some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them
-Twelfth Night, II.v
|I put on my robe and wizard hat.|
What do heroes do before they become heroes? Do they have day jobs after they start? In stories, heroes often come from low beginnings. Rand, from the Wheel of Time and Garion from the Belgariad are both farmers; Kvothe, from the Kingkiller Chronicles is part of a traveling minstrel troop; and Matthias, the mouse from Brian Jacques Redwall series is a sort of acolyte in a monastery. Heroes from the cape and tights set are even more tied to the mundane. While many fantasy adventurers shed their ordinary lives to slay dragons and eat unicorn meat, superheroes continue to operate an ordinary existence on the side.
But what about in D&D? The option of giving a character some job training is there, in the form of knowledge, craft or profession skills. However, many players and GMs balk at these. Nobody wants to roleplay as Billy, the cart boy! Skill points are a rare commodity, especially for certain adventuring classes like fighters and clerics who can only add a base of two skill points per level. It simply isn't practical to put those first skills into "profession (tailor)" when a skill like "spot" will benefit your character much more in their adventuring life.
People may disagree, but I honestly feel like something is lost under this system. Maybe I'm just not a min/maxer, but I find myself drawn to characters with a working history. I have always wanted to play a sailor turned roguish vagabond, a blacksmith turned warrior, or a scribe turned wizard. When I am in front of the screen, I try to give my characters elements of these backstories, but often forego the corresponding skills in favor of those more practical to the esoteric life of a professional adventurer.
Perhaps there is a way to foster and encourage players who like to flesh out backstories and dabble in the less traditionally adventurous side of roleplaying. One of my players, for instance loves to have his monk cook meals for the rest of the characters. Does it directly factor into their plot arc? Not yet, but that's just because I haven't been able to work in an iron chef competition yet. But, I digress... encouragement! Yes! I suggest offering one or two bonus skill points added to a couple of skills if a player gives their character an "employment history" upon character creation. A couple of points in profession (clockmaker) might add a tantalizing twist to a trapsmithing rogue, and the son of a shipwright might be a strong swimmer, or handy with checks involving woodworking (spiking shut dungeon doors?)
What do you think? Does playing up the humble beginnings of a character distract from the great deeds that are afoot? Or does it perhaps encourage a more creative approach to the adventure? "The nimble tailor deftly swipes the seam on the tapestry, dropping it down on the orcs below."