The Story So Far

A character’s skills appear as a series of numbers or perhaps an amalgamation of dots on a character sheet. They are also, however, the markers of that character’s upbringing and education. Developing the “how” and “why” of a character’s skills can write the majority of that character’s history, as well as go a long way towards establishing the parameters of their worldview.

Martial or violence-oriented characters usually have in their primary hand a physical manifestation of their training: their weapon of choice. Is it “an extension of themselves” as we’ve heard in so many stories, or is it a tool? Why that weapon in particular? Was it the one you could afford? Was it the one you trained with? Potentially more interesting than the death-dealing implement is the reason you resolved to learn death-dealing at all. In a harsh, medieval world, it might be a matter of survival, but those worlds come few and far between in RPGs. When Kings have armies or Mayors have police forces, why did you decided to learn how to do harm to your fellow human beings? Where did you learn and what else did they teach you about the whys and wherefores of violence? Training in violence was a noble’s prerogative throughout most of the medieval period, with the rise of professional mercenaries demanded by Renaissance men, who wished to devote themselves more to study (and/or profit) than to slaughter.

But where did one devote oneself to study, and to the study of what? Scholarly characters are probably more personably relatable to the average RPG player, because we recognize the signs of one of our own – the curiosity and the wish to understand. In the western world, we have a fairly communal idea of what constitutes a proper education, but those conceptions can be upended by questions of money or questions of time period. When there is no university, to say nothing of basic schooling, who taught your character to read and write? Rhetoric is part of a classical model of basic education called the trivium, where it was joined by logic and grammar, of all things. What were the basics of your education and how did it lead into the deeper studies of your specialty? Why does your specialty now demand that you go wandering into harm’s way (at least in most games)? Historically, educational institutes have been far more focused on religion, with more general education as the province of private tutors or specifically established schools. The concept of your character learning to write can begin to inform your PC’s mindset when you conceive of what he or she was taught to write.

Related to the scholarly character is the magician. While some magical systems make the art integral to a character’s being, most presume some sort of training and education. Were you the classic wizard of old, with a single master passing on the esoteric lore? Does the world of your game include large institutions of magic that produce new spellcasters by the score? Institutions will tend to have (and instill) different values in their students than will the itinerant master, to say nothing of the young sorcerer who pursues their art by plumbing books with little or no living supervision. A great many magic systems in RPGs bear little or no resemblance to the Western esoteric traditions of the real world, so your experience may hew closer to that found in fiction, but perhaps you’re playing (or wish to draw from) the history of strangeness of our own world, whether that’s John Dee’s Heptarchia or the spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky.

Drafting your character’s history need not be a creative writing exercise that makes you tired and your GM nervous about whether you’re interested in a collaborative story. Just looking at your character sheet and deciding where all those numbers and dots came from can set you on the road to a richer role-playing experience without a single “I was born in Eastasia…” sentence scribbled.