Saturday, June 27, 2015

What Does Your Character Do When Not Adventuring?

We all know what our characters do when they're working. Korak the Thunderer smashes any foe that stands against him with his great, iron-studded club, roaring a challenge to any who would meet him on the battlefield. Thendril, servant of Iomede, protects her companions, raises arms against the wicked, and cares for those who are wounded in the struggle. Lemen Light-Fingers always goes unnoticed as he relieves you of your valuables, and if you're threatening his companions, of your life as well. Rend, the Father of Wolves, can channel the very furies of nature against his enemies.

So what does this party do at the end of the day? When the traps are tripped, the dragon is dead, the horde has been divvied up, and all the threats are passed... what do they do with themselves?

I cast magic missile... or something...
People are more than just their jobs, but all too often we let that be all that defines our characters. If you want to add a little depth to them, though, it's a good idea to ask what they do aside from raiding tombs, hunting bandits, or starting megalomaniacal plots to take over the world.

You Are Not Your Job

When you were a kid did you ever run into your teacher at the grocery store or at McDonald's, and your mind just tweaked because this person was in an environment you didn't associate them with? That's sort of like what happens with our characters. Our mental images are so jam-packed with brutal sword slashes, exploding words of power, and skulking thievery that we forget these characters have a lot of other moments in their lives.

Like douchebaggery.
I'll give you an example. Many years ago I was asked to join a 3.5 Shackled City campaign. The game took place in a city built inside a caldera, and every character began the game with a single trait. The one I took for my character, a half-orc who due to an accident of birth passed for human, was nightmares. He suffered from terrible night terrors, and the result was that he was immune to the fatigued condition.

So of course I was going to make a fighter/barbarian, and then slide him into frenzied berserker.

Because of Arius's terrible nightmares, and the fits of screaming that accompanied them when he was a child, he was given up to the Temple of Kord. They taught him to fight, but more than that the temple taught him how to push his body past normal limits. Despite his youth, Arius's size, strength, and ability to train when other people were sleeping made him more than a great fighter. They made him an unparalleled athlete.

I didn't plan that to be part of the character, but it showed up in an early, mostly roleplay arc where the party attends a huge festival in the city. There are swimming competitions, wrestling, performances, drinking, etc. Arius, it was soon established, had won the long jump for several years. He was unafraid to dive into any physical challenge, and he reveled in the competition. But when the drinking event came up he took water and watched. Because, as he painstakingly explained, his body was a well-oiled machine; pour that poison into it and it would take months to work all the effects out.

This was the look on the party's faces when the guy with the +7 fort save at level 1 bowed out.
The more I played the character, the more I realized Arius had a life outside of dungeon delving and adventure-seeking. He liked to exchange riddles and solve puzzles (he wasn't good at it, but he liked doing it), he paid some attention to local fashion (not much, but some), and he was a great believer in spectacle. It's why when the party was told they were going to be participating in a big ceremony, which would require dance lessons, Arius was there with bells on.

What Do You Do, And What Does It Say About You?

By examining your characters' lives beyond the scope of their heroic exploits you'll end up with rounder, more interesting PCs. For example, when he isn't off valiantly fighting the forces of evil, does your paladin volunteer at an orphanage? Why? Is it to remind him of the family he lost long ago? Is it because his devotion to duty means he'll never have children of his own? Is it because he wants to help shape the next generation by showing them someone cares about them? Does he just need something to lift his spirits after gazing so long into the abyss?

Who knows? All of them are valid interpretations depending on the character.

There are all sorts of things you can do. For example, does your orc write poetry? If so, what kind? Does he read publicly, or does he keep it shut up in a journal where no one will see? Does your sorceress like the theater? If so, does she go for the acting or for the effects? Was she ever a theatrical person herself, or is it just something she likes? Is your cleric a fan of chariot races? Does the bard love gladiatorial bouts, even though he's well aware they're at least partly fake? Does your wizard like to garden?

I could keep asking you these questions all day long, but here's an easy way to think about it. If you were going to create a dating profile for your character, what would you fill in for all those miscellaneous sections? Would you talk about your experiences as a bounty hunter, and about how strong or fast you are, or would you instead focus on the more personal aspects? Do you want kids (or have them), do you have a religion, do you smoke, do you drink, and what are those six things you simply could not do without?

All right... what are the other three?

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  1. This is an awesome article. My most recent character in 5e has the folk hero background and he used to be a carpenter/farmer. He has a relatively low charisma and doesn't talk that often for fear of being wrong, but he recently interacted with a group of hunter/gatherers who were in a food shortage and he jumped into action. It helped me define him as a farmer who goes on adventures rather than an adventurer who grew up on a farm.

  2. I actually hit on a character defining moment during play in my last PF game. I was playing a mercenary named Steve. Not a good guy (one of his early jobs was retrieving a bunch of stolen / escaped slaves) but not a bad guy (three of the slaves came quietly when caught; he used his share of the money to buy them, then loaned each of them the money to buy their own freedom) and not a great guy (he actually came back and collected).

    In short, a mercenary, with the idea of 'I'll make enough money to retire, find a pretty wife, then spend my days fishing and messing about with aforementioned pretty wife" somewhere in the back of his head.

    Third or fourth adventure we came across an intelligent undead trying to revive its creator, a lich. We stopped them and confiscated the lich's phylactery. We had the option of selling it at the nearest Wizards tower or turning it in to the local Order of Paladins. More votes for the Paladins, which meant a much smaller monetary reward. Steve, suspecting some future employment where he'll need to avoid being executed by said Paladins, asks for some kind of 'get out of jail free' card. Instead they give him a 'writ of heroism'. Basically a signed document saying he's performed heroic deeds, yada yada.

    Steve takes it to the bar closest to the Paladins' fortress to see if he can use it to impress any cute girls. The cutest girl in the bar falls head over heels for him. The next morning, she's making plans for a wedding. Over the course of the next week (as the rest of the party is re-equipping, looking for work, and laughing at Steve) he's whisked into a whirlwind of preparation as his fiancé who is soon to be sworn in as a Paladin, gets all of her extensive, rich family to come to the wedding. He spends all his loot on a wedding ring, and still gets outshone by his new in-laws.

    They're wed. She's sworn in. The Party finds work. He goes to her, ruefully explaining that he has a Quest he has to complete. As a Paladin, she nods sadly, but sees him off; Quests are important.

    He breathes a sigh of relief and rides out with the party. Two days out of the city, he looks at the group's pugilist and says "What did I just DO?".

    Monk replies, "you got married."

    Steve says, "No, I married a HOT, RICH chick who was TOTALLY INTO ME, and not only did I ride away, I can't go back until I finish this STUPID QUEST!"

    The entire rest of the game (years game-time, over a year of weekly sessions real-time) I got to play 'Steve the Short Timer', the guy who Won at Life and walked away from the prize, and would do anything to get it back.

    1. Cool story, bro. :) Funny how stuff works out.

  3. So, if people haven't seen my earlier comments (on later posts, I'm going backwards) on my ESO character: Argonian (Lizardfolk) Nightblade (rogue) named Lives-On-Moon. He got his name by being naive, idealistic, and plays it up by acting crazy so he can express controversial opinions and not be taken so seriously (right away). He's a tailor, and intends to wield needle and thread after the war's over. If he sees someone in rags, he offers to make them fresh (albeit cheap) clothes. In the meantime he makes his own leather armor and is acting as a scout for the military. He prefers stealth since he doesn't like killing people, even if they're the enemy.