The featured art for this article can be found in Candlekeep Mysteries, published by Wizards of the Coast.
For many players, one of the most difficult aspects of playing Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop roleplaying games is getting into—and staying true to—character. This includes finding a character voice, cementing a personality, developing a thorough backstory, and so much more. While many players may agree that they eventually settle into a character as they play, I would argue that a character that evolves over time is likely lacking in deliberate character traits, which are important for making consistent character choices.
I’ve already written extensively about developing character backgrounds, and DragnaCarta has shared ten questions for developing a great character backstory. In this article, I’m going to provide advice on electing intentional character traits so that a player may make sincere character choices in-game that are true to their character’s personality.
The Complexity of Personality
It’s a given that all human beings are complex in nature. We make good decisions, selfish choices, or sometimes refrain from judgment at all. We evolve over time as our internal mechanisms continually process new and existing information. In story-writing, character development moves a plot along while emphasizing key themes of the story. This should also be the case in a game like Dungeons & Dragons: a character is not a static choice, and the personality of a character should be multiplex and intricate.
This description does not necessitate a manic character fit for random decision-making, though that is one way to play a character. Rather, a player would be wise to focus on a set of traits and background events that have and continue to shape the overall personality of a character. Even still, a player may remember that their character can express any emotion within the range of their personality when it makes sense.
For any given character trait selected for a character, there is a positive and a negative aspect. For instance, a person one might describe as “restrained” may never explode with regretful emotion, but they may also be too timid to stand up for themselves. Someone who is described as always “happy” may be very likable and see the silver lining at all times, but they may also be bottling stressors up inside or shrug off difficult-to-process emotions necessary to find peace. There is always another side of any coin, and a character that is in the midst of their development may oscillate between the two sides until they find balance at the story’s resolution.
Along those same lines, characters may possess multiple and sometimes contradicting character traits that always keep them in a state of emotional unrest. This idea makes for a more intriguing character and can be a bit difficult to play as a player decides which traits manifest at any given time. My advice for this is to remember that dichotomous characters are often “acted upon” and responsive to the situation around them. Some situations sire understanding, like comforting a child, and some may engender cruelty, like acting in rage.
I’ve compiled three tables below. Each has a myriad of character traits, separated by “positive,” “neutral,” and “negative.” Within each of these three character trait tables, a player can find a strength and a weakness in the character trait. Choose a few traits from any list and discover how they work together.
Personality Trait Tables
Positive Personality Traits
|Approachable||easy to relate to||tries too hard to see the good in people|
|Accurate||puts great value on being correct||justifies things to make themselves right|
|Active||ready to move in a heartbeat||has difficulty sitting still|
|Adaptable||quick to change plans if needed||may not always stick to the plan|
|Admirable||garners respect easily||too eager to people-please|
|Adventurous||eager to take hard jobs||seeks trouble and danger|
|Agreeable||pleasant to be around||non-confrontational|
|Alert||watchful for possible danger||paranoid|
|Ambitious||determined to succeed||takes on too much|
|Amusing||quick with a quip or joke||is uncomfortable with deeper conversations|
|Appreciative||easily attributes credit and expresses thanks||overly expressive to a fault|
|Articulate||well-spoken and says what they mean||expected to rouse the troops|
|Artistic||expresses themselves creatively||discontent to follow norms|
|Assertive||doesn’t allow themselves to get pushed over||unwilling to compromise|
|Athletic||picks up physical activities quickly||too competitive at times|
