Loss Builds Character

I’ve experienced a bit of loss recently. I lost my job at Wizards of the Coast this past December. No permanent employment has come my way yet, so I could lose my house. (Maybe not such a bad thing, all considered.) I gave my pound of flesh to the surgeon who removed my little cancerous growth. (Shaking my fist at the sun, I know it’s really my fault.) I lost my sister this past month. Heck, I’ve even lost over thirty pounds, taking the good with the bad. Loss has been on my mind a lot recently.

This isn’t about me, though. Truth be told, despite some dark instances, life has been good to me. Any suffering I’ve endured has been, thankfully, minor. I feel like I’ve gained a lot in the past few months, from experiences to friends to opportunities.

Loss shapes us. How one responds and moves on from loss can have a profound effect on the path one’s life takes and the deeds one performs. In this world, loss is inevitable but often without deep impact. We don’t live in a place where kobolds can eat our babies or a maniac can call up the avatar of the Mad God. Our characters do.

Making Up Losses

The minor travails of modern life are not the norm in for heroes in a fantasy world like those of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The harsher the world is, the greater the potential for suffering. Take Dark Sun. Characters on Athas have a potential for loss few of us would like to imagine. Even if you’re playing a game set in cushy Faerûn, DM or player, you should take some time to imagine loss.

Loss and the desire to do something about it is one root of character motivation. It can be key in the background of a player character and the adventuring party’s forward momentum. Something as little as gambling debt or as big as the death of an entire tribe can shape a character’s path. If you’re a DM, loss can turn good guys bad, bad guys good, and mold the fate of nations and deities.

One element I included in the character history questions for players in my Dark Sun game was had to do with loss. It went something like: Athas is a harsh world in which people suffer regular hardships and loss. What have you suffered or lost? How has this event shaped you or your life? What are you going to do about it?

Malamac, one of those characters, had a lot of loss in his life. He was the only dwarf in his clan who had no touch of primal magic. For “blasphemous” discoveries in an ancient dwarven city, servants of the tyrant of Tyr killed Malamac’s kin and enslaved Malamac. Malamac found himself an unwilling gladiator bereft of possessions and friends.

Like with Malamac, I learned the most about the characters from the losses they had suffered and what they planned to do about them. The answers have shaped adventures and encounters for over a year now. As the characters approach paragon tier, I’m working to provide opportunities to resolve or provide closure for many of those losses. I’m also fostering new attachments and planning possible threats to those attachments.

You see, loss often leads to new experiences and connections. Malamac’s initial loss opened the way for his primal power to blossom. It also provided him with a new “family” made up of some characters in his party if not the whole group. He has risen to leadership among his friends, providing him with a sort of status he might never have gained otherwise. The “loss” of his status as a slave opened the door to adventure, and adventure has led to prestige that might become actual influence in Tyr. Certainly, Malamac and his peers stand in a position to influence Tyr’s future fate.

Losses Influence

Loss I’ve imposed has shaped the narrative course of my Dark Sun campaign. I began the game, and some of my “Welcome to Dark Sun” sessions, with an encounter against a gang of slavers known as the Red Hand. The encounter was (and is) utterly unfair, a beatdown five levels higher than the characters. After putting up a truly spectacular and desperate struggle in the first run of this encounter, the characters fell to the superior forces. They lost their freedom instead of their lives, setting up the first adventure, where they must regain their freedom far from home or die.

The players, and characters, have been itching to even the score with the Red Hand since that first encounter. The current meat of the campaign is rooting out the gang and its leaders, and gaining some payback alongside some justice. The motivation is largely based on the first loss with a dash of “let’s end slavery in Tyr” thrown in.

That’s cool, because the players are the driving force behind the course of the action. Yes, I bait the hooks well, but the players choose which ones the characters bite. Attachment and connection, and possible loss of these, are huge motivators.

In the narrative, characters also wanted revenge on the owner of the Cracked Jack (a cracked drinking horn as its sign), the bar in which they were abducted. Jak, the owner in question, a bald half-elf with a scar down one side of his face, seemed like he was in cahoots with the gang. It turns out, as it does so often, that Jak was almost as much a victim as anyone. What would you do if a gang of thugs gave you the option to let them use your establishment or lose your skin?

When the characters returned to the Cracked Jack, they ended up facing the Red hand again and discovering Jak’s dilemma. They tried to save Jak, but failed. They then felt a sense of duty toward Jak’s orphaned teenage daughter, Danae. She is now part of the characters’ NPC entourage. Jak’s loss has led to new possibilities in the narrative.

Looming Losses

I have another hook floating out there that the Dragon of Tyr demands a thousand slaves per year from each of the seven cities. The free city of Tyr has no slaves to send, and too few prisoners who deserve such execution. Rumors are now spreading on the streets that Tyr is doomed to face the Dragon’s wrath. The players and characters know they can’t face the Dragon and hope to live (at least they can’t at 8th level). Yet this possibility threatens almost everything the characters love. What can they do?

