5 Cards to a Deeper Character

I heard an idea a long time ago and I’m wondering if anyone has every tried something similar.  Take 5 random images, magic cards, quotes, book titles, etc and use those as inspiration for a character’s back story. For the next campaign I want to run, I was thinking of providing 5 random magic cards to each of the players to help them with a back-story. For instance, if the card is a soldier, the character could have a military background, been an army brat, could come from a land under occupation, always wanted to be a soldier but didn’t have the health or discipline, etc.

For an example, here are five magic cards randomly selected from a box in my attic. The nice thing about these cards is that in addition to an evocative name, it also has artwork and usually flavor text that can contribute ideas. Before I start, my initial character concept is a Halfling Monk that was adopted by the monastic order and is adventuring to find his true parents.

  • Sea Serpent. Since I’m building a Monk, I think I’ll equip him with a Cobra Strike Ki Focus [DDI] item. I’ll “reskin” it to be a Sea-Serpent Strike Focus. Instead of being made from clay, it’ll be made from the bones a Sea Serpent he helped hunt in his training.
  • Island. This is fortuitously combined with the last card. The monastery where  was raised was on an Island. Dealing with sea creatures was part and parcel of their order.
  • Unsummon. What’s with all the blue cards? I don’t feel like adding some sort of summoner to my character’s past, but the picture on the card looks like a guy in a dark cloak being surprised by an armored demon appearing before him (I think it’s actually supposed to be disappearing). So I’m adding to the Monk’s past an apparition of a demon army. Even though his quest is to find out who his parents are, in the back of his mind he’s worried about when this army might appear and how he might help prepare the world for this event.
  • Mons’s Goblin Raiders. Goblin raiders are pretty easy to work with. For my character I might add that the Monastery was attacked and destroyed by goblin raiders; the loss of the home is what set him journeying. Unfortunately this feels like too many items for a backstory, so I’m not actually going to include it.
  • Dwarven Warriors. This a great card, although with a high mana cost for a 1/1. Anyway… the first adventure my halfling ran into was with a group of Dwarfs. He helped them with a few battles, but couldn’t stop helping himself to more than his fair share of the treasure and so had to leave quickly…

As you can see, this is a great way to come up with some character inspiration, and is especially good if you get “Adventurer’s Block” or feel like everything has been tried too many times. This is probably also a good way to come up with adventurer’s hooks.  Any other good ideas for random inspiration?


6 thoughts on “5 Cards to a Deeper Character

  1. I like it! For a group that does a lot of chargen and wouldn’t mind playing with imposed themes, it’s a keen idea.

    The most I’ve done with this kind of thing is draw random GURPS books (I’ve most of the 3rd ed stuff) and tried to combine them into one-shot stories, that kind of thing, but randomness can certainly boost creativity.

  2. Great idea. I’m a big fan of random inspiration, but never thought of it for PC backstory. As a DM, I’ll sometimes click on random here–


    –for visual or textual snippets of inspiration. That could be a good alternative for using one’s private collection, since they have (nearly) every card ever printed in their database. Not as tarot, though. 🙂

    Also: Wordnik, a large semi-“crowdsourced” dictionary has a nice random option:


    It’s fun to click on “random word” there and see what comes up.

    Fun post — thanks.

  3. I like the idea a lot; I don’t have magic cards, so maybe I’ll try Tarot cards to come up with ideas for something similar, since they have general life themes depicted in them. I didn’t come up with too in-depth of a background for my character, but what background I did do, I drew some inspiration from the background of Emily Dickinson. Except even my character isn’t quite THAT weird, lol.

  4. @Siskoid,
    I like the random GURPS books idea. I haven’t done anything with my GURPS books in like 12 years!

    Thanks for the link. I spent 20 minutes trying to find a random magic card url.

    I have a friend who once ran a Savage Worlds game where all the PCs were famous poets.

  5. It’s a great idea, and magic cards are one of those resources that work better you know them. You can do the same thing with art cards of almost any type (and, in fact, Everway was based on this very idea, with 5 art cards and what they mean being an essential part of chargen). Tarot cards can also work well, but they depend a lot on knowing them well enough for them to be meaningful.

    One useful thing for this are decks of cards that are more or less designed for this purpose like whimsy cards or Story Cards.

    That said, if you really want a lot of option, check out Abulafia – it’s an entire website full of random tables. It’s a wonder.

    -Rob D.

    PS – (In case this eats html, storycardsrpg.com and random-generator.com respectively)

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