Saturday, January 7, 2017

Tattoos and Scars... What Do They Say About Your Character?

He didn't look like much. A little on the tall side, rangy instead of really skinny, the man was dressed in a simple jerkin and breeches. He had a leather cuff around his left wrist, and a little gray at his temples. A halfway decent hostler, the horses liked him well enough, and so did their riders. The Merrick boys marked him as an easy target, and when no one was around they tried to snatch his strongbox.

He objected.

Rather firmly, in fact.
The first of the young bullyboys got off easy; in a few months he was able to walk, albeit with a pronounced limp. The second doesn't do much but sit in a chair on the porch and stare off into space with the one eye he has left. The third one hasn't been seen since he ran off into the night, bloody and crying.

It was too bad none of them ever saw the hostler wash his hands. If they had, they would have seen the tattoo on the back of his wrist, and walked wide. Only a fool would have tried a man who bore the mark of a Black Eagle Legionnaire.

Tattoos and Scars

A character's appearance, whether it's in a novel or an RPG, uses a certain visual shorthand. Sure, we may give our fighter a greatsword because it's a big damage dealer mechanically, but it also says something about his strength and skill. A character who wields a rapier, a whip, or a spiked chain may be taking advantage of abilities that let them attack with their dexterity, but they're also letting people know where their true skill lies. It might also be an easy way of letting people know about their personalities. Because while you can have a charismatic bastard sword fighter, or a reticent swashbuckler, those weapons tend to be associated with certain types of wielders.

The marks character bear also add to a character's story. Even when they don't provide any mechanical bonuses.

If you ever see a shaman with a full-face tattoo, though, I'd be on your best behavior.
Before you choose the kinds of marks your character bears, you need to ask what the message you're trying to send is. Because looking cool, or being visually distinct, is fine... but it helps to know the full circumstances behind the character's unique marks, and how they effects that character's life.

Gaspar Dell'amore, the Black Rose of Edme, for instance, was born with a unique mark on his left hand. A black rose, this birthmark could have been written off as little more than an accident. It wasn't, though. In fact, the knowledge that the mark was attached to a certain goddess shaped Gaspar's view of the world. It pushed him in a certain direction, and made him decide what he would stand for. He could have been any number of things, but that mark was one of the factors that turned him into a bare-knuckled enforcer, whose chosen enemies were tyrants, and who surrounded himself with revolutionaries.

Your character's marks don't have to be that dramatic, though they certainly can be. If you're looking at scars, for example, a ranger who's hunted big game might have claw scars across his chest and shoulders from when he had to kill a bear, or a tiger, with nothing more than his knife. A former gladiator might still bear the brand of her previous owner, hidden so other people won't know she was once property. A self-taught evoker might have burn scars along his hands from early mistakes made with fire. A former bandit might be missing fingers, or have certain marks scarred into her so everyone knows what crimes she committed.

Not all body modification is bad, though. In fact, some of it we actively seek out, and pay enormous prices for. For example, does your tribe require you to undergo tattooing as a test of adulthood? Did you get drunk with your shipmates, and you all got your flag tattooed on you? Did you get inked as part of an initiation into a gang, religion, or other organization? Are you still proud of that mark, or have you tried to turn your back on that decision with time and wisdom?

Make Yourself Part of The Lore

The marks your character has, whether or not they were willingly acquired, should make them feel more real. Whether it's how the fighter got his nose broken defending the party from the bugbear, or the triple set of ear rings the bard acquired when he got drunk as part of the victory celebration for fighting off a goblin invasion, you should know when, where, how, and why your character has these marks. You should know if they have any meaning, as well.

Because there's nothing more fun than mentioning one of your character details, and asking someone to roll a knowledge check to figure out what it means, or where you got it. Because just like an exotic fighting style, unusual weapon, or rare brand of magic, your tattoos and scars can speak volumes about who your character is, and where they came from. They can make you a true, organic part of the world you're playing in, and that is no small feat.

Of course, there's nothing that says you can't get a mechanical bonus from your birthmarks, scars, and tattoos. But not getting a mechanical bonus shouldn't discourage you from holding onto the unique look such body modification provides.

That's all for this week's Fluff topic. Hopefully it inspired some folks out there, and entertained everyone else. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative so I can keep bringing you topics just like this, you should stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it nets you some sweet swag as well. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

1 comment:

  1. I love everything about this. As a man covered in tattoos, and always looking to get more I tend to play tattooed characters. But just like there is a reason I have every tattoo that I have, each has meaning to me, there should be a reason a character gets a piece of body art. Whether it is chosen, or force upon them there should always be a reason.