StormHack characters part 2: spontaneous archipelago
Part 1 was an overview of the Human and Demon sides of StormHack characters. In this post I’ll make an example of character generation for the human half of the characters.
I’m going to combine with an idea I had for the Beyond the Waves setting, and use this to also generate the archipelago around the character’s home island.
(recap of relevant posts: Beyond the Waves, home island, island generator. There are other less relevant posts as well)
Each character has 3 backgrounds or roots:
- Growing up is about experience, skills and family connection
- Tradition is about inherited knowledge, customs and connections from the family’s past
- Legend is about the family’s secrets and ancient hQistory from long in the past
In general these are written on the character sheet as this sort of thing:
My family are reef-fishers. I was taught by my mother who came here from the island of Aenesi to the north.
This establishes a couple of anchors (the island of Aenesi, the character’s mother), and their trade (reef-fishing). We’ll generally use this format for each character.
II. Mapping the Archipelago
We’re going to establish the play group’s home island and then trace each character’s family past and the roots in other parts of the archipelago.
We’re going to generate three layers of surrounding islands based on migrating families. The first immediate layer will be the people who settled the home island (0-2 generations ago), the second layer will be ancestors 3-6 generations removed, and the last will be earlier generations. As you might expect, each layer affects inherited skills, knowledge, culture and/or legends — which will be expressed as roots (q.v.).
I’m drawing the map on a dot grid using a scale of 5 miles to 1 cm. Note that the viewing distance to the horizon from sea level on our planet is about 3 miles, and from 30m up this extends to 12 miles. Sailing craft probably travel between 5-8 miles per hour and rowboats around 3 miles per hour.
I prefer the home island to be small (by the definition of the Island Generator, 1-5 miles across), small enough that the PCs will have explored nearly all of it as children and the coastline forms the effective “wall” of the village. By contrast any other island — even one which is settled and apparently friendly — is beyond the wall.
i) home island and settlers
First, draw the home island roughly in the middle of the paper, bearing in mind the proportions of 1 cm = 5 miles.
The character’s family migrated here from a nearby island. How long ago? Roll 1d6: on a 1-2 it’s 0 generations (i.e. the PC came to this island as a child), on a 3-4 it’s 1 generation (parents), and on 5-6, 2 generations (grandparents).
Where did they come from? Roll a d8 to pick a compass point (e.g. with a 1 meaning North, and counting clockwise). Then roll 2d6-2 for the distance in cm on the paper. Treat a result of zero as \<3 miles, i.e. close enough to see from the beach of the home island. The maximum distance is therefore 50 miles.
It’s up to you how big the island is or what shape. You can use use the island generator although a note of caution — I tried using those tables and they all tended towards much larger islands than the home island, so I intend to revise the tables in the near future. Still, it could give you some ideas.
Whatever method you choose, draw an appropriately sized island on the map.
Name the island.
Since this island is both near and has recent family on it, unless there’s a good reason the PC has probably visited it more than once. Pick at least 3 of the questions below to answer:
- What trade, skill or knowledge did your family bring from this island to your current community? (you could use the growing up tables in the Beyond the Wall playbooks for this one)
- How did children play on this island?
- Where did children play on this island?
- What well known food or drink is found on this island?
- What is the biggest natural hazard or enemy found here?
- What is the biggest human threat found here?
- What does it mean to be wealthy on this island? (clothes, trappings, housing, social position, etc.)
- Tell us about someone you know who’s about your age on the island. Who are they to you — a friend, an enemy, a rival, a sweetheart?
- Tell us about someone who’s considered old on this island. How does the community treat them? Are they wise, powerful, mysterious, dangerous?
- Tell us about something unresolved that your family left behind when they left this island. Who is involved? What is the focus of the problem — love, money, land, a birthright, an old injury or feud?
- An object from the island hangs in your family home. What is it?
- Tell us about a magical experience you or someone close to you had on the island.
Additionally answer these questions about how your family fits into the home island:
- What is their trade? (if you answered question 1 above, the answer will be the same)
- Who are their neighbours? (describe up to 2 other families)
- Besides the other PCs, who did you grow up and play with? (name and describe one other NPC)
At the end of this, write your character’s Growing Up root like this:
My family’s trade is… We/my parents/my grandparents came here from the island of… (any other details)
ii) ancestors and traditions
The second island is placed like this:
- Pick a direction by rolling 1d4-1d4, which will give you a result of -3 to +3. Take the original direction from the home island to the previous one, and use this number to move that many compass points away from that direction. For example if the original heading was north west and you rolled -2, the new heading will be south west from the new island.
- Roll 2d6-2 for the distance as before.
- Choose (randomly or otherwise) the island’s size and shape as before.
This island differs from the last in that the PC will have no living relatives, but they’ll have ancestors, roots and traditions. Answer 2 of the following questions:
- Your ancestor’s tomb sits on this island. What does it look like? What are the burial customs?
- Your ancestor is known for a particularly heroic, impressive or egregious deed. What was it?
- Your parents have a habit of a small social gesture, phrase or mannerism at the dinner table, that you’ve not seen anyone else in your community make. What does it mean, and what connection does it have to this island?
- Your ancestors are known for a particular talent. What is it?
- The island has a distinctive natural feature that you’ve never seen elsewhere. What is it?
- The island has a unique human-made feature. What is it?
(Naturally these can be expanded into lists or tables if/when one has time or inclination)
Once you’ve done that, answer the following questions:
- Your ancestor was part of an organisation, fraternity, guild, bloodline or other group. What were they?
- What skill, knowledge or art did your ancestor practice?
- How did this information come to you? An object, a scroll, word of mouth?
- Did anyone hide it from you? Did anyone go out of their way to give it to you?
