Friday, October 14, 2016

Who Raised Your Character, And How Did That Shape Them?

It's become something of a trope that player characters don't exist before we meet them. Their families are dead, they have no friends, and they had no mentors. They stepped into this world fully formed and adult, with no childhood to speak of. While there might be a token nod toward the character being out for vengeance for the death of their family, or some vague reference to a hard-knock life, we don't often dwell on who our characters are before we start making their sheets.

And we really should, because that's where a lot of their motivations, desires, and personality are formed.

Especially if they're the children (bastard or otherwise) of other adventurers.

Who Made Sure You Didn't Die?

Every character, no matter how badass they are now, started life as a baby. Even those that were grown in a tank as a result of atrocious alchemical experiments still had people looking out for their well being. The first thing you need to know is who fed you, who clothed you, and who gave you a place to sleep?

The NPCs in question don't need to be your parents, and they don't need to be typical. For example, your fighter could very easily be the son of a hog farmer. A familiarity with blades, blood, and bone would serve him well on any battlefield. On the other hand, the great swordsman might be the son of a famed wizard who rejected his mother's magics to study the arts of strategy and fencing. You might be an orphan of war who was adopted by a passing soldier, or even a general, who felt compelled to care for you. You might have been abandoned in the woods, and raised by beasts. Or fairies. You could even have been left on the doorstep of a church (good or evil), and raised by the clergy.

Welcome to the Seventh Circle Church of Asmodeus. Sacrament on the right, orphans to the left.
Once you know who raised you, the next question you have to ask is what was the experience like? Did the soldier who adopted you treat you more like a squire than a son, beating you when you displeased him, and showing affection only on rare occasions? Were the Sisters of The Order of The Weeping Harpy kind to you, or were they cruel? Were you allowed to stay in the den of your mama bear, or did she make you leave once you were big enough to defend yourself?

In short, what lessons did you learn from those who raised you? Were they kind, or cruel? Do you try to emulate them, or do you do everything in your power not to be like the people who molded your early years?

And, as a bonus for those who don't know their actual parents, what do you believe they were like? Do you hate them for abandoning you, or have you compiled a version of them in your head from stories you were told, and half-remembered flashes? Are you looking for them, or do you want to keep them out of your life? Or, alternatively, how will it affect you if you find out the people you thought were your parents turn out to be nothing of the sort?

Where Did You Learn Your Skills?

Player characters, as a whole, are powerful individuals. Whether it's the arcane might of a sorcerer, the fury of the barbarian, or the quiet strength of the monk, these are not abilities one masters overnight. Spell and sword, bow and blast, all of these take years of regular practice to master.

So who taught you?

Yes, Master, I see how it's supposed to feel, now.
While it's true that certain powers cannot be taught, like the in-born magic of a sorcerer or the patronage of a witch, even those born with strange talents need someone to help hone them. So look at your PC's skills and abilities, and ask who taught them to do these things. Did this character have a mentor? Did the character learn from multiple teachers, or just one? Did they learn these skills because they wanted to, or because they had to? Was it a positive, or a negative relationship? Does your character feel obliged and grateful to their teacher, or is there resentment? Or a weird mixture of the two?

For instance, was your brawler trained at a local school, her technique perfected by an aging champion who wanted to pass on his knowledge to a new pupil? Did she simply frequent the fights, watching every move and learning through observation? Did she get into a lot of fights at home, or on the street, and eventually mastered the art of the beating through repetition?

Our teachers are the ones that shape us in many ways. They're the ones whose aphorisms we pick up, and whose movements and gestures we mimic. Often unconsciously. For good or ill, these are the people who refine us.

Who Are Your Friends?

Everyone has friends. Even traditionally "loner" characters have people they respect, and who they spend time with. So, if you're going to make a character feel real, you have to ask who their friends are. More importantly, you have to ask what kinds of people this character makes friends with.

I just wanna do pirate things with my pirate friends.
For example, if you were raised on the streets, chances are good you know all the local names and faces. People probably know you, too. Do you have a gang, or did you ever run with one? Can you still turn on the local patois, letting people know instantly that this is where you belong? If you're not on a job, and you have money to spend, who are you going to go out with?

Alternatively, if you're in a place you're not familiar with, what group of people do you consider your people? Do you seek out your own race, whatever that might be? Do you look for people who share your profession, such as other soldiers, or other scholars, depending on your trade? Can you stop at a blacksmith's stall and talk shop for hours, rolling up your sleeves and joining in the work? Or would you be more comfortable chatting with poets and playwrights over coffee and tea while someone plays soothing music in the background?

What you view as important traits in other people says a lot about you. Whether you have a lot of friends, or just a few, also says a lot. Most telling, though, is asking how many people who think they're your friends are actually your friends?

There's More To This Than Swords and Sorcery

Building an effective character is easy. All you have to do is take the right abilities, in the right order, and you're good to go when it comes to the numbers portion of the game. Making your PC into a thinking, feeling character, though, that's a process. And it's a process that gets started the day they're born, if not earlier.

Depending on what they inherit.

That's all for this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully everyone enjoyed! If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then all you have to do is pop over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a small donation. $1 a month is all I ask, and there's some sweet swag in it if you pledge. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what are you waiting for?


  1. i had a Nymph who defied nature with the intent to continue her bloodline. her line was noble, and she would have had the title if it weren't for the fact she pursued the creation of artificial life through alchemy.

    she effectively abandoned her mother and moved to the material plane in self exile because she couldn't deal with the prejudice for defying the natural order.

    her connection to the earthmother was severed, and she took to the path of the arcane. relearning many old shamanistic spells under a mad wizard she called "Uncle Max". through alchemy, she created 6 daughters in her own image.

    she loved, spoiled and respected her daughters, even if they were artificial, because they were her closest family and she was a loving and caring mother in contrast to her childish and irresponsible mother.

    each daughter has been recycled as a player character many times. constantly reborn in a newly made identical body.

  2. Loved this! Thanks for the introspective post that's sure to help those interested solidify their alternate personas.

  3. Character backgrounds are nice but they aren't always a necessity. Having one, even a simple one, is all a player needs and all a GM needs to incorporate some of it. Too much detail is just as bad, if not, worse than having none. At the end of the day, role-playing is just a game and sometimes you just need to play to have that character and who they are shine through.

  4. I started writing because I wanted exactly this - where did my characters come from.

    One of my best skills is still the 'character sketch', 10-20 KWord stories of what a character did before the game (or current book) began.