Boons and Baggage

Now with less drama

Last week, I offered some options for character background that randomly determined social station as well as triumphant events and terrible tragedies from the character's past. The idea is to use these rather vague descriptors as idea starters for more detailed background (and "detailed" is a highly relative term: in the absence of any thought of the PC's past, a couple of defining moments--plus social station and the player's choice of class--is plenty to work with).

But a few interesting trends came through in the post's Comments. First, the Past Glory and Deep-seated Issues tables have some (perhaps too) dramatic results. It occurs to me that surviving one's parents or struggling through abuse may not be the most appropriate background detail upon which to base your character's motivations in a game.

Second, if these tables are to be used, let Player Characters choose. For the record, I'm staunchly opposed to this approach for determining Social Station. This aspect of background--the social and economic circumstances in which a character was raised--is arguably the most foundational, and it can be a broad motivator. Allowing players to pick defeats the purpose of using a random result as an idea starter (since making a choice will invariably start the wheels turning).  That said, and given the potential for dramatic and undesirable results, I think deliberate choices are fine for the Past Glory and Deep-seated Issues tables.

Third, a few people mentioned that applying random results to Non-player Characters was a good idea. Oddly enough, I hadn't considered these tables for NPC use, but of course, it makes perfect sense. I hereby accept the gold-plated "Duh!" with great thanks to those who proffered this sage recommendation.

The Less Drama Part

Given the above, but acknowledging my desire for some random background bits, I'll suggest a different tack. Below is a table of random conditions--Boons & Baggage[1]--arranged on a 2d10 curve. Entries represent extra bits of a character at the start of play. As with last week's tables, these are idea starters only, and fleshing them out is an exercise for the player and the GM. Unlike last week's tables, they don't point to specific events in the character's past--instead, they produce specific conditions of the character's present. It's up to the player to figure out how things came to be.

With all that in mind, roll 2d10 and see what your character gets:

  1. Extorted by underworld figure; could be for protection or to keep someone quiet about something the PC did (or is said to have done)
  2. Ex-member of a shadowy, violent, or otherwise criminal organisation
  3. Harassed by a rival who opposes the PC at every opportunity
  4. Blackmailed by the authorities to spy on another PC
  5. Wanted by the authorities in connection with a crime the PC may or may not have committed
  6. Exiled from local community for putting citizens or its leader(s) in danger
  7. Criminal record for past crime; debt to society has been paid, but the stigma limits opportunities
  8. Shunned within local community for a real or perceived failing
  9. Saddled with a random Flaw (player needs to explain how he got it)
  10. Begins play with a random object (player needs to explain the circumstances of its acquisition)
  11. Background justifies a free Perk (player needs to explain what he did to get it)
  12. Recipient of wealth in addition to normal starting cash; either reward money, gambling winnings, or accumulated savings (1d4 x $50)
  13. Possesses a valuable family heirloom; probably a piece of gear, and others may covet it
  14. Beginner's luck allows a re-do of any one roll that does your character in (must be used before attaining 2nd-level)
  15. Popular; begins adventuring career with 1d4 loyal (and moderately equipped) retainers
  16. Recipient of mysterious inheritance; could be lands, a title, or a piece of tangible property (like a ship, prize livestock, or a small house guard)
  17. Owed a favour from a powerful local figure; could be a rich businessman, an authority figure, or a politician
  18. Has connections to an influential organisation
  19. Has the favourable attentions of a powerful (but unidentified) patron

Table Notes

The entries above are generic, so you can adapt them to any setting or genre. For example, "authorities," "patron," or "rival" could indicate a local lord, the Royal Navy, the Vichy French, or the Star Law Rangers. Where noted, "gear," "retainers," and "inheritance" are appropriate to the campaign's tech level. "Local" indicates the community where the character was raised--a village, frontier fortress, desert oasis, or Deck 1026 of the Generation Ship Abel's Next Round. And so on.

Note also that results are arranged on a curve, with "11" being average. Results of "12" and up are increasingly favourable, while results of "10" or less are increasingly crappy. The intent behind this arrangement is to make the table "modifier-friendly," though I confess to not having devised any. But, if you wanted to nudge characters in one direction or another--based on social station, class, or racial type, or other campaign-specific things--it would be easy to do.

Final Words

This approach to character background is completely opposite to last week's post. The tables last week were about cause, which one would use as the basis for current motivations. This week's table is about effect, so one needs to work in reverse and determine the background that led up to it. I'm thinking the two advantages to this approach are that: (1) it produces more immediately useful results, and (2) it promotes more creativity in fleshing out the character's past.

But I'm eager to hear your thoughts. Is this a better way? If so, what additions would you make to the table above?

1. Dibs on another TM. Right there.

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