Character Building on the Fly (Poorly)

Art by Patrick E. Pullen
I joined a campaign last weekend that I had very little knowledge about ahead of time. I talked to the DM a little, but I think I failed to ask the right questions, and I ended up not having much direction when I started creating my character. I ended up just building something that seemed cool mechanically, and then I figured I'd fill in the blanks as I got a better feel for the setting.

Starting at 2nd level, I built a half-elf paladin/sorcerer. High strength, constitution, and charisma made for a relatively durable character that could fall back on some spellcasting if necessary. I'm also eager to try out the multiclass spellcaster rules from 5th edition, so I have to admit that played a role in the decision.

I picked the hermit background because I knew I was joining an existing campaign that I knew almost nothing about. Saying that my character was a hermit gave me some built-in leeway with false assumptions. If I bumbled around and said something completely crazy for the setting, I could just blame it on the fact that my character has been out of touch with society for years rather than having to get into, "Oh, okay. No, well, I guess he didn't say that. He'd say this instead."

All this was perfectly fine, except for one thing: I had no idea what the character was like. I had rolled up stats, but without any knowledge of the setting or plot, I was hesitant to come up with any idea of who he was as a person. That's where things started to go downhill...

In describing the character, I threw in some details that seemed interesting and humorous at the time, but felt a little awkward when compared to the character sheet. A few examples include:
  • I described him as being socially awkward, and said that he hadn't bathed in forever... not exactly in line with a high charisma character. I did salvage this a little bit later in the session, when he took his first bath in quite some time, and I described him as a rather likable fellow without the layer of grime. 
  • I described him as paranoid, keeping his chainmail armor on at all times... which in hindsight, sounds kind of odd for a character who has been living in the wilderness for years. Maybe more appropriate if he had been in leather armor?
  • I put on my character sheet that he was a follower of Mystra, but the more I thought through the direction I was taking the character, the less that actually made sense. Of course, then it was revealed to me that we were using a mixture of the Greyhawk and Eberron pantheons. Boccob seemed wrong, so I was floundering.
So with these details I came up with on the fly, many of which don't really seem to go together, I ended up writing this backstory. It's still kind of simple, but it accounts for the somewhat contradictory descriptors that I gave him during the first session.

Casamir was training to be a paladin of Heironeous when he wandered into the forest one day and disappeared. A search was mounted, but none in his order could find him. He had vanished, and he was written off as a victim of dangerous forest predators.

The truth was less tragic, but far more complicated. Fey creatures lured him into the woods, taught him the ways of Corellon Larethian, and kept him hidden away for years. He believes that Corellon will soon restore the world (and magic) to its proper place. In hopes of playing a part in restoring the world, he's sworn an ancient oath to uphold the old ways of the elves.

Before he left the woods, Casamir was losing his mind. With only the occasional faerie to keep him company, his social skills grew more and more rusty. Perhaps worse, now that he is walking among civilized folk again, he finds himself increasingly paranoid. 

Roleplaying Notes:
  • "My magic is unpredictable. Am I still following the right path?" Whenever he rolls a wild surge, he interprets the result as a sign of Corellon's favor or disfavor, depending on how helpful or disastrous the effects were.
  • "These people don't respect the old ways! How can I trust any of them?" He believes that he will play some crucial role in Corellon's plan to restore the world, and he assumes that anyone who doesn't "follow the old ways" might be out to hinder that plan. Of course, while he has faith that there is a plan, he doesn't know what it is, so any attempt to get in his way is seen as a challenge to "the plan." Since his return from the wilderness, this has translated into wearing his armor constantly (even sleeping in it when he doesn't feel like he can sufficiently lock himself in a room).
  • "Maybe these people aren't so bad after all." As the campaign progresses and Cas spends more time around people, he might start trusting again... and regain his social skills. As more and more people notice his stench, his is sure to start bathing more often.
Since I'm so accustomed to DMing, I haven't run into this problem too often in the past. With so many people running games nearby, though, and my personal goal to avoid DMing anytime soon, I'm going to have to keep this lesson in mind.
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