world) and the world of folklore, fantasy, and legends. Rifts consist of at least one logos, the bond to the normal world, and a mythos, the bond that connects to the fantastical world. A logos represents the everyday persona of a character. It can be a job, a relationship, special training, etc. A mythos is the legend growing inside. Powers that can be drawn from such legends as King Arthur, Jack the Ripper, Peter Pan, or Hades. What makes a City of Mist Rift dynamic is that a Rift can give into their mythos and start losing their logos or the inverse of rejecting their mythos to gain a logos. This is all player-driven as the MC (Master of Ceremonies) will present Rifts a choice to either reject or give into their mythos with a Make a Hard Choice move. This balancing act of rejecting and giving in can lead to interesting character moments.
For example, you and your group of rifts were able to track down the embodiment of Conan the Barbarian and he is about to kill one of your comrides. One of your logos is being a pacifist and your mythos is drawn from the Bloody Mary urban legend. The MC uses Make a Hard Choice on you, you either don’t intervene or you use your powers to make Conan see you as an illusion of his former self before giving into his mythos and breaking his grip on reality, potentially damaging his psyche forever. That is being a dynamic character as you are presented with a choice and the game itself has to make you change from that experience as it affects your identity. Personally I’d give into Bloody Mary and potentially renounce being a pacifist for the sake of my crew.
Suffering Through the Heat
The Burning Wheel is an award-winning fantasy roleplaying game in which players take on the roles of vibrant, dynamic characters whose very beliefs propel the story forward. The Burning Wheel uses a simple D6 dice pool mechanic. If you roll 4 or high on a die it is a success while 3 or lower is a failure. Roll enough successes to overcome the obstacle at hand. Further in the game you can change the successes to include a 3 or a 2. The Burning Wheel has no classes in the traditional sense. Your character consists of a unique life path, mapped out from birth, stats (Will, Perception, Agility, Speed, Power, Forte), attributes (Health, Reflexes, Steel, Emotional Attributes, and Mortal Wound), skills (ex. Sword, Sorcery, or Alchemy) and the heart of the system: BITs; Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. Beliefs are a short statement about their ethics, morals, goals, or affinity to another character. Instincts are if/then, always, never, or when statements that dictate actions or reactions to certain situations. Traits represent prominent physical or personality aspects of the character.
Now hold on for what’s about to come next. Artha is a meta-currency that is earned through players giving into Beliefs and Instincts that complicate the scenario, these are called Fate Points; when players role-play their character exceptionally well or accomplish personal goals they are awarded Persona points; when players accomplish goals greater than themselves and shift the setting as a whole, or helping another character accomplish their goals that conflict against your Beliefs and Instincts then you can receive the rare Deeds points. Some uses of Fate, Persona, and Deeds points can be used to reroll dice, shrug off damage, add more dice to a roll, ignore time complications, attempt to not die from a mortal wound, or change your successes to include a 3 or a 2 for skill. That isn’t all that you can do with Artha, but it’s the noticeable features of them. At the end of every session players and GM discuss the session and see if players should change their Beliefs, Instincts, or Traits and also reward a Workhouse and MVP awards that also earn Persona points.
That was a lot to take in; however, The Burning Wheel is the most well designed TTRPG I’ve ever seen. This is a true Role-Playing game. It seems very intimidating at first with all of its game mechanics. I’ve only scratched the surface of The Burning Wheel, but these characters are put at the center of the game and keep changing every session to create a dramatic character that seems real because you are always having to achieve your goals and change yourself as the story unfolds. One day, if I can get a confident group of players I’d love to play a short Burning Wheel campaign.
The End of the Arc
Do you need game mechanics that support dynamic characters to have fun or an interesting character? No. You absolutely don’t need these game mechanics for fun. Personally, I want to reinforce my players to be striving for a goal within the campaign in any game and not to be murder hobos. The games mentioned above just support these goals better. At the very least, I do want to make a custom character sheet for Pathfinder 2nd Edition to include goals, emotional wounds, positive and negative personality traits, and relationships to NPCs. If I go a step further I’d probably have to rework the hero points system to include some of the mechanics mentioned above to reward players similar to how the inspiration system works in 5E.
DYNAMIC CHARACTER: An active character who is always changing their goals, beliefs, and/or character traits on a session-by-session or ever other session basis and engaging these changes through role-play.
I am not affiliated with any of the games mentioned in this article