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Minor Characterization: It’s your birthday…

Birthday cake photo [1]

Image courtesy of tiverylucky / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As a GM, you have a lot of characters with serious issues to explore–both yours and the players. Sometimes, though, it’s the small questions that reveal characterization–and reveal more about the world you’re building.

One of the most common celebrations in our world is birthdays. You can copy birthdays and bring them into your world, build a culture with a different birthday analog, or even use a culture that doesn’t care about your day of birth at all. There are many options. Let’s play with some of them!

If you want to sing along [2], we can continue when you finish.

Destined Birth

Once you assign a birthday to a character, horoscopes become a useful tool. As a GM, you can use the associated astrological sign to assign traits [3] for a fast NPC. For a prompt requiring interpretation, you can read the character’s horoscope and see what fortune and challenges await them. If the villain’s supposed to have a bad day, maybe that’s your cue to let the PCs catch up.

Prophecies can play into this as well; a child born on the ides of March might be destined to kill the emperor. If the emperor slaughters all of the children he can find that were born on that day, it’ll inspire the PC to keep it quiet… and give her a lifelong grudge to work out!

Birthday Celebrations

Depending on the era and culture, many people lacked access to a calendar, making it impossible to record an exact birthday. Even in cultures where recording birthdays was possible, birthdays weren’t always a big deal. The Romans began by celebrating the emperor’s birthday, often with public banquets, but over time this diffused down to the celebration of wealthy and influential citizens.

In Greece, name days [4] were more commonly celebrated. You celebrate a name day on your patron saint’s sacred day, rather than on a day related to your own birth.

Baptismal days were the days officially recorded (in lieu of birthdays) and celebrated in early medieval Europe. In January 2014, Pope Francis suggested that everyone should look up their baptismal day, and celebrate it like a feast day [5]. Particularly in less medically advanced cultures, this may have been a reaction to infant mortality—instead of celebrating each child’s birth, you celebrate the children who survive. (Medieval infant mortality of 30% [6] is one estimate.)

Birthdays and Worldbuilding

You can use birthday celebrations to set your world apart—just by breaking expectation. If natal days aren’t celebrated, does anything take their place?

Some replacements for birthdays will emphasize different elements of your culture. Eliminating birthdays altogether encourages characters to define their lives by the feast days and celebrations of their culture. To create a bond with others, consider using saint’s or name days—sharing the bond of a common saint gets celebrated on-screen with a party. Or the PCs might use a name day celebration to get inside an NPCs’ house… and take the opportunity to check out the medicine cabinet.

For a futuristic take, maybe birthdays are divorced from years altogether. If various colonies are on planets with different orbital periods, someone who is a local 22 years old might be younger than a stranger from a planet that’s further from its sun who is only 14. An easy “adjustment” is to have everyone keep track of their time in earth-standard years… but, that really downplays the feeling of another world. How long would you celebrate a measuring system that doesn’t relate to your experienced life at all? A generation, two, or three?

A replacement for a year could involve celebrating birthdays every 10,000 hours. That would make the big birthdays still be the “tens”, but they’d be slightly skewed. For example, today you become a teenager at 13 years, or 113,880 hours. In an hours based system, 100,000 hours is the closest analog; you’d get there at 11 years and almost 5 months on Earth.

Of course, you can embrace the local star system, and have ages match the local sun. That’s particularly valuable for a colony that forgot its star faring past—or for people who have turned their back on the ancient past.

Birthdays and Worldbuilding

Depending on the setting, a birthday might be only one of the special days your character celebrates–or it might not even be known or noticed.

Have you done anything interesting with your characters’ birthdays, as a player or GM? Let us know in comments.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Minor Characterization: It’s your birthday…"

#1 Comment By Lugh On June 26, 2014 @ 7:24 am

This is a great article. It’s a really interesting little detail that I hadn’t given much thought to before.

To combine two of the ideas above, what if there is only one naming day per month? Babies are named one year after they are born, by tradition. So people functionally celebrate their birth month, rather than their birthday. And each month has a patron saint/deity/whatever. And, of course, your patron influences and guides your life, much like a horoscope sign.

Yeah, I think there are some interesting ways to add a little spice to a world here, that wouldn’t bog down a setting infodump. Because you don’t need to know this stuff to make a character, really.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 26, 2014 @ 10:29 am

I wonder if the naming day per month would wind up like a large office’s “here’s a cake to celebrate the August birthdays”. Though 1/12 of the town having a birthday each month means you’ve got at least one festivity always planned!

#3 Comment By Gamerprinter On June 26, 2014 @ 9:03 am

I haven’t given much thought to birthdays for my Kaidan setting of Japanese horror (PFRPG). I know that in Japan, at least prior to WW2, nobody celebrated birthdays, per se, however many New Years days you’ve survived was the measure of your age – if one person is born on January 1st, and another born on December 31, at the next New Years, both are 1 years old.

I did create a calendar and I did include specific holidays and festival days when parades and other events are held. In real Japan, Boys Day on May 4th (now called Childrens Day) and Girls Day (in April, don’t know exact day) are traditionally the gift giving day for an individual, but received traditional gifts as it applied to the holiday, and not for useful things an individual could use like a Birthday or Christmas gift.

Since Kaidan development always cleaves to authenticity, the above is probably what I’d incorporate, rather than use some other situation for a birthday.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 26, 2014 @ 10:31 am

What are some of the traditional gifts that were given? Are they not useful now [because they’re for traditional times], or were they never useful?

In any case, emphasizing the “you count how many Januarys you’ve survived” and “there are no birthdays, but you get (useless) gifts on girl’s day” both work to create a different feel to the culture. (At least from my cultural default.)

#5 Comment By Gamerprinter On June 26, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

The symbols that represent Boys Day – are those carp detailed wind sock kites on poles, also a scaled version of a shogun’s harimakido (samurai armor) and other accoutrements for display. Girls Day features a small wooden dias with clay dolls in silk costumes that represent the imperial family. So the gifts are traditional toys for display – put up like Christmas tree for the season. Typically each holiday, you add to the display – so for Boys Day, suit of armor on 1st holiday, then add a sword, add a kite, add a bow, add a war banner – the display gets more complex and more complete with each added holiday.

I have a Boys Day shogun suit of armor that stands about 18 inches tall sitting on the wooden box it all fits into, also a scale version of a katana, yumi long bow, and a pin-wheel styled war flag. I put it up on display in my store window for the whole month of May.

Funny story to that scaled suit of armor. On my last trip to Japan (when I was 15) I saw it for sale in a Tokyo department store with the price tag of 100,000 yen ($500) which is alot in 1977. Its made of hand-crafted metal, silk, horsehair, so an authentic item (nothing plastic). A 3 year old Japanese boy sat on the veneer wood constructed box the suit fits in and broke the lid with his weight right in front of me. The store owner saw me looking at the display, and he crossed off a zero on the price tag, effectively lowering the price from $500 to $50 and I bought it on the spot. I’ve had it appraised since then, and its worth almost $10,000 now, though the box lid is still broken.

#6 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On June 27, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

This is a cool idea that can be incorporated with very little work and a big impact on the feeling of a setting.

Ian McDonald did something along these lines in “Desolation Road”. The novel is set on Mars but this is only made clear in the middle of the story, the inhabitants call their world Earth and it is little details like the age of characters that makes it clear this is not the Earth we live on. And then, I’m impressed you managed to avoid the almost obligatory Tolkien reference about birthday customs among hobbits.