A player can influence their character and other player’s characters in both obvious and subtle ways. While players often start with the end goal of what type of character they want in mind, they often overlook one of the fundamental elements of D&D, which is the journey the game takes their character on and how that will affect them. The game leads players through amazing and unexpected adventures that often end up changing the idea a player had in mind for their character from the beginning of the game. It’s no secret that many players are playing their characters to fulfill some role they wish to play out. This is typically the hero, but it can also be the villain. This is character development at its finest.
When a player starts to see their character level up, make choices, and change as the story unfolds around them, it can say as much about the player as it does about the character. This connection between player and character is what the metagame is in a nutshell. Sometimes you can see players who are incapable of role playing an evil character. Other times you will see a player end up creating a support caster when they were set on being an overpowered war caster. Character changes happen because of two main things: player pressure and game pressure.
Player Pressure and Game Pressure
When we talk about player pressures, this is the metagame. These are the values and influences a player exerts on their character despite their character’s surroundings or history. A small amount of metagaming is acceptable, but it should be balanced and tempered. Too much player influence creates a character that in the story seems random and unpredictable. Too little player influence creates a character who is driven by circumstance alone. A good mix of the two allows characters to develop that have goals and ambitions driven by early player pressures. You can then shape these ambitions in the game as the story progresses.
Game pressures are the ways your story affects the characters. You can challenge your players physically by giving their characters injuries or taking things from them. Likewise, you can challenge your players mentally by putting them in tough situations or moral quandaries. You can give your players a literal Trolley Problem and see how it affects their characters. As you play, your players develop a sense of story around their characters and will come to build expectations in their actions. Everything adds to the character’s memory through the player. The right amount of game pressures can help the player shape a character they would have never thought to create on their own.
Players get a lot out of Dungeons and Dragons, but perhaps the most interesting thing they can gain is a sort of perspective. When run well, D&D gives players the chance to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and have experiences, imagined as they are, that they would never be able to have anywhere else. While this can change a character in unexpected ways, it can also change a player. Dungeons and Dragons can have a great impact on an individual, and collaborative storytelling can help us all grow as people even though we’re all just playing a game with our friends. Creating a safe space for players to work through issues, either their character’s or their own, is a skill of a masterful DM.
The Game Pressure described earlier doesn’t come from the rules or the books or even the dice. It comes from the DM and the storytelling they do. You become the active force that puts real people into imaginary situations and asks them to think about what they would do. This is a low stakes environment since nothing is real. But you have a responsibility to your players to provide them an experience that isn’t just mechanically challenging. It should also be challenging to the players themselves. Keep in mind though: even though the actions aren’t real, the emotions might be. Players can put as much or as little of themselves into their characters. The more they put in, the richer and more real their characters will feel.
Challenge Your Players
It’s important to ask players “What would your character do?” when playing. Get them to think about their character’s motivations and desires beyond the character sheet. Why are their characters even out in the world adventuring? This alone can lead to some interesting thought if it is considered. Use your influence as a DM to get your players to try new things. Who knows, you may end up helping someone see things from a completely new perspective or work out an issue that the player is having in their own life.