Blog · DM Tips and Tricks

Anchoring Characters

Creating characters is the backbone of D&D. You can’t play without them and making a character you don’t jive with can ruin a game. OR having a character that doesn’t mesh into the world can make a player struggle with motivations and character development. This can decrease your feeling of belonging in the adventure party. I set out to create a way to anchor my players into the setting of the game.

So what I mean by anchoring a character is creating lines and relationships that tie a character into the world they are inhabiting. Characters tend to start adventuring when they begin adulthood which means, depending on their race, they have had several years of life before their adventure starts. So years of storytelling has already happened. But I am getting ahead of myself. 

How this became important to me

Years ago, when I was getting back into D&D, a friend of mine invited me into their game. I was really excited. They told me to roll up a character and come over on Saturday night. So in isolation of the group I made a druid, wrote a backstory and was ready to go. I had a lot of fun that night. I discovered that the other characters were guided by a prophecy to fulfil certain aspects of their destinies. 

However, about a year into playing I realized that my character didn’t have a destiny. She had never been anchored in the world/adventure and really at any point she could just leave. This made me really sad and I felt disconnected from the story. Immersive play is important to me as a player and it just didn’t make sense that my druid was there anymore. 

This is Lireal my Circle of Dreams druid. She was the first character I made when I returned to playing D&D. Art by Comics INK!

My solution

I decided that as a DM I didn’t want my players to feel the same way. I wanted them to have as much stake in the world and the story as I did. My turn to DM (Epic Fred and I trade off) came up. Since we had just moved I couldn’t find my homebrew stuff and decided to run one of the premade campaigns

I also decided that it was time to start anchoring the characters into the world they were going to live in. I had never taken an active role in my player’s character creation before and I wanted to make sure I didn’t overstep. So I decided to break it into smaller pieces and create specific chats so that we could work together. 

Step one – Find a friend

The first of their tasks was to create a positive bond with someone else in the party. 

This led to a hilarious explosion of creativity from my characters; halfling twins, a bonded pair, two students from the same wizard, a gnome tinkerer and her construct, etc. My players went all out and created these rich characters who meshed together. 

Step two – Find a place

The next step was the setting. I had asked them up to this point to keep their backstories pretty vague. Next was to give them the details of where the adventure was starting. This was easier when working with a pre-made. I gave them the town they were in and some background of the area. Then let them decide if they were visiting travelers or had grown up there. Once that was decided I gave them more information based on what they had decided. 

Step three – Adventure Hooks

Pre-mades offer adventure hooks meant to link the characters into the story in the first place. While I appreciate the hooks I find that in isolation they just aren’t enough. But with the background information we had already decided on these helped to kickstart their adventure. I had each group choose which adventure hook they wanted to use and we did a short text RP to get them wound into that hook a little more before meeting the others that would make up the party. 

Step four – Final Details

Through the process rich backstories were created. I asked each individual player to create an NPC that they know and may run into in the starting area. They also have the “I know a guy” homebrew rule that can be used once per campaign chapter. If you aren’t familiar with this rule I suggest following the link. It is a really fun way to get players to create parts of your setting.

And finally I asked them what they think leveling up would look like for their characters. Was it a moment of inspiration? A warm blessing from their god? How would that surge of power manifest? I allowed them to take control of that aspect completely. I love reading their “level up” moments and my players enjoy sharing them with one another. 

Conclusion

As the DM I loved this process. I had so many opportunities to be inspired by different ways I could alter the pre-made and allow the characters to have a real stake in the world. Now I have a pre-made that won’t follow its linear path because the characters have made changes that I am really excited for. 

Talking to my players about how they felt about this new approach I was given a lot of positive feedback. They loved being able to create so much of the world and really tie themselves into it. On top of that the small text RP sessions we held really hyped them up to start playing the game and meet the other groups. When we finally met everyone was already so entrenched in their characters that the game took off quickly. 

I should mention that as we moved from step 3 to step 4 I had a growing concern that by creating pairs of characters the group would not be able to function as a cohesive whole. I spoke to the players and reminded them that D&D is a co-op experience and that the background they have with another character shouldn’t be used as the detriment to the group. I’m not sure that this little speech was needed but it helped ease my nerves. Thankfully my players welcomed the other pairs and all seemed to agree that the best way to protect their partner was to work as a group.

I am so glad I took the time to help create these relationships between the world, the characters and their relationships with one another. It was a worthwhile exercise and if you don’t do it or something similar already I hope that you will give it a try. 

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