|Attentive||pays attention to what’s going on||unintentionally nosey|
|Attractive||good looking and charismatic||expects others to like them without exception|
|Balanced||temperate in their emotions||doesn’t understand people unlike themselves|
|Benevolent||charitable and kind||gets taken advantage of easily|
|Big-thinking||understands how things work in the macro||doesn’t formulate the details|
|Brilliant||exceptionally smart and talented||aloof to the feelings of others|
|Calm||does not allow themselves to get taken by emotion||lacks passion|
|Capable||picks up talents quickly||doesn’t ask for help|
|Captivating||excels at holding others’ interest||often seeks the spotlight|
|Cautious||careful of danger, traps, and bad intentions||slow to act in stressful situations|
|Charming||likable and turns people to their side||always catering or entertaining to others|
|Cheerful||never gets down or disappointed||disingenuous to people’s suffering|
|Clever||quick to come up with unique solutions||doesn’t value hard work|
|Complex||has multiple sides to their personality||looks down on people who have things more figured out|
|Confident||Self-assured in their decisions and personality||sometimes makes the wrong decisions and leads others astray|
|Conscientious||determined to do what’s right||burdened by moral quandaries and ethics|
|Conservative||holds to traditional value||not always tolerant to unique persons and cultures|
|Consistent||unchanging in nature||resistant to change|
|Constructive||helps others see their weaknesses||known to be too blunt|
|Contemplative||thoughtful and intentional||prone to higher anxiety|
|Convincing||capable of causing others to believe them||manipulative tendencies|
|Cooperative||works well with others||doesn’t always assert their needs or wants|
|Courageous||faces difficulties head-on||prone to take risks alone|
|Cultured||interested in, knowledgeable about, and appreciative of other customs||comes off as a know-it-all and pretentious who doesn’t have their own identity|
|Curious||eager to learn and understand||nosey and won’t let things brush under the rug|
|Cute||endearing, underestimated, protected||underestimated and not given responsibility|
|Deep||naturally mature, thoughtful, and understands multiple sides of a problem||not easily understood or appreciated|
|Dignified||displays composure and is worthy of respect||will not do hard and dirty work sometimes required|
|Disciplined||controlled in behavior and skills||obeys authority and rules to a fault|
|Discreet||careful not to cause offense||won’t give someone a straight answer if offensive|
|Dutiful||motivated by responsibility||focused on task assigned and will not deviate easily|
|Earnest||sincere and authentic in their convictions||trusted with too much to bear|
|Easygoing||relaxed and tolerant||difficult to initiate into action|
|Educated||knowledgeable and literate||cannot relate to uneducated beings and societies|
|Efficient||gets the job done with no waste||is not always the most effective with solutions|
|Elegant||graceful and refined||comes off as pretentious and intolerant|
|Empathetic||understands and shares the feelings of others||burdened by the weight of the world|
|Ethical||incorruptible and driven by what’s right||has false or high expectations of others|
|Faithful||loyal to their side||ignores defects of those they are loyal to|
|Feminine||nurturing and supportive||protects the weak while putting themselves in danger|
|Fiery||passionate and quick to act||prone to explosive anger|
|Flamboyant||attracts attention and is gaudy||hides true feelings behind this mask|
|Folksy||down to earth, hard working, belongs to the people||distrusts those who are well-off or educated|
|Fun-loving||light-hearted and lively||expected to put on a show at all times|
|Generous||willing to give away material possessions and time||often is in need of charity themselves|
|Helpful||quick to lend a hand||spends too much time helping others instead of doing that task at hand|
|Heroic||saves the weak courageously||puts themselves in danger and is expected to be a hero|
|Humble||modest and unassuming||does not take credit for their good deeds|
|Idealistic||pursues high purposes and goals||aims for perfection unrealistically|
|Intuitive||acts based on instinct||can be irrational at times|
|Knowledgeable||well-informed in most things||disappointed in others’ choices|
|Leaderly||great at taking charge||doesn’t allow others to shine|
|Liberal||believes in individuals’ freedoms||will not intervene|
|Logical||Capable of clear and sound reasoning||does not think emotionally|
