I read a blog post recently about the difference between premade characters of a certain level and getting there organically. Of course getting there organically takes more time, but more importantly, getting there organically means that the character’s development choices are shaped by the realities of a whole campaign, not just the best way to optimize someone at level 15. Character development is ultimately the reason that we like long campaigns: it’s not that a one-shot can’t be as fun as any given session, it’s that returning to the same characters allows those characters to take on more depth as we play them longer. And this character depth is what enables roleplaying games to tell a good story.
This is why D&D starts at level 1. This may sound obvious, but if you think for a minute, it wasn’t necessarily so. Dungeons and Dragons evolved out of Chainmail, a wargame. There was no precedent in wargaming for character advancement, especially not advancement as dramatic as that put forth in D&D. I mean, over the course of a few months you go from shooting piddly magic missiles to hurling massive fireballs. Even stories with magical settings like Lord of the Rings exhibited less dramatic change, though Lord of the Rings really made it count (see: Sting, Gandalf’s Grey-to-White transition).
And here’s the issue for more modern settings: the dramatic character changes aren’t baked into the rules. A modern GM doesn’t typically have magic items or other inventory-based methods to push character changes; in fact, inventory based methods typically don’t work, because trying to up the power ante just makes it easier for your characters to kill everything (trust me, I’ve watched this happen several times).
To be perfectly fair, I’ve never perfected the character development thing, not in my gaming, and not in my writing, either. I have some ideas, but it requires players to start giving their characters unique personalities, and you as a GM to give them opportunities to really show them. What I’m slowly realizing is that combat, while a cornerstone of roleplaying games, is typically a time for players to think like players. At best, characters would be thinking self-preservation, or possibly (since some people love this) going berserk. Combat is not when characters develop, but looking at when characters choose to fight may be. Ultimately, whatever happens is going to be due to interaction between you and your players, and isn’t something you can force.
My best-developed campaigns happened by accident, but also involved the most unique characters. Interesting characters do not necessarily have interesting stories…but players who write interesting characters are more likely to help tell interesting stories. And when everyone involved wants to create an interesting story…magic happens. It’s what makes the story of a depressed cyber-soldier whose implants are powered by alcohol so damn captivating. It’s what incites so much creative thinking around a robotic children’s toy (and possibly makes you overlook the insanity of it having two spools of monowire). And it’s certainly what causes a player to simply bow out of the game when his character gets taken by surprise and shot in the head, because that, unlike what many immature gamers would claim, is actually what his character would do.
I figure all I can do is set the stage. I help that by not rejecting character concepts, no matter how wacky, and by flying by the seat of my pants when I run games. I can probably improve by thinking more deliberately about power level, and getting a little more participatory with mechanical character advancement. While opportunistic XP spending does a little more than character building, more deliberate awards does even more. Even as I write this, I’m thinking about ways to improve. The challenge now of course is to apply them to the game I’m already running.