D&D 5e: Determining Your Character's Recent History

D&D 5e: Determining Your Character's Recent History

I tweaked this image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/casino-poker-playing-studio-bet-1107736/

Character backstories are great and I always encourage my player's to create them. However, it's rare that I play with someone who is as invested in what happened to their character before the game started, as the stories they've actually played out. I think I have a middle ground that I hope will expedite my player's investment in their characters.

In a previous article I mentioned how I'm looking for a more narrative tool for rewarding experience in my next D&D campaign. Well, being the tinkering nerd that I am it's inevitable that I'm trying out a few different homebrew systems this campaign. Hopefully nothing too overwhelming for my player's, mostly just a few changes in the corners of the system. Well, that's not necessarily entirely true. At least one of my player's has chosen a class I homebrewed about a year ago (of course it's central theme is talking; I should post it here some time), and another has expressed interest in one of my custom races. But, those are player driven choices. If I'm going to force a change on the game, I think it's best to position it in the edges where it doesn't fundamentally change the expectations of what it means to play D&D.

At our first session we're going to do character creation as a group (despite being pretty common nomenclature in RPG circles, I think the term Session Zero is unnecessarily jargonistic for new players). Six of my seven players are veterans of my last campaign, and we're replacing the one drop-out with a brand new player. The characters in the new campaign will all start at level 3, but I want to encourage the players to feel like they are already in their character's heads. Some of you may notice similarities between what I have put together and D&D skill checks, or even character creation from other systems like Traveller. Yup. I've mixed a whole lot of stuff together to fit my needs.

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/angry-boy-child-evil-2338031/I'm going to do a series of vignettes with each player that will tell the story of how their character first became an adventurer, then how they advanced through each level. However, success isn't assumed. Each vignette will require a single die roll to determine the success or failure of the story we are collaborating on. No matter what the outcome of the roll, the character will move one step closer to the next level, with one vignette for their Background, then three more per level. This will mean that before we start the first group mission, each player will have rolled the dice seven times, and have seven events in their character's backstory that were shaped with the aid of the bones. I'll include the full rules as I've written them for my player's below, but let me first explain what I was thinking when I made this.

I've done backstory vignettes in the past with varying success. Mostly, I've suspected that the player's feel less invested in these because A) they have almost complete narrative control, and B) they already know how their character is going to start the game. Not anymore. A) is easy to change by introducing a die roll with differing degrees of difficulty. As you'll see below I have a strict formula to follow for the DC (difficulty) of each roll. What proficiency the character uses for each check is determined by the player. With the right choices, probability is definitely on the side of the player for the basic level of each check. To combat B), there is a higher success level for great rolls, and there is penalties for failure.

Because I am guaranteeing that the character will advance through each proficiency check, regardless of success or failure, I'm mostly offering money as a reward. But, I try and motivate my player's with other things too. For really Great Successes player's will occasionally be able to roll on a table from which I'll then offer a reward tailored for the story we've just told. On a failure, they may be robbed, maimed, or even die. That last bit sounds really crappy though and I hate the idea of how some games (no finger pointing) can completely remove any of the fun from your character during this type of character creation. I think I have an answer for that too.

D&D is a fantasy game not a reality simulator; death is only the end if you want it to be. During play, I have no problem letting characters die; in our last campaign we had five or six deaths. The only one of those that was permanent was due to the player wanting to retire the character. I always include a narrative cost for death, but I also believe it should be the player's choice if their character remains dead. I have dozens of different story driven methods for characters to return from the grave and offer each player a selection to choose from.

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/skull-bones-skeleton-head-death-2525192/With that as my philosophy, overcoming a negative consequence in character creation is as simple as offering the player a choice. You can choose to keep the consequence as is or, they can choose to declare that the reward of a different vignette will reverse a previous failure. A 'dead' character can become a ghost (or something) that spends it's time trying to get resurrected. Why not? If a character happens to have died on the very last vignette of character creation, then we'll have to get a little more creative. I don't mind this though as it just gives me more story hooks. The characters will all start the game alive and useful, they may just owe some interesting favours to some interesting people. With tangible stakes for success and failure, I want a way to inspire the player's to experience memorable stories.

If a player is absolutely confident in a vignette they want to play, I'll likely make that happen. I'll even encourage some of them to group up on their vignette's to create some inter-character backstory. However, expecting each player to be able to come up with seven different stories on the spot might be a bit much to ask. For that I have more tables. I believe that tables are a lazy DMs best friend. The thematic tables I have for generating events are entirely designed for my science fantasy setting. It is more than a little farcical, so these exact tables are likely of little use. However, I'll include them for anyone who wants some inspiration for how to do their own.

