Friday, September 25, 2015

10 Backgrounds for Your Martial Characters

Every group of adventurers is a team of specialists who bring separate skills to the table. The master of the arcane brings years of wisdom and knowledge, the servant of the gods provides protection and healing, and the canny dungeon delver offers a light touch along with the capability of bypassing the most ingenious traps. Sooner or later, though, the steel has to come out, and when that time happens every party is grateful for their warrior.

He makes your enemies bleed, so you don't have to.
One of the constant criticisms of the party combatants is that they end up with too much focus on their equipment slots and feat lists, and not enough focus on aspects that don't have a slot on the character sheet. That's why this week Improved Initiative is here with 10 backgrounds for your martially-inclined characters!

Also, keep in mind that these are not specific to any one class. If you see something you want to give to a magus, a paladin, or a multi-class swashbuckler/wizard, then embrace that idea and run with it. Lastly, I mention several characters as examples; if they're highlighted, it means I've done a Pathfinder character conversion for them, and you can see it by clicking the link.

#1: The Champion For Hire


Dueling is an ancient way of settling slights, whether it's between individuals, towns, or even entire nations. It's also been tradition that instead of fighting the battle yourself, you may have a champion stand in your stead. The champion for hire is a mercenary who has carved a career out of winning duels, acting as a bodyguard, political tool, and legal instrument all at once. Whether the champion is renowned for his great strength and striking power (like Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane), or for his speed and canny fighting skill (like Prince Oberyn Martell, The Red Viper), those who know who he is will avoid getting into the ring with him at all costs.

#2: The Former Athlete


Speaking of stepping into the ring, another individual who takes to the adventuring lifestyle is the former athlete. Whether an injury has made it impossible for the character to continue competing, the sport simply lost its appeal, or some scandal led to a loss of face and a ban from the sport, their previous occupation is something they've chosen to forsake. However, the skills they mastered are greatly prized by adventurers who need someone capable in combat. Perhaps the athlete needs a greater challenge, seeks to prove himself, or simply needs money now that he can no longer win purses by competing in games and tournaments. Whether the character is a former tourney knight (which is totally a job you can actually have in the modern day, thanks to Knight Fighting Leagues), a martial artist, a javelin thrower, or even a professional wrestler, these characters are sure to find a welcome in the world of freelance adventuring. Depending on where the party goes, though, the competitor's reputation may precede them.

#3: The Performer


Similar to the athlete, the performer developed his or her skills for the pleasure of the crowd. However, while those watching the show saw an amusing diversion, none of them really understood the dedication and sheer skill it took to make that act look effortless. Perhaps the character was an archer who specialized in trick shooting (the original backstory of Hawkeye, from the Avengers), or she had a knife throwing act that required pinpoint precision. A former strongman, with his carefully cultivated physical power combined with showmanship and a force of personality, could easily act as a deterrent for foes who might think the party is easy prey. Acrobats, dancers, and aerial performers may also find themselves quickly embraced by a party of adventurers, assuming they can use their speed and grace with a sword or a spear.

#4: The Criminal


Those who study violence often get their on-the-job-training at the hands of criminals. From orc raiders and forest bandits to coastal pirates and syndicate enforcers, there is always a need for those willing to inflict harm on others when the boss says so. Perhaps your character is trying to leave that life behind, constantly reminded by the scars and tattoos that she was once a part of something dark and destructive. Maybe your character is still very much a member of a criminal organization, like the Aspis Consortium, but is given a freer reign to act in the field. Maybe the character is a freelancer, offering to protect adventuring parties for a share of the bounty with the same enthusiasm as he would crack skulls for a gang lord who offered the right price. A dark past, a new name, or a black reputation could all play into what twists and turns the story takes.

#5: The Squire


Your character's combat education began very young, indeed. Perhaps you came from a noble family, and you were sent to squire with a great knight. Maybe you came from a poor village, and the knight you studied under was only great in his own mind. Your tribe may have selected you to learn at the feet of one of its great warriors, or a renowned reaver took a liking to you and decided to teach you the ways of war. Whether your master was stern or kind, abusive or determined, you received an apprenticeship in the deadly arts from a master of the trade. Maybe you're seeking great deeds to earn a knighthood of your own. Perhaps you want to make your master proud of you. Or perhaps you're running away from the life you were expected to lead, even though anyone who watches you handle a sword knows you were no mere town guard or militia soldier.

