It's that time again. You're all sitting around the table, dice drawn up in a phalanx protecting your character sheet. Sweat is rolling down your Dew, and your mouth is dry from potato chips and anticipation as the head honcho stands up at the end of the table. He looks you over, and asks the same question he always asks when you start a new campaign.
“So, how do you all know each other?”
You look around, and in that moment you realize your character is an island. You don't have friends or family, and you're newly arrived to the city. There's no way any of these yutzes could possibly know who you are, short of divine intervention or a high-priced crystal ball. You can see on the other players' faces that they did the same thing.
So how the hell are you going to get this party started?
Your Small Legend
It's pretty simple, actually. Just because you don't know each other doesn't mean you don't know of each other.
Take a moment and think about it. Adventurers, even level 1 adventurers, have seen and done something to acquire their skills. You're not just a fighter, you're a veteran of the Blackguard Legions who opted not to sign onto another tour of duty. You aren't just a wizard, you're a transmuter who graduated from one of the famed Quantum Universities. Your rogue used to run with the Red Brand Boys, a vicious gang of second story burglars, and your cleric is an Acolyte of the First Order in the worship of... whoever.
The point is that whoever you are, and whatever you're playing, you had a life before you crossed paths with the rest of your party. Chances are you did something at some point to create ripples in the pond, and those ripples are your small legend. And if you're higher than first level, your ripples will be a little bigger.
Telling Your Story
There are a lot of ways you can tell your small legend, depending on who you are and what you want to keep back.
Let's start with a basic setup. Say you've got a bastard-born noble who's going out on the trails to find his fortune. If he introduces himself as Gareth Blackburn, then people may silently add The Iron Lord's Bastard to the end of his name. If he uses a different name, then what deeds has he committed under that moniker which would be known? Did he break up a tavern brawl, leaving five men with busted heads all on his own? Did he stare down a local gang who tried to lean on him, shaming them in front of witnesses? Did he do any work for the town guard? Did he participate in a local tournament (either recently or a year or two ago) where his standing and accomplishments would be remembered?
Typically a character should have a name, or at least a nick name, that speaks to his or her deeds. Bloody Maude Hatchet is a name that needs no explanation, particularly if it's worn by a rough-looking young woman with a battle ax on her hip. Brendan Blacksword's name is both alliterative, and self-explanatory if he wields a magus's black blade. Some characters might only be known by their nicknames. The Headsman is a warrior known for decapitating foes in battle, for instance, while The Gravewalker is likely someone whose been to the other side and come back a few too many times for people to feel comfortable around them.
It doesn't have to be all about you, either. Sometimes all you need to do is flash the right colors, or sport a tattoo, to gain instant street cred with the other PCs. For instance, a big guy with a greatsword may not be much of a how-do in the city, but if you see a bruiser with a top knot and ritual scars on the side of his head people hereabouts know he's a blooded hunter of the Maneaters, and that he'll kill anyone who disrespects him.
It's not about the level 1 barbarian, in that case. It's about the reputation of his tribe.
You can do this with practically any in-game outfit. Your elven ranger's bow and arrow fletchings mark her as a former member of the Murkwood Rangers, a ghost patrol that hunts down dangerous beasts and unwanted brigands hiding beneath the trees. Maybe your cocksure dwarf has tattoos on the backs of his hands that mark him as a Brother of the Brawl, an informal fight club of bouncers, toughs, dirty fighters, and underhanded skull crackers. Perhaps your swashbuckler's pommel is intricately wire-wound, a weapon gifted to a champion in the King of Sharps lists every five years, or your gunslinger's shooting irons have heavy, sandalwood grips that are only given as gifts from the mast of the gun works for services rendered.
The visible association of your character with a group, whether current or former, lets you clue people into a part of your history. That way even if they haven't heard of you, they still get a snapshot idea of where you've been, who you ran with, and what sort of a skill set that should give you. Even better, you can put in layers. Everyone would recognize the crest on your shield, but only people who make the right knowledge check understand that the spike in the center means you used to be a bodyguard to the lord himself, not just a member of his army.
So next time you create a character, ask what tales people are telling about you. They don't all have to be true, but it will help you get the gears lubed so you can start the campaign off right, instead of doing an awkward ice-breaker for the first fifteen minutes of table time.
For more great gaming insights, check out my blog Improved Initiative!