WARNING
Most of the Recent Event tables are silly. However, a few are designed to tell a more risque tale, while some are inspiration for horror stories.

 

The simple formula is, the first table gives you a basic theme. Then, the secondary table gives you a specific hook within that theme. From there both you and your player need to interpret what it means for the character and what the parameters for success and failure would have looked like. The player chooses a proficiency they want to use to try and succeed (there are some rules to stop player's simply spamming the exact same proficiency for every roll), rolls it and compares against the DC for that vignette. Finally, you both describe how it resolves.

I don't think there's anything inherently unique or magical about this system. It's just some simple guidelines for one way in which I hope to encourage my player's to be emotionally invested in their character's before we even begin the campaign proper.

As with my experience rules, below I've copy and pasted the text as it currently appears in the current draft of my campaign document. So, when you see reference to Ghostdrive (the name of my setting) and other things that don't sound very traditionally D&D, feel free to just ignore them.

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/photo-manipulation-alien-foreign-1825450/Recent History

Depending upon your starting level, your character already has some recent history. These events represent your character's previous experiences and adventures before the start of the campaign. Each event happened over a flexible amount of time (as agreed with your DM) and as a result you may have earnt rewards, or suffered failures.

At what level, and in what order, your character encountered an event, determines both their chance of success as well as their potential reward. The Successful Outcome table determines the DC for each event as well as the potential reward. Details on how to generate a recent event, as well as how to determine the results, are detailed under Steps-to-Success.

1st level characters have one even in their recent history. For each level you are starting above 1st, your character has an additional 3 events in their recent past that earnt them each additional level. For example, a 3rd level character will have 7 events in their recent history:

  • Using the B column from the Succesful Outcome table, xe begun at 1st level with 1 recent event.
  • Using columns 1-3 from the Succesful Outcome table, at 1st level xe engaged in 3 events to earn 2nd level.
  • Again using columns 1-3 from the Succesful Outcome table, at 2nd level xe engaged in 3 events to earn 3rd level.

The thematic nature and specifics of your recent events are randomly determined by the relevant tables. Collaborating with your DM, you summarise the specifics, then roll for the results. Complete each event before moving on to the next, as a failure in one event, can be mitigated by a success in a later.

Before rolling for the outcome of an event you can declare that success will mitigate an accrued failure from a previous event, instead of earning any associated reward. When mitigating a failure, a great success has no additional benefit.

Steps-to-Success

I tweaked someone else's image using GIMP. You can find the original at https://pixabay.com/en/success-ocean-beach-shore-coast-846055/

  1. Before each recent event, declare if it was undertaken to earn you a reward, or to resolve a past failure.
  2. Using a major arcana tarot deck (or 3d8), consult the Themes table to determine the nature of your past adventure.
  3. Roll 1d6 on the corresponding event table to determine the specifics of the scenario.
  4. Working with your DM, develop a brief summary of what this means for your character and what they need to have done to consider it a successful tale.
  5. Choose an appropriate skill or tool proficiency that corresponds with your objective. When doing this multiple times, the proficiency cannot be the same as either of the last two events.
  6. Compare the results of your roll against the DC provided in the Successful Outcome table.
  7. On a success, note down your reward. On a failure, roll on the Failures table.
  8. Repeat as necessary.

Interpreting the Tables

Following the Steps-to-Success you will consult the following tables to generate your recent history. The tables are loose guidelines, left intentionally vague to so as to give room for collaborative interpretation between you and your DM.

On a success, if you are lucky enough to roll for a Boon, you might roll 'Tool Proficiency'. That's pretty straightforward and you and your DM can agree on an appropriate option. However, if you roll 'Windfall' the result could be anything that fits the style of story you and your DM are creating.

If luck goes against you and you roll for a Failure, the story may be even better than if you had succeeded. The scariest result on that table is likely 'You died.' Don't panic. While death is possible when generating your recent history, the assumption is that by the time the game starts, you got better. You might use success in a new event to offset your death (or any other failure) or you and your DM may work that into the story of how you join the group. Death in the actual game is often more permanent, but who wants to reroll a new character before they've even properly played them? If your DM is inflexible and insists your dead as a result of a pregame roll, get a better DM.

