- You meet in a tavern, where you are given a job and offered a reward.
- You meet in prison and have to escape.
- You are survivors of a shipwreck or other disaster.
And those are fine! But if you want to try something different, I'm working on a set of medieval-ish "starting group" ideas, for medieval-ish characters.
Side note: I really wanted the film The Little Hours to be better than it was. It's based on some of the tales from the Decameron, although the jokes probably were a lot funnier in the 14th century, and they could have been funnier if the film had been less... Monty Python medieval. Context is everything. Anyway, this is my take on the subject.
Better Run Better Run / Faster Than My Nun
Monastic life was not easy, and not all initiates were willing. Unwanted children, marriageable daughters, wilful, spiteful, or mad heirs, or potentially dangerous claimants were shipped off to abbeys wholesale. They could not leave; breaking a sacred vow meant excommunication and pursuit by both Church and State. Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that many men and women rebelled against vows they did not choose to take, and a life whose monotony, isolation, and discomfort could crush the soul rather than purify it.
This isn't to say all convents were prisons, and all nuns unwilling and unfulfilled, but for the purposes of this article, it's a perfectly fine assumption.
So You Start in a Convent...You are a group of escaped nuns. Roll on this before you choose or roll for race, class, or other features. Adapt the backgrounds provided by your class as necessary. The roll may suggest class options to you as well. By default, nuns generated by this method are female, though there are a few options for male priests, gardeners, etc. If this doesn't work for your setting or group, remove the gender notes entirely and make up some excuse, or invert them.
Roll once per character. Whatever the reason or circumstances, it's enough to cause you to flee into the night, along with a few other sisters (and possibly accidental bystanders), and seek a life elsewhere. All the characters have made a pact (solemn or otherwise) to escape together and support each other in any future hardships. The results don't say what you'll do after you escape - that's for the GM to manipulate and guide. They just list why you want to get out. If you want to make up a reason instead of rolling, that's fine too.
Side note: Convents were rarely fortresses. Trusted members of the community could leave to visit relatives, go on pilgrimages, and attend feasts. New and unruly initiates, or proven reprobates, were monitored more carefully. Confinement and enclosure varied widely over different regions and different times.
|1||You were an unruly, rebellious, brawling child. Your family hoped the convent would reform your ways. It hasn't.|
|2||When your husband died, his greedy but powerful relatives stole your inheritance and locked you in a convent.|
|3||You fell in love with a priest and entered the convent to be close to him, but he spurned you cruelly.|
|4||You accused a powerful noble of assaulting you, and your family shut you away to keep the scandal from spreading.|
|5||Your family could not afford to keep you, their sixth and, coincidentally, least attractive daughter. You never wanted to be a nun.|
|6||You are being educated in the convent to prepare you for marriage to a hideous elderly merchant, to secure an alliance.|
|7||You believe in actively doing good works out in the world. The more impressive, the better. You are naive but motivated.|
|8||You entered the convent as a widow. You are old, wise, and you've been building up wanderlust for decades.|
|9||You fell in love with another nun. You lack the vocabulary to describe your sin, but you're pretty sure what you do at night is forbidden.|
|10||(Male) You pretended to be a mute simpleton to work in the gardens and seduce some of the nuns. You were discovered.|
|11||You willingly entered the convent for spiritual reasons, but now believe your calling is elsewhere in the world.|
|12||You accidentally killed another nun. Your crime has not been discovered, but it is only a matter of hours.|
|13||Your overbearing family promised you to the Church at your birth. You have never had a real or meaningful choice in your life.|
|14||You were accused of illegal sorcery and witchcraft, and sentenced to life in the convent instead of death on the pyre.|
|15||You covet a luxury unavailable inside the convent, and will do anything to obtain it.|
|16||You were sent to the convent to conceal an embarrassing pregnancy. Turns out, you were just ill, but they won't let you leave.|
|17||You entered the convent to satisfy your curiosity about the world. What you learned only made you more curious and more daring.|
|18||You deliberately killed a priest and framed another nun. You are willing to help the framed nun escape if she helps you escape.|
|19||You discovered a secret about the Abbess and you believe your life is in danger.|
|20||(Male) You dressed as a woman to enter the convent and seduce the nuns. You were discovered.|
|21||You entered the convent to evade a powerful and frightening suitor. He has found your retreat; you need to flee.|
|22||You chose life in the convent to gain some control over your fate, but discovered you'd merely changed one prison for another.|
|23||You took up an unsuitable profession; your family hoped the convent would cure you of your deviant behavior.|
|24||You have outlived two husbands, buried eight children, and you have suddenly realized you are tired of being told what to do.|
|25||You were committed to the convent as an infant, the daughter of a minor rebellious baron. The rebellion and the baron are long forgotten.|
|26||You received a letter with news of an invasion. Your superiors insist nothing is wrong, but you know you need to escape soon.|
|27||You are obstinate, hot-headed, sharp-tongued, and right more often than not. You'd make a fine commander but a lousy nun.|
|28||Your husband exiled you to a convent to be rid of you. You have just received word of his death.|
|29||You were caught sleeping with a particularly embarrassing priest, and you are sure to be exposed and chastised in the morning.|
|30||(Male) You broke into the convent to rescue your sister or your lover and you need to make a hasty exit.|
|31||You thought you could fill the hole in your heart with prayer. Turns out, gold might work instead. Lots and lots of gold.|
|32||You are the illegitimate child of noble lady and a servant, sent to the convent to keep you out of trouble.|
|33||Your family sent you to the convent believing you were half-witted, but you are really just careful. You have a very good plan.|
|34||Your father and stepmother sent you to a convent to obtain your inheritance. Your half-siblings are keen to keep you there.|
|35||You have some minor deformity that bars you from polite society; your family exaggerates its severity to gain sympathy with their friends.|
|36||Your secret practice with forbidden weapons has been discovered. Punishment will be light, but mockery will be eternal.|
|37||You were placed in the convent as a child by direct order of the local Bishop, through a case of mistaken idenity only recently uncovered.|
|38||Your ceremony to take holy orders and unbreakable vows is tomorrow, and you just realized you don't want to be a nun.|
|39||There are wrongs in the world that need righting, and you can't do it from inside a convent. