Friday, November 7, 2014

Rooting Fantasy Characters In The Mundane

One of the troubles with the Pathfinder / D&D method of creating classes is that people generally define their characters by that class.  This makes sense since as a player it's helpful to know what niches are taken and what powers are available.  It also makes sense that those categories would be available colloquially since people of particular classes function in effectively different ways within the game universe as well.

However that's not to say that you can't further define your character by what they spent their time doing before they took up adventuring.  Sure, they might have been adventuring since Level 1 or since being a commoner, and sometimes that may be perfectly fine, but there are other options even if the game itself will be a dungeon delve.

What if you were a merchant caravan guard?  Or a chronicler who writes the last day's activities next to your spell book?  What if you are an archaeologist (hence Engineering, Dungeoneering and History) who picks up spells from carvings on the walls (ask your GM to let you aesthetically flavour your auto-spell-known-per-level from this)?  Or maybe you were a pirate and lament being stuck in this place now?

And that's not even touching upon the jobs you might have had prior to being an adventurer.  Technically you could gain levels from any regular task, it just takes longer.  So perhaps the bard was a satirist whose satires got them chased out of town?  Or that rogue could actually have worked with law enforcement to get the dirt on the bad guys?  Or acted as a security specialist?

Was your barbarian a generally mild-mannered bouncer at an up-market establishment who chased off the unfortunate?  Or even just a blacksmith with a military history and one hell of a temper?  Your ranger could have bred horses back in the day or couriered messages across the land.

Even if you're a cleric whose task kind of connects with your class quite well, you could have a variety of different positions within the church: proselytizer, medic, almsman, protector of relics, administrator, or jack-of-all-trades as the solitary priest at the local church.  Do you have a preferred title other than cleric?  Are you a Father, Mother, Divine, Kezar, Whatzit?

I've found an easy way to develop your character and give them a bit more flavour be to give them an occupation in their history.  It doesn't need to be complicated.  It doesn't even need to come up much.  It just helps give off that feeling that your character existed and has a place in the world.  It also makes them more identifiable as we don't think of ourselves as Scientist, we think of ourselves as that health inspector that takes water samples from air conditioning units and examines shops for pests.

What are your thoughts?  Do you do this yourself?


  1. Actually, 5th Edition D&D goes a long way to doing exactly what you suggest: you now pick a Background as part of character generation, which gives you proficiency in a couple of skills and languages and a background-specific ability. As well as being eminently homebrewable (it would be fairly easy to come up with a gameworld-specific set of backgrounds), they also mean you don't have to have your character's history bound up with their class - for instance, you don't have to be a cleric to take the Acolyte background.

    That doesn't quite go to the depth you're proposing here, but it is a start, and I suspect it will tend to nudge players in that direction.

    1. I personally thought the skills from AD&D gave us a pretty good starting point on our characters, and are well worth a look for lowish fantasy gaming. Oswyn was essentially built around being a Fisher/Trapper (or whatever the skillset was). They're so much broader than the later skill mechanics that they offer a lot more in that regard.

      Of course, that was random generation, and deliberately choosing backgrounds has a lot in its favour.

      I'd say one quite sensible thing is to ask how you ended up with your class' skill set, like in the bard/thief examples above. Why exactly can you tame animals? Where did you pick up swordplay, and why? How the flip did you end up being a druid? Being a caravan guard is good background, but sometimes it's interesting to wonder how that happened, too; you need to be competent to hire on in the first place.

  2. Also, I particularly like the archaeologist, satirist and blacksmith ideas!