TABLE: Successful Outcome
Recent Event B 1 2 3
Partial Success DC 10 10 15 20
Partial Success Reward 20gp 5gp / level 10gp / level 15gp / level
Great Success DC 15 15 20 15
Great Success Reward 30gp +
1 Boon
10gp / level 15gp / level 20gp / level +
1 Boon
TABLE: Boons
1d8 Theme
1 Tool Proficiency
2 Language Proficiency
3 Magic Item
4 Influential Contact
5 Faction Membership
6 Idiosyncratic Ability
7 Companion
8 Windfall
TABLE: Failures
1d12 Theme
1 Your insane clone escaped
2 You made an enemy
3 You earned a bounty
4 You caught a mutagenic virus
5 A loved one sacrificed themselves for you
6 You lost all your money and possessions
7 You died
8 You lost your… (1: dominant arm; 2: non-dominant arm; 3-4: dominant leg; 5-6: non-dominant leg)
9 You owe a large debt to powerful people
10 Someone else now owns your soul
11 You went… (1: deaf; 2: blind, 3: mute)
12 A parasite grows within you
TABLE: Recent Event Themes
Card or 3d8 Recent Event Table
3 - The Fool Weird Stuff
4 - The Magician Arcane Matters
5 - The High Priestess Secret Matters
6 - The Empress Family Troubles
7 - The Emperor Business Dealings
8 - The Hierophant Religious Matters
9 - The Lovers Relationships
10 - The Chariot Spaceships
11 - Strength Heroism
12 - The Hermit Supernatural Events
13 - Wheel of Fortune Prophecies
14 - Justice Crimes
15 - The Hanged Man Punishment
16 - Death Transformations
17 - Temperance Tragedies and Triumphs
18 - The Devil Hedonism
19 - The Tower Wars
20 - The Star Good Fortune
21 - The Moon Horrific Events
22 - The Sun Galactic Events
23 - Judgement Jury Duty
24 - The World Education
TABLE: Arcane Matters
1d6 Recent Event
1 A wizard flushed a powerful magic item.
2 A sorcerer caught a magical disease.
3 A restaurant was butchering unicorns for meat.
4 Someone summoned a moderately unhelpful evil.
5 You best friend started hiccuping dark secrets.
6 You grew an extra eye in the centre of your chest.
TABLE: Business Dealings
1d6 Recent Event
1 You ran a failing food truck.
2 You discovered your business partner was secretly a serial killer.
3 You got fired from your job after punching an arms dealer.
4 You purchased a crate of merchandise to sell at a fan convention.
5 You went to a business seminar run by mindflayers.
6 You traded something valuable for ownership of a lost asteroid.
TABLE: Crimes
1d6 Recent Event
1 You were accused of murder.
2 You participated in a heist.
3 You stole a spaceship.
4 You were the victim of identity theft.
5 Someone stole your kidneys.
6 You kidnapped a proze-winning pet.
TABLE: Education
1d6 Recent Event
1 You studied at an exclusive university.
2 You studied under one of the greatest minds in existence.
3 You were expelled from university.
4 Unqualified, you taught a remedial class at a community college.
5 You blew up a school.
6 You were the private tutor for the only child of a crime lord.
TABLE: Family Troubles
1d6 Recent Event
1 Your mother tried to have you declared legally incompetent.
2 Your father mind swapped with you against your will.
3 A previously unknown sibling tried to steal one of your organs.
4 Your grandmother got arrested for illegal racing.
5 Your grandfather founded a new religion.
6 A previously unknown child sued you for unpaid alimony.
TABLE: Galactic Events
1d6 Recent Event
1 You fought in an interstellar war.
2 You fought against the incursion of a planetary sized evil.
3 You helped arrest a supreme being.
4 You fought in a key battle between the Empire of Anguis and the Wyrmsbane alliance.
5 You worked on carving an asteroid into a sculpture of a god.
6 You were patient zero for an interstellar pandemic.
TABLE: Good Fortune
1d6 Recent Event
1 You won a lottery.
2 You inherited property on a distant planet from a previously unknown relative.
3 You were the sole survivor of a Devourer raid.
4 When you tripped into a gutter, you found a bag.
5 You narrowly avoided being kidnapped by slavers.
6 You were once mistaken for royalty.
TABLE: Hedonism
1d6 Recent Event
1 You started partying on one planet, but woke up on another.
2 Someone sold you cursed cocaine.
3 You participated in an interstellar pub-crawl.
4 You spent a week on a space-station dedicated to free love.
5 You snuck into a royal harem.
6 You awoke in a hotel room in complete disarray. There was an owlbear in the bathroom, a pseudodragon in the living room, and a baby in the closet.
TABLE: Heroism
1d6 Recent Event
1 You saved a small outpost from a volcano.
2 You stopped an invasion.
3 You survived a betrayal.
4 You saved a parasitic dimension from implosion.
5 You save a baby from a burning building.
6 You were instrumental in stopping an apocalypse.
TABLE: Horrific Events
1d6 Recent Event
1 You killed the zombie of a loved one.
2 You witnessed a group of children tear apart and eat an elderly woman.
