Made Me Who I Am Today: Mentors and Life-Paths

Backgrounds are an amazing potential resource during character creation, because they are quick ways to give your character a history while mechanically reinforcing the character concepts you may already have in mind.

Sometimes, though, having just one Background pick to represent all the formative years of a character’s life can seem a little one-dimensional. For some people the Background – by itself – isn’t quite enough to give a handle on who a given character is.

Or maybe you’re like me, and just get a kick about adding some randomness to your character’s life. Whatever the case, let’s use Backgrounds to make ourselves a life-path.

Self, How Did I Get Here?

The concept of a “life-path” in character creation is something that has shown up in plenty of role-playing games over the years, and usually involves making choices (or randomly rolling for results) that not only tell you about a character’s past but also impact the final shape the character takes.

Some of these are more involved – or give more interesting results– than others but my personal favorite is devastatingly simple: in the medieval adventure game Chronica Feudalis a player just selects three Mentors, figures who were instrumental in different stages of the character’s life. These three simple choices generate the starting character abilities, equipment, and contacts in the world while giving a framework to build a history around.

Backgrounds allow us to do something very similar with only a few minor adjustments.

  • First, this approach to character creation puts the steps related to Backgrounds (with all the associated Equipment, Proficiencies, and characteristics) after the selection of a character’s Race but before picking a Class.
  • Second, as you go through each step it is important for the players consider who their character was at that point in life and who the Mentor was to them. This doesn’t require an extensive write-up, but it will help give context to the entire process.
  • Third, some of the Backgrounds become very open to interpretation when reimagined as Mentors. The most obvious example is the Noble; if selected first it might indicate that the character was born to nobility and mentored by someone appropriate, but if selected later it could mean the character was adopted into a family or discovered a lost heritage or was such a wonderful protégé that it all comes naturally now.

DMs and players should also make sure that they are on the same page about how Mentors will be used; some players may consider such NPCs to be a part of their character’s history to be fleshed out, while others may want to leave any relevant details – coming up with names is always tricky – in the hands of the DM.

Variant Rule: Mentors Instead of Backgrounds

Instead of treating the Backgrounds in the Player’s Handbook as your character’s history, the Mentor variant treats those entries as individuals whose influence represents a turning point in the character’s past.

d20 Mentor Page #s
1 Acolyte 127
2 Charlatan 128
3 Criminal 128-129
4 Entertainer 130-131
5 Folk Hero 131-132
6 Guild Artisan 132-133
7 Hermit 134-135
8 Noble 135-136
9 Outlander 136-137
10 Sage 137-138
11 Sailor 139
12 Soldier 140-141
13 Urchin 141
14-20

Re-Roll

The process involves picking, or randomly selecting, three different Mentors. Players are permitted to select the same type of Mentor twice, but at least one of the three selections must be of another background.

Example: Bryan imagines that Tomas was in the military for most of his life, so he picks the Soldier to represent the character’s first commanding officer and then picks the Soldier again. Maybe this second Mentor was a heroic example, a grizzled veteran, or a higher-ranking officer Tomas met later in his career. Because he can’t select Soldier again, Bryan decides that after leaving the army Tomas fell on hard times and selects the Urchin.

Step One – Early Years

The first Mentor selected is either someone who had a formative influence on the character’s childhood or who was the first true guide to a young adult. An orphan who lived in squalor may have learned to survive from another Urchin, the daughter of a Soldier may have been expected to learn the basics from an early age, while a young man with ambition might have found work with an Entertainer.

After selecting the Mentor, pull up their background entry on the listed page. Your character then receives:

  • 1 Language, (if applicable)
  • 1 of the Tool Proficiencies, (if applicable)
  • 1 of the Equipment options
  • 1 suggested Ideal or Bond
  • 1 suggested Personality Trait or Flaw

Step Two – Times Change

The second Mentor selected can be anyone that helped the character gain more life experience or survive a harsh world – like the master Guild Artisan a journeyman trains under after their apprenticeship under another Guild Artisan – but it is usually more interesting if they are imagined as the personification of a major life change. This is the time when pirate Sailors can kidnap the child of an Outlander, when the Sage’s student is entranced by the adventures of the Folk Hero, or the disguised daughter of a slain Noble finds herself serving with hardened Soldiers.

