What's "From Box to Character?" It's something a bit wacky I'm trying out, where I buy a box of Dungeons and Dragons (or Pathfinder) minis, pull one at random, and create a character for it. Kinda weird right? So why do it? Well, to be totally honest, I absolutely love minis. I've always been into tiny plastic things, starting with action figures as a kid. Add the randomized aspect of it, where you don't know what mini you'll get, and it's like crack for a guy like me (I play Magic after all). Now I've had minis in a tub for a while, going back to when I got my first D&D books. I couldn't have been older than 13. I got the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide (3.5), and couldn't wait to play high fantasy with my friends. Thing is, I didn't run any great adventures and forced my friends to play through a few terrible dungeon crawls (they never played more than a few times). There was no real story to these, just "oh hey, there's a room with some bad guys and some treasure inside". I limited myself to the minis I had. When you have a super random, varied assortment (eg. a Giant Praying Mantis, a couple orcs, a kobold paladin) it leads to some weird stuff. It's like I didn't understand that D&D's about creating, about letting your imagination create something fantastic, and then worrying about the hunks of plastic you'll use to represent those ideas much later. So in the spirit of doing things backwards, to challenge myself, and hopefully help people get more out of their minis, I'm going to put myself in that same situation again. I'm going to force myself to craft a good story from a random miniature. Now don't expect full adventures, I'll mostly focus on the character itself, then create a plot hook around it. Hopefully, this is more than just a challenging exercise, and you'll find some value from it! Feel free to use any of the stuff I come up with in your campaigns (though if you put it in a paid adventure, I'm gonna be salty). So what's our mini this week?
Okay. Full disclosure, I was a bit disappointed when I pulled this. I was expecting some fierce demon, or maybe a dude with some wicked armour. Hell, the box has a dude with a green sword on the side. A GREEN SWORD, and I basically got a fancy horse. Stupid fancy horse, guess I gotta turn you into a character now, eh?
This took a bit of work, and a little help from the Monster Manual (it's not cheating because I make the rules). A good read of the entry for unicorns later, I pulled out these crucial bits of info:
- Unicorns are sent by good deities, often to protect important places or people.
- They hang out in magical forests.
- Their horns make powerful wands, weapons, and magical components.
- Gods will guide people to unicorns if they need protection.
So it turns out unicorns are a bit more than fancy horses. Two things really stood out to me here: the power of a unicorn's horn and that whole divine intervention thing. Beyond being just a powerful magical item, unicorn horns actually heal people on contact. So naturally, my first thought here was "who would want to abuse this power?" Well, it'd be someone evil obviously, but let's not worry about that just yet. We'll keep this on the backburner, and worry more about why this unicorn exists and what it wants. Maybe our unicorn wants to protect and guide lost kids? Now why would a god assign a unicorn to that? There could be something real nasty in the woods, some evil force or power that lurked and waited for kids to snatch up. Maybe it's a particularly evil place? Great, but let's make it something out of sight. Maybe it's some kind of artefact or a place of evil power (the great thing about coming up with a character is you don't have to worry about the McGuffin just yet). Let's say it's an evil place of power, laying just beneath a small village full of somewhat superstitious people. There's a cult of demon worshippers, maybe some of whom have even infiltrated the village already, but they didn't have the numbers for a full attack. Cool, we can work with this, and come up with a quick rundown of Athalgas the Unicorn:
Most in the village of Cafeld consider Athalgas to be just a pleasant story they tell their children. A real, living unicorn of great speed and holy power, it travels swiftly through the vibrant pine forests that surround the small village, out of sight. While most adults don't believe in the being's existence, many of their children swear up and down that he exists, spitting in their tiny hands and ready to shake yours as they give you their word. Many of them have become lost in the snowy banks and thick forest around their homes, and claim that Athalgas guided them back himself. Adults will entertain their children's fantasy by even claiming the magic horse is a reincarnation of an elven ranger that lived in the woods long ago, who guided lost travellers and directionally challenged children to Cafeld when it wasn't anything more than a few houses. The ranger had died in a great battle with rampaging orcs years prior, saving the village and earning an oak statue erected just in front of Cafeld's meeting halls. Beyond these wild stories, the only mention of the unicorn will come from men with a few too many empty tankards around them. Lumberjacks, fishermen or other tradesmen that travel in the woods will claim that, if they venture too far, they hear a horse whinny and gallop. Of course, none will ever admit to having seen the creature.