3 Your right hand tried to choke you.
4 You vomitted up a pown of maggots.
5 You witnessed a loved one brutally murder another loved one.
6 Your mother fed you sausaged made from your first love.
TABLE: Jury Duty
1d6 Recent Event
1 A young girl was accused of killing a werewolf that she insisted ate her grandma.
2 Eleven well known actors were accused of robbing a casino.
3 A young halfling was accused of stelaing a king's magic ring.
4 A famous sports star was accused os killin his wife and her lover.
5 A prince was accused of unwanted physical contact with a sleeping princess while seven dwarves watched.
6 A werewolf was accused of blowing up two houses and eating the occupants.
TABLE: Prophecies
1d6 Recent Event
1 Your prophecy was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.
2 An old woman one told you "before the Comet comes, many worlds will be scoured with want and famine."
3 A newborn whispered in your ear "for even the very wise cannot see all ends."
4 You were the only one to hear the dying words of an orc, "your death will knock four times."
5 In a dream, a hummingbird told you "wrong will be right, when Steve comes in sight, at the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more."
6 One morning you awoke to find a message on your mirror; "One to be a murderer. One to be a martyr. One to be a monarch. One to go mad."
TABLE: Punishments
1d6 Recent Event
1 You spent 180 days incarcerated.
2 Your grandfather wrote you out of his will.
3 You spent a year as an indentured servant.
4 All your possessions were repossessed.
5 Someone cut off one of your hands.
6 You accrued 10d6 parking fines.
TABLE: Relationships
1d6 Recent Event
1 You were left standing at the altar.
2 Someone took you under their wing.
3 Your best-friend roped you into a scheme.
4 An ex-lover returned from being trapped in a parasitic dimension.
5 You were catfished by a literal catfish.
6 You married your clone.
TABLE: Religious Matters
1d6 Recent Event
1 You trained to be an evangelist.
2 You uncovered a sex cult run by actors.
3 A small sect of fanatics believed you to be the reincarnation of their deity.
4 Your pet was believed to be a sacred being.
5 You were visited by a prophet.
6 You found the tomb of a dead god.
TABLE: Secret Matters
1d6 Recent Event
1 You were an unwitting corporate spy.
2 You found proof of who killed the president.
3 Your secret admirire sent you a letter-bomb.
4 Your secret shame was discovered.
5 You know what someoen did last summer.
6 Somehow, you ended up with a high-tech prototype that could change The Known.
TABLE: Spaceships
1d6 Recent Event
1 You were involved in a shuttle stealing ring.
2 You salvaged a crashed ship.
3 You befriended a demon possessed fighter.
4 You believe you were the sole survivor of a becalmed vessel.
5 You spent 41 days lost in the bowels of a derelict carrier.
6 You crashed your parents' shuttle.
TABLE: Supernatural Events
1d6 Recent Event
1 You battled a possessed teddy bear.
2 You were cured of lycanthropy.
3 The disembodied voice of an angel convinced you to do something.
4 It turned out your imaginary friend wasn't quite so imaginary.
5 You were bitten by a vampire.
6 You hosted a divine pregnancy.
TABLE: Tragedies and Triumphs
1d6 Recent Event
1 You lost an arm, but someone bought you an upgrade.
2 While defeating your nemesis, you were responsible for an onnocent's death.
3 Your posse captured a famous outlaw. You were the only one to survive the curse.
4 At different times, one of your parents was murdered, a sibling was murdered, your best friend died in a freak accident, and your lover was the victim of a terrorist attack. You achieved acclaim for your chosen profession though.
5 You won a mystery meat cooking contest. The meat was your childhood pet.
6 Your parents were eaten by a wild animal. They left you a large inheritance.
TABLE: Transformations
1d6 Recent Event
1 You spent 1d100+150 days as a peacock.
2 You spent 1d100+120 days as the opposite gender.
3 Your left hand was incorporeal for 1d100 days.
4 For 1d100+230 days, within 30 seconds any clothing you wore turned into snakes.
5 Your lover was transformed into a purple hermit crab.
6 You spent 1d100+35 days invisible.
TABLE: Wars
1d6 Recent Event
1 You fought for the losing side of a war.
2 You fought for the winning side of a war.
3 You fought for both sides of a war.
4 You were a prisoner of war.
5 You interrogated prisoners in a war.
6 A war was your fault.
TABLE: Weird Stuff
1d6 Recent Event
1 A talking hyena hired you to steel the breath of a giraffe.
2 You spent 1d100+200 days as an ants butler.
3 You woke in a room with three clowns, a barrel of mayonnaise, and an ancient religious relic.
4 A book tried to eat you.
5 You lost track of how many days you were trapped in a time loop.
6 You were abducted by cows.