Friday, May 4, 2018

Did Your Character Have A Former Life?

The tavern was thick and smoky when the Gallows Hunters arrived. Talk trailed off, and the patrons watched them approach the bar. Harald kept wiping down the bar not looking up until Galstag the Grave rested his hands on the mahogany.

"What can I get you all?" Harald asked, stuffing his rag in his apron and folding his arms.

"We need you to come with us," Galstag said.

"Why's that?" Harald asked, tugging at his thick beard.

"We're making for the Inoch Valley," Galstag said.

"Wish you luck." Harald tugged his beard a little harder, a nervous tic rarely seen by those who came to his bar. "Want a bottle for the journey?"

"You owe me," Galstag said, leaning in a little closer. "I wish there was another way, my friend, but I need you for this."

"What do we need him for?" Dornier asked, leaning back against a statue of a beautiful woman. "Cooking our meals on the trail?"

Harald turned his head toward Dornier, and spoke a single, harsh word in a language none of them had ever heard before. Dornier's eyes went wide, and filled with darkness. He screamed, falling to the ground and clutching at his face. Harald took off his apron, and stepped around the bar. He hadn't changed, but there was something different about him. Something that made the patrons draw back, like dogs sensing a wolf.

"My debt is paid after this," Harald said, waving a hand to dismiss the spell that had stolen Dornier's sight. "And I never want to see you in my bar again."

There's a reason we go to taverns looking for adventurers, after all.

Who Were You, In Your Old Life?

With some characters, what you see is what you get. Bethal Yarr is a militia sergeant looking to find a higher place in this world. Cornell Hardwick is a graduate of the prestigious Acadamae Arcane, and looking to make a name for himself. Sechel Darne is a Sister of the Healing Hand. But what if they had been someone else, before we met them? A notorious burglar, a mob enforcer, a noble scion, or something else entirely?

As character tropes go, this is one we see all over. Perhaps the most famous example of it is when Strider turns out to not just be a long-lived ranger, well-known for his deadliness, but the last of a line of kings who could bring greatness back to the land. But we also see it in the film Solomon Kane, where the main character tries to leave his life of piracy and brutality behind in order to become a man of peace. We see it in Star Wars with "old Ben" who's trying to lead a simple life after the fall of the Jedi, and it's a background fact that Alfred Pennyworth was once one of the most dangerous men in the British army.

Then, for real life examples, there's Sir Christopher Lee.
If you want to have a character who had a past life, there are two major ways you could play it. The first is the retired badass, who's been out of the game long enough that they're back down to level one mechanically. To everyone else they're just old Jeb, but to those who remember, he was once Jebidiah Blackwater, the Terror of Butcher's Bay. While the old pirate might not have all of his swagger left, he has probably forgotten more about being a buccaneer than anyone else in the party knows.

Alternatively, there are characters who took a side-step from their old life into their new one. The Iron Fist, for instance, was a brother of the Three Streams Monastery. He was a champion-at-arms, there, and he'd won several tournaments before the order disbanded. While he still carries the sacred tattoos, and the bloody knuckles of his trade, now he's a fighter for the Hatchetmen, defending the gang's claims in the southern part of the city. While someone might be able to identify him from his style, or from his body art, it would be hard to believe someone in such a noble position would fall into a den of thieves.

How Does Your Secret Affect Your Story?

The fun of playing a character with a former life is that there's a secret kept between you and the DM (and possibly another player, if your PCs have ties in the old days). However, unless that secret is going to come out in a meaningful way at some point, you won't get as much punch out of this idea as you otherwise might. So, before you go this route, sit down with your DM and lay out who are are, who you were, and what effects you can expect to get away with as a result of your story.

"We need access to restricted medical resources." All right, give me a sec to make a call...
As a for-instance, say you're playing a paladin. Just your standard, lawful-good, boring old paladin. But what if the character was born and raised in a death cult to be the exact opposite of that, and it was only through accepting an atonement spell that he became what he is? Cool story, bro, but what does that have to do with this adventure? Well, nothing if you're just fighting dragons and trying to save a town from kobolds. But if that death cult is the campaign's primary enemy, or the paladin has a reward out for the deeds he committed under his old name, then those factors could influence the game. Whether it's using his former identity as a way to sneak into a stronghold, or having to deal with bounty hunters coming after the party for being associated with such a stone-cold killer, it adds flavor to the ongoing story.

Whether you're a war criminal who's one wrong recognition away from the gallows, or a princess who could get the party out of hot water, it's important that your story has some bearing on the campaign. Otherwise your big reveal will leave people going, "Okay... what was that all about?"

If you like this idea, I'd also recommend checking out The 1st Level Badass. Or, if you'd like to see a story of this concept in action, go take a look at The Ballad of Baldric Brimstone, starting with Don't Ever Field A One-Eyed Dragon.

That's all for this week's Fluff installment. I hope it got some wheels turning regarding new character concepts! If you'd like to see some more work from yours truly, head over to my Vocal archive, or take a look at the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I get together with fellow gamers to make videos about DM tips, player strategy, and fun stuff in the world of Evora. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative, then please head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi! It's much appreciated, and there's some thank you swag in it for you, as well.

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