One last post for 2018 before we hit the new year, and this time it’s my top 5 video games. I will say that while I do enjoy video games, sometimes it takes me a while to get through them and I don’t play a […]
When I was writing about fantasy last, see the Not Your Normal Fantasy article, I touched on a concept that I really didn’t have time to flesh out. That what the difference between high and low magic fantasy settings are. Let’s jump into the top […]
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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We all know fantasy pretty well, at least I’m assuming that we do. We’ve seen and/or read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. We might have read the Shanara Chronicles, Wheel of Time, Mistborn, or so many other epic fantasy series or watched shows […]
So wasn’t originally going to be part of the “This is Halloween” series, but felt like it fit in still. I’ve been giving advice on shows, movies, games, etc. and this advice is just a little bit different, but it’s still going to be suggestions […]
Building a city as a home base or where your adventure is taking place can be a cool thing to do, it can also be a daunting thing to do, because putting together a whole city can be a lot of work. I rarely go into a city knowing everything about it, even if I’m running the game. There are multiple reasons for this, from me not wanting to spend the time to giving the players more control over the shape and feel of the game. But you might want to lay out more of a city, if it’s very important to your game.
When you start to build the city, first ask yourself, what is this city built around. In the case of D&D, most cities are going to spring up close to water for shipping purposes or along trade routes. That’s how most cities were founded in the real world for the large cities. You’re also going to have the smaller towns spring up along these trade routes. So, what is the primary good that’s being traded along this route? Is it going to be that there are a lot of different things coming down into a port city, so they have basically everything, or are you going to make this a city at the edge of a large forest that sends furs and wood down the river to a city along the coast with no trees?
To go along with trade, what significance does your city have in the realm that you are building. Is it a city that has a lord or lady ruling over it, but is under a king. Is it something that is near the border of two realms so it might be in a state of war more often than a city in the middle of a kingdom would be, though even in the middle, there could be land disputes around it. Or is it the seat of the king or queen of the realm and so it has that more heavily political atmosphere around it. Some of this will depend on the story you want to tell in the game, maybe you want the throne or politics to be further away from your game, if that’s the case, and you still want a city game, keep them away from the politicians and a long ways away from that.
Once you have an idea of the basics of your city, trade and political positioning, you can move more into the finer details. You will want to consider the different aspects of the city such as crime, wealth, what sort of businesses are going to be common, what sort of education is there, what sort of power merchants have in the city, how common are temples, how much magic is there, and more. Now, that is daunting, so I tend to keep it pretty simple in my games.
Generally, I think it is good to know how much crime there is outside of thieve’s guilds or other sort of criminal organizations. A good criminal organization is going to keep other crime down so that they are able to operate more freely, and also to keep the law enforcement off of their back. An example of this would be John Marcone from the Dresden Files who keeps other gangs and criminal organizations out of Chicago. Yes, Marcone is not a good man and causes a lot of issues of his own, but he’s running a business of crime, and that is what a thieve’s guild would do in a city.
The other big one is magic, how common is magic in the city, is it only tied to the temples, or are there shops set-up on street corners that are selling potions. There are going to be some cities that have more magic in them than others because of having a wizarding school or something of the sort in them. But you can also think about this on a grander scale as well. If you’re world is fairly low magic, you might then need to consider how special it would be if in a city you had magical items. That would have to be an extremely rich city, and most likely is going to have to be the seat of power for that realm. Or it could be that magic is mainly focused on those given by the divine, so clerics and paladins are accepted, but warlocks, wizards, and sorcerers might not be.
You can see how it is a bit daunting to completely build a city, so what are some things that you can do to make it easier on yourself.
You could have, as part of session 0, a brainstorming session with the players. Together you can come up with what sort of city it is. There are several nice things about doing this or doing my next suggestion of asking players to help describe the city in game when needed. The reasons being that it takes pressure off of you to come up with everything for the city and it gives the players more ownership over the game and the city.
If you were to go with either brainstorming in session 0 or asking in game for help building the city, I’d consider having a few surprises. If you’ve listened to Dungeons And Flagons season 2, you’ll hear me asking for things, but there are certain things, like the underground city that had been there that they stumbled into that were meant to be surprises for the players. That will keep the world and city more interesting for the players when they realize that their characters might know the city well or at least parts of it well, but there are still surprises even for their characters that they didn’t realize were happening in the background.
Another solution is to use an online resource. There are various things that will help you build your city, especially the layout of it and map it out for you that would be a lot of work otherwise. I haven’t used it much, but https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator makes a beautiful city and you can tweak it as you need. It would help you get up and running faster. There are also more detailed articles on building cities out there, but if you’re trying to lesson your work load, using something to generate the map would be very helpful.
Finally, you can just build your city as you need it on demand. Quickly figure out if this is a big city or a small city. Will your characters run into the politics of the city, and how much magic there is. Then just build it as you go, if you need a docks section of the city for a session, spend time fleshing that out. Flesh it out only as you need it and you’ll have a fully planned out city eventually. That can keep some pressure off of you at the start, but you’ll eventually have to put the effort in.
How have you built cities before for an RPG? What’s worked well for you before or do you keep them out in the country and in dungeons so that you don’t have to build a city?
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