Character Building: Olcanor Parin
This is one of a series of articles where we’re walk through the process of building what we think of as a good PC. The goal is to reveal the process and help GMs and players when they are making PCs of their own.
Like the post from a few weeks ago, this character will be set in the Karthasia setting that I fabricated in a previous post. For a quick review, Karthasia is a setting where a sect of death priests (the Xanx) overthrew the existing benevolent theocracy (run by the Albanists) and replaced it. They did so with the aid of the nature-magic wielding Nine Tribes in the woods to the north, who have since become uncontrollable and overrun many cities. There are a few of the Albanists still alive, and they have formed an underground resistance. Lastly, there is an order of scholarly mages, the Order of Arcane Brothers, utilizing the magic of the four classic elements, earth, air, fire, and water who study in secluded towers. They have remained neutral and undisturbed in the conflict thus far.
We avoided Magic last time around, so let’s focus on it this time. Our imaginary player, when hearing about the setting, was really excited about both the prospect of the scholarly Order of Arcane Brothers and the shapeshifting shamans of the Nine Tribes. He’s not really sure what sort of personality he wants his character to have, he just wants to play somebody that does cool things. While this flexibility may seem like a good thing on the surface, restrictions breed creativity; I find that characters created without some sort of emotional center end up feeling hollow and boring. If our player doesn’t have a strong opinion about their character’s personality, we can try to sculpt a personality that suits their playing style. Our imaginary player is a person with a strict moral code, and he has trouble relaxing that in-game. In past campaigns, he has struggled to believably play characters that didn’t share his morals, and tends to vocally censure other characters when they don’t act according to those beliefs. It has occasionally damaged the fun of his fellow players, but not so much that they won’t play with him. With that in mind, whatever character we create should be somebody that has a strong sense of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to speak their mind.
From a GM perspective, the fact that our player is interested in playing a shaman creates an interesting dilemma. We know that one of our other players has already created a PC from the Nine Tribes. We’re only expecting to have three players in this campaign, and if two of them are tribesman, it will significantly affect what we had in mind. If our fictitious third player was also interested in playing a Tribesman, then perhaps we should take the hint that they are where the cool stuff is, and adjust accordingly. If, however, playing a tribesman doesn’t appeal to them, then we will probably want to dissuade this player from playing a shaman. Although I’ll be presenting the character-creation process for these characters serially for the sake of simplicity, it is for exactly this reason that I like to talk to all of the players about the sorts of characters that they might be interested in before I sit down with anyone to finalize their character.
Since the shaman is our problem child, let’s start with that idea and see if it’s even viable. The shamans call upon nature spirits to talk to plants and animals, and to transform themselves into the forms of all manner of beasts. My vision was of fluid, dynamic transformations, performed mid-combat, shifting from wolf to snake to bear to eagle as required. This is significantly faster and more flexible than the default shapeshifting rules in my system of choice (GURPS), so it would need to be adjusted accordingly to cost more so that it is fair relative to other options. All of which is to say that a significant portion of a shapeshifter’s points would be allocated to their namesake ability, and they would not have much left over for other advantages or skills. Additionally, the mystical and cerebral nature of being a shaman means that the character would need both a fairly high intelligence score and a lot of points allocated to skills like Herbalism and First Aid. If the shaman was not in an animal form, his physical attributes and skills will be, by necessity, rather poor.
In the case of an NPC, this is probably a small issue. If our protagonists encounter a shaman, they would most likely do so in his territory and on his terms. He might have warriors to protect him, and he would have little need for skills outside of nature lore and shapeshifting. Player Characters, on the other hand, are faced with a much wider variety of situations, and they seldom get to set the terms of an encounter. For a certain type of experienced player, this can make for a fun challenge as it forces them to maximize their advantages and solve problems creatively. For most players, however, it can be very frustrating when you have a character that constantly feels ill-equipped for situations. Our shaman is also limited simply by virtue of being a member of the nine tribes. Like N’Kava Tharak, the previous PC that we’ve created in the setting, they would be unfamiliar with the culture where much of the campaign would take place, and they would have have foreign customs and beliefs.
