When it comes to making PCs, I am a character builder first and a stats munchkin second. I will sub-optimize my combat prowess for the sake of a good concept. A barbarian who eschews magic weapons in favor of her cherished but non-magical blade? Been there. A changeling sorcerer who goes around pretending she’s a cleric and hiding her dark ancestry? Done that. These are the kinds of PCs that drive my interest in the game.
However, sometimes I like to be a munchkin, too.Even when I do that, though, I like to take my munchkin’d PC and ask myself, “How did this character get this way?” And then I like to write up a character background that both adds flavor and justifies the min-maxing.
Case in point: my gaming group is starting up a new Pathfinder campaign, and I’ve decided to play an archer character. Building a viable archer is tricky — make the wrong choices early on and the PC will both lack great ranged prowess and also be mediocre in melee. Thus, playing against type, I went out and dug up this optimized fighter archer build that looked interesting. We’re starting at first level and so I have no reason to follow this build if I choose not to, but even at first level there are choices that seem a bit odd for a fighter to take — specifically, the Dangerously Curious trait stands out as unusual. So how is it that such a skilled archer, who’s not an elf, become the magic-dabbling arrow-slinger she is? As a twist, my DM also offered us the possibility of a free magic item, up to 2,500 gp value, so long as we could justify it with a character background. This gave the the perfect idea!
Here’s the background I cooked up, as an example of “giving a munchkin a soul”.
Kenna is a young human woman from a small village on the edges of the kingdom. Her father was a hedge wizard in the town, albeit not a very good one. Her father tended to be both gullible and absent-minded, two qualities that often made him the butt of jokes and the target of insults.
As her father was a laughingstock in the neighborhood, Kenna was often picked on too by association. This has left her sensitive to danger and quick to react when she feels threatened (Reactionary trait). It has also created in her a deep dislike of those who oppress or bully others, and she will do whatever she feels is in the best interests of the innocent and underprivileged … even if it means occasionally breaking the law (Chaotic Good alignment).
Still, Kenna’s father could be a very skilled hedge wizard when he wanted to be, and the people who abused him during the day would often be the same ones knocking on his back door in the evening looking for potency potions or pregnancy-preventing poultices. Kenna never had the knack for wizardry that her father had, but she was eager to learn what she could and to help out in his shop (especially after her mother died from an illness). As his assistant, she picked up the odd bit of arcane knowledge here or there — enough to be able to use magic devices better than the average person (Knowledge: Arcana skill, Dangerously Curious trait). She still hopes to maybe learn the arcane craft, someday.
While Kenna never shared her father’s talents for magic, she showed an appreciable skill with martial weapons and particularly the bow. As a young teen she was well known around nearby towns for her ability to notch an arrow and let it fly with high accuracy. She discovered in herself a competitive nature, and so she worked to hone her skills to the utmost degree. (Point-blank shot, Precise Shot, Rapid Shot). She has won many a village faire’s archery competition with her scarlet-fletched arrows.
Kenna’s start as an adventurer happened after the tragic loss of her father. Kenna’s village was beset by a marauding band of orcs. The orcs demanded that the village hand over half of their fall harvest, or the orcs would burn the village down. The villagers chose instead to try and fight the brigands, and they pressed every able-bodied person into the defense, including Kenna and her father.
The night before the battle, Kenna’s dad surprised her with a gift: a wand of gravity bow he had crafted for her so that she might better defend herself and the village in battle. He advised her to tie the wand to her quiver and sheath it like an arrow, so that so that she could grab it quickly, cast the spell, and then let it go quickly without losing it.
On the morning that the orcs returned, Kenna lined up next to her father, ready to fight. In battle, she found herself relishing the thrill of combat and the challenge of shooting at enemies faster than they could get to her on foot (Fighter class). The village won the day and routed the orcs. Sadly, her father was mortally wounded in the battle; an orc charged him faster than she could fire a shot, and it cut her father down in a single blow. She retaliated by putting a scarlet-fletched arrow into its eye.
With her father gone, Kenna had no reason to stay in the village. She sold her father’s shop for what coin she could get, used that coin to buy herself some gear, and left her village armed with her favorite yew bow and a quiver full of scarlet-fletched arrows Kenna walks the land with an extreme drive to protect the weak from the overbearing will of the strong. The wand remains tied to her quiver, not only because it has combat value but also for its sentimental value; it is likely that she will try to recharge it when it is drained, or just keep it as a memento of her dad.
For me, a min-maxed PC is only fun if it’s loaded up on stats AND personality. Even if Kenna follows the min-max path I have in mind for her, she’ll be a really fun character to role play as well as roll play. As a wise man once said, “personality goes a long way.”