Now we’re getting towards the edges of the races you can play in Dungeons and Dragons from the main Players Handbook. There are additional races or race options in other books. I’m going to call out some Tiefling things are from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. […]
This was something that I saw on twitter, I believe, earlier this week or it was part of a podcast, Total Party Thrill, that I’ve been listening to, but it was a hypothetical about why someone might join an adventuring group if they have a nice normal backstory.
Why would a farmers kid who has had a nice life on the farm, loves their family, their whole family is still alive, and they have a sweetheart, why would they join an adventuring group?
Why would a noble who might not be in line to inherit the throne but they would have a very comfy and relaxed life with basically anything they could want join an adventuring party?
Why would a wizard who has a comfy job in a wizarding school with a family and their students love them and they won’t have anything else they want join an adventuring group?
Why would a cleric who has a community surrounding them that attends their temple, they all believe in the deity of the temple, and they have found their calling, why would they join an adventuring group?
The answer most of the time is that they wouldn’t. It doesn’t make sense for them to join a group because they have a good life. The most common reason would be that they want something more and something greater. That’s a pretty safe and simple story, but not all that interesting if you’re playing that character. So how are you going to able to spice up your characters story?
And when I say spice up the story, I don’t mean add in some tragedy. How are you going to make it more interesting without adding in some tragedy, some death in the family, some desire for revenge, some scandal happening to your PC?
Let me see what I can do with the four examples I gave of pretty comfortable backstories:
As cleric you’ve had a good life and have set up a nice temple and community in your peaceful little town. You have made friends and settled into a nice groove. One evening while you are praying you are shocked to hear a voice speak to you. It commends you for doing so well and tells you that there will be another cleric of your deity coming to town. They are older and have some information that you must carry on for them and find for them while they take over your duties. The next day a cleric comes to town and they tell you of an artifact, a relic of long ago, that would help increase the bounty of your farming communities crops and help the kingdom as a whole find peace. They are too old now to continue their quest to look for it, but your deity had sent them here to find you so that could continue the quest. It’s hard, but you have heard the word of your deity, and everything they said came true. You pack up your bags, promise to return, and say many a sad farewell as you head out on the road to find those who can help you complete the quest.
The life of an academic suits you greatly, you’ve spent years at the university studying, then teaching, and the city that you’re in has become your home. You have a family and two kids. You’re in the middle of a class when you get a message sent to you from an old teacher. They have some exciting news, they have discovered a lost ruins and texts for magics that you thought had been lost ages ago. You agonize over it for a week, but eventually, at the prompting of your spouse, you send a message back saying that you will head out there, you just need to convince the school that they should fund your research. When they hear about it, they quickly help you find an adventuring party so that you will be safe on your travels.
Your life has been practice sword fights, sitting through fairly interesting meetings, and generally learning how you’re going to be able to rule your lands when you inherit the seat of power. It isn’t much of a lands and you are going to be under the king, but that’s just fine with you. You’ll have a simple but nice life dealing with the problems of a few farmers about whose cow is whose when someone’s fence breaks. But you know before that you have one last thing coming up. You’ve been putting it off for a while now, because it isn’t something that you wanted to do, you’d rather learn from watching your parents at home. But every generation, the child who is taking over the seat of rule has to go out and see the real world like they were nobody. You understand why, it will give you a perspective on things, but you’re not all that excited about it. Your parents have put together a group for you to travel with, so the time has finally come, and you set out on your own, not sure what you might find.
Life on the farm has been wonderful to you thus far. You love the routine of it. You love your cows, your parents and siblings, and your sweetheart. The only thing you’re not sure about is if they think enough of you. They are the child of the towns doctor. You’re just the child of a farmer. You are betrothed and everything is set for you to be married in two years time. With the blessing of her parents and your parents, you decide that you are going to go out and see the world for a year so that you are going to better be able to provide for and help your sweetheart with their dreams as well as yours. After a tearful good bye, you set out on the road where you run into a band of adventurers who take your under their wings.
Those aren’t my normal backgrounds, there is no revenge in them, though I did keep the quest for a lost artifact that I’ll often use as a potential backstory plot hook. But in the case of the first two there is a big plot hook for the DM to latch onto. The last two fall more into the adventuring for adventuring sake. But because everyone has their family still, and they have a clear objective of what they are looking for and possibly timelines for things as well, there’s plenty to play around with as a DM.
With the cleric, the artifact 100% won’t do exactly what the legends say it will do, so yeah, you’re going to have to deal with that. Also, you’re going to be racing against someone else to get the artifact.
With the wizard, you are going to get to the ruins and find everyone dead from some curse and then you’re going to find that you’ve been cursed as well. Now you have a deadline to figure out how to break the curse that was laid upon the ruins so that you don’t end up dead as well.