With all of that said, there are some strong matches between this character and our mythical player’s preferences. He wants to do cool things that use magic, and the shapeshifting definitely qualifies. He requires both a strong moral code and and a moral justification to share that code. A respected wise man from a foreign land would most likely have a strong formalized value system, and would feel empowered to tell others that they should adhere to it. If the GM and the player were able to work out a moral code for this character that was somewhat mystical and harmonious (more Yoda, less Fire & Brimstone) then his shared wisdom could even seem diplomatic and endearing instead of preachy and condescending. At the end of the day, I don’t think that the positives outweigh the negatives, but there are some ideas here that could be informative for evaluating other characters. Namely, that if the player can’t help himself from telling people how they should behave, then we should provide him with a character where that behavior is appropriate, and a philosophy to extoll that is as non-disruptive as possible.
Straying a bit from our player’s initial preferences, if we focus on the moral and evangelical aspects of the character, an Albanist priest seems like a logical choice. They represent the archetypical “good” deity for the setting, and would have an entirely justifiable reason to encourage others to behave in a moral manner. Of course, the few remaining Albanist priests are refugees from the law, and the character would therefore have to be a little bit subtle about their teachings. Depending on how you look at it, that could be an advantage, giving the GM a convenient way to curtail ethical discussions if they get out of hand (“Two Dark Knights enter the tavern. You guys may want to table this conversation for later.”).
The other problem with an Albanist priest is that their powers, as written, aren’t cool enough to get our player excited about playing one. Healing wounds, buffing allies, and producing blinding light are all powerful abilities, but they aren’t necessarily viscerally thrilling the way that throwing a fireball would be. If you, as a GM, really want this player (or any player) to play a priest, you would probably need to tweak their abilities to see what would make them cool enough. Holy Fire? A magic sword? Light concentrated into holy beams of power? In this case, I don’t feel that sort of change is merited – it is possible to tell a story about the Albanists regaining their kingdom without any of the players being members of their order. If there were other aspects of the priests in this setting that appealed to our player, such as wanting to play an oppressed minority or a person struggling with maintaing their faith against impossible odds, then I would reconsider.
So at this point we can rule out three of our four groups of magic-users, the shamans are too narrow, the good priests are too bland, and the bad priests are too evil. This leaves us with the Arcane Order of Brothers. If we can’t make something work there, it’s time to start over and re-evaluate our initial concept.
The Brothers are predominantly scholars, secluded away in remote keeps near the sort of unusual land formations that attract powerful elementals. Locations that are attractive to more than one type of elemental provide them with more options, so their keeps tend to be built on remote and exotic locations such cliffs next to waterfalls, or windy canyons next to an active volcano. These sorts of locations make the Brothers well-suited as a quest for the PCs (“Traverse the Blackstone Jungle, then cross the Deathwater River at the You’ve-Gotta-Be-Kidding-Me rope bridge, then climb up Certaindeath mountain to get to the keep.”) but it also means that any Player Character that is a member of the Order of Arcane Brothers needs a good reason to have left their ivory tower and involved themselves in the mundane world.
Additionally, we need some sort of moral code for our player to espouse, and the Brothers are the faction least-suited to preaching about morality. As constructed, they are the scientists of the setting, conducting experiments to tap the power of elemental spirits. Politically, they are Switzerland, refusing to take sides. This means that our character would be somewhat of an oddity amongst his brethren. This suggests to me that whatever morality we construct for him would also be the reason that he would leave the cloister to interact with the world. Otherwise, we have a character that has two unusual characteristics given their background with no tie between them. I think that it’s fine for a character to have a diverse set of personality traits, and sometimes it’s even interesting to create characters with failings that are in opposition to each other, such as the noble knight with a pure heart, righteous beliefs, and a weakness for coin. In that example, however, the conflict between their characteristics is what is at the heart of the character. It feels natural. What we want to avoid is the pyromaniac hemophiliac pariah with one leg and bad vision. You want all of the pieces to fit together into a coherent whole.
So then, what is the morality of our Arcane Brother? The first thing that comes to mind is a moral philosopher, educating others in the teachings of the setting’s equivalents of Kant and Mills, and debating the right course of action. This is problematic for the actual player we have in mind, however, as he tends to see things in black & white terms, and a philosopher would be most interested in the ethical gray areas. Of course, we could say that he adheres to one philosophy and apply it mercilessly, trusting that it is right even when it seems wrong (such as the Kantian example of telling the truth and thereby letting a innocent child die). That could be an interesting character indeed – but it still doesn’t quite fit what we are looking for, as our player has had trouble in the past when the morality of their character differed from what they felt to be right.