#6: The Soldier


There are countless reasons someone could decide to become a soldier. Maybe you were dazzled by the medals and honors, and wanted to be a great hero. Perhaps a lumpy bed and bad food was preferable to eating scraps out of the trash and sleeping in the gutter. The character could have been drafted, or volunteered for duty in order to wipe a crime off of his record. Perhaps he comes from a society where all citizens are required to go through military service, like you find in Lastwall or Mendev. Infantry, cavalry, scout, archer, crossbowman, whatever role the character filled, from rank-and-file to special operations, he was shaped by a war machine.

#7: The Living Weapon


For some, fighting is a means to an end. Violence may be a necessity to protect yourself, aid your country, or just to get what you need to survive, but the violence is always a tool. For the living weapon, violence is the goal. The whistle of steel, the thrum of the bow, the bellow of the gun, these men and women live for the fight. Untamed berserkers who laugh as they slaughter, or silent swordsmen who move so precisely that time seems to slow around them, the living weapon can take many forms. Whether it's the savage victory of caving in an opponent's skull with your bare hands, or the pulse-pounding thrill when weapons are drawn and there's no turning back, these characters can be both an aid and a liability. Masters of their chosen arts, they are unparalleled on the battlefield... but when there's no one left to fight, who will they set their sights on next?

#8: The Slave


Slaves have long been given the most arduous, unwanted tasks, and no task is more detestable than the shedding of blood. From gladiators who live and die on the sands of the arena, to slave soldiers trained from birth to perfection on the battlefield (like the Unsullied), slaves can be deadly warriors. Once they're freed they may wish to lay aside their weapons, but quickly realize they have no other choice but to continue to practice the only, bloody trade they know in order to make a living.

#9: The Tradesman


Not all great warriors are trained in military colleges, or forged on battlefields. Some of them develop their skills from performing more common trades. A butcher is skilled with a variety of blades, and is unfazed by the sight and stench of death. Smiths are used to the weights of heavy hammers, and can wield them with astonishing speed and accuracy when called upon to do so. For a hunstman, bringing down a prize buck and putting an arrow into a zombie's skull is just a difference of fletching and range. Even headsmen, who are dedicated to the single, perfect cut, may turn to adventuring when more regular work is no longer available.

#10: The Warrior of Faith


While paladins are often seen as the swords of faith, these men and women are few and far between. However, militant faiths and armed religious societies are never shy about recruiting the faithful and sincere into their ranks. Dervishes devoted to Sarenrae may join battle in a whirlwind of steel, whereas the faithful of Gorum go to war sheathed in iron like their lord. Warriors of the church of Zon Kuthon may feel no pain and fight on long past when wounds should have killed them, whereas the faithful of Iomedae join battle with swords held high.

Warriors of holy orders may be sent far and wide in service to their faith. Crusades against encroaching demons, assaults on centers of religion, or just safeguarding important persons while they journey are all duties that might fall to militant members of a church or cult. And, of course, just because someone once fought for the faith that doesn't mean he or she hasn't since turned their back on those beliefs to strike out on their own.

Remember, Show, Don't Tell!


While it's really tempting to spill your guts about your character's cool backstory, it's a lot more fun to let it come out in RP. For example, if your character was a Taldan legionnaire, don't just tell people that. Instead, mention a unit tattoo on his shoulder, or drop details to characters familiar with the legions (bards, Taldans, soldiers who may have fought against Taldor) would recognize, like a detail of his equipment, or the specific way he fights. If your character was a champion wrestler from a region the party travels through, ask the DM if NPCs recognize him. Maybe fans who saw his matches want to hear about his latest journeys, leading him to talk up not just himself, but his allies. If you're a former bandit, include a detail like a missing middle finger, or a rope scar around the neck, insinuating that the character was punished for a crime in another jurisdiction once upon a time.

By doing a slow character reveal you let the table see different aspects as you go. For the first three or four levels they think of the gregarious fighter with the obsessively cared for bastard sword as Gregory Black, capable warrior, decent cook, and friend. Then around level seven they discover that the reason he became an adventurer was because he'd once been known as Black Hood, a despotic noble's headsman who did grisly work several times a day. How do they find out? Because his companion, someone he was supposed to execute but didn't, joins up with him as a cohort!

Remember, it's a long campaign. You don't have to dump all of your exposition by the time you hit level two.

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