With the noble, as DM I would have you stumble across a plot against yourself and your family to kill all of you. However, you’re only ever going to see the edges of the plot, unless you want to keep your disguise and infiltrate the organization and find out who is at the top of it and who is after your family.
With the farmer, something is going to happen to your village or your sweetheart. Most likely a questionable noble is going to show up in your village, fall in love with your sweetheart and demand to marry them. When that gets turns down because you are betrothed already to them, they are going to start demanding taxes and making the life of your town miserable and you’re either going to have to deal with that noble yourself or do something to get the attention of someone higher up to rein in that noble.
Which of these backstories would you want to play? And have you made a character before with a non-tragic backstory?
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This is an interesting background to look at. Generally, as a player, I’d steer clear of it, unless you wrap your head around a strong concept of why your character isn’t a hermit anymore? The most common way that people use this background that I see is by having a druid or some other nature loving class, have their nature being threatened, then they can come in to a village to get help. That is a good trope in a lot of ways because it gives the dungeon master a nice hook to sink into it for that character and that story. It also is a good concept for a druid build that can naturally be a little bit more stand-off to the real world, and it gives the option of playing a fish out of water.
What else can you do with a Hermit? You have an herbalism kit and you get proficiency with both medicine and religion. That in a lot of ways opens up a bunch of different options that I’ll explore below. But having medicine and religion allows you to go away from as nature focused a character, though most often that will be the direction that people lean. Here are some interesting background ideas that I have for a hermit.
I’ve lived a long time, I’ve seen many things. My life was violence, then tranquility, then learning, then fear, I have seen it all. Now I have taken my seat, a place of rest, high above the lands where I can look down. They call me the wise one, though I have just lived more and am not truly wise. Those who seek my advice and knowledge must journey to see me, and I see them long before they get to me. From my vantage point I have watched the world change, and not for the better, I’ve looked into the horizon and seen a coming storm. My time to move has come again, but my body is loath to take up it’s old forms again. I have rested long enough though, when the time comes, I will be ready, so I make my way down the mountain to seek those who can join me in stopping the oncoming storm.
Alignment: Lawful or True Neutral
On the walls of my hovel hang trophies of a different time. A time where I was not a simple hunter away in the forest, a time where violence tried to consume me whole. I keep them on the walls to remind me of the rage that can consume me, but I do not want to pick them up again. I’ve lived a long while on my own, and life has been peaceful, but now my blood is boiling again. The rage that I have sought to keep in check is spilling out again. My peaceful little world is not something that I can sustain any more, and I do not want to taint it with blood. I pick up my axe from the wall, and I know it is time as it feels right in my hands. I will take my axe, but I will not use it as an all consuming violence, I will instead use it to do what I can to help others. I am the oncoming storm, I pray that I will not break.
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral
Comments: I really find this concept interesting, playing a character who is fighting against their own nature violence and trying to keep that in balance. Having them go off the deepend and then backing down in a future fight because they are worried it will happen again, that would be an interesting character. There’s also an Incredible Hulk like aspect to it.
I have listened for a long time. I’ve listened to nature, to the voices of the gods on the winds, in the rain, and through the animals. I sought to learn everything that I could from them and to hear the words that they may speak. It was not easy being patient, but that is what I was called to do. Before, when I was at the temple, I was too impetuous and too ready to act and act without thinking, so I was sent out to find patience. I did not find patience at first, I was ready to leave within a day and say that I had found patience. But as I sat and waited, I saw how the trees and grass grew with a focused deliberation, how animals, even though they frolic, did not waste any energy or movement. I finally found patience in year three, but I was not ready to leave, so I stayed, it has been four more years now, and I do not want to leave. But through the winds, the rains, the trees, the animals, the gods have spoken to me. They have told me of a hidden knowledge, more that I must learn that they cannot teach me. So I must return to the temple, and from there I can go seek this knowledge.
Alignment: Lawful Good/Neutral
I’ve heard voices in my head for a long time. They talk to me and eventually I was able to understand them. I was young, and what they were saying sounded tempting. They offered power, fame, money, but I didn’t consider the cost. I got those things, but only for a short period of time as what the voices had me do quickly got the attention of those who were stronger than me and able to stop me. I had no choice but to run, the voices weren’t pleased, and they stopped talking to me. I stayed hidden away in hopes that they wouldn’t talk to me again and for a long time they didn’t. My powers stopped as well, but recently they started talking to me again, and I learned that there was something scarier than them out in the world. I had to make a new deal with them, but my powers are back and I guess it’s my job to help save the world or at least warn the world.
Alignment: Lawful Evil/Chaotic Neutral
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