Wow, so where did that reincarnated ranger thing even come from? Well, unicorns only speak and understand Celestial, Elvish and Sylvan. So if it were to have a name, it would make sense for it to be from one of those languages. Elvish was a logical choice, being the most accessible. From there, the villagers needed a reason to name the unicorn this way (especially if most of them don't speak Elvish). I figured they could name him after an elf they'd known, whether in truth or stories. Then that divine intervention came to mind; what if the unicorn isn't just named after the ranger...it is the ranger? Because that's how writing works, sometimes you have to pry the idea from your mind, sometimes it just pops up in there. As for the name?
I kind of cheated. I'm terrible at coming up with names, especially out of the blue. I end up using the donjon fantasy name generator for 90% of the names I come up with (even in my stories). I usually switch up some of the letters, or combine names to make them more meaningful (Like switching an h to get "Athalgas" from "Ahtalgas"). It's made for some good names so far.
So now that Athalgar is a real character, let's figure out a story around him.
The Plot Hook
As promised, we're keeping this super simple. The goal here isn't to create a whole adventure for Athalgas to be a part of, but instead draw the broad strokes. That's more useful to you and your table. So we've already started with the idea of a divine vs. demonic conflict, all from this piece of information:
So unicorn horns are hella powerful, much like the unicorn itself. But I feel like just having some bad guys show up to kill the unicorn, chop off its horn and run off isn't much of a conflict. Hell, your players show up and the deed's already done. Now we've already got some evil place of power under Cafeld, as well as a demonic cult already in play. For some good fluff, we'll say that it's a cult of Mephistopheles, specifically. According to the Fiendish Options Unearthed Arcana cults that worship Mephistopheles are all about getting magic power and using it. So maybe this cult feels the need to sacrifice a powerful creature, like a unicorn, in order to activate this place. Maybe it includes a planar portal to allow Mephistopheles himself to cross into the Material Plane? Maybe it will infuse the cultists with crazy magical abilities? That's all up to you; its purpose isn't as important as the fact that the cultists want to get to it, and they need Athalgas to use it. Now how do we turn this into an adventure? Imagine something like this:
- The players either get sent to Cafeld by a patron, or they stumble upon it during a blizzard and decide to take refuge there.
- They notice that the village seems relatively empty. Maybe they visit the inn and notice there aren't as many customers as they'd expect, or the market is missing half its vendors.
- The village's leaders are missing, and a group of villagers beg the adventurers to figure out what's going on. Some of them are old adventurers and can provide some magical items for a reward.
- Searching the village itself doesn't turn up much until a young girl comes to the adventurers. She's the first to mention Athalgas, the unicorn. She says that Athalgas will know what to do, that she can take them to him.
- Travelling through the woods (and likely fighting some mean beasties), the PC's run into two men, armoured, seeming to stand guard next to a huge oak tree. If the PC's don't attack first, we can have an interesting social encounter here, where the guards try to hide the fact that they're cultists guarding the entrance to their great place of power. Cunning negotiation, magic or violence can all be used here, and they'll find the tree to be an illusion masking the real entrance.
- After a bit of a dungeon crawl, our PC's will find the main ceremonial chamber, full of strange demonic runes and a cadre of hooded individuals in the middle of their ceremony. Athalgas is tied down, about to be sacrificed. PC's fight the cultists, hopefully winning and saving our unicorn!
After All This...
We went from "disappointing fancy horse" to "unicorn reincarnation of a heroic elven ranger about to be sacrificed by a demonic cult." Because no matter what you pull from a box, you can make a great character with just a little bit of thought. Give them a motivation, relationships and a conflict, and you've got the makings of someone interesting.