Creating Past Lives For PCs

From Jedi Hart

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0232

A Brief Word From Johnn

Check Out The Free NPC Essentials NPC Generator

Thanks to Jean-Michel Bravo, Tips reader and NPC Essentials owner, for whipping up a cool NPC background and personality generator. It uses the OGL charts from the NPC Essentials book to randomly create an NPC profile, including family, secrets, personality traits, schooling, and more. It’s freeware and you can download it here:

Thanks very much Jean-Michel!

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I encourage you to surf over and vote in this year’s Gen Con ENnies–and not just because is up for an award. While your support is much appreciated, I welcome you to swing by the voting site and voice your opinion, regardless of whom you vote for.

I feel that publishers, and the RPG industry as a whole, needs to hear from its fans. You need to let publishers know what you like and what you don’t so that product quality continues to grow.

A good voter turnout is also a way to send the world the message that pen & paper RPGs are alive and well!

You can register for free and vote here:

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Creating Past Lives For PCs

Here’s an interesting concept for your campaigns. It’s been done in video games a few times, and it works great for gaming groups as well. It’s the idea that the player characters themselves have walked your world before, in the same guise or similar, and have affected the world around them.

This was inspired mostly by a CRPG called Planescape: Torment (great game), but the concept is definitely worth having a look at. This is all done under the players noses as well, as they will have no idea of what they’ve done in their past lives (perfectly recreating amnesia).

This concept can fit easily into a long-running campaign, injecting some new life (pun not intended ? into stale characters, or it could be made as the centre piece for a new one.

Create Important Deeds

Whatever you decide the players have done in their past lives, it has to be of great importance. This is so that it will be remembered by people and so the effects they’ve caused is very visible.For my group, it was the PCs who created a long feud between two nations that has run through 100 years of bloodshed.

Create Reasonable Motives

You must have a good reason for the actions the PCs took in their past lives. Even though the players might discover or realise that they have done something incredible or horrible, they will not know why, at first.Solving the motive of why a player’s character would do something like that is almost as interesting as finding out _what_ he has done.

My group’s motive was that they originally tried to unleash a great demon to bring one of their loved ones back to life. The demon required great blood to be spilt though, so the party rallied the army to fight and devastate the land. After 100 years of bloodshed, the demon promises that the one they love will be brought back.

Reveal Things Slowly

There is no point if some guy off the street just tells them, “Hey, you were a great warlord.” Hint at the possibility of a forgotten past. Have people recognise them, but fear what revealing the truth may do. Have players find possessions from their previous lives (an old sword with their initials, an old journal written by them but in a totally unreadable language).The current hook of my party is a book clutched in a dead man’s arms belonging to the group mage.

Other examples:

  • Former dwellings. Where did the PCs used to live? This is a wonderfully plausible reason to inject ruins, dungeons, and abandoned sites into your games for adventure.
  • Legends with PC references too specific to be coincidence.
  • Bardic knowledge and songs with PC references.
  • Deja Vu, dreams, memories.

Introduce Familiar NPCs

Have an old ally or foe appear in the game. This works well, as they would already know the PCs and their capabilities (though those might be substantially reduced in the PCs’ new lives). Have a reason why these people would seek them out. Maybe an old friend has come looking for them, hoping to reunite and steer them away from such dangers. Perhaps it’s a villain desiring revenge.My campaign has an old dragon who was bound to the characters by a geas.

He cannot cause any harm to the PCs, but will try and threaten them, and make them try and release him from the geas. Problem is, the PCs don’t know what conditions were set for the dragon. Irony ensues as a raging dragon, who cannot do any harm to the characters, yells and bellows in anger and despair.

Leave Whatever The PCs Have Done Unfinished

Not only does an unresolved situation give the PCs the option of finishing what they once tried to complete, it also gives them a chance to weigh whether what they have done is worth completing.Show them the consequences of what has happened, all the bloodsheds and tears, or all the glory and victories, and watch what choices they make.As previously stated, my players did what they did to resurrect an old love. Now, after nearly 100 years of bloodshed, they get to decide whether to put an end to all the killings, or finish the ritual and unleash whatever else onto the realm.