So we require a scholarly wizard with a somewhat traditional moral code. What if they are a devout believer in a religion, and only see the Order as their vocation? There’s a rich tradition of this style of hero in Western media, such as the cop who is a father first, or the soldier who’s loyalty lies with his country and not his army. If this is the case, then what religion does he adhere to? The Albanist faith, being a generic “good” religion in the Judeo-Christian/Tolkien traditions, seems like an obvious fit. This also provides an easy reason for him to leave the cloister – he left to help restore his church/nation. We could also create a new faith for him to believe in, but it seems unnecessary in this case.
If he’s a devout Albanist who feels compelled to guide others, and is inclined towards scholarship and magic, then why isn’t he an Albanist priest? Perhaps he was, but he was expelled. Or perhaps he wanted to be one, but was not allowed. Hmmm… that’s interesting. Let’s suppose that the Albanists viewed all of the other forms of magic as heresy. This would fit with their relationships with the other established factions – they persecuted the Xanx, and were unwilling to make peace with The Nine Tribes. It would then follow that they would also be opposed to the Order of Arcane Brothers and anyone who shows a penchant for Elemental magic. Our character wished to enter the priesthood, but his magical gifts leaned towards Fire and Water magic instead of Healing and Light. So he went out and joined the Brothers, still considering himself to be an Albanist despite their rejection (much like homosexual Christians in the modern Catholic church). The Order’s keeps are cut off from the outside world, so the revolution had been over for two years before he received the news that the Albanists had been overthrown. Once he heard, however, he could no longer remain in seclusion – he felt compelled to leave the cloister, rejoin the world, and help the Albanists regain power. This seems like it has a lot of win for me (and we don’t have any other choices). I hereby dub this character Olcanor Parin.
Fleshing Out the Character
We’ve already established Olcanor’s basic story – he wanted to be a priest but he couldn’t, so he joined the Order while maintaining his faith. Let’s expand upon it somewhat. Olcanor’s family was very religious, and he had a long history of Albanist priests in his lineage, although not his direct ancestors, as Albanist priests are required to remain celibate as part of their vows. When Olcanor was sixteen he applied for admission to the priesthood, and with his obvious intellect, dedication, and piety, he was accepted. During his first two years of study he was the star pupil, demonstrating a firm grasp of the finer points of theology and a love for research and scholarship. He was greatly praised by his teachers, and resented by his fellow students. As such, he had few friends, but found solace in his studies.
When basic magic was introduced to the curriculum Olcanor began to struggle. He understood the theory of magic, how he could open himself to Alba, and through it’s light perform miracles. He would try for hours, meditating and clearing his mind of all impurities, but Alba’s light never poured through him. He began to fall behind in his studies. During one of his lengthy attempts to perform a basic Light spell, he stayed up after the other students had gone to sleep, reading by the light of a small candle. His reading uncovered that some priests focused their power by focusing on sources of light, and feeling a kindred light, Alba’s light, burning within them. He stared at the candle flame, focusing on its light, and tried to find it’s reflection within himself. He did indeed feel… something, although it was not the awesome glow that he was anticipating. He found that if he focused on the flame, he could bend and shape it to his will. He was unsure of what this meant. Unfortunately for Olcanor, one of his fellow students was watching him instead of sleeping, and reported to the priests that he was performing sorcery. When he was confronted with this allegation, he considered lying, but knew that it would be wrong. He spoke the truth, and was branded as an outcast and a witch, and excommunicated from the priesthood.
Olcanor was devastated. He returned to his family, and they provided him with food and shelter, but no companionship. His gift had made him a pariah. What made it even worse was that he could not stop himself from practicing with his newfound talents, and he was drawn to study and manipulate the flames. In time, he found that he had an equal gift to manipulate water, and he would absentmindedly make small whirlpools in his glass during meals. The summer after Olcanor returned to his family was a dry one, and some of the less educated farmers were grumbling that they were being punished by Alba because they were sheltering a sorceror. Olcanor’s father came to him and told him that he must leave, for his own safety and the safety of his family.