|Lovable||inspires love and affection||abuses and manipulates others|
|Lyrical||poetically expressive||difficult to understand at times|
|Masculine||assertive and protective||doesn’t fully express themselves emotionally|
|Methodical||systematic and orderly in their procedure||anxious about incorporating others’ advice and help|
|Open||candid about their problems and concerns||judged for their problems and deeds|
|Optimistic||confident in the future||attributes all things to fate or destiny|
|Passionate||holds strong feelings and beliefs||disregards others differing beliefs as wrong|
|Patient||tolerant without becoming annoyed||gives people too much time to follow through|
|Patriotic||inspired by and loyal to the faction they serve||blindly follows laws, commands, and customs of faction|
|Persuasive||convincing others to take action||seen as annoying and disrespectful|
|Playful||jovial and amusing in a physical manner||invades people’s personal spaces|
|Polished||portrays a put-together image||can’t show the raw and damaging sides of themselves|
|Popular||admired and loved by many people||not seen as an individual with human traits|
|Principled||follows the set of rules they subscribe to||doesn’t accommodate others’ opinions well|
|Protective||wishes to keep others from harm||makes compromising decisions to hurt the least people|
|Purposeful||shows determination and resolve||lost when purpose is completed|
|Realistic||sensible and practical about what’s possible||doesn’t dream big|
|Respectful||considerate of others||has a difficult time turning down people|
|Responsible||dedicated to their obligations||adverse to taking risks|
|Romantic||prone to idealizing situations and people||is easily disappointed or deceived|
|Secure||well off and prudent with finances||penny-pinching at times|
|Self-sufficient||provides for their needs without help||has little sense of community|
|Selfless||concerned with the needs of others over themselves||neglects themselves|
|Sensitive||feels deeply and is quick to understand others’ feelings||easily hurt|
|Sociable||willing to associate with all manners of people||pushes unwilling people to participate|
|Spontaneous||acts in an open and uninhibited manner||often too impulsive|
|Strong||physically capable of many feats||unintentionally hurts others with their strength|
|Thorough||regards every detail in a task||takes a long time to complete something|
|Trusting||tending to believe in another’s honesty and sincerity||easily duped|
|Vivacious||highly animated and lively||hardly ever subtle|
|Wise||has good judgment||apprehensive to participate in reckless team decisions|
Neutral Personality Traits
|Absentminded||carefree about responsibilities||forgetful and inattentive|
|Aggressive||confrontational when protecting or defending||ready to attack|
|Authoritarian||rule-abiding according to allegiance||blindly follows chosen authority|
|Boisterous||energetic and cheerful||rowdy and noisy|
|Businesslike||efficient when carrying out tasks||doesn’t make good connections to others|
|Busy||gets things done||continually occupied|
|Calculating||methodical and successful with planning||has a hard time making decisions on the fly|
|Cerebral||makes decisions based on facts||cold and uncaring|
|Competitive||does things really well and quickly||values things they can win|
|Confidential||keeps secrets and does not gossip||has trust issues|
|Contradictory||has an interesting complex nature that can’t be figured out||is unpredictable|
|Deceptive||great at manipulating or misleading||can’t be trusted completely|
|Dominating||has a commanding influence||requires things go their way|
|Driven||goal-driven and ambitious||relentlessly compelled to accomplish goals at the detriment of themselves and others|
|Dry||has control over emotions||is boring and impassionate|
|Earthy||open and direct and unashamed||oversteps boundaries and dense|
|Experimental||eager to try new things||gets into bad situations|
|Frugal||resourceful and not wasteful||stingy with resources and funds|
|Impersonal||don’t let relationships cloud their judgment||don’t make many close connections|
|Impressionable||maintains enviable virtues of youth||easily influenced by rhetoric and sentiment|
|Intense||passionate||opinionated to a fault|
|Invisible||unperceivable and blends in with a crowd||hardly ever given attention|
|Irreverent||i soften the life of the party||lacks respect for people or things|
|Mystical||illusive and intriguing||persecuted for potential powers|
|Neutral||good at conflict resolutions||often on the fence about things|
