Building Character – Background Vignettes
I hate making characters. Oh sure, sometimes it’s fun, especially with a new system, or with a system that makes a lot of choices for you: Dungeon Crawl Classic‘s ‘Funnel’ system of creating four 0-level characters and seeing who survives to first level is a blast (if a deadly one), and the total randomness of the classic Traveller or Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can be fun too. But outside of that, I need inspiration to get behind a character, and sometimes that’s not that easy.
Inspiration comes from a lot of places, but I think for most of us it comes from the Appendix N books, movies and TV shows we’ve seen. I use a lot of Shakespearean villains as a template for my anti-heroes: Othello’s Iago, Lear’s Bastard, Henry IV’s Falstaff or Prince Hal, to name a few. History Channel’s Vikings has got me inspired right now, and I’m sure Game of Thrones is packed with inspiration as well.
Once inspired, however, I start to mull over the story of the character, try to figure out how he or she talks, and what got them to be where they are. For a while, this was something I whipped up on the spot, or maybe jotted as a few notes on the back of my character sheet. As I played more, I found the back stories getting more elaborate, and there was just too much to get across as an improvised statement, and other players didn’t have time to digest what I had put into it.
When the Skyland guys started getting together back in the day, we started a web group for our campaign. In that group, the players started crafting player introductions which varied in elaboration, but which gave a great platform for an introduction that could be read prior to the game, and referred back to. Eventually this grew into some great story telling, and was eagerly anticipated by the rest of the group. We used google groups, but a lot of people have used Obsidian Portal, Roll20.net or a free wiki for the same purpose.
Next time you’re getting ready to try out a new character for your longer campaigns, give it a shot. It’s a helpful tool to flesh out your back story and gives the other players (if not the characters) something to make your character and the setting itself come to life. Not sure where to begin? Check out Goodman Games’ PC Pearls as a system-agnostic starting point.
By way of example, my Drow Artificer was to be our ship’s doctor on our Pirate campaign. While I could say his family staged an unsuccessful coup and he had to flee the city for the surface world, the following tells that tale a little bit better:
“Your obsession with corpses is starting to seem most unnatural, Master V’rderist” said Agaed Malag’tel from the shadows of the
Vaeldti did not look up from the body on which he labored, though Agaed’s presence was a surprise. He may have acted differently if he had known he was being observed. He was, if nothing else, unshakable however, and reacted no differently now.
“It’s far from an obsession, Agaed,” said Vaeldti without looking up from the corpse, “Were the few meager years I’ve spent experimenting with the anatomy of the creatures of the Underdark taken as requisite for ‘obsession’ then you, sir, would be ‘obsessed’ with spying on me.”
“But I am obsessed with spying on you, friend Vaeldti,” purred Agaed, pulling himself off the wall. Vaeldti smiled gently and palmed a scalpel from the table, slipping it into the sleeve of his surgical gown. He carefully removed the second heart of the umber hulk on his table, and readied a jar to receive it. Agaed was being too informal. This could not be good.
“Be that as it may, friend Agaed,I believe should this be considered some vice of indulgence, it is by far the smallest transgression, compared with other crimes…” Behind Vaeldti’s back, Agaed stopped smiling, then jumped back slightly as the umber hulk heart dropped hissing into the clear glass jar filled with preservative fluids.
“Have you ever considered what a disappointment you must be to your family, what with your training for those many years in Sorcere only to squander it by sequestering yourself for a decade with those ridiculous Duergar? I’m sure you must have been flayed within an inch of your life when you were finally caught.” Agaed laughed mirthlessly.
Vaeldti’s smile did not wane. “Yes,” he answered, “Yes to both the disappointment, and the flaying, but I must offer a correction. I returned of my own accord. That is to say, the Duergar held nothing else to offer me.”
Two large metallic spiders emerged from the cavernous chest cavity of the Umber Hulk, their glass abdomens full of ambergris harvested from the corpse; enough to pay for new equipment when Vaeldti reached the surface. He smiled, and seeing that his small automatons were growing low on magical energy, extended his index finger and started only slightly as first one and then the other of his mechanical assistants latched on and drank.
“Not that they do not have some fine secrets worth keeping, however,” said Vaeldti stroking the back of a clockwork arachnid.
Agaed frowned. “Be that as it may, it would have been, perhaps, more beneficial to your House if you could have added that power behind the forces that moved against my House last night! For they have fallen, and you, sir, will be next to die!”
As Agaed moved to pull his longsword, a sudden sharp pain forced him to clutch his neck. A handful of metallic spider stung at him again, then scurried to Vaeldti’s side as he finished cleaning his tools.
“I did say that I was flayed, did I not, Agaed…” Vaeldti turned as he finished, “and it is not something I have forgotten. This House can rot in the Demonweb Pits for all I care, as can this whole wretched cavernous pit. The foolishness of it all.”
Holding his arms behind his back, Vaeldti paced as though lecturing a first year student of Sorcere. Agaed’s knees buckled and sweat began to bead upon his brow.
“Do you know that they teach the study of anatomy in both Sorcere and Melee Magthere, but only for the purposes of torture and killing, respectively? Such wasteful foolishness presupposes that the gods shall stay set in place, and that the Matrons will always have the ear of Most Divine Llolth to close wounds and purge disease. I see there is more to it than that…”
Leaning over Agaed, Vaeldti held his face within inches of the sweating cowering form.
“Perhaps it is due to my altruistic nature that I am so flawed. But, it will require my leaving for the surface, which I am already prepared to do…. especially now that I’ve captured you.”
Agaed staggered upright, leaning into the corner as he felt his strength drain. “Ca-ca-cap-captured? D-d-d-do you pl-plan to ransom me?” he stuttered as his jaw locked under the effects of the paralytic poison.
“Ransom? Aha, no…. No, for you, I will give you the opportunity to contribute to my work, and thus redeem yourself…. One last contribution…. to science. ”
Agaed’s screams barely escaped the stairwell… and three hours later, Vaeldti make his way to the surface, seeking to learn more about the mysteries of the natural world.
The sea captain stared at the forged letters carefully, then examined Valedti from head to toe.
“Ships doctor, you say?”
“If I am not mistaken, you are a drow,” said the Captain conclusively.
“And if I am not mistaken, you are a pirate sir. Strange bedfellows, I believe the expression goes?”
The captain sighed….”You’re hired, Mr….”
“Doctor… and it’s Vaeldti V’rderist”
“Welcome aboard, Doctor Valedi Venderost…”
“Below decks, Doctor. Men need tending to… ”