Character Work 101

Super-Objective, Objective, and Conflict

Time to take a step backwards, to before the session. This series is going to discuss the kind of work that might go into fleshing out a character backstory for a Dungeons and Dragons game. You can take a lot of lessons from the kind of work actors do when preparing for roles to do this, and I’m going to be applying my education and experience in theatre to this topic (since that’s how I approach my own play).

Let’s jump right in!

Finding the Motivation

You have probably heard this said at least jokingly through popular media. The actor begging a director to know their motivation for a scene is played over and over because, well, it kind of happens – though not in such comically overt fashion most of the time.

It’s a relevant concern for an actor if they don’t know what they want from a scene or the play as a whole. This wasn’t always the case. For much of the history of acting, the primary concern was being heard clearly and communicating emotions broadly to a house that was unlikely to be able to see you all that well. The focus was on an external style of acting; grand gestures, gravitas, and good vocal support were key features of a good actor of those times. This style would feel horrifically inauthentic to the sensibilities and taste of the present day.

The modern style of acting, rooted in realism, began with a fellow named Konstantin Stanislavski at the beginning of the 20th century. He brought this revolutionary idea that, maybe, actors could try to convey emotions more approaching reality on stage. This allows stories to be told that connect on a deeper emotional level, with more local or personal issues as the central focal point rather than following mostly nobles and kings. If you want to read more about his method, a good starting text and every actor’s bible is An Actor Prepares.

But we’re here to talk about Dungeons and Dragon – how does this all fit in?

Super-Objective: What Do You Want?

Role-playing characters in Dungeons and Dragons and acting have a lot in common, even a casual observer probably notices this. When you watch a show like Critical Role, it becomes even more obvious how much you can take from the craft of acting to inform your role-play. With career actors piloting each of the characters, you end up with an incredible story with intricate relationships and character dynamics within the party. I can almost guarantee that each of these people did some form of the work I’m going to talk about here to prepare their characters.

The most important question to find the answer to is: What does my character want?

The innermost desire of your character, that drives the very center of most decisions they will make, is called your Super-Objective. This is the final, big picture goal of your character. Actors have the benefit of the play text to inform them about what their character’s super-objective is. When creating a character for a Dungeons and Dragons game, the pressure is going to be much more on you to create a compelling central motivation. This is important, because you need to have a reason your character is going adventuring to begin with.

When you think about it, taking up an adventuring life is an incredibly radical decision, especially in a dangerous world like a DnD setting. Your character needs to have a suitably strong motivation to constantly place themselves in the face of danger and death, willingly sleeping outside in the elements regularly, and live a life on the road far from their family. Adventuring does make you fabulously rich, generally, so that can be a good motivation – but the possibilities are endless! All that matters is that you choose something that your character holds dear, would maybe even die to achieve – this will make it easier to drive them to action in game.

A few more examples to spark your creativity:

  • I want to make a name for myself as a great hero; I want stories, songs, and statues of me all over the world commemorating my deeds.
  • I want to provide money for my sick family member back home, who depends on this income for their expenses.
  • I want to avenge the death of my father at the hands of a wicked King.

Each of these three examples will drive a character to very different choices. The first character is likely to take jobs that advance their prestige, regardless of the material pay-out. The second will be placed in situations where they may be willing to compromise their moral code to provide the aid their loved one needs. The third would see adventuring as a means to their end, trying to gather information on their own on the side and using the income to fund their obsession.

Objectives in Action: Fueling Conflict

The super-objective is the big picture. It gives you a jumping off point to inform everything else about your character. In individual scenes, when you are unsure what your character would do, you can refer back to that central driving point and see how you might serve that end.

As part of the character work an actor might do, they would break down the script into the separate scenes and determine their individual objective in that scene. The idea is that these smaller, more contained scene objectives will be informed by your larger super-objective. They should be serving that end.

A DnD campaign, by nature, is not like a play with a planned, logical progression of character you can work with. There is no script. This concept is no less relevant to Dungeons and Dragons, though! These ideas are already applied often in improvisational theatre, so there is no reason unscripted formats can’t take these lessons to heart. Playing to your character’s objective can be a great way to maintain a clear progression for your character’s journey (their goals may change as the characters themselves do – check up on your character from time to time!), and is also the primary way to fuel conflict between characters in the party.

When multiple characters are in a scene, inevitably their objectives will come into conflict. In the right hands this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Conflict drives your story forward and creates drama. It raises the stakes, putting the values of the characters on the line and testing their resolve.

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical scene, using the character super-objectives from the examples above.

Scene: A middle-aged man wearing fine clothes who won’t tell you his name has approached the party with a job. He offers a lucrative sum as a reward, but no questions asked from the party about the nature of the job.

  • The character that just wants fabulous riches from their adventuring efforts is probably right on board, already looking for where to sign and wants to convince the party to join them.
  • The character that wants to be seen as a great hero would balk at this clearly disreputable job. They would likely be trying to convince the party not to take the job on, creating external conflict with the money-hungry character. This serves their larger objective of making a great name for themselves, since this could mar that carefully built reputation.
  • The character that needs the money for a sick family member would be sorely tempted by the payout of this job. Depending on their moral fiber and reservations, they could go either way. This is a good example of internal conflict – in this case, the character’s larger objective is coming into conflict with their ethical code. In this example, it’s likely the external conflict of the scene would revolve around what amounts to a battle for this character’s soul between the greedy character and the do-gooder.
  • The character looking for the means to avenge their father at all costs would probably also have no issue taking this job, so long as it serves their ends. This character may also undergo some internal conflict over this choice, depending on how you are choosing to play their alignment. Another swing vote to be won by the two characters coming into conflict in this scene.

Looking at situations this way, with an eye towards what your character is trying to gain from the interaction to serve their greater purpose, can create all kinds of cool conflicts like this between and within characters.

There is a danger to this, though – if you create a character too out of step with the party it can hinder rather than help your game. A deadlock isn’t dramatic or interesting, something has to give when these conflicts arise. In the example above, the conflict is only interesting for a Dungeons and Dragons game if the character who fails to win their side of the argument still goes along with the party afterwards. The do-gooder especially would need a particularly good reason why their character would be willing to still go along with the job or the session could come to a grinding halt.

This is why it is important to either create objectives that can be flexible to the needs of the party or create characters that may be willing to overlook that central value for the right reasons. That’s not to say you can’t have values your character won’t compromise on, but be aware of the situations this can lead to.

A good objective will motivate your character to work with the party and give good opportunities for both external and internal conflict. Take some time to think about what your character wants, and you’ll have already taken a crucial first step towards creating characters with depth and bringing your role-playing to the next level!

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