|Noncommittal||not burdened by commitment||cannot be relied on|
|Old-fashioned||has a strong sense of tradition and self||biased and persecutory|
|Physical||has a strong body and security||lacks mental acuity|
|Plucky||courageous against their weaknesses||often looked down upon or pitied|
|Political||knowledgeable about the games of state and status||questions everyone’s intentions|
|Proud||satisfied by their own achievements and character||arrogant and self-important|
|Questioning||is thorough before accepting ideas as fact||doubts others’ words and judgements|
|Quiet||observant and not seen as foolish||lets their ideas get overshadowed|
|Religious||devout to their ideals and ethics||not always open to ideals beyond the scope of their faith|
|Reserved||safe and cautious||hesitant to act|
|Retiring||finds peace in almost being done with adventuring||hesitant to get too involved|
|Sarcastic||relatable and able to shake things off||finds contempt with regards to others|
|Self-conscious||existentially aware of their flaws||uncomfortable doing things beyond their boundaries|
|Solemn||sincere, formal, and dignified||not cheerful or seen as too serious|
|Solitary||self-reliant||doesn’t work well in a team|
|Stern||gives tough love with the best interest of the recipient in mind||often offends the ones they care about|
|Stubborn||has a strong sense of purpose and confidence||butts heads with others|
|Unceremonious||comfortable when things are informal||inelegant and disrespectful|
|Unchanging||solid and reliable||stagnant and unchanging|
|Undemanding||easy-going and self-sufficient||doesn’t always get what they want|
|Unfathomable||fascinating and seemingly wise||not easily understood in word or purpose|
|Uninhibited||has no reservations to do things||careless in their reckless acts|
|Unpatriotic||an agent unto themselves||often thrown out of towns and persecuted by the law|
|Unsentimental||is not held back by people or things||has little to no sense of home or family|
|Weird||attracts attention easily||is alienated often|
Negative Personality Traits
|Amoral||unburdened by societal conventions||lacks a sense of morals|
|Arrogant||feels important and worthy of attention||unlikeable and sometimes overconfident|
|Barbaric||strong fighter in battle||may resort to savagery and brutality|
|Cowardly||has a solid sense of self-preservation||lets others down when needed|
|Crazy||fully immersed in what they do||explosive and unreliable|
|Cruel||unafraid to do the dirty work required||willfully hurts others|
|Desperate||empathetic with despair and suffering||might sacrifice others for their own gain|
|Diseased||avoided and left alone||stigmatized and prejudiced against|
|Disloyal||willing to abandon bad traditions and authority||might change on a whim|
|Fatalistic||faces situations with acceptance||not prone to changing what they see as fate|
|Greedy||has a mind for acquiring money and precious items||might be dishonest and selfish in what they acquire|
|Ignorant||unaware of the worst parts of society||lacks general awareness and knowledge|
|Meddlesome||good at getting information||intrusive and nosy|
|Miserly||not likely to foolishly part with goods||stingy with spending and exploits others|
|Narcissistic||unintentionally charismatic||self-interested and conceited|
|Obsessive||task-oriented and focused||unreasonable about reaching their goals|
|Paranoid||careful not to be duped||unlikely to trust others or situations|
|Predatory||spots weaknesses in others and situations||easily exploits others|
|Reckless||quick to jump into things||puts others in danger with their behavior|
|Vindictive||driven by their need to seek justice||holds major grudges and acts on them|
Example Character Trait Builds
I’m going to give a few example builds of character traits and explain how they work together.
Cooperative, Popular, Impersonal (2 Positives, 1 Neutral)
Cooperative: Works well with others, but doesn’t always assert their needs or wants.
Popular: Admired and loved by many people but not seen as an individual with human traits.
Impersonal: Don’t let relationships cloud their judgment but they also don’t make many close connections.
This character is the party’s aloof pretty boy who is always willing to go along with anyone’s plans but never makes any real connections because he never lets on that there’s something deeper there to connect with. This description makes me think of Man-Dough Chad from Sabrina the Teenage Witch Season 1. Despite his enthusiasm and cute looks, Sabrina chooses Harvey because of the connection they have.
