Whenever I play tabletop roleplaying games with my friends, one of the recurring jokes or statements we bring up is this: nobody wants to be a Rat Catcher.
In Warhammer Fantasy, the classes that people start out as have a bleaker bent than what you would see in an Exalted or Dungeons and Dragons game. The concept for Warhammer Fantasy is highly driven towards the zero-to-hero campaign premise, in which you are pulled from the gutters by your bootstraps and gain a better life through your heroic actions. Unfortunately, the universe appears to be primarily comprised of gutters—and questionable inns complete with back-alleys in which to be shanked—so, for the most part, one starts out in a less-desirable career with the promise of advancement in the future. These range anywhere from Fishermen to Roadwarden, with the unfortunate position of Rat Catcher being one of the more well-known careers.
Rat Catchers, as their name implies, make their living disposing of the considerable amount of vermin that lurk within their universe’s towns and villages. They spend their lives picking off voles and traveling to ply their trade, but it’s not a very good life by anyone’s reckoning. Unsurprisingly within the narrative of the game, you typically end up working as a scout with your adventuring group—sort of a proto-rogue with a rat flail. And I mean this literally. The Rat Catcher career starts out with a rat pole in which you roll a D6 to see how many dead rats it comes with. There are various career exits for the Rat Catcher, but my statement stands: in a bleak, dark world with bleak, dark lore, you start out as something no one in their right mind would want to be with the hazy goal of getting out of that position in the future.
No one in real life wants to be a Rat Catcher. It’s a terrible job with a horrific premise, in which the only goal one has that month is to go to another town and find more vermin to exterminate. However, in the universe of Warhammer Fantasy, this job is needed to an extent that it’s very likely your character will start out as it. The world is built on a medieval premise rather than an outright fantasy one, and it comes with all the ghoulish trappings other fantasy games ignore: plagues, violent acts from day-to-day people, and the very likely death by disease. In that way, the Rat Catcher is a very useful person within the universe they inhabit. And what’s more: they fit directly into the narrative, and their rise from this role into that of a seasoned adventurer makes sense. Your character can grow from this position, even if their backstory is a bit lacking in the valor department. You won’t have to catch moles for the rest of your life. The story is going to make something more of you. Something better.
That promise is a pretty good place to start in terms of character crafting—and I’d be lying if I the premise of starting out as gutter trash and growing into a position of power didn’t appeal to my creative writing senses!
Going back to my post about Mary Sues, one of the larger problems I see in roleplaying communities is the desire for everyone to be in an important role. I think it’s very understandable that one wants to be acknowledged in their community—and between the Paladin and the Rat Catcher, people in trouble are more likely to flock towards the one covered in holy symbols. Until recently, I wanted to be the important adventurer as well, and it’s a desire the overarching narrative of the game supports. Your character within the game’s story is the hero, the leader of armies, the person spoken of in legend who is going to save the world. And while that does well for the game’s narrative, roleplaying narrative tends to differ to some extent. Not everyone can be the Warrior of Light in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. You aren’t the only person beyond canon characters to witness the Lich King’s fall in World of Warcraft. Your character lives in the universe where that happens of course, but strictly speaking, you aren’t actually that individual who truly rested the weight of the world on your back.
And as much as being the lynchpin might appeal to someone… it’s okay not to be. You can be important in lore without being the be-all end-all commander of the righteous forces.
An important part of making a character that isn’t completely embroiled in the many schemes that surrounds the game is understanding the universe they’re in outside of the obvious. To be an active participant in the changing world and its lore, you’ve got to know that lore—full stop. Though your ideas might differ from what you see in your day-to-day questing, it has to come from a place of logic, as your character will be more believable when others interact with them. It’s like the Holy Trinity cooks have in cajun cooking: though there are many different gumbos and etouffees out there, in the end, they all start with the same three ingredients. It’s why people mock those who bring modern-technology mechas into a world that, for the most part, operates on high-fantasy standards. That character was likely not built from the lore that surrounds it.
With the logic I’m presenting, let’s fiddle around with the start of character creation. Let’s say in the overarching story of the world your character’s in, you participate in a militaristic campaign (which is pretty common in most MMOs). Though the game has you playing as leader of this group of soldiers, you want to do something different when roleplaying with other players in the game. When in character (IC), your character is merely one of the infantry forces of the commander.
So the game’s narrative has told you what the commander does, and you’ve run through that part of the game’s storyline to know the outcome of the battle. But you know not everyone can be that character in the roleplaying narrative. You want to be one of their soldiers, one who survived the battle. This is where questing and leveling your character really helps, because as you play the game, you’re given tidbits for how your character will behave. Quests, if the creative team of the game are worth their salt, will be littered with small nuggets of lore to make their game feel more like a universe and less like a constant leveling slog.
Where did they come from, in what town or settlement were they recruited? What is the history of that town? How long has your character’s family been a part of that settlement? Were your character’s parents a part of this town or did they move from elsewhere? Has that had an effect on why you wanted to join the army?
If you don’t want to go with a militaristic bent, there’s always the path of being an adventurer. In both tabletop and video games, this concept’s pretty common, because you can reasonably throw yourself into the thick of things due to crazy random happenstance. Every game has need for adventurers, and they certainly love to make a name for themselves. Where did the adventurer start their journey from? What made them want to head onward besides their natural wanderlust? If they didn’t naturally want to travel, did something make them run? Look at the different plot points and objectives you’ve experienced in your actual playing of the game. Does something there stand out? As an example, one of my characters has begun adventuring due to her entire race seeking asylum after another empire has taken over their country. Did an insurrection or war happen in your character’s past that they’re attempting to escape?
These are all things that can potentially breathe life into your character concept. More importantly, these ideas will situate your character within the lore directly, making them feel more real not only to yourself but to everyone you interact with. It does take a bit of work to differentiate yourself from the hero, but I promise it’s worth it. You don’t have to start out as a Rat Catcher—but humble beginnings do have a premise, and give you plenty of room to create.