Thursday, June 1, 2017

Backgrounds and personal characteristics for a weekend in hell: Running Ravenloft

This is my second rodeo running a 5e Ravenloft game, which is slightly surprising since I wasn't the hugest fan of the setting in those halcyon days of 2nd edition in the 90s. And for a second time, I'm left with a bit of awkwardness as the PCs have minimal background and the adventure truly doesn't foster any roleplaying background. This isn't necessarily odd for one-shots in general, for shorter games, a character's backstory doesn't come into play much. But it is a little disappointing and I wanted to have characters with a few more ties to the setting/adventure. Unlike a dungeon where I can simply say the noble's family had some interaction with it, or that it was a haven for criminals, the weekend-in-hell style of Ravenloft really prohibits that a bit.

I explicitly told players they could (and perhaps should) swap any languages granted by their background for tool proficiencies, and I'm sure the players can manage to play up their backgrounds as criminals, nobles, outlanders, or entertainers. So what I'm going to focus on here are the personal characteristics that 5e uses.

I know the antagonizer and I have discussed how we find these personal characteristics disappointing by the book, since many of the examples in the Player's Handbook seem to blur the lines between these nebulous categories as well as encourage conflict within the party. But it's by-the-book 5e and that's mostly what I'm going with here.

With Curse of Strahd, I asked everyone to roll on the Harrowing Event from the haunted one background. This provided some minimal links for a party of monster hunters. For The Evil Eye, we didn't go so far as that much planning ahead and we took the first hour of chitchat time to finish characters. I knew this was happening, so I fleshed out my idea to use the Tarokka cards a bit. I dealt each character one card from the high deck and asked them to use one of the two personal characteristics associated with the card. These were ideals, bonds, or flaws based on the card's theme. For example:

These turned out to be a bit more generic than I had imagined, and as they're random I didn't make enough that were specific to this adventure. Since the beast wasn't drawn, it's cat-based option won't be coming into play. Since the cat-bond was an option anyway, there was no guarantee it would even come into play ever, which makes for some bad design. But, I can totally re-use them later with minimal updating (like removing the overly specific cat aspect). With just these three, you can see that they could use some revision anyway. The Raven was the hardest card to do, and the choice is really about whether you want that as an ideal or flaw. I thought the beast and innocent were a bit better by getting two different aspects of the theme in there. Since I'm also using the high deck to track inspiration (giving players a bonus d6 on their roll if they get their card), this adds some utility to the Tarokka deck that I bought but also reminds the players of this somewhat creepy setting element. [Aside: I know I used Tarokka cards to track inspiration for Curse of Strahd in a similar way, but for the life of me I can't find any notes on how I did it. So this is a bit of a rehash somehow.]

Ideally, this system would have mimicked more closely Appendix A from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which I was disappointed wasn't reused in future WotC adventures. Lost Mines of Phandelver does this slightly with the pre-generated PCs, not with personal characteristics, but giving a minor backstory with a clear goal. I may have failed a bit in this attempt with The Evil Eye, but succeeded in coming up with some options to use the Tarokka deck in future Ravenloft games. 

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