Get a Real Job

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 2, 2009

What’s your PC’s profession? I don’t mean what’s his class; I want to know what your PC does for a living. Have you even given any thought to this question before I just brought it up? Probably not. They’re looking to hit it rich by plundering lost dungeon hordes or by slaying monsters and claiming their loot. In short, PCs don’t have real jobs.

Very few classes are in and of themselves professions. I assume you could argue that Clerics and other divine classes generally work for a church, but I don’t think your PC should show up and demand a pay cheque for spreading the good word.

When D&D campaigns begin they usually start after the PCs have chosen to “go adventuring.” But have you ever wondered what all the adventurers did before they threw caution to the wind and sought out this new calling? Has that adventurer always wanted to be an dungeon-delving Sorcerer or an undead-battling Paladin all his life?

Think about the type of jobs your PC had growing up, and consider what he would likely have done had he not become an adventurer. More importantly think about what he’s going to do when his adventuring days are over. Putting a few important background details together before starting your fist campaign gives you a more well rounded character and a better picture of who he really is.

In the beginning

Think of the circumstances surrounding your PC’s birth. Was he born into the upper classes or nobility? Was he birthed in a Druidic circle as the fey creatures looked on and welcomed him into the world? Or was he born in a dark back-alley in the slums of a large city? Just because we first meet the PC in his early adult life doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in giving him a past.

How did the circumstances and location of his birth shape him early in life? Did he aspire to a lofty position in society or was his upbringing a struggle for survival? Did he come from a life of privilege or did he have to learn life’s hard lessons earlier than most in order to survive?

The location and circumstances of a PC’s birth will often have a huge impact on the person he becomes.

Earn your keep

By the time your PC reached puberty he no doubt had a job. It may not have been glamorous and it may not have been anything he had any desire to do, but necessity demands that everyone pull their own weight and earn their keep. The type of job your PC had most likely ties closely to his upbringing.

If he was raised in a farming community then his first real job was probability some kind of physical labour in the fields. If he was born into the middle or upper class then his job most likely relied on his mind as much as his body. His early jobs could have ranged from apprenticing under a merchant, to sweeping and cleaning up at the local inn, to attending to someone of higher standing then himself.

Regardless of your station in life you were surely taught to fight. In a world filled with creatures as deadly as dragons, it makes sense that all children are taught to use the most basic of weapons. The type of weapons and the amount of time spend learning how to use them will also be tied to necessity and convenience.

When I grow up I want to be…

As your PC learned more of the world around him he started to get a better idea of what he wanted to do with his life. If nothing else, it’s safe to say that he knew what he didn’t want to do with his life. It’s this decision or dream that ultimately led to your PC becoming an adventurer. But before he finally reached that point in his life, he was well on his way to having a regular job and leading a normal life.

Deterring what kind of life your PC was likely to have before the adventuring bug bit him will help you role-play the character better. If he was trained as a merchant, he’s going to have training in social skills, if he’s lived a sheltered life of wealth and privilege then he’s going to be trained in more knowledge skills, and if he’s spent all of his life around animals then he’s not likely good with people. Knowing what kind of jobs your PC had growing up and knowing what job he was most likely to have if he’d never become an adventurer provides you with an insight into his personality.

War changes everything

There are going to be circumstances that upset the typical career path of any PC. The most notable is war. Most societies in which D&D campaigns play out, war is always looming. In a campaign world like Eberron, a war that’s raged for a hundred years has just ceased. Whether you’re from a nation that’s just come out of a war or is likely to get into one, this is a huge wild card in everyone’s career path.

During wartime people fight to defend their home and protect their nation. Social status is not as important as your nationality. Nobles often fight along side peasants while defending the homeland they both love. Career choices during wartime are more specific to the war effort, but war presents fantastic opportunity. In the turmoil, deeds play a more important part in career opportunities than birthright. The kid from the slums who performs heroically on the battlefield (saving his regiment from certain death, for example) will earn the respect and notice of his comrades and superiors. These contacts can open door never previously available.

I’m an adventurer!

We fist meet your character after he makes that transition from normal NPC to heroic PC. Just because this is when you first start playing this PC doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a past. By considering what kind of upbringing he had, and more specifically what kind of job he was supposed to have, you’ll be in a better position to determine this PC’s mannerisms and personality.

Your PC’s past doesn’t have to be as detailed as what’s outlined above, but even a few sentences will help guide you. After all, this is still your character so it’s up to you to create as much or as little of a back-story as you want to. Just keep in mind how much of an impact a person’s job can have on who they are and who they can become. After all, your PC won’t be an adventurer forever. When his best days are behind him what is he going to do while he lives out his twilight years? Having a normal career to fall back on is a good safety net just in case the dragon’s horde is empty when you finally get there.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 misterecho November 2, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Very useful. I imagine this will help flesh out a charactor, make them more real.

2 Pierre Gagnon November 2, 2009 at 5:44 pm

Good pointers, and historical phenomenons can help shape this.

Think after the hundred years war, how all those knights and soldiers who were raised from their birth to fight for a living in what was one of the world’s first professionnal armies. When the war’s over, where did they go?

No state could pay them, no lord had land for them, no village had a place for them. All they had was their swords, and their keen sense of tactics. Did they become mercenaries? Brigands? Yeah, most became the latter, becoming the terror of Europe for a good couple of decades.

That’s an example of a job turned bad and, well, perfect for a character.

3 shyDM November 3, 2009 at 2:33 am

What a good article!

I agree that it helps to think a bit about what your character is like beyond “level 2 fighter with 18 strength!” I’ve found that it really helps roleplaying if you have even a rough idea of what this character’s life was like before s/he started the game. Once you have that you can start figuring out how far your character will go for a goal, what situations would be out of their depth, or develop fun tavern banter! :) However, I’ve also seen people make characters with such detailed backstories and mannerisms that they become rigid and uncompromising in actual play, or they seem to have no options for character growth. Hmm.

Anyway, I felt so pleased with myself for making a PC with an actual job beyond “adventurer” when I saw the title of this piece, but now that I think about it, she works for an organization that retrieves objects of interest from ruins and documents them, which might be cheating in this conversation.

4 Ameron November 3, 2009 at 10:25 am

@misterecho
I’m a big fan of anything that give a character more flavour. We looked at motivation a few months ago, but I thought exploring a PC’s career path before becoming an adventurer was an interesting angle to explore.

@Pierre Gagnon
You’re absolutely right. Soldiers are suddenly in a peace-time society with no marketable skills. Adventuring is about the only thing they’re good at. This kind of thing makes for excellent role-playing opportunities.

@shyDM
You need to find a good balance between the details of your well thought out back-story and the mechanics of the game. I agree that if your background becomes too restrictive then you’ve probably got too much in there. Anything that lets you envision the character as more than his statistics is useful when creating a unique personality.

5 Failure Mouse November 28, 2009 at 9:28 am

My DM puts a lot of effort in to his campaigns. We also don’t play a whole hell of a lot, so we like to make it count when we do. He expects a lot out of us if he’s going to put a lot in.

We have to write biographies for our characters subject to his approval. Four to five pages long, in fact. The last one we wrote up was for an expansive campaign he’d concocted (unfortunately we never finished because he and his wife moved across the country) with no more direction than that we were orphans and had to describe our lives in light of that fact.

Yes, it’s a game, and yes, that sounds suspiciously like a homework assignment. However, it was worth it. We had experience with our characters and could better play them instead of having to get to know them as we played. It was a fantastic starting point, and got us more involved in the story from the get go, as we’d invested some effort and creativity into the characters aside from rolling a few dice and arranging stats.

It seems to me that a role is more than just a set of stats able to cast such and such spells or swing this hard with a sword. There’s supposed to be a person (or elf, or dwarf…) casting those spells or swinging that weapon, and it helps to get in to that role if you know more about it and from whence it came.

6 Sorain December 24, 2009 at 8:14 am

Now this article comes to my attention just after fleshing out backround on my Swordmage in a setting (thankfully without me DMing it for a change) centered on arena combat. I found the consideration of this kind of thing to be an enjoyable exercise. But what cought my attention the most was actually retirement.

Few Adventurers reach some kind of transcendent destany (thats what makes them epic after all) and few want to just keep fighting until they are killed perminantly. So what do you plan to do when the time comes to hang up the sword, wand, or bow? For some races this is not much of a consideration (half elves remain fit until death apparently, and Eladrin live for hundreds of years) but for a human like my charicter, the question held serius weight. By the time you hit Paragon Teir (like this campagin) I imagine there has to be some serius consideration of life after the quest.

For this charicter in particular, it was a simple matter of “What do I enjoy doing during down time that people are silly enough to pay me for?” History is not just a trained skill, but a hobby, however getting paid for that might not always be an option. Teaching the basics of magic on the other hand, is always in demand in any scociety. The Mage Guild (barring the collapse of the local continent spanning empire) needs instructors in the basics as well as the advanced things like actual at will powers, surely.

Besides, all those wise old instructors with tales about their wild youth adventures had to have come from somewhere right?

7 Ameron January 14, 2010 at 9:58 am

@Failure Mouse
This kind of detailed history does require a lot of dedication to the game, but as you’ve discovered it often has a tremendous pay-off. I’ve never had a DM demand this kind of “homework” but my group often takes it upon themselves to flesh out their characters in this way. By considering how this PC got to this point in his life before you ever play him really puts you in his head from day one. I’ve found it makes for a much more exciting role-playing experience.

@Sorain
I’ve never played a PC from level 1-30. Somewhere along the way it just makes more sense to retire him. But if you consider what that PC will do during his retirement it gives you plenty of options for using him as a recurring NPC or even one day dusting him off (under the right circumstances).

I’d also suggest you check out an article we ran in July called Riding Off Into the Sunset: How to Retire a PC.

8 Eilleen June 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm

In my story, I play a human fighter, abandoned as a baby and raised by dwarfs, probably upper class, but still got to train, forge weapons (although not as good as them) and went on caravan trades… But at 15 I was sent of to look for my place in the world and to make great deeds that would make my clan (Canchanchan) proud and esteemed…. So from age 15-19 I have no idea what I did in the world or where have I traveled…. That character development bit will come little by little during play I imagine :P
Eilleen´s last blog post ..Eilleen and the Brief Story of a Stubborn Girl

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