Here’s another post to close out the story of Arkan Kupriveryx, my current D&D 5e character. You should at least have read last week’s post to know what I’m on about. In that post, I explained why I have a “PC” despite being the GM, and what the basic mechanics of his character would be (race and classes). This week I want to show you how I turned that into an interesting backstory (or at least I think it’s interesting).
This sort of backstory-building is what I want from my players, and the amount of work it takes is why I don’t kill characters.1 It’s okay if you don’t have a really cool concept to start off with. (Of course, it’s lovely if you do, as well. Just not a big deal if you don’t.) But, with a modicum of effort, you can come up with a pretty decent backstory. I already gave an abbreviated version of something like this when talking about my younger son’s character; here’s a slightly longer example.
So what we know from last week is that I needed to come up with a concept for a paladin character, but a paladin of vengeance. He would also have a bit of arcane knowledge via one level of sorcerer. So the most sensible thing would be if he were a sorcerer first, then something happened which caused him to swear revenge on someone or something. Since the adventure we’d be playing was Hoard of the Dragon Queen,2 and since part of the advantage of having an NPC PC is to have a way to tie directly into the storyline, this one was a no-brainer: my character would swear vengeance against the evil dragons, and/or the dragon cult, which are the main antagonists of the adventure. Not sure why at this point, but we’ll circle back to it.
So we’re set on one level of sorcerer, then two of paladin. Sorcerer is one of the few classes where you get to pick your subclass at first level, so we’ll have to make a choice there as well. Happily, this is a no-brainer: the draconic bloodline is easily the best choice, even counting some of the other options to be found on the Internet. And someone with some good dragon’s blood in their family tree would be particularly incensed by evil dragons, so that all works out. Now let’s look at race. Sticking to what we have in the core rules, I started thinking seriously about a dragonborn. It’s not the best option for my particular build (a dragonborn gets +2 strength and +1 charisma, whereas this character would be better off if those were reversed), but I’m not here to min-max. The advantages are sufficient, and the storytelling possibilities just got really interesting: not only a dragon sorcerer, but a dragonborn dragon sorcerer ... way to double-down on the tie-in to good dragons and hatred of evil dragons. Next I start reading a bit on the Forgotten Realms wiki (since that’s the setting our adventure takes place in) about what dragonborn are like in Faerûn. I don’t have to conform to this info, of course, but, if I’m going to build a character who’s completely out-of-place in the setting, I want to do that consciously, not out of ignorance. So I read, and I discover that dragonborn hate dragons (check), that they’re generally very honorable (works for a paladin), and that they have a strong connection to their family and clan (so perhaps it was his clan that was wiped out by evil dragons). So far so good.
Then I hit this little gem:
The scales a dragonborn wore were scarlet, gold, rust, ocher, bronze, or brown in hue, though they in fact bore little correlation to a dragonborn’s breath weapon and the scale colors of true dragons.
Now, if you know anything about dragons in D&D, you already know that the evil dragons are the “chromatic” ones, and are red, white, green, and so forth, generally matching their breath weapon (red for fire, white for ice, etc). And the good dragons are “metallic” (gold, silver, and so forth). But here’s something saying I could be a red-scaled dragonborn with an ice breath weapon, or a bronze-scaled individual with fire breath ... how intriguing. Anyone who knew anything about dragonborn wouldn’t find this unusual of course, but, then, not many people know very much about dragonborn, as they’re not very common. So some people might expect one thing from my character and then be surprised when that didn’t turn out to be true. In fact ... what if I deliberately screwed around with this expectation? What if I was a black-scaled dragonborn with acid breath, which is in fact the traditional breath weapon of a black dragon. Except that I (and my whole clan, for that matter) believed that we were actually descended from copper dragons, who also have an acid breath weapon. Now we’re really starting to see some nifty ideas taking shape. I named my character Arkan, after getting a feel for the sound of the sample names in the book, and I invented a clan name of “Kupriveryx,” which vaguely sounds like the Latin for “true copper.” Then I decided that my magical dragon scales (a feature of the dragon sorcerer) would be a translucent, mystical image covering my natural scales, and that, viewed in just the right light, they would have a coppery glow.
Next I have the problem of needing both an arcane focus (for my sorcerer spells) and a divine focus (for my paladin spells). And I still need to swing a longsword, plus be able to make somatic gestures for arcane spells—it’s like I need 4 hands over here. I solve this by saying I use a crystal (arcane focus) which is set into a copper chain which is wound around my left hand, and that’s what I use to cast with. Looking for a god who would suit my theme of vengeance, I settle on Torm. And, oh look: his symbol is a right-hand gauntlet. So I get one special, white gauntlet (made of some hard, enamel-like subtance) for my right hand. I have some extra starting gold because we started at 3rd level,3 so I just charge myself 2-3 times as much for a crystal and a gauntlet (since they’re custom-made), and now I have my foci covered, plus I have two more cool character details.
Next, I want to have just a few rogue-like touches, so I concoct a background by combining the spy from D&D Wiki with the faction agent from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, saying I was initially set to be a spy for the Harpers, but then I dropped out to pursue my oath of vengeance, but I still have a few contacts. Give myself a long black cloak, proficiency in stealth and investigation, and add in some goggles of night4—although mine don’t look like the picture in the DMG; they’re all black and give me an unsettling, bug-eyed appearance—and my character is complete. He fulfills all the roles that our party needs, but he’s still interesting. He’s effective—even optimized in a few ways—but not min-maxed. He hasn’t hit his paladin subclass yet, which makes him noticeably lag behind his other two compatriots, but then he gets a few perks from the sorcerer side. For instance, he gets to do ray of frost and fire bolt as often as he likes, as they’re cantrips, on top of his acid line breath weapon (from being a dragonborn) once per short rest, so he’s got quite a few of the energy types covered. Plus he can do witch bolt as a 1st-level spell ... or at least he could, if he ever gets to use a 1st-level spell on anything other than cure wounds. Being the front-line healer has its downsides, and Lay on Hands only gets you so far.
But I can’t complain, really. I took a set of required features—including a class I really didn’t want to play—and turned it into an interesting character with an intriguing backstory. I’ve intentionally left a few of the details vague (such as who were his contacts in the Harpers, what, if any, missions did he go on for them, etc) so that I could adapt them to whatever situations come up during the course of the campaign. But he’s firmly tied into the main plotline of the adventure, and he knows information that can be useful for the party to have. So I’m pretty pleased with him, overall. Hopefully his example will spark some creativity for your next RPG character as well.
1 I only maim them a little. Sometimes.
2 By the way, many people consider this to be a subpar adventure, partially because you have to work hard to find all the pieces (some of which are in supplemental PDFs on the Wizards of the Coast site), but probably primarily because it’s very “railroady.” By which we mean that it doesn’t give you a lot of options: you just need to keep agreeing to do the next thing on the list or else the whole thing derails. But I don’t mind any of that, particularly—while it’s true that I prefer open-world campaigns when I build my own, for a quick-start campaign that includes a brand new player, a strong sense of direction isn’t so bad. And the having to hunt down all the bits is annoying, but not a deal-breaker.
3 I cooked up some figures for this based on some Internet sources. Maybe I’ll do another article about that someday.
4 Because I told everyone they could have one minor magic item, presumably gained from their previous adventuring. And goggles of night are a pretty minor magical item, and I always hate being the only guy in the party who can’t see in the dark.