Recently I made a post about developing origin stories for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. In Phoenix, the PCs aren’t casual adventurers; their world is facing a mysterious and terrible threat, and the narrative is about fighting that Dread and trying to unravel its mysteries. As such it’s vital for every character to establish what they are fighting for. Further, the protagonists of Phoenix have died and returned imbued with new skill and supernatural power, and the type of Phoenix you become is determined by the nature of your death and the lessons that you learned… so it’s important to think about who your character was before they became a hero, and exactly how they died.
In Phoenix, this is a cornerstone of the story that drives the campaign. In Eberron — or D&D in general — that’s not always the case. If you know you’re just doing a straight-up dungeon crawl, it may be that the only thing that really matters is your statistics. But even so, what I love about RPGs — as player or GM — is the fact that we’re building a story together. And I want my character to be someone whose story I’d like to know. I could be a 1st level human fighter — done. Or I could be a dragonmarked heir who broke ties with his house to fight for Cyre, because he truly believed their cause was just and the Sovereigns were on their side. Now the war is over, and the Mourning shattered his faith and destroyed everything he loved. Will he try to get back into his house? Will he seek out Prince Oargev and fight on behalf of the Cyran people? Will he find his faith again in a divine revelation, and take levels of paladin or cleric? Will he be approached by the Twelve to become part of a secret group of excoriates doing deniable missions for the houses, or uncover a Quori infestation that’s taken over his old family? I don’t know. But I’d love to see any of those stories play out. And even if we DO just go on a few dungeon crawls, I still feel like this is a character and not just a set of numbers.
If I want a campaign with a clear focus, I’ll often talk to the players and encourage them to come up with a shared character concept that gives them a clear connection from the start and defines the direction of the campaign. Perhaps they’re all members of the Boromar Clan. Or they’re all agents of the Royal Eyes. Or they’re a Valenar warband. Or they all fought for Cyre in the Last War. Or they own an airship. Everyone understands the core story — “We’re all secret agents” — and they should come up with a concept that fits that.
But sometimes it’s more fun to have everyone come up with a unique character that doesn’t have any pre-existing connection and to have the campaign be what brings them together, and that’s what I’d like to explore now… when you’re making a character on your own, but want to develop a compelling story.
Eberron gives a number of handles for you to latch on to. The Last War is one of the easy ones. The war only ended two years ago. If you have the skills of a player character, you’re a capable person… so did you fight in the war? If so, who did you fight for? What did you do? How do you feel about the outcome? If you didn’t fight in the war, why not? What did you do instead? Did you oppose the war or simply find a different path? Personally, I often choose Cyre as a nation for my PCs because the concept of having lost everything is a strong foundation for why a person would become an adventurer. They have no home to return to; everything they once had is gone. So why not seek their fortune in an unconventional manner? On the other hand, there’s ways to do this with any nation. Consider…
- I fought for Karrnath during the last War. But I’m a follower of the Blood of Vol, and King Kaius betrayed us. Now my friends and family are pariahs in my homeland. I’m equally angry at Kaius for turning on us and on the Order of the Emerald Claw for taking actions that turn the world against us… and if I every have the chance, I’ll make sure that both Kaius and the Emerald Claw pay for what they’ve done.
- I fought for Thrane during the Last War, as a paladin of the Silver Flame. I love my home and my family, but far too often my duties as a soldier seemed to be at odds with what the Voice of the Flame tells me is right. I fear that ruling Thrane distracts the Church from its true mission and invites corruption, and I want to protect the innocent – all innocents – from supernatural evil, not serve the cause of one nation over others. So I have struck out on my own, following the Flame as I hear it.
- I fought for Aundair in the Last War, as youngest son of a noble family of wizards. My parents urged me to stay in the army; there can be no true justice in the world until Galifar is restored. But I know that I will never reach my potential studying with military preceptors. Beyond that, I feel that if Aundair is to triumph in the next war, it needs more than just well-trained wizards. It needs to unravel the mystery of the Mourning. It needs to learn the epic magics of the giants and the dragons. I have left my nation in pursuit of power, but it is always a part of me and I will return.
- I fought for Breland during the Last War. I’m proud of what I did, but I was looking forward to coming home and hanging up my sword for good. Instead I returned to find my family and friends (being extorted by the corrupt watch/murdered by Daask/squeezed by the Twelve/consumed by a Cult of the Dragon Below/haunted by an ancient curse). I may not serve the crown any more, but it looks like my war has just begun.
When developing a character on your own, it’s important to remember that you will be part of a group. So however powerful and compelling your personal story is, it has to be something that can accommodate other stories. If your backstory is I must get to Thronehold to stop the second Mourning, it’s hard to explain why you’d take a break from that quest to help a friend or investigate a murder. While with the examples above, the goals are long-term as opposed to being urgent. The Karrn generally hates Kaius and the Order of the Emerald Claw, which gives the DM two hooks they could use… but he doesn’t have a specific Emerald Claw plot he has to deal with RIGHT NOW. The Aundairian wants to uncover magical secrets, so any story that could justifiably include an opportunity to learn something new will be of interest… and if nothing like that shows up, there’s no reason she can’t do something else while waiting for the next opportunity. You want a backstory that can add a sense of depth to any situation — not one that’s entirely reliant on the whole group embracing your personal story.
The Last War is one easy source of character hooks. The Dragonmarked Houses are another. Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head:
- You’re a dragonmarked heir working as an agent of your house. You have a patron in the house who may offer you advice or assignments.
- You’re an excoriate unjustly banished from your house and you want to find a way to clear your name.
