This week I wanted to share a new tool that I find very interesting and helpful to so many people looking to start a campaign and a potential way to get the good foot forward. So in my experiences as a Player and a Game Master of quite a few different RPG’s ranging from D&D5e, Shadowrun, Star Wars, etc, a common theme always seems to jump out at me. Players seem to create cool character designs based on how they envision a character, but they tend to not do so cohesively with the rest of the group and tend to rely upon the Game Master to rally all of them together under one goal and foreceably work together (which usually fails for at least one player in each group).
Many groups have a Session 0 together to talk about character designs and backgrounds but a lot of those still end up with some characters having a distinct different background that might not quite “fit” in with the rest of the party or the Game Master’s campaign. This is how a group of Murder Hobos or the typical “Cutthroat” character can be born.
Now I’m not going to go through a step by step instructional tutorial on how to run a Session 0. There are many of those out there that are really good. In fact, here is one you might want to check out by Tribality (especially if you are running D&D5e): http://www.tribality.com/2016/03/18/running-a-session-zero-for-a-new-campaign/.
But what I would like to do is highlight an interesting Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook that you can take the ideas of how their characters and world building can help create this cohesive and collaborative group of adventurers. I know I’m late to the game on this particular ruleset and the resources and ideas it shares, but if you have not heard of Beyond the Wall and other Adventures, then you are in for a treat like I was.
Beyond the Wall by Flatland Games came out in 2014. It is a system that uses the Old School Revival (OSR) roleplaying elements known to players of RPG’s of the 1970’s and was meant for playing fast, yet detailed, One Shot adventures in a single night. But for my purposes, I am ONLY going to discuss the bits in the supplement for creating characters and some other shared backstory elements when making a party including the village they are all from. This idea can be tailored or re-skinned as needed for ANY Roleplaying Game as well, not just D&D.
So in this supplement, they talk about starting the party out as childhood friends on their first adventure in and around their village. Yes, like the kids from Stranger Things and “IT”, a party starts its bonds strong from the get go as children. During character creation though, each player is given what is called a “Playbook”. In this playbook are some random tables that describe certain details of how the player’s character has grown up in the town, and also some backstory elements of certain players in the party being involved in their up-bringing. Players are also encouraged to elaborate on these stories and create places in the town or NPC’s that relate to the backstory. (As a GM, I love the idea of shared world-building, but if that is not for you, just skip those parts and have them create background stories that aren’t necessarily pertinent to your story, or help them come up with these NPC’s or Locations that fit in your narrative) Below is an example from a playbook surrounding only the Backstory elements.
Example from The Knightless Squire Playbook Tables
What was your childhood like? – Rolled 3. “Wealth. Your family’s coffers are the fullest in all the land.”
- Add a Location to the Village– I would add the character’s family estate to the village map
How did you distinguish yourself as a child? – Rolled 5. “Your empathy made you a sought after confidant.”
The other player characters were your best friends. Who else near your family’s estates befriended you while you were growing up? – Rolled 1 “Laboring with the blacksmith took your mind off your troubles.”
- Add an NPC to the Village- I added Old One Armed McGilicuty who needed my character’s help around the shop. It made me strong and taught me a thing or two about the craftsmanship of weapons.
Who was your knight? – Rolled 6 “A knight errant who had long traveled the lands, righting wrongs and bringing justice.” Of course more names and deeds could be elaborated here.
How did you lose your knight? – Rolled 4 “Your knight was mortally wounded in an accident at a tourney.”
- Add a Location to the Village– I would add the arena that this tournament took place to the village map
Which of your lost knight’s rivals came to the estate? (The player to your right was there with you.) – Rolled 3 “Your former knight’s brother, his arch-rival, came and disputed your right to bear the knight’s arms. While you were not his match, you withstood his blows and he left with respect.”
- It doesn’t ask specifically to elaborate more on this, but it would be fun to have me and the other player describe out the details of this encounter, naming the rival and such.
What possession of your knight’s do you keep? – Rolled 1 “A strong and trustworthy steed.” I shall name my mighty steed “Butternuts” (if you get this reference, you enjoyed 90’s comedy)
From this example we have already been given alot more background elements to a character than most usually come up with on their own. And if player’s take the time to flesh out the details of these, even better well rounded character backgrounds can be formed. But most importantly, it also provides a cohesive relationship with one character and a plot hook for the GM to use with this supposed arch-rival. Do this for the rest of the party, and each player will have a story they were involved with in another character’s background, and have things to pull on throughout their adventure.
The full Beyond the Wall Rules can be found on Drive Thru RPG here in PDF format for $7.99. There are a TON of free supplements too that you can get your hands on to use without necessarily paying for the full rules (since you are incorporating this into your D&D, Pathfinder, or other RPG rules anyway). But of course supporting an author in our hobby is definitely always the most admirable thing to do! And if you plan to use Playbooks for more custom character backgrounds, say if you were running something not High Fantasy, they even have a “Pay What You Want” supplement on how to create your own Playbooks called Heroes Young and Old. Simply ask your players before Session 0 what type of Class and Race in your game that they are playing, then simply fill in the Playbook tables with information about your RPG of choice’s Story or whatever makes sense for YOUR game.
If you want to try this out with your group and if you make any great Playbooks out of it, feel free to link to them in the comments below or provide feedback. And as always adventurers, HAPPY GAMING!