What drives a “normal” person to take to the wayward life of adventure? Tanners, soldiers, smugglers, musicians, rarely are people born heroes, and even when presented with great power they may not be so inclined to take up the great responsibility. Ordinary people have lives, families, jobs and a status to keep quo, and don’t want to spend weeks walking between death traps for ungrateful clients and nations that will never know their names. It’s dangerous, difficult, stupid, and frankly not a great return on investment.
And yet our valiant heroes and murder hobos take to the life of irregular meals, uncomfortable places to sleep and certain, visceral death. You’d better have a damn good reason to do so. In a roleplay you have the choice of composing your heroic character, but when thrust into the mad world conjured up by your DM what is there that can drag you away from the bar other than an empty bank account? Here’s a few ideas and prompts to help your character avoid cliches, conflicting with the story, and drinking themselves into oblivion.
The Call To Action
Adventure and heroism is something we are driven to. You’d be hard pressed to find a good example of a character who simply chose to undertake the life of a hero. The Call to Action is a classic literary device that often forms the basis of your average “Act 1” in which the protagonist is subject to events that propel him or her into the narrative, a few prime examples:
Loss – Batman would never have taken the cowl if his parents hadn’t died before his eyes. Luke Skywalker may never have left home if his Aunt and Uncle had still been alive. A harsh reminder of our mortality can be one hell of a driving force, especially when combined with other lesser pivotal experiences, like the arrival of a mysterious figure, the trappings of a harsh world, or the circumstances of the death itself.
Disaster – Whether called to prevent disaster like Bilbo Baggins, or thrust headfirst into excitement by it like Jack from Bioshock, a major catastrophic event is often a focal point for many a character to leap to action. Moments like this tend to change everything, be it for the world or just for one person. Disasters are more common in computer games because they are very theatrical and easy to present as a motivation.
Personal Realisation – Tony Stark was presented with the harsh reality of his life’s work (granted in a disaster situation, but you follow my meaning) and set about amending things. Would Jack Sparrow have abandoned a life of self-preservation and indulgence if he hadn’t been shown forcibly that he’s still capable of caring for others? The truth is often enough to break us from a path of reckless abandon and set us to a mission that flies against everything we once believed.
Risk vs Reward – It’s sometimes enough to say that the end is worth the means. Borderlands’ vault hunters are driven by greed to land the greatest treasure in six galaxies. Manny Calavera is losing everything and only the truth can save him. If you have nothing to lose, why not make a grab for everything, because even the longest of shots is worth taking if your only other choice is to waste the chance.
Who’s Story is it Anyway?
The biggest issue when coming up with your back story is how well it can interact with that of your fellow players and the plot the DM has in mind. Don’t forget that you are a protagonist, not the protagonist, because it can be all too easy to make up some brilliant story just to have it ignored by the rest of the group because that’s not the kind of game they want to play.
Your source material (if you have any) can help you immensely, by offering up factions that you might belong to, locations you might have come from, and historical events you might have been part of. If you play a Firefly based campaign for example, which side of the war were you on? In an Arthurian legend, could you be a squire to a Knight of the Round Table, or a simple witness to the extraction of Excalibur?
Consider teaming up with someone in your gaming group to join backstories together, or better yet get everyone on board. Maybe you’re a gang of street-toughs, tribal warriors, a crew of smugglers, sworn servants of a higher power or indentured servants of a hard-hearted patron. Is another member of the party a relative, friend, lover (or even an ex if you want to throw an interesting spanner right into the works)?
The best person to talk to is always going to be your DM, they can help your character fit right into the story and help you get the most out of the game with a few bits of advice or guidelines. They might want everyone to be somewhat normal, so that they can thrust you into an adventure your character wasn’t ready for, they might want seasoned adventurers with loose motivations, or perhaps you have a DM capable of taking everyone’s backstory and weaving it all together into one incredible adventure, no small feat but it’s quite possible for someone with plenty of experience.