- Your parents were excoriates. As a foundling, you have to decide if you want to return to the house… and is there a mystery to solve or a feud to settle involving your parents’ excoriation?
- Your parents were remarkable artificers who made a breakthrough and then were mysteriously killed/vanished/were ruined. You believe House Cannith was responsible and have sworn to take vengeance on the house. Are you correct? Or might you uncover some deeper truth as the campaign goes on? This same premise could be translated to any house; just change the occupation to match the house’s sphere.
In the recent Phoenix post I presented a number of more exotic backstories. Even these can be adapted to Eberron if you use some imagination.
- The Ship’s Cat is the idea of an unnaturally talented child. Personally, I am a strong advocate of changing the flavor of mechanical elements to fit the needs of a story. In this example, I’d be open to the idea of letting the player use the mechanical statistics of a halfling, even though for other purposes (including Dragonmarks) we’d consider the character to be human.
- The Adventuring Archaeologist doesn’t require any unusual mechanics, but it is also about the story… the idea that the character is driven to uncover some of the secrets of the world. In this case, I’d advise picking a mystery that’s big enough that it doesn’t have to be solved all at once. For example, you could be intrigued by planar incursions, wanting to investigate the Xoriat incursion that destroyed the Empire of Dhakaan; the Quori-Giant Conflict; and along the way, perhaps you will discover evidence of previously unknown planar incursions, either something that happened in the past or an incursion that’s about to happen. Or perhaps you want to uncover magical secrets, looking for forgotten lore of the Culsir, the Qabalrin, or even the dragons themselves.
- The Old Soldier is a concept closely tied to Phoenix: a hero of a previous age who has returned to accomplish a task in the present day. But there’s a few ways to explore the same idea in Eberron. The article Dolurrh’s Dawn presents an entire village of reincarnated legends. You could be a creation of Mordain the Fleshweaver or House Vadalis — you have the appearance of the legend, but are you truly the hero reborn or are you some sort of trick? Alternately, the Watchful Rest is a sect that maintains that Aureon and the Keeper preserve great souls from Dolurrh so they can be reborn when needed… could this be your story? Obviously it may be odd if you’re starting at a low level when you were once a hero… but this can still be justified as your full memories not having been instantly restored.
- The Bad Dog is a bigger challenge. Equipment isn’t important in Phoenix, so the idea of playing a talking dog doesn’t create as many challenges as it does in D&D. With that said, you could certainly play an animal reincarnated into human form. The question then is who performed the spell. Were you the companion of a lone druid, who may have died themselves? Or do you have a connection to one of the druidic sects? Like playing a warforged, an animal reincarnated into human form is an interesting opportunity to explore what it means to be human.
I have a lot of fun building backgrounds with my players for their characters, and I always try to encourage them to develop a story or even run through character background quizzes if they are stuck.
Presenting concrete questions is a good way to help players who don’t know where to begin. Phoenix has a list of basic questions people answer as part of character generation. When I do one-shots, I often present people with multiple-choice questionnaires to give them a quick jump into the world; you can see an example of this in this set of pregens for Phoenix.
Recently I have started a roleplay exercise where in between sessions we will ask background questions that may not come up in game, but help shape the character. The goblin PC might hail from Darguun, but how does he feel that his parents were Cyran? The old orc Gatekeeper lived a full life before he ever left the Marches, so does he see his children or have they grown into adventurers of their own?
This is an excellent approach. When a campaign just begins, people don’t know who their characters are, and trying to nail down this level of detail is simply going to be overwhelming. But as the players become more familiar with their characters, it can be be a lot of fun to explore further during downtime. In Phoenix we encourage players to talk about what happens between missions – Interludes – during these “offline” times.
Do you have any suggestions for characters from lands outside of the Five Nations such as Xen’drik natives coming to Khorvaire, or ways for a Seren to get pulled into the Last War?
It’s a pretty broad question – “Xen’drik natives” covers a lot of ground. But focusing on the Seren, with answers that could apply to some Xen’drik backgrounds…
- Following a personal divine vision
- Sent by tribal leader/mystic/dragon to accomplish a quest
- Driven by insatiable curiosity; you want to see the entire world.
- Exiled from your tribe for a crime (was this justified, or are they innocent?)
- Seeking vengeance on foreigner who came to your land and did something terrible; realizes it will take a long time to find this person and to gain the power/allies needed to defeat them, but starting that journey.
- Same as above, but consider that “a foreigner” could be “a Dragonmarked house” – you’re going to bring down an organization that has done you wrong (better match for Xen’drik than Seren, but still).
- A foreigner lived among your people. Depending on race, they could have been one of your parents, or could have been your mentor or best friend. Following your death you have traveled to their land to find the truth to their stories/finish the quest they never completed/avenge them/carry out their dying wish.
I used a variation of that last one with the Ghaash’kala half-orc paladin I played in the last 5E Eberron campaign I was in; my father was a paladin from Thrane who came to the Demon Wastes & lived among the Ghaash’kala, dying long before I ever knew him; in the campaign, I was dispatched to the green lands with my father’s sword with a specific mission (protect one of the other PCs, a mysterious reincarnation of Jaela Daeran – long story) but I personally wanted to learn more about my father and why he’d left his homeland.
As for what could draw them into the Last War? Mercenary work. Friendship — fighting to protect their best friend, even though they know nothing of the politics of the war. A vendetta against an enemy commander; they don’t care about the war, they were just hoping to get close enough to kill the commander. Testing the skills of these foreign soldiers, while honing their own.
If you have any questions — or if you’d like to share your own favorite origin story — post them below!