Place the third and last island as you did the second one.
Here’s the twist. Your PC has never been here; this is only where you think the island is. It’s up to the GM to decide how close the island is to the spot.
(Note to self: write GM advice for when it’s ok to lie to players and when it isn’t)
This is a place your PC has only heard of in fragments of diaries, the cryptic allusions of elders, whispers at the cradle. You have an inexorable connection to this place. It may represent your destiny.
Some thoughts on how to write destinies:
- They should be about something the character might do, not just something they might see, acquire etc.
- They should have a cause and effect as in when PC does X, Y will happen
- X should be cryptic
- Y should be ambiguous
Writing character destinies will probably be fun, but unless you’re planning a long campaign they may be a waste of time.
Of course, if you want to drive the action towards a character’s destiny, then you could do worse than signpost it like crazy so the Pcs come into contact with it. Destinies may be obscure and uncertain but they should also be kind of obvious.
This brings us to legends.
Associated with this third and final island is a family legend. Choose one or write your own:
- Hidden treasure.
- A powerful weapon.
- A gate to somewhere else.
- A sleeping god or monster.
- A temple or place of power.
- A secret society.
Once this choice is made, the player should answer a couple of questions:
- how did you find out about this place? Was it written down, told to you, do you dream about it?
- what’s the connection with your family? Did they discover it, did it cross their path, did they steal it?
- who else is involved or interested? An individual seeking power, an organisation with a prophecy, the original owner?
The GM should consider a things as well (in secret, natch):
- how far is the island from where everyone thinks it is?
- how is the island different today from the description in the legend? What one feature still stands out?
- what powerful, independent NPC or group is really interested in this legend? How might they get entangled in the PC’s business?
- The legend the PC knows is only half the story. What’s the other half?
III. An example
The home island is called Beq. It’s a small island with numerous cliffs and beaches. Its partner Ourd sits to its north across a trecherous strait, and is accessible by rope bridges and cable cart.
Kayl is our first PC. Their stats are STR 12, CON 9, DEX 13, INT 11, WIS 15 and CHA 10. They’re physically capable but also uncommonly wise and insightful for their age.
We roll the dice for Kayl’s Growing Up root: 3 for number of generations, 8 for direction and 7 for distance in cm. They’re second generation migrants from an island 25 miles to the north-west of Beq called Three Knives, and Kayl has visited there many times to see their cousins. Kayl’s player answers a few questions:
- We know that iimpa is brewed on the island and each island family guards its own recipe
- Kayl’s family are brewers and horticulturalists, and have successfully cultivated iimpa floss of high quality on Beq
- It’s an open secret that the family settled on Beq after a falling out between their father and his sister, who disapproves of the family trade being taken outside Three Knives
- All the families move in merchant circles and adults display lip-rings specific to their bloodline
We roll the dice a second time for the second island, concerning Kayl’s ancestors. Aelfa is located south-west of Three Knives. Kayl’s player answers a couple more questions:
- Aelfa is perpetually surrounded in mist and the surrounding waters are rocky; the folk on the island maintain a beacon to warn nearby boats.
- Kayl visited the place once when they were very young, to inter the bones of a matriarch from the families of Three Knives. It was a weird ceremony and they were warned not to make any noise or draw attention to themselves. They were made to wait outside with the other youngsters when the adults went into the tomb.
- Kayl’s mother told them that Aelfa means “cradle of the witch”, and that the power of natural magic runs in their blood. Aelfa was once the seat of a coven of magicians called The Fane, and Kayl is named after one of their order.
Finally we roll the dice a third time and we learn about Kurst, a land to the west of Aelfa beyond a turbid stretch of water called The Shoal.
Kayl found out about it when the family was unexpectedly visited by a mysterious relative. Most of the time they sat with Kayl’s parents and made small-talk as they partook of their hospitality, but when they were alone the stranger turned to Kayl and told them in a cracking voice that it was time to return to Aelfa and seek The Fane, who would open the way to the Eye at Kurst.
Write the character like this:
Kayl, apprentice brewer and latent magician
STR 12, CON 9, DEX 13, INT 11, WIS 15, CHA 10
Growing up: mercantile family of brewers and horticulturalists (trade), father (anchor), lip ring (motif) Ancestry: latent magician (skill), ancient magical society The Fane (connection), family tomb at Aelfa (place) Legend: opening the Eye of the Fane at Kurst (prophecy)
IV. Last words
This is the map in progress. With a group of four characters you’ll generate 12 islands already; expect the GM to fill in the map with a few others, including major antagonists like island city-states, etc.
One thing I didn’t cover was how individual histories interact. If you draw a path tracing back each character’s history through the archipelago, there’s a chance that some of the paths will intersect.
What happens when two PCs’ histories cross? How do you create the shared history in the group? I’d suggest to go back to the questions — maybe pick a couple that the player didn’t answer, and invite the other player to answer.
One other remark: the typical adventurer templates are covered well by the D&D standards — fighter, mage, thief, etc. These are the archetypes of competence we think of for heroic fantasy.
However, the skills implied by the character history will frequently be domestic, rarely heroic (e.g. Kayl is a brewer). This makes sense because the village is a settlement at peace, and most inhabitants are defined by domestic careers such as farming. These work for villagers, but aren’t very sexy or useful for adventurers.
Note how Dungeon Crawl Classics starts off characters with a non-adventuring profession and sees who survives the funnel; at the end of that ordeal, the one survivor may pick an adventuring class.
Characters are started off in this way to underline their mundane nature, and thereby draw attention to the threshold they cross when they go off adventuring. It should be the same case here; the skills implied by personal history are only marginally useful a lot of the time, and the real “adventuring persona” emerges with the character’s demon, their ambition. This is what I’ll cover in the next post.