Following our last installment about using First Edition traits to help flesh out a character’s backstory, we’re going to keep using the Lost Omens campaign setting to build our character’s life before adventuring. The traits system provides a starting point for your character’s early life: what region they grew up in, some basics about their family or profession, and so on. Your GM will may have some ideas about your PC’s early life, depending on the campaign. Today, we’ll talk about a method I’ve used to get my character from backstory to campaign: the starting journey.
Once your PC’s backstory is sketched out, think about the journey they will take from the region they were born to the starting location of the campaign. Sometimes our PCs may be locals to the campaign start: I played a Sandpoint local in my first Rise of the Runelords campaign. In this case the journey from backstory to campaign is as simple as stepping out your front door – but really, what was it that involves your character in the action? Why did they choose to engage in the campaign rather than just run away from danger or report an issue to the authorities and then move on with their backstory life?
If your character isn’t local, you have a wonderful opportunity to develop this part of your character by doing a “travel by map” scene. Remember the Indiana Jones movies where all the travel is shortened into a montage with a red line moving from location to location on a map? Lost Omens has a huge number of maps, including world-spanning ones. Start at your home town, and plan out the route your PC takes to get to the campaign site. Then, using the setting material available* you can create a short travel journal that takes you from backstory to campaign. (* Always check with your GM first to make sure they’re OK with you using different resources to avoid spoilers – you don’t want to use a bit of lore in your backstory that they are using on-camera during the campaign!)
For my Carrion Crown character, I had decided on a dwarven scholar who had delved too deeply into forbidden lore and developed strange occult powers. Using the oracle class as a chassis, I came up with Urgas Maar, a reluctant spell caster trying to understand what was happening to him. Then, I plotted out my route from the Five Kingdoms Mountains to the tiny Ustalav village of Ravengro, where the campaign began. I checked with my GM, Thurston Hillman, and he told me what resources I could use for this – a lot of the Ustalav book, “Rule of Fear”, had spoilers for the campaign, so I relied mostly on the campaign setting and Pathfinderwiki websites.
10th Arodus, 4711 A.R. – Leave Tar Kazmuhk forever. Head through mountains, heading northwest.
I wrote an in-character journal describing my travels from Tar-Kazmukh in the Five Kings Mountains north to the shores of Lake Encarthan, then around the lake with stops in Kyonin and Razmir, finally ending with the overland journey from Ustalav’s capital of Caliphas to Ravengro. Besides getting myself in the “zone” for Ustalav’s geography of creepy forests, imposing mountain passes, and insular villages, I used a combination of random encounter tables and tidbits of lore to imagine what the journey must have been like. It started out really basic, just point-form notes attached to dates, but as I wrote and researched, little events started to come up to flesh out the journey.
13th Arodus – leave Five Kings Mountains behind, descend into Kyonin River valley.
16th Arodus – a patrol of the Queen’s Rangers finds my campsite in the early morning, and informs me that unescorted travelers are not permitted within Kyonin – not even a neighbor and ally. I do not argue, as I do not want word of my presence to make it back to Tar Kazmuhk. I agree to accompany the elves on their way to Greengold, the only elven city to tolerate foreigners.
Once I got into the journal narrative, I found it easy to imagine locations for various formative events that I had roughly outlined for my character in terms of their backstory.
27th Arodus – arrive in Pilgrimage in the nation of Razmiran, Land of the Living God. As if a god would still live on Golarion instead of in their heavenly realms! But I do have my own revelation in Pilgrimage. While rescuing a young girl who had run afoul of several dockyard lowlifes, I find that I am able to channel some sort of divine energy which affects not only my enemies but also the very stone beneath their feet. According to Lila, the girl, they were smothered in darkness while the flagstones of the street cracked and tilted to prevent their escape. I do not clearly remember the event, but from Lila’s fearful description and hasty departure, I think that may be a blessing. When I awake in the morning, I find a mark has appeared on the back of my neck, shaped like a branch of a tree. I spend much of the rest of my voyage in quiet contemplation, trying to discern the meaning of these events.
Some of the ideas were suggested by my GM, who I consulted during the process to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that would conflict with or preempt anything they had planned. In one case, I changed my route to avoid an area where something was planned for later in the campaign:
19 Rova, 4711 A.R. – I receive a reply from the Professor (Lorrimar, the key NPC in the Carrion Crown campaign), eagerly welcoming me to Ustalav. He bids me to travel to Ravengro with all haste, but suggests I avoid the shorter route through the Hungry Mountains, due to recent troubles along the road. I resolve to head north along the coast to Thrushmoor, and thence to Kavapesta, which brings my near several sites of Pharasmin worship which may aid me in my understandings.
This process really got me invested into the campaign background, and my character, very deeply. It worked so well that it’s become my standard PC development process, both for my own characters and for NPCs that I write as a freelancer.
You don’t have to write a novel of historical fiction for every character – although I’m not going to stop you if that’s what you want to do! However, considering the charcater’s journey from backstory to campaign in both a geographic and figurative way is a great way to kickstart your character’s history with the campaign and give you lots of roleplaying opportunities as you grow from a fresh level 1 to one of the prime movers and shakers of Golarion.
For those interested, you can read Urgas Maar’s full journey from the Five Kings Mountains to Ustalav here.)