Taking Advantage of Metaphorical Ruins for 5E D&D Characters
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted excavate ideas and concepts about ruins in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. If I’m honest after our recent live chat on the subject and accompanying newsletter I’m tapped on fresh ideas about ruins in 5E D&D at the moment. Fortunately I recently binge watched a terrific series and came up with a sideways approach to the topic I think can be useful for players and Dungeon Masters alike. So let’s get into it and see what we can takeaway from Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when it comes to ruins for our 5E D&D characters and campaigns.
Building character background from the ruins up
When the idea of ruins comes up in the context of 5E D&D more than likely the focus is on the remains of a building, city or other location destroyed or in disrepair or a state of decay. Ruins typically represent a place where adventure occurs. Characters explore them, fight monsters within them and maybe even engage in some social interaction with the denizens there. This is all largely in the purview of the Dungeon Master. Ruins can contain links to the history of a setting, clues to present day quests and maybe even connections to individual characters and their backstory.
After struggling to find a fresh take on the concept of ruins in 5E D&D I found a direction through binge watching Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In this terrific show Miriam “Midge” Maisel is a young, upper class Jewish American housewife living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1958. Her husband Joel moonlights as a comedian. After one particularly disheartening performance Joel leaves Midge for his secretary. With her life in ruins Midge discovers a talent for stand up comedy herself and navigates life as a single mother while managing a burgeoning career as a performer.
I was happy to make the connection between the topic of ruins and this wonderful series for a couple of reasons. First off it’s a player facing perspective, which end of the year analytics suggest is overwhelmingly what the 5E D&D community craves. At least it’s what our Nerdarchy community craves as indicated by all of our most popular content of 2020. The other compelling thing about it is this presents an opportunity to advocate the part of the game I believe much more important than new mechanical benefits and components like subclasses and spells for players or monsters and maps for DMs — the emergent story.
Becoming an adventurer is a strange choice. Even in a world like my own setting where adventuring is a recognized vocation it still takes a special kind of person to autonomously embark on perilous quests for power and wealth. A life in ruins makes a terrific impetus for such a decision. The inciting incident in a character’s life helps shape everything about them from mechanical choices during creation and while leveling up to the personal decisions they make during game play.
Chapter 1 in the Player’s Handbook describes the process of creating a character and along with all the numbers and statistics in the six steps given there’s a vital piece of text in step four. When you Describe Your Character you flesh out their appearance and personality, which includes among other things their background — their place in the 5E D&D setting. In the example of building Bruenor this section notes how the developing character comes from a noble line expelled from their homeland with a goal of reclaiming this ancestral place. Bruenor hits both marks — his homeland is in ruins and as a consequence so is his life. He becomes an adventurer when he decides to do something about this.
Many times over the years I’ve pointed to the fantastic This Is Your Life resource in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and here again you see how events can leave a character’s life in ruins. But in the context of 5E D&D this is a great thing! It gives your characters motivation to make things better and a goal to reach. Here’s just a few examples pulled from XGtE illustrating how a life in ruins helps build character.
- You made an enemy of an adventurer and you are to blame for the rift
- You were wrongly accused of committing a crime and spent time in jail, chained to an oar, or performing hard labor
- You woke up one morning miles from your home with no idea how you got there.
- A family member or a close friend died
- A friendship ended bitterly, and the other person is now hostile to you
- You lost all your possessions in a disaster and had to rebuild your life.
- War ravaged your home community, reducing everything to rubble and ruin
- A lover disappeared without a trace and you have been looking for that person ever since.
- A terrible blight in your home community caused crops to fail and many starved
- You did something that brought terrible shame to you in the eyes of your family
- For a reason you were never told you were exiled from your community
- A romantic relationship ended with bad feelings
- A current or prospective romantic partner of yours died and you are responsible, whether directly or indirectly
It’s plain to see how adventuring can offer succor from a life in ruins. If you character survives for an appreciable amount of time you can even liken yourself to Mrs. Maisel when you discover your character is pretty good at this questing stuff. Considering your character starting their career from a place of personal devastation can also account for even the wildest backstory. It’s almost a cliche when players create elaborate backstories with high drama and tension for their 1st level characters leaving others to wonder how they came to be so low after such illustrious histories. Now you have an answer — their lives were reduced to ruins.
Tabletop roleplaying games like 5E D&D offer an experience unparalleled by other forms of entertainment and media. On the game side of the equation players choose features and traits to represent their characters in mechanical sense but it’s equally important to be mindful of those choices in a narrative sense. The overlap of these two components is the space where the game takes place. People in real life don’t always make the most optimum choices and decisions because frankly that’s life and human nature. Even the most brooding edgelord or tragic lone wolf character can be incredibly compelling when there’s balance between these two sides. Something significant leads these characters and all others into lives of adventure. These darker characters certainly must have some devastating events in their background right?
The next time you create a new 5E D&D character while you’re thinking ahead to all the amazing things they’ll be able to do spend some time thinking about how they got to this point in the first place. Characters who seemingly have it all and present a positive face to the world might still struggle with overcoming circumstances that left their lives in ruins. Through this struggle to overcome their past they become heroes.