Monday, May 13, 2019

WIP: Character Background Generator for the Bronze Age (or any Sword and Sorcery setting)

Tables, they said, illuminate a setting by giving us random tables!

First, multiple people suggested different kinds of random tables for my Brazen Princes Bronze Age setting; then Jorunkun mentioned lifepath tables, and d4 Caltrops posted a very nice character background d100 table, which got me thinking. I've been a big fan of character backgrounds in lieu of a formal skill system ever since I first laid eyes on Barbarians of Lemuria, and I have enjoyed using them in various other systems/settings. Done well, a background system is quick, efficient, setting-suggestive, and capable of breathing life into stale old "Brogdab, Human Fighter, level 1." On the other hand, many background tables, awesome as they are, just give you a one-word or one-line description of a career or vocation, which means they lean on ideas or knowledge already at the table to flesh things out.

So I thought about beginning with a more-detailed background generator as a first tool for my Brazen Princes project, and I now find myself elbow-deep in exactly that [To be clear, however, this thing would probably work really well for many low-magic sword-and-sorcery settings].

I expect that new characters should each have 2, or in some cases 3, backgrounds apiece (I have my own character generation hack for Into the Odd that these can fit into, in which a player can choose a 3rd background in exchange for a different benefit). I'm finding that this backgrounds project is taking quite a bit more time than I'd hoped, partly because I'm aiming for conceptual density and away from redundancy, and because I've bitten off somewhere between 30-40 backgrounds. I thought I'd come up for some air and show anyone who cares what this thing is capable of.

It starts, naturally, with a die-table and those one-line descriptions of background types. You roll for a background category and then for individual backgrounds within that category. So, for example, the first category of possible backgrounds is:


d10 Killers:
1-2 Charioteer
3-5 Foot soldier
6-7 Brigand / Counter-brigand
8  Street Tough 
9 Executioner / Palace Torturer
10 Pirate / Raider


...but each of those results has its own further entry with a few sentences of description, then two d4 tables: "Tell us something about this background" and "Why did you leave?" Here's a sample entry from another background category, "Outsiders & Rogues":

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Poisoner / Taster
Skilled in the detection - and application - of poisons, these specialists serve in the shadows or stand unobtrusively at the side of great lords, sniffing and sampling food and drink meant for the lips of the very great (and very paranoid). Poison-tasters likely have built up tolerances to low levels of common toxins. They are, of course, quite adept at poisoning others, too. 

Tell us about this background (1d4):
1 You once saved a dozen lives by detecting the aftertaste of a common poison in a particularly fine, expensive wine. Because you had built up a tolerance to that particular poison, you finished off the rest of the wine with great contentment. They’re still telling that story in the palace. 

2 You perfected a method for masking the nutty aftertaste of a common liquid poison. Apparently, one of your associates sold the secret, because the technique is now being used by other specialists around the Inner Sea. 

3 By adding a lethal ‘special ingredient’ to the ritual cakes at a controversial royal wedding, you once prevented a civil war. 

4 In many cases, the only difference between a poison and a drug is the dosage. You were a drug-maker for a famous physician, until the local lord snapped you up and made you his pre-banquet taster.

Why did you leave (d4)? 
1 Whoever poisoned the frontier lord’s drink was very good. They concocted a mixture that was subtle enough to escape your keen nose, mild enough to slip under your own tolerance threshold, and dangerous enough that repeated doses over several weeks killed off your employer, whose sons turned on you. You barely escaped with your life. 

2 After a few near-misses, you decided that you need greater familiarity with foreign toxins. You set out across the Inner Sea, seeking new information on drugs and poisons wherever you go. 

3 The local governor was cruel, brutal, and debauched. You were all too happy to sell a vial of poison to coat the assassin’s blade…but the assassin was betrayed by a lover, your part in the plot was revealed, and you fled. 

4 Really, you have to ask? You just got tired of sipping possibly-poisoned wine and went looking for other work.  

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Putting these tables together means that with the clatter of some dice you end up with characters like the following (all this info is generated from dice results):

Foot Soldier and Physician: You were a chariot runner, a skirmisher paired with the chariot corps, so you know a foreign noble lord well. You were badly wounded in battle, and left behind with some peasants. You recovered, but your comrades were long gone. You then studied to become a Physician; the treatment of wounds on the battlefield was your specialty. Eventually, you became convinced that medical lore from the Old Empire has much to teach you, so you sought out the company of the sort of adventurers who might help you find undiscovered ancient texts. 

Royal Official and Pirate: You were a very senior scribal official in one of the smallest, least significant palace-states. You miss the feeling of being respected, but you also know how limited your real influence was. Eventually, however, a rival accused you of treason and you were driven away. With few options, you became a crew member on a merchant vessel, but the violent captain turned to piracy and threatened to kill any crew who wouldn’t help. You were only able to leave the pirate’s life when the ship sank in a storm and you washed up on a nearby beach. 

Street Tough and Tomb Robber/Burglar: You were a semi-enslaved pit fighter. The well-to-do made and lost fortunes gambling on your fighting skills, but you gained little more than scars. You finally stole enough to buy passage on a ship or caravan heading elsewhere. After falling in among a gang of burglars and tomb-robbers, you had a brief, intense love affair with a noble’s ward, who had caught you in their chambers during a burglary. Later, after breaking into a remote tomb, you encountered something in the burial chamber that whispered your name as it crawled forward into the torchlight. You didn’t stop running for hours, and then you went looking for a different way to pay for food. But you haven’t had the nightmare in several years, and now maybe you’re bold enough to raid the darkness again. 

These should give a lot of room to express difference among brand-new characters.

What do you think? Would a dozen or so pages of these background descriptions help at your table?

- 'Gundobad'

4 comments:

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    1. Hey, thanks - I appreciate the encouragement and feedback!

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  2. Alistair here. For some reason it won’t let me comment as my Google Account. Sigh.

    So, in response to your post, I’ll echo Ynas Midgard’s response. “Oh yes”. I think it would be useful, definitely.

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    1. Thanks, Alistair, I appreciate the encouraging feedback. I'm hoping to make something available in the quite near future...a first draft of the full generator is almost complete; after further editing it, I may add a couple pages of thoughts about Bronze Age dynamics at the games table, to support the background info. Stay tuned!!!

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