Friday, November 27, 2015

The 1st Level Badass (Freeing Your Backstory From Level Restraints)

There are a lot of complaints about starting a campaign at level 1. The most common complaints are that low-level heroes are made out of cardboard, armored in aluminum cans, and that they can be taken out by a lucky critical hit from a goblin, or a moderately successful spell from a kobold shaman. This complaint is often followed by the fact that low-level PCs don't have any of their really shiny red balls yet, and so can't string together deadly feat combos that can clear the battlefield in a single round, or cast spells that shake the mountains and split the heavens. And, as much as we might look down our noses at that complaint, there really is nothing like watching the minis fall over when you did that thing you built your character to do.

All right, my action is over.
Another complaint that we often hear from around the table is that 1st level characters are inherently limited in the story they're allowed to have up to that point. After all, you can't very well be a champion of the realm, a hero of a great war, or an infamous death-dealing assassin if you're starting off at level 1...

Can you?

Creating The Level 1 Badass

I'll be the first to admit that it's frustrating when you have an epic character idea, but you still have to start that character from square 1 mechanically. After all, in your head, the Dragon's Bastard is a terror to behold. A warrior without peer, whose heritage is writ large across his body, there's just no way to bring across the raw physical and magical might of a feared mercenary captain with the blood of great wyrms flowing through his veins at such a low level.

Except there is. But it requires a little thinking outside the box.

You have my attention.
My best example for how to do this was my character Brazen Red-Eye, a half-orc gunslinger/alchemist whom you might remember from Why You Should Never Field a One-Eyed Dragon in the Table Talk section. The character was a war leader, the right hand of a sprawling orc tribe, and he had been single-handedly responsible for the destruction of several towns and settlements, in addition to the raids he'd led on larger areas and cities. The problem was that the abilities he needed to justify that kind of swath of destruction (in particular the combination of fast bombs with the enhanced destructive power of certain gunslinger deeds and higher BAB) meant that I was looking at a character who, in his pre-game background, was level 10 or 12. While it's true that he came in at level 5, and not level 1, that's still a big discrepancy in power level.

So what did I do? Well, he was in hiding. You know, for being a wanted war criminal, and all.

Just like that, poof, I had a character whose displayed level of power made total sense. It wasn't that he didn't possess the higher-level abilities that he'd used to rampage in his backstory; it was that he simply could not use them because they were part of his old life's calling card; anyone who saw him fight like that would recognize him as surely as they would if they saw the brands of rank across his chest and upper arms.

It Really Is Easier Than You Think

There are all kinds of ways you can swing this idea to make it work. I've included a few below, in case you're looking for further inspiration.

- Amnesia: While it's tropey as hell, if you have forgotten you used to be a great warrior or powerful sorcerer, then it will take time for your memory to return. Your capabilities are still there, though, and they may manifest in a kind of spiritual or muscle memory.

- Left That Life Behind: This is a variation on the story I told above. For example, say you wanted to play a paladin/rogue/assassin. Assassins are, by the requirements of the class, evil. However, your backstory can shift the timeline around by saying you were once an assassin, but you allowed yourself to be redeemed and have since walked in the ways of the righteous. Thus when you take assassin levels mechanically, you aren't just learning these skills; rather, you've had them this whole time, and simply not used them because that's not who you are anymore... or is it?

- Was Never Worth My Full Power: Whether your character is an accomplished warrior, a learned wizard, or a sorcerer with a particularly potent bloodline, the justification for your badass backstory is that you are significantly more powerful than any foe you've ever faced. Even when you are, mechanically speaking, pulling out all the stops at level 4, in-character you're just barely flexing. And if your character gets beaten down, taken out, or nearly killed? Well, it wasn't because the foe was too strong, but rather because you were too arrogant. It won't be until you've reached the pinnacle of your mechanical build that you decide to give it your all. This is similar to Superman's "World of Cardboard" speech, suggesting you've been holding back till you found a worthy foe.

- Blending In: This applies to more than just characters with criminal or formerly evil backgrounds. For example, you might be a prince of the realm, famed far and wide for your skill with a dueling blade. You could be a famous war hero, or even a minor celestial being. For whatever reason, you're trying to move undiscovered among the common folk. This might mean that you sometimes throw fights, or that you have to take careful precautions to disguise birth marks, so that no one knows who you are. When the stakes are down and your friends need you at higher levels, though, it's time to drop the charade.

- Cursed: You are a character who possesses great power, but you're prevented from using it until your curse is lifted. Perhaps you're able to access it in small doses, such as when your barbarian/alchemist rages and downs a mutagen, along with a potion of bull's strength, allowing out a minor aspect of the titan you have locked inside yourself for a scant few minutes. Whether your arrogance has driven a deity to teach you a lesson through struggle and strife, or you once wronged a powerful hag who laid a quest across your shoulders, there is more to you than you can sometimes bring to bear.

These are, of course, just some of the more obvious methods of playing characters with more experience, and more power, than is written on their sheets. While there's certainly nothing wrong with the wide-eyed farm boy hero, the barbarian away from her tribe for the first time, or the freshly-minted paladin out to take on the world, sometimes you want to do more than that. That kind of ambition should be rewarded, and be given a place in the story.

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  1. My current Pathfinder fighter (samurai in backstory) was the leader of a clan in Minkan and a great warrior, but a great deal of that was the inherited katana she received from her ancestors which had contained all souls of the past daimyo and which she broke in the belly of demon during a battle where she and the warriors of her clan were acting as a decoy so that most of the rest of the clan could quietly escape the land unnoticed. She'd survived the battle unexpectedly and started wandering the land as a mercenary.

  2. Shortly after playing Dust: An Elysian Tail (non-intentional plug, though it is a great game XP) I ran a campaign kinda based on it. All the PCs used to be great war generals of the evil empire, but lost their memories during a final battle, and were fitted with pendants to keep those memories and powers locked away to begin with.

  3. The last three level 1 characters I've made have all had an event in their backstory that's scarred them and prevented them from using the power they once held. A summoner who summoned something beyond her power to control that fed on her lifeforce until there was nothing left, an inquisitor who tried to stop a demon-worshipping cult and was tortured until only a shell of their former selves remained, etc. It gives you a backstory, a "redeeming myself" arc, a bunch of negative character traits that help stop your character from Mary Sue syndrome/makes it interesting and sensical when they fail if you flavor it right, etc.

    Nat 1 on your spell's attack roll? "She was so caught up in the adrenaline and memory of past battles, she reached for levels of power she forgot she's long lost access to."

  4. I had a level 2 who had been a veteran of many campaigns and a powerful warrior, but then suffered a truly terrible wound in battle which damaged his spine. With not much magical healing accessible to him at the time, he'd had to recover the old fashioned way, leaving him physically less capable than he had been and very out of practice.

  5. I have a level 3 elven hunter who is from a very noble family and so had a very wide range of training. I got around her not being a high enough level to really know all those things but saying that she has an extremely short attention span and so didn't pay enough attention to really get very good at any of the things she was taught. She also is in possession of an incredibly powerful weapon, magic and intelligent. We dumbed it down temporarily by saying that it had been out of use for so long that it's in an unconscious state for the moment. She'll be able to unlock its powers as she levels up by either spending loot or experience.