After selecting the Mentor, pull up their background entry on the listed page. Your character then receives:

  • 1 Language, if applicable
  • 1 of the Skill Proficiencies
  • 1 of the Equipment Options
  • 1 suggested Personality Trait or Flaw, whichever wasn’t picked in Step One

Step Three – Prelude to Adventure

The third – and final – Mentor selected is generally the person whose actions, for good or ill, have set the character on the path to where they are at the start of the game. At this point in their life a character might be what their culture considers a young adult with a tumultuous past, but it’s also possible they’re on the wrong side of 30 and about to discover what all that hardship was preparing them for.

While connections to and mementos of the past are still with the character, it is the tools of the trade and experiences acquired under their final Mentor figure that will be most fresh when they meet the rest of their party.

After selecting the Mentor, pull up their background entry on the listed page. Your character then receives:

  • 1 of the Skill Proficiencies
  • 1 of the Tool Proficiencies, if applicable
  • 2 of the Equipment Options
  • 1 suggested Ideal or Bond, whichever wasn’t picked in Step One
  • The Feature specific to that background

Step Four – Putting It Together

You will notice that many of the backgrounds have an option to indicate some specific detail that’s appropriate to that lifestyle – Favorite Scheme, Defining Event, Guild Business, etc. – but that this aspect was not mentioned in the above steps. If you are interested in adding that detail to a character’s experience with their Mentor, at any stage, please feel free to do so.

Once all three Mentors have been selected, they should provide a rough outline of what a character has accomplished – or endured – in their life before the start of the game, and added a pool of potential NPCs that a DM may use to add personal drama or connections to their adventures.

If you randomly rolled your Mentor selections, and suggested characteristics, you may be looking at a personality or history you didn’t expect. It’s for this reason that selecting your character’s Class comes after Step Four, because such a decision is likely to either arise from or be in reaction to the character’s past and training.

Whatever you decide, you are almost certain to end up with a character unlike any other.

NOTE: If a character’s selection of Mentors somehow causes them to end up with no Language selections and no Tool Proficiencies, the player may select 1 appropriate Tool Proficiency and 1 additional Language.

What About Ability Scores?

While I tried to keep things as simple and even as possible, this process can be taken further. Specifically, it is possible to give Mentors a stronger mechanical impact and influence over what Classes the character will be best suited to.

How?

First, consider the chart below when considering where to assign Ability scores and note that Constitution isn’t tied to any Skills. This means that when thinking about what score to assign that Ability, it’s best to consider their lifestyle and how robust you imagine them to be.

d6 Ability Skills
1 Strength Athletics
2 Dexterity Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, Stealth
3 Intelligence Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion
4 Wisdom Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival
5 Charisma Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion
6 Constitution None

Second, you might consider this little adjustment to the Mentor rules variant:

1) In Step Two the Ability related to the selected Skill Proficiency is assigned a score of 14 from the Standard Array.

2) In Step Three the Ability related to the selected Skill Proficiency is assigned a score of 15 from the Standard Array. If this would apply to the same Ability, then apply the 15 as above and apply the 14 as desired.

And finally, if you’re feeling froggy, there’s always randomly rolling where to assign the remaining scores.

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3 comments

  1. Hi Mike, I really like this article.

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Pathways system from Smallville RPG or the system agnostic version named Entanglements (http://yarukizerogames.com/2011/07/17/entanglements/) adapted by Yaruki Zero Games. I’m working on adapting this for use with 5e and how the decisions made might be used to help inform some of the choices made during character creation. Once written I’m planning to share it over on http://www.reddit.com/r/DnDBehindTheScreen/.

    I’d love to incorporate your Mentors variant into the process (properly accredited of course). Would you have any objection?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am familiar with the Smallville/Cortex Drama system and that sounds like a pretty novel approach to 5e character creation. I’d be interested in how the Mentor variant would work into it, so please go ahead and let me know when you’re done with it!

      Liked by 2 people

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