Have A Purpose For The PCs’ New Lives

If the players were killed once, there must have been a reason why they’re back and cannot remember. Maybe one of the gods saw fit to raise them again since their destiny was so great. Perhaps they bound a powerful cleric to raise them once he had the ability, which happens to be 100 years later.My group was kept alive by the great demon that they summoned who knew the PCs would keep the war fueled. The only problem was that the process took away their memory, and seems to loop endlessly until the ritual is complete.

Avoid Restricting PC Alignments Or Ideas

The characters do not need to be of the same alignment as their former identity. In fact, having an opposite alignment makes for far more interesting game play.For example, if you have a player who is a lawful good paladin, showing him what evils he has done in the past will be a big shock to his heroic ego. Similarly, showing an evil assassin that he once saved many lives, instead of taking them, by sacrificing himself, might make him inclined to be more humane; it could also have the reverse effect.

Similarly, let the players make whatever character types and personalities they like, then try to create contrasts with their past-life incarnations. This not only facilitates player freedom, but increases the drama without shackling PC concepts because, regardless of what the current characters are, you can always change the historical ones.

Encourage Teamwork And Fewer Player Killings

Each member of the party has (or should have) a vital purpose, especially now, since only they know certain things about the past, which they might not even know about yet!When the fighter of the group realises that the thief was the one who built that safe, and only he knows how to open it, then the warrior might just let the thief get away with more than he should, at least for now. Mages could hold the key to some arcane portal, fighters might be the only one to open a certain door.

It’s all about destiny and purpose, and each player has one.In addition, if the PCs had different skills and classes in their previous lives, there might be room for some common bonds between current party members. The fighter might formerly have been a sneaky rogue. The mage might have been a priest.You can help things along by leaking information to PCs that would be of interest to the others. For example, the fighter might not want a ring of silence, but you’ve given him a vision about one that his past rogue life knew of.

Flesh Out The Region’s History

The past life concept can help add a new dimension to character, whether the players realise it or not. Characters who never bother having a player history, or have never had one, will suddenly have a past.Make the most of this opportunity by fleshing out the region’s history and the background of the past-life PCs.

  • The past is dark and haunts a current PC.
  • It turns out that part of the PCs’ past have been lies and deceit.
  • One or more PCs’ started families and their descendants still live. What if the Prince they are trying to protect is a PCs’ son from long ago?
  • The past PCs’ deeds greatly injured some, and greatly benefitted others, creating a complex tapestry of conflict and grey areas.
  • Locations were discovered (dungeons, hidden valleys, etc.) and possibly cleaned out and are now re-occupied, or just noted and never dealt with.
  • What if an old, powerful tyrant owes the party (or, at least, their previous incarnations) his life?
  • What if the ultimate enemy, a demilich or demon, used to be an old friend whom they doomed to such a state?

My group often opt for hacking and slashing, with the occasional fireballing. However, tell them that the newly discovered magic item used to belong to them and their world turns upside down. Players who once didn’t care whose sword they were swinging will instantly take interest. Add to this the fact that some of the weapon’s features are inoperable, or require something else, and they are suddenly travelling across the world trying to unravel the mystery. My players loved it!

Bail Yourself Out

Ever regret killing that party off, even though the PCs worked great and the players really loved them? Ever spent too much work on a campaign that got cut short?Let the PCs come back into the campaign world, only set in a time period a little bit (or quite far) in the future. Ensure whatever progress the PCs made is still there, like their stronghold, only now long abandoned. Let them find their graves, if any. This will remind the players of their mortality as well as the consequences of poor judgement.

Want to use an exotic location, only never had a real reason? Use the PCs’ deeds in past-lives to introduce the esoteric. For example, if a player’s weapon that he once created was forged in the Plane of Fire, and only he may reforge it, you can bet the player will dash headlong there with all haste.How about a far away, oriental land? If the players were once tyrants there, and the news of their resurrection comes about, then you can be sure the new lords will send their best assassins after them to make sure they don’t come back.

Use past lives to explore story and setting ideas you’ve always wanted to run but couldn’t plausibly fit into your campaign or motivate the players to investigate.

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All up, the idea of past lives works well on many levels. You can leave it as a simple side quest, a one-off campaign, or a campaign that goes on for as long as you want. You can use it to explore many potential opportunities that the players may not have foreseen. How about a chat with themselves? Or a recorded message detailing how a PC will murder himself so as to prevent the chaos continuing?