Maybe this character is afraid to let anyone down, or maybe he feels weird about connecting with other people. He just wants to be liked, so he’s willing to yes-and anyone’s bad plan while trying to make the most out of it. Nobody helps this character because he doesn’t let on that he needs anything: he’s just here to help others. But this lack of connection creates a rift between himself and others, which leads him to a lonely life.
Intuitive, Proud, Fatalistic (1 Positive, 1 Neutral, 1 Negative)
Intuitive: Acts based on instinct but can be irrational at times.
Proud: Satisfied by their own achievements and character but can be arrogant and self-important.
Fatalistic: Faces situations with acceptance but is not prone to changing what they see as fate.
This character is firm in what they believe, based on how the world has treated them. They trust their own intuition, and once they’ve made up their minds, they are hard to move in a new direction. This often means that when they think they know how something is going to go, they make decisions based on those assumptions, no matter the reality of the situation. This can mean they will not waver in their decisions, which can be a positive. However, not only can this make them just plain wrong, but it can put others in harm’s way while they stay the course.
Maybe they adhere to their beliefs in a deity and use faith, fate, and gods’ wills as reasons to do or not do something. Perhaps they were dealt a poor hand in life and now disbelieve anyone can be altruistic or caring. Ultimately, they allow themselves to self-fulfill their prophecy’s outcome, for better or for worse, as they ensure they stay on the path to where they think they’re headed.
Idealistic, Greedy (1 Positive, 1 Negative)
Idealistic: Pursues high purposes and goals but aims for perfection unrealistically.
Greedy: Has a mind for acquiring money and precious items but might be dishonest and selfish in what they acquire.
This character knows they are meant to achieve great things. They have a purpose, they have the skills to achieve this purpose, and they know it will result in the betterment of some aspect of society (or maybe for just themselves). However, the pressure of achieving the goal and the difficulties that fall before their feet drive them to dishonest means of achieving the goal. But why shouldn’t they cut a few corners, don’t they deserve the reward?
Mystical, Crazy, Paranoid (1 Neutral, 2 Negative)
Mystical: Illusive and intriguing but persecuted for potential powers.
Crazy: Fully immersed in what they do but explosive and unreliable.
Paranoid: Careful not to be duped but unlikely to trust others or situations
Perhaps driven to paranoia by their persecution, this character is powerful and capable, but not particularly stable. Where they may have accomplished attention-grabbing feats of magic, the end result was perhaps chaotic or dangerous, which has made others wary of what they may achieve. The end result is a distrust in society and lack of altruism with a total focus on their goals of power.
With all of the examples I gave above, there is a possibility for the character to break free from the negative aspects of their personality:
- The yes-man hottie who never connects with anyone can work on breaking down his walls and learn to divulge the difficult things in his life to others. This will result in better teamwork, learning to say no, and working through emotional trauma.
- The character stuck in their beliefs may be shown that reality does not align with their beliefs, and it’s okay to change your mind. They will accept fate as it really is, or maybe they will learn to take control of their life and stop accepting events as a false “fate.”
- The idealistic go-getter could recognize the consequences of cutting corners directly as people suffer from their actions. They may realize that success is not worth the pain caused if there were better, slower means.
- The mistrusting yet powerful mage might find themselves stuck with someone who has no ill motive. They may see the good in humanity and redirect their path to better things.
Just like these examples, a player can figure out how to develop the bad out of their character over the course of the campaign. By overemphasizing both the good and the bad in the character’s personality early on in the campaign, events and internal workings can affect the character to the point of change, chiseling away the coarser aspects of their personality.
Have you used a method such as this before? Let us know in the comments how it went! Character development is often a deliberate choice by a player, and it definitely has its place in storytelling in TTRPGs. If you enjoyed this article, check out Opal’s most recent articles:
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