Olcanor expected to feel sadness at this, but all he felt was relief, and shame at his relief. He found a visceral joy in the small craftings that he was able to perform, and he desperately wanted to learn more. He had been disowned by both his church and his family, removing all of his ties and freeing him to join the Order of Arcane Brothers. He set out for the nearest cloister, a tower high atop the Ironspine mountains. Though he was older than the average student, he was able to persuade the First Brother to admit him. But there was a catch (there’s always a catch). The Order of Arcane Brothers was committed to complete secular neutrality; when one became a member, they were required to foreswear their allegiance to all nations – and religions.* Olcanor was deeply torn about this. He desperately wanted to join the Brothers and learn more about his gifts, but he was unwilling to lie about his beliefs. His church had rejected him, and with it his family and his country. Why should he continue to be loyal to them? He decided that he would renounce his beliefs, and live as the Brothers lived. He took his vow to renounce all nations and religions, honestly and with good intentions – and immediately regretted it. He knew, as soon as he said the words, that he could not stop believing in Alba simply by saying the words. But if he revealed that he was still a believer, he would be expelled from the Order. Though it pained him, he chose to keep his beliefs to himself and live with his secret.
After he finished his initial studies at the Ironspine Cloister, Olcanor traveled to the Mordak Island Cloister as his permanent home. Mordak island is an active volcano, and the cloister is constructed at it’s base, near the sea. Olcanor lived there for 25 years, and became a skilled and respected sorcerer. He would have lived there for the rest of his days, had the Xanx Insurrection not occurred and overthrown the Albanists.** Travelers to the island are few, and news travels slowly, so when he heard about the revolution, it had already been two years past. He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, that his life was in the Cloister, where he was liked and respected. In the end, however, he was still an Albanist first and an Arcane Brother second. He went to the First Brother, and asked for an indefinite leave of absence to travel to the mainland. When the First Brother asked him why he required it, he had a difficult choice to make. Did he lie, and thus preserve his place among the brothers, or tell the truth and, in so doing, cause his own banishment? Though it was difficult, he had to be true to himself. He said that he was going to use his powers to overthrow the Xanx and restore the Albanist nation.
Now Olcanor is back in the Southern Cities. As a sorcerer he is a pariah among the Albanists. As a believer, he is an outcast among the Brothers. And as a revolutionary, he is a criminal among the Xanx. He is searching for the Albanist resistance, to help them restore the nation that has no place for him.
There are a lot of implicit character traits in this backstory. Olcanor is honest to a fault, and deeply moral. He is remarkably resilient and strong-willed. He would probably have some form of Pacifism, most likely using his powers only in the cause of self-defense. Along with these classic “good” disadvantages, he has a couple of less noble traits. He is intensely curious, and has an incurable desire to learn. This can lead him to make decisions that he otherwise would not. His story also has some hints of a martyr complex, as he is willing to sacrifice his life’s work for a cause (a cause that would probably feel more comfortable without his help).
Once those things are in place, the character pretty much builds itself. High intelligence, moderate to low physical attributes. Some points in Theology and Philosophy. Some social skills, probably Diplomacy rather than Fast-Talk. The rest of it goes into his magic. His primary solution to problems is going to be talking his way out of a problem, either through reason or demonstrations of his power, with violence only as a last resort. As written, he’s got a strong conflict between his Fire Magic and his non-confrontational nature. Fire is a difficult weapon to use to subdue, and has a tendency to inflict unintended harm. Water is slightly less damage-oriented, but is still difficult to use for subduing enemies. I think that’s a fun conflict, but if the player felt differently you could easily change the character to have Air and Earth magic instead with some accompanying edits to the backstory.
*This wasn’t originally part of my conception of the Brothers, but it isn’t much of a stretch, and it makes the character significantly more interesting, so why not?
**When I originally came up with the names for the factions in this setting, I wasn’t expecting to visit it again. As such, I didn’t put a lot of thought into them, I just wanted things that were easy to remember and identify. Now that I’ve decided to explore this world a little more and use it as a backdrop to demonstrate character creation, I really regret the names. The name “Albanists,” literally “The Whitists,” with it’s connotations of purity and generic Good, seemed like a good idea at the time. The more I have to use it, the less that I like it. I mean, seriously, Albanists? Okay, so their deity is named Alba. That’s a little weird and trite, but not terrible. What is their nation called? Albania? Ugh. But since I’ve already used it in the previous posts, I’m stuck with it. There’s a lesson here about the importance of taking the time to come up with good names.