There are a lot of twists you can introduce to liven up a stagnant group or campaign. Having the characters realise that they are their own enemy is priceless, and the best part is that they could be totally innocent in this life.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use A Thesaurus To Help With PC/NPC Concepts

From Jen Delaney

Recently, we were going to play a single setting game because we were bored and wanted to try out the new 3.5 stuff, so we made up characters we figured we wouldn’t play again, or, if we did, would only play rarely.

I had my stats and couldn’t figure out what kind of character I wanted to play, so I grabbed a thesaurus and started flipping through. My PC had high intelligence, so I looked up “intelligent” and “smart” and started getting all sorts of cool words, such as bright, shrewd, learned, and quick-witted. Brian looked up strong and got robust, brawny, and lusty.

Our other players did the same, and we ended up with a quick-witted sorcerer who got into too much trouble with his mouth, a lusty fighter who was chased out of more than one town by angry husbands/boyfriends/brothers (and who ended up not being that strong), and an adoring cleric who was literally in love with his deity.

Just flipping through a thesaurus can help you come up with a new, different, or colorful character concept or background. It can also help you if you’re stuck coming up with these things for NPCs. We had a lot of fun doing it and playing the characters. We’ve decided to keep these characters around because they were so much fun to play.

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7th Sea Inspiration

From Joe Troy

I know that everyone has said reading is a GM’s best friend, so I thought I’d add to your workload. I recommend the Aubrey/Maturin series or Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. These books are a great resource for all you Seventh Sea’rs. They give a great description of 17th and 18th century naval life.

Also, they gave me a great idea for crossing war torn lands. In one of the books, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Steven Maturin must cross a hostile France. To do this they disguise Aubrey as a bear. Brilliant! Any druid or mage in D&D can do this same thing and no one is the wiser. Just make sure your players get the proper permits!

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Classic Tip: Use Real World Maps

From John Kirk

I’d like to add in a tip if you don’t mind. I recently picked up a state map for a trip I was going on, and noticed all the little towns, roads, rivers, and lakes it shows. I realized that this is a campaign map waiting to be used. Unless any of your players are very familiar with your state, you can use the little towns and their whereabouts directly in an RPG campaign, especially if you live in a rural state. You could use whole sections of the state map as areas in your campaign world and even keep the names!

Just a thought ? Keep up the good work on the ezine.

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The Korranberg Chronicle

From Ruben Smith-Zempel

The Korranberg Chronicle is live and on issue #2. It contains lots of interesting hooks and campaign ideas for GMs.

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Font Resources

From Ian Winterbottom

Here are some font and script sources:

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D&D Variant Alignment Syste

From Chris J. Whitcomb

This is a variation of the alignment system that I use and is a lot broader than standard.

There are two separate but equivalent scales:

Good/Evil Scale

99-90 Holy
89-70 Good
69-30 Neutral
29-10 Bad
 9-0  Evil

Law/Chaos Scale

99-90 Lawful
89-70 Orderly
69-30 Neutral
29-10 Random
 9-0  Chaotic

Generally, it takes a major power (demon/devil/angel/deity) to register in the 99-90 or 9-0 areas. Most normal people tend more towards the middle.

For spells such as Detect Evil (and its cousins), I’ve just gone by the description in the PHB. Those in the good/neutral/bad realm detect as per the spell. Those who are Holy or Evil will detect as one or two steps higher on the chart.

I was originally inspired by the old SNES game, Ogre Battle. It had a good-evil alignment scale where 100 = good end and 0 = evil end. Attacking someone higher in alignment lowered your score. Attacking some lower than you raised your score (there were a lot more variables involved, but that’s the basics).

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Use Instant Messaging For PnP Supplemental Sessions

From Chris Smith

The people in our roleplaying group live a good distance from each other and it gets tricky to see each other face to face once a fortnight, so we use MSN Messenger to have games at times. This also allows us to invite friends inter- state to play, who don’t necessarily need to be in the same room or city, for that matter.

Also, from a GM’s perspective, it really helps when you need to speak to one player separately from the group. You can just open a separate chat window where you can talk to him “alone”.

Two pointers:

  • Have each player as a different font colour – this makes the communication so much easier.
  • Have players sign-in with their character name and real name in brackets, which again makes reading for the GM a lot easier!