Possible losses need not be that concrete, however. Corvas, a deva avenger, exists on Athas only because he comes from a time long forgotten. He remembers little of his existence as a once-great servant of the goddess Melora, not even her name. Divine power is part of his being, however. He is one of the few devas left on the planet, supposing any others survive. He is the rarest of characters in that he has actual divine power.

Corvas looks at today’s Athas and can feel only great sadness. Although the past isn’t clear in his time-fractured mind, he recalls better days in his subconscious. He also knows who’s to blame. Defilers.

The very threat of any more loss to defiling on Athas drives Corvas to rage beyond reason. Further, he cannot, will not, accept the dying world. A desire to bring life back to the brittle husk that Athas has become drives Corvas to strive and slay, and to seek his memories and true power. Does his “Painted Lady” live, is she dead, or is she a delusion?

Loss looms large in Corvas’s future, formless and ominous. It has countless strings I can pull to manipulate the course of the game.

Loss to Catharsis

The point of loss in a game is to provide some sort of tension. It can provide motivations for villains that characters can sympathize with. Player characters can explain unusual or nontactical behavior with it. (For instance, to the chagrin of his teammates, Corvas breaks off from his current target to attack anyone who or anything that defiles. I like it, even if the other players sometimes don’t.)

Tension is a good thing for any old story, and much more so for a narrative game. The tension doesn’t need to be released, but it’s very satisfying when it can be. Players feel rewarded for their efforts, in character background and in ongoing play, when the game’s play provides a chance to make up for past failures. Imagine how the players felt when they faced the Red Hand again and won with no losses.

Consider using loss and the emotions it entails to give your characters and scenarios more depth and tension. Then manipulate the depth for personalized narratives, and use the tension to set up satisfying clashes and releases. Give loss meaning. I hope I’ve given some of mine a little more by sharing this with you.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

10 thoughts on “Loss Builds Character

  1. Anything which causes PCs to act “in character” rather than strictly “to win” is a good thing.
    In one campaign I have a character who is very much a survivor. He lived through one party wipe and was lucky enough to be rescued by another adventuring party as he fled a (baby) dragon… One of the adventurers who helped went so far as to re-gear him as well and he has been grateful to him since.
    He later on found himself in a situation which he could easily have escaped provided he let the two other standing party members to die (the rest of the party was already bleeding out or worse)… Because of the earlier party loss, and because of the debt he felt to his new “boss” he turned around and at the cost of his own life saved everyone else.
    None of that would have been possible without the sense of loss (and duty)…
    And I’m not sure why I just replied to this but anyways 😉
    Good article!


  2. Thank you for sharing yourself with your readers, Chris. I think you’ve made some amazingly brilliant leaps of insight about character and npc design regarding just how strong a motivator loss can be from your own experiences.

    Really, some of the most memorable heroes and villains from literature stand out in our minds as icons because of their loss, how it affected them, and what actions they took to cope (or not cope) with the tragedy. Many thanks for a very inspiring article!


  3. Thanks everyone.

    @Michelle: Definitely right. Anything loses its desired effect if overdone. There have to be gains and victories, which can be made sweeter if related to past loss. Of course, they don’t need or have to be. =)


  4. All good points, but I would beware of pushing this concept too far. For some people, a sense of progress is essential to having fun. If you constantly yank the character back to square one, the player may feel like they might as well not be playing at all. Casual players in particular may simply become bewildered by the sort of course you describe.


  5. Very, very moving. I always enjoy hearing peoples personal stories behind the avatar/icon/screenname. I do believe that trials and tribulations make us who we are, and you sir are nothing short of amazing. You’re a huge inspiration to a lot of us, myself especially included. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you on that ArenaNet stuff, and even if it doesn’t come through something else will come up. People with your creative magnitude and talent don’t traipse around not doing something awesome for very long that’s for damn sure.

    I guess I should mention how helpful this article can be for DM’s and how it’s chalk full of useful information, because it is. However I’m using this comment space to basically just say that you’re awesome and I hope things begin looking up soon. Cheers!


  6. Playing Malamac at Gen Con was awesome and you have quite the knack for conveying emotion as much as description. One of the things I love about D&D is that it’s possible to tell these types of stories in fantasy setting familiar to many and that it can cultivate these deep emotional connections. Since I started playing, I try to bring these to the games I’m in and hearing how you do it helps tremendously.

    Thanks also for sharing your personal story. I hope things turn around soon. You are such a wonderful person.


  7. Really quite a powerful article, from the personal notes at the beginning to the in-game examples throughout. As I read through this, I find myself thinking how much I’d want to play Malamac’s foundation of pain, or be in the party dealing with Jak and his daughter, or experience the blinding, nearly impotent fury of Corvas. There’s so much visceral emotion here, opening a door to excellent roleplaying.


  8. Good points. Nothing makes players hate a villain more than having him permanently take away something they have earned.

    One of the many things I find impressive about Dogs in the Vineyard RPG is that characters develop through loss and failure. If you think about it this is much more like real life; we learn from our mistakes and struggles; when everything is going smoothly we are cruising, not growing.

    With this in mind I’d consider awarding XP to meaningful losses suffered by a D&D party, if I wanted to add some mechanical oomph.


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