Shared origins can bind a party together with a common cause beyond simply "meeting in a tavern." A common origin lets the players craft beliefs, goals, and instincts relating to others in the party, and provides the GM a clear theme with which to challenge the party. Eventually, it could be the event that caps off a campaign in dramatic fashion as enemies are dealt with and destinies are decided.
Choosing an Origin
At the beginning of a Torchbearer campaign, even before the characters are made, choose one of the following shared origins or create your own using these as a guideline:
Your party formed around the discovery of a map to an ancient dwarven treasure hidden in a dragon's lair. It’s the chance for you all to escape your dismal mundane lives.
Benefits/Drawbacks: A map that holds a secret and a donkey to carry the treasure away.
Your party has been tasked with disposing of a cursed item in a distant wretched hellscape. It is valuable and wanted by many.
Benefits/Drawbacks: Start with an artifact that both helps and harms. Using the artifact has dire consequences, such as permanently taxing an ability.
Everyone must choose an enemy.
Your party seeks revenge against a king or lord for some crime or atrocity.
Benefits/Drawbacks: All party members are wanted in the kingdom by the lord's sheriff. Everyone also has an additional friend who is a member of a rebellion. One member of the party carries damaging evidence of the lord's misdeeds.
Your party met in a tavern but then became involved in a grisly deed. They are now someone's loose end.
Benefits/Drawbacks: Everyone gains Unspeakable Plot-wise, and someone carries evidence of that deed on their body. The party has an unknown enemy.
Your adventurers grew up together in a thieves guild that was routed by the sheriff. Will they leave that life behind?
Benefits/Drawbacks: All characters must be orphans, and at least one of you has a Mentor in jail. Gain thieves guild-wise. If your origin is discovered, you become wanted by the sheriff's authorities.
Your adventurers are the last of a barbarian clan slain by raiders. You now seek a new home.
Benefits/Drawbacks: All the characters must be orphans or directly related. You escaped with an artifact that forms the soul of your clan. With it you can rebuild, and seek revenge.
You are all devout pilgrims—or willing to pose as such—trusted to escort a holy relic across the realm.
Benefits/Drawbacks: The group starts with a cart that carries the body of a revered saint. These contents count as a temple to which you can pray to. You usually take turns pulling the cart.
Your party has formed around an epicurean tradition of cooking exotic monsters. No one understands your strange endeavour, but you will change their minds!
Benefits/Drawbacks: You all have ingredients-wise. As long as you have this wise, you cannot abide preserved rations and don’t want to use them to recover hungry/thirsty. If you do so, you become Angry.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Every origin provides some benefits and drawbacks that represent the way in which the origin effects the PCs lives. GMs should use this as a way to tease the PCs into situations, putting their benefits in danger, or using drawbacks to remind the players of the cost of their shared past. This is a balancing act, a bit like “giving the players enough rope to hang themselves’. If an origin only brings trouble, the PCs will seek to abandon it at the earliest opportunity. But if it offers an advantage two out of three times, maybe the benefits outway the costs. Don’t seek to balance the scales right away, but if the PCs receive a string of good luck from their origin, perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction. When a twist next arises, the origin comes front and center again.
Beliefs and Origins
As the origin represents the PC’s starting point, their starting beliefs should involve the origin and/or the other PCs in some way. When something new and important comes along, the PCs are free to choose to adopt a new belief that may have nothing to do with their origin. Doing so should signal to the GM that the PC might be abandoning their origin or growing beyond it. Perhaps something should test their connection to the origin to decide if they have truly left it all behind. You can try to leave your past behind, but it still has the chance of catching up with you when you least expect it.
Don't lay everything out!
The origin is meant to grow and warp with twists, leading to further revelations. Keep it light on facts and let the game deliver the details as needed, with new enemies, trouble down the line, and new goals that further your cause. Origin is not meant to take over the adventure but rather to be in the background until you want to pull it front and center. Let it grow organically and only deal with it directly when it feels like it's time.
Involve the table
The whole table contributes to this kind of permutation about your adventuring party. When making decisions about the direction of your party's origin or when extrapolating backstories, the table should all weigh in with ideas, approvals, or concerns. Table votes can resolve competing views, but generally, everyone should be on board. GMs should reserve their votes to break ties.
Is it a Meta-plot?
No. Origins resemble meta-plots, but there are some differences. Meta-plots are usually a plot the GM concocts that explains why all the adventures tie together. An origin binds the players together and gets them involved in creating their portion of the plot. An origin is meant to have space for the players and GM to fill on the fly, similar to how Torchbearer handles NPCs, in that players can create them to address a need or feature something about the PCs. Inevitably the GM will involve the origin in their meta-plot, if they have one. Just try to avoid vetoing player contributions because they conflict with your meta-plot that you, and no one else, knows the full details.
Art by Duamn Figueroa Rassol