I freely admit this idea came form the 5E Player’s Handbook, which provides the background “outlander”. But that background only covers people from the wilds, not people from civilized but remarkably different cultures. I’ve watched enough professional wrestling to know that “foreigner” isn’t just a character archetype, it’s also a personality and often an alignment. And a city mouse in the country is just as lost as the reverse, so there’s no need to split that into two themes.
More than most, this background relies on role-playing. A farmer might not always talk about farming and a dragonkin might not always talk about how great their ancestors were, but a person lost in a confusing culture is always lost in a confusing culture. As such, I tried to dodge a lot of the obvious cultural differences like “everybody from around here cooks weird food” and “I can’t understand anything said with that accent” and “the phrasebook says that word means something else”. In reality that’s frustrating and in fiction it’s hilarious, neither of which is really the scope of optional mechanics. It’s up to the player to decide how much of that they’re willing to tolerate, and it’s up to the theme to provide small but tangible mechanical effects related to it. As such, you’ll probably need to justify each of these abilities in-character. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s kind of the point of themes in general.
An aside: I think one of the abilities in this theme is among the best mechanics I’ve ever written. See if you can spot it.
You’re not from around here. You were born and raised in a very different culture, like a nomadic tribe in the desert who have never even heard of iron, a small town deep in dwarven lands, or a secret underground society beneath the capital city. Uprooting your life taught you many important lessons, but you don’t want the old you to wither and die. You want to expose your friends and associates to your culture, fostering it and building acceptance for it in a new environment.
So far almost every theme I’ve written has been something from my initial list of concepts. Only two themes came about because a player wanted something specific for a character. The first is the noble and the second is this one. Both of those characters are in the same campaign, and the second season of that campaign is starting very soon. Coincidence!?
You were trained on the sea, but not in the mundane life of an ordinary sailor. You may have been a common smuggler, lived the riskier but more rewarding lifestyle of waterway bandits, or joined a government-sanctioned crew commissioned to stop the former. Your dream has always been to lead your own crew, and if you keep yourself alive long enough your exploits and experience will inspire loyalty in your allies and respect in your enemies.
Both of my ongoing campaigns ended within the last few weeks, and we’re a few weeks away from starting the next ones. I don’t have a campaign to work on for what feels like the first time in years. It’s a weird sensation. I don’t think I like it.
But as long as I’m suffering under the burden of free time, I might as well add some of the themes I’ve been kicking around but never got a chance to write.
You base your life around performance. You eat, sleep, and live the show, and nothing thrills you like having an audience in the palm of your hand. Whether your lute gives injured listeners the peace they need in trying times, your caustic oration spurs an army to overthrow their kind if ineffective king, or your dance attracts legions of followers to obey your every whim, you’re only truly happy in the limelight. Other may dismiss you as a distraction at best and a meaningless frivolity at worst, but you know emotions are the strongest forces there are, and you manipulate them at will.
I’ve spoken before about our campaign theme songs, but only for a paragraph or two. Since one of my campaigns had ended recently, it’s a good time to talk about one in more depth.
The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl is another campaign in our Edwardian-era fantasy setting. In the first campaign, one of the characters, Barl, asked to start the campaign in debt, which gave me the idea to base a story around needing to pay it. Over time that changed into something similar, where the character had made a contract with some powerful extraplanar entity, and his creditor called him in for some dangerous, immediate task. The party consists of his allies and their planar guide, searching the planes for him and trying to shoulder as much of the onus as possible without accidentally contributing to the instability of the universe.
Our campaign songs usually aren’t about the players themselves. They’re more about the villains, both because I want to set the mood and because I have some control over what they want and say and do. Sometimes they’re also about what I’d like the campaign to be about or what I think the plot is before the players completely ruin it for me. And in something that’s definitely more for me than anybody else, I try to match the rhythm of the song to the campaign pacing. Most songs aren’t a perfect fit, but some closer than others. This one was really good.
One of my favorite tropes in media is the individual face-offs between antagonistic teams. That is, I love it when the good guys meet the bad guys, and the good guys have a genius magician but the bad guys also have one and you know they’re going to fight, while the big guy fights the evil big guy and the comic relief fights the villain’s pet wolf or something. I’ve tried to work it in my campaign several times, sometimes playing it straight like when the half-dragon orc barbarian went toe-to-toe with the eldritch giant, and sometimes subverting it like when I spent a full session establishing a rival party then killed them just off-screen to set up the real big bad. I had something like this in mind when the players in my current campaign met the minions of one of the campaign villains, and the players knew it. When the party finally caught up with those minions during a trip through Hell, they immediately requested (nay, demanded) that they split up to fight their destined battles.
Of course, a one-on-one battle is incredibly boring in Pathfinder. In my experience they’re rarely tense, clever encounters where the combatants continually one-up each other’s power and strategy. It’s far more likely that one person will run roughshod over the other because of one specific part of their build, usually mezzing, defense, or damage, in that order. A single character also loses out on all kinds of combat options, like positioning and flanking. It takes a certain, rare kind of character to make the fights dynamic, and the more you try to force them into a dynamic mold for a set piece battle, the more that battle resembles a skill challenge rather than the fight you advertised. Worst of all, while one player is fighting, the others sit around and watch.
It’s not fun because that’s not what the system is designed to do. The system, Pathfinder especially, is designed for party-on-party rocket-tag violence. If we want destined battles, we have to find a way to make them group affairs.