Switched at Birth – An Origin Story

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 30, 2012

A good background should help define who the character is, especially early in the adventurer when he’s relatively inexperienced. Your PC’s backgrounds should do more than just provide him with skill bonus or a free minor power. I encourage players to be creative when coming up with a back-story. I’ve learned that the more detailed their origin story, the more I can use those details to help shape the game to come.

Although I derive inspiration for my campaigns and my characters from a variety of sources, I seem to get the most ideas from reading comic books. As a huge comic-book nerd with a massive collection (5,000+ issues and growing) I have no shortage of source material. What I do find surprising is how I can reread an old favourite and have it inspire me in a way it’s never done before. And that’s exactly what happened this weekend.

The story featured the character Orien of the New Gods, and as I flipped the pages I realized that Orien’s origin story would make for a great D&D adventure and a fantastic character background. The tale is a variation of the traditional “switched at birth” motif. Two worlds – Apokolips and New Genesis – were at war. The ongoing conflict was likely to destroy both so the rules of each world, Darkseid and Highfather, signed a peace treaty. In order to seal the deal they each gave the other their infant son to raise as his own. Orien, the son of Darkseid, was raised in the kind, nourishing and idealistic environment found on New Genesis while Scott Free (Mister Miracle), the son of High Father, was raised in the uncaring and harsh environment of Apokolips.

It’s such a simple idea yet it’s rife with potential. It’s easily adaptable to a D&D setting and the DM or player can continue to draw inspiration from the comics themselves if they choose to do so as the adventure progresses.

Setting the Stage

For this kind of story to have a really strong impact there needs to be conflict, and it’s likely between the two sides that signed the original treaty all those years ago. Although there hasn’t been actual fighting since the treaty, it’s likely that there is still great resentment and even hatred between the two sides. This could be especially true if the original conflict was particularly long and bloody. If the war had been raging for a generation or more it’s a lot harder to suppress those negative attitudes simply because a piece of paper says you’re now at peace. (Just look at the Eberron campaign setting!)

Think about how characters raised on one side or the other is taught to view their one-time enemy. Beneath a mask of good intentions is likely very deep-seeded resentment. Even thought the PCs themselves were not likely part of the original conflict, their parents, teachers and authority figures probably were. How did their prejudice and hatred shape the PCs and their beliefs? Now throw in the switched at birth wild card.

In the Know

Does anyone other than the parents know that the children were switched at birth or was the switch made public from the outset? Do the children even know who their true parents are? If the PC was told from the outset that he is the child of his father’s enemy how did that affect his upbringing? How do others treat him? In the comics, Orien is prophesized as being the only one capable of defeating Darksied, an otherwise unstoppable villain. If a PC is subject of similar prophecy will people react differently and be more accepting of this future hero? How do these expectations weigh on the PC? Does he think that when the time comes he’ll be able to kill his real father?

Kept in the Dark

This seems like a more interesting option to me. The children are raised unaware of who their parents truly are. In this eventuality it’s entirely possible that the child will harbour tremendous resentment and possibly even hatred towards the man who is really his own father. When the PC finally learns of his true linage it will make for a lot of interesting choices that can have significant bearing on where things go next.

What happens if the PC learns the truth along with the general populace? Will he be shunned as an outsider and a villain? Will his adventuring companions accept him for who he is – for who they knew him to be before learning who his real father is? If the PC has already established himself as a hero of the people, how will knowledge of his true father affect public perception?

Family Reunion

Regardless of whether or not the PC knows he was switched at birth, how does the inevitable family reunion play out? Does the foreign king reveal that he’s the hero’s true father to win him over (like Darth Vader in Star Wars) or maybe he does it just as his son is about to defeat him? Maybe the PC is falling in love with a woman that is actually his relative and his parents have no choice but to reveal the truth. If there are other siblings, is the PC jealous of them? Are they jealous of the PC?

Prophecy

Prophecies are fairly commonplace in D&D. Even though we already touched on the prophecy tied to Orien’s character, that doesn’t mean that the PC who was switched at birth needs to have the same one (but they certainly can). Prophecy could be the way that the PC finds out who his real father is.

What if all the PCs in the party are blood relatives and then they learn through prophecy that one of them is actually the child of their enemy, switched at birth? As the adventure progresses the DM can provide clues and details about which PC is the son of the enemy.

Perhaps a prophecy tells of a powerful magical item that can only be activated by the king’s son. When the PC tries to activate it and is unsuccessful he realizes that the man who he believed was his father isn’t. A search for his true father’s identity could eventually result in the big reveal. When he learns he was switched at birth he realizes that his enemy’s son, the king’s real son, could one day active the item. If that were to happen bad things will happen.

A strong background can make all the difference when developing a new character. Even though we normally think of background as being what happened before the PC’s adventuring career, a cleaver DM working with a well thought out origin can continue to draw from it and tie the events ahead with those that came before. When you create your next character give the character’s background the treatment it deserves.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alton January 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm

This is great stuff. A good example of resentment is Game of Thrones, with Theon Greyjoy raiding Winterfell.

2 Thorynn January 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Nicely put. We just finished a series about epic storytelling, one of the articles being about building a solid character background.

3 sean January 31, 2012 at 1:02 am

after reading the hook about one son defeating the other villanous one, i can’t help but think what if the PC is the villan and they are lawful good or good. Tha would really make for an interesting campaign.

4 Sunyaku February 1, 2012 at 1:45 am

Huh, I just realized that I’ve never used “prophecy” in my home game in the 1.5 years that the campaign has been running. Sure, the players/characters are aware of “impending events”, but they are not anything that was “foretold/predetermined/predestined/etc”… the events are simply a product of the motivations of various villains and other nefarious entities in the game world.

I think my next campaign will be on Athas… and the “prophecy of freedom” seems like a great character motivation for the slaves of the Dark Sun world.

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