The Architect DM: Nations as Character Backgrounds

I am still in the process of brainstorming on the following topics, but this post is an essential part of the process as I express my thoughts so far and more importantly get feedback from others and hear about their experiences.

After running an adventure of D&D last week that included our friend Dixon Trimline, he and I were having a post-adventure geek out because we don’t get the chance to talk in person that often. During this geek out we discussed the history of my D&D campaign, specifically the world that has been built before and during the game, when I caught inspiration for an idea of presenting nations and world building as character background “packages” that can be taken by players.

A concept that has become very prominent for me is the use of nations/regions in world building. The first campaign map that I designed was nondescript with a series of different towns and cities connected by long stretches of road. As I’ve built that game world over the last 10 years, the rest of the map has been divided into various nations and regions that help break up and define the world, and in so doing the nondescript area that I first designed has become more interesting as a contrast due to it not being a formal nation. For your own game these don’t have to be formal nations or well defined regions but the root of the idea is to have some kind of contrast between different locales, whether they’re bordering towns, two separate continents, entire worlds (Hoth vs. Dagobah, for instance), or hell even different solar systems and galaxies.

Stick to the Basics

When you start designing these different regions, start by outlining the basics for each region and look at the overall list to see what will make up your world. If you have to define what the planet Hoth is then the words “Snow Planet” are simple enough but extremely evocative, just like how “Swamp Planet” works for Dagobah. For my recent campaign world I started by tying the prominent nations to the roots of the 4th Edition D&D system with the following defining features: Divine, Arcane, Dwarf, Elf, Eladrin, Human, and Halfling. After making several lists along these lines, and looking at the pre-existing world map I was working with, I decided to make one nation the Arcane/Elf nation and another a more Fey/Eladrin nation. I also asked the players and heard a lot of requests for more technology, so I made a Dwarf/Technology nation as well. From there I’d already started adding secondary descriptions for each nation so I simply continued along that path until I started to get more and more refined ideas for each nation in the game world.

When the game started I had these short descriptions for each nation and at most a small paragraph written to introduce the nation to the players because I’d consciously decided to not spent time planning things if they weren’t likely to be used in the game. This is an important realization for a DM building a world like this, there is no guarantee that any or all of the nations you design will be important to the game. With the key words described above and a short paragraph, I had more than enough to present the game world to the players with each nation included and give them an overall feel for the world in which we were playing. Each nation that has become more defined and fleshed out in my world has done so through player decisions, player actions, and the adventures their characters have undertaken.

Please Choose Your Birthplace

While talking about all of this with Dixon, it suddenly hit me that the players in my game had effectively chosen background packages when they made their characters. The dwarf in our party chose to be from the dwarf nation, which brought with it a collection of defining features, connections, and possibilities for the character. When Dave (yes, that Dave, aka “The Game”) decided to play an Eladrin Wizard he had several interesting options to choose from. He could have decided to be from the Arcane/Elf nation, which as an Eladrin would have included some interesting “living with the nature elves” and “away from home” hooks, but also would have defined him more as a wizard coming from the famed arcane schools of that nation. Dave ended up going with the other option of being from the Fey/Eladrin region, but due to him running his own D&D campaign in the past of this game world he also opted for a whole different direction for his character background (read: Time Lord). If one of my players decided to play a Dwarven Cleric I would be very interested to see what they choose because the Dwarven nation and the Divine nation have been at war for a lot of my game’s history.

Now that 4th Edition has been out for several years there is a lot more content that I would be able to use for building a world in this way. Just starting with a nation for each of the non-martial powers sources (Arcane, Divine, Primal, and Psionic) and mixing in many of the races gives you some incredibly interesting possibilities for locations as well as dynamics between the various factions. When you’re putting this kind of world together, don’t get too hung up on the details and keep things as simple as you can. What worked in my game world was simply stating for the Arcane nation, “Anyone that plans on getting the best training in the Arcane goes to this nation.” I would go so far as to flat out tell your new players the different packages that are available to them based on the type of character they want to play.

Given Two Options, D&D Players Choose Number Three

Of course all of this sounds great and useful, but many of you know as well as I do that given a handful of options for character backgrounds many of our players will inevitably choose something completely different. Among the core characters at the beginning of my campaign we had a Githyanki Swordmage from the Astral Sea, a 900 year old Eladrin Wizard exiled from the Feywild (Dave’s aforementioned Time Lord), a Dragonborn Paladin that was a fallen exarch of Bahamut cast out of the Astral Sea, and a Human Cleric from the divine nation on the world map. Out of the seven or so beginning players only 2-3 of them opted to use the nations presented to help define their character’s background. In the years since the start of my campaign several of my players have changed to characters from the various world nations and I’ve found those characters driving the game and the world in amazing directions that I never could have anticipated.

That said, you may be asking yourself, “Why is he putting forward a concept that had less than 50% adoption in his own game?” The answer goes back to the beginning of this post where I talked about less detailed areas on the map becoming more defined through contrast with the regions that you establish around them. If you have a less defined region as I did at the beginning of my world building efforts, and then later clearly identify the regions around it on the map, that original location can be more defined simply through NOT being a part of the other regions. In the same way, the players that choose otherworldly or eccentric character backgrounds will be further defined and accentuated by the existence of the worldly backgrounds that you as the DM have provided.

