Maybe it’s just me, but I pay far too little attention to the Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw boxes on my Dungeons and Dragons 5e character sheet.
In my early days of creating characters, I used the D&D 5e Background charts provided in the Player’s Handbook to help build my backstory…and then never looked at those boxes for direction again. It was as if they shaped my PC’s past but had no bearing on his or her present or future.
Those boxes, I now believe, are as essential to your PC as their HP. Without HP, your character has no biological life. Without those boxes and attention paid to their contents, your character may have no narrative life.
Those boxes are there, I think, for people like me who could use some help with the RP (roleplaying) elements of a TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game).
If you eschew the D&D 5e Background options presented in the PHB, whip up your own creative backstory, and can roleplay with the best of them, then this article isn’t for you.
For the rest of us, I want to highlight how those boxes can serve as a worldview for your PC; as lenses through which they view the world and by which the world is colored, understood, and experienced. In any given situation or interaction, they can help guide your character’s responses or motivations.
You can think of those boxes as D&D’s Clippy: There to help give you some role-playing direction for your PC in any situation in or outside of combat.
Let’s look at a few examples.
D&D 5e Personality Traits
Personality Traits define how you present to others; what you’re “like.” Instead of presenting a bunch of contextless adjectives like “outgoing,” “blunt,” or “aggressive,” D&D 5e Background options opted to give you more to work with.
Take the Charlatan, for example. Instead of saying something like “polytheistic” or “agnostic,” you get:
I keep multiple holy symbols on me and invoke whatever deity might come in useful at any given moment.
This fun trait makes me think of this scene from The Mummy:
You don’t have to be familiar with all of the gods of the pantheon, but take a few minutes one day and whip up a short cheat sheet that features the names of four to six gods, what they’re the god of, their holy symbols, and a thing or two about rituals that might be associated with them. Then just keep an eye or ear out for moments during your campaign during which you can call upon one or more for help or curse their very names.
Maybe you, like Beni, carry all of their symbols on your person. That will make for a fun conversation piece over and over again.
Who knows? Maybe over time one of the gods responds to your pleas more often than the others and you become a genuine convert!
D&D 5e Ideals
Ideals can be thought of as dreams, goals, or creeds. These typically serve as strong motivators.
This is why you adventure in many cases. You’re trying to achieve this end. Some PCs may make their Ideals known; the goal popping up in conversations, for example. Others might keep it to themselves. Regardless, your Ideal is a finish line and that should significantly affect what you do every step of the way. It might even be the reason why you stop adventuring at some point.
From the Sailor’s Ideal chart:
Someday I’ll own my own ship and chart my own destiny.
What activities can contribute to that end for the Sailor? Is he setting aside a portion of all GP he receives to save up for a boat? Maybe you could interpret the “chart my own destiny” phrase as implying he’s lacked freedom at some point of his life. Perhaps he was a slave whose escapism took the form of watching boats come and go from a local port while he worked under his former master.
Every action he takes should move him towards this goal in some small way, so approach them all accordingly. This gives you a ton of direction!
D&D 5e Bonds
Bonds are what tether you to an individual or group outside of yourself or to a promise or resolution. They’re some of the strongest glue of your story. Imagine the movie Taken without Liam Neeson’s Bond to his daughter, for instance! “Meh, you can have her.”
Take one of the Criminal’s Bonds, for example:
My ill-gotten gains go to support my family.
So the criminal isn’t all bad, is he? Turns out he’s a family man. How does he get his gains to his family? Do they know it’s him who is sending them gold every month, or is he estranged? To what lengths will he go to ensure they’re cared for: Will he deprive himself of certain luxuries or items? Will he risk rigging games of chance or pickpocketing? Does he lie to the party about what he finds while looting the fallen? Do they even know he’s a criminal?
The Bond can easily help guide decisions and actions. Who are you doing all of this for, why, and how?
D&D 5e Flaws
It’s on the tin. Flaws describe shortcomings, insecurities, and weaknesses; all of which can be exploited by others and all of which can be mined for good roleplaying content by you. One of the Noble’s Flaws reads,
I too often hear veiled insults and threats in every word addressed to me, and I’m quick to anger.
So instead of looking for chances to snicker and say, “That’s what she said,” you’re keeping an ear out for anything your PC might misconstrue as personally insulting, offensive, or threatening. The “quick to anger” inclusion makes me think that when you hear such things, you speak up.
Imagine a shopkeeper counting the gold a Dwarf just handed him for a potion saying, “It looks like you’re a bit short.” Assuming your Dwarf has this flaw, how does he respond? Does he take his business elsewhere? Does he insult the shopkeeper’s mother or say something like, “That’s not what your mom said last night”?
Flaws help prevent perfect play, and I love that about them! They’re the wrench in the cogs. Don’t fear them–embrace them! Allow them to breathe and see how they affect the narrative of the story.
Remember that as you play your character out, the contents of these boxes can prove flexible. Your real life worldview is likely radically different today than it was twenty years ago. Experiences change us. How are they changing your PC?
And feel free to get creative and establish Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws of your own! The beauty of the D&D 5e Background is that their contents do not rely on any game mechanics, so you should feel free to take any liberties you’d like with them. They won’t break the game itself–they’ll just affect how you interact within the fantasy setting in which it takes place.
Leveraging these boxes well will go a long way towards making D&D characters that are truly memorable and internally consistent.