For example, imagine a game world with a clearly defined dwarf nation. The players have interacted with numerous dwarves from that nation and maybe one of the PCs is a dwarf from this nation. Now imagine how the players would react after running into a dwarf NOT from that nation. He speaks without the common dwarven accent they’ve come to expect, he dresses differently, and hell all of the other dwarves may even be hostile towards him just on principle. At the very first step of character creation, whether it is a PC or an NPC, you have a collection of interesting traits simply through contrast with the established assumptions.

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  1. In the campaign I’m currently working on starting I’m looking to more directly integrate this into character creation. The way I’m doing so is stripping out some of the base race bonuses and putting them into a mix of backgrounds and professions.

    For instance, let’s say I choose to make an Elf Fighter. Well, the race gives me +2 Dex and -2 Con as normal and I’d probably get the sleep immunity and bonus against enchantments as well, but that would be it. I’d then choose where I was from, either in a general sense (rural, woods, certain nation) or in a specific sense (certain city, neighbourhood, caste), which would determine my starting language/s and potentially give a weapon proficiency or similar. For example, I might decide to be from a city reknowned for its magical academy, so I might get a spell-like ability or two that can be used 1/day. Once that’s done, I’d decide on a profession, which would give me a selection of skills to choose 2 or 3 from and either add them to my class skills or gain a permanent bonus in them (if it’s already a class skill). We’ll say I choose to take the criminal profession, so I choose to add Hide and Move Silently to my list of class skills, and maybe take a +1 bonus to Intimidate since it’s already on my list of class skills.

    It’s a bit complicated, and I’ve started to move to the stage of creating a program to organize it. I’ve still got time before I try to pull the group back together to play though, what with it being summer and all, so I’m not too worried about wasting my time on it. Plus, it’s fun for me, so why not? >.<

    Currently I'm struggling with how to balance everything. I'm not terribly concerned with it being perfectly balanced, but I don't want to end up with only one or two combinations that everyone takes because they're numerically superior. If they all take the same choices because they like the concept or description or whatever, I don't care so much. I'm also struggling with how to be well-defined while also allowing for outside influence and creativity. To that end, I'm trying to offer a lot of general options ( from the Free States) alongside some very specific options (graduate of the Rolian Academy).

  2. Another great post. I’ve always tried to encourage my players to feel free to create their own cities, regions, nations, etc. in “my” world precisely because it gives them more freedom in character creation. Even if I have a fairly good idea as to what my world looks like, I give them that freedom.

    In my current campaign one of my players mentioned that his character was from the island of Vandresca. When I started putting the campaign wiki (gotta love Obsidian Portal) together, he quickly jumped at the bit and wrote the entry on Vandresca — mentioning that the Tychean empire tried to take it over at one point. When he finished reading the rest of the wiki, and noted that there was no “Tychea” listed, he said “So I guess at some point the Tychean empire became the nation of Luminaria?” I simply said “No, its still there, I just haven’t gotten to it.”

    The other nice thing to come out of this was that this was a player who joined the game late, and in his write up of Vandresca mentioned that teleportation magic didn’t really work all that well there. Unknown to him, I had made teleportation quite common in the game up to that point (probably moreso than would be expected per RAW in 4ed). This should eventually create an interesting story piece when the party needs to go to the island and cannot simply teleport there. Why can’t they? What is it about the island that prevents teleportation? Why is teleportation so common everywhere else? I don’t know the answers to these questions yet and that’s what makes it so fun for me. It gives me food for thought, fuel for the creative fire, etc. Yet, had I simply said “You must pick one of these nations,” I would never have thought to ask these questions. This is the type of thing that helps players feel more like they are in control. Odds are when these plot lines come up, he’ll realize that this is due to his own input.

    Now I just need to come up with some answers. :p

  3. Amethyst (Foundations+Evolution) does a fantastic job of expanding the background concept for characters. The city you are from will play a large role on the type of person you are and how you interact with other cities (and characters from). Well worth checking out.

  4. Anarkeith says:

    This seems to me like one of the keys to good DMing. When players go off script, being able and willing to incorporate their ideas.

  5. Dixon Trimline says:

    I truly love the idea of geographical backgrounds, because it’s killing all them birds with just the single stone. Not only is it collaboratively building regions, it’s also investing history and life into each of the characters.

    It almost feels like taking an automaton, with all the appearance of a living, growing being but no energy, no motivation, and then breathing life into it. If the GM arbitrarily named a town Rancit, the player could see that and immediately think, “That’s where my revenant comes from, a place where people don’t die.”

    I’m wildly intimidated at the prospect of building a game world, but it’s so amazing to watch it happen, to hear about its construction over years. It feels like you’re saying, “This is not an impossible thing. I’m giving you keys to the Genesis device. Fire it at your own world.” And that’s just cool.

  6. Rebecca Rupp says:

    You forgot to mention the “dwarven nation” ‘s theme song: TAR-TUUU-RI-UHHH, F*** YEAH!

  7. Rebecca Rupp says:

    Also, playing the nations against each other has had interesting effects – for instance, when Tarturia (dwarf) Sarta (my char’s hometown, and TEH BEST) and…magic elf town, whatever it’s called, were all equally threatened by astral dreadnaughts, it created some interesting roleplaying in that we had to decide who to help first, which nation was best defended, would we care if they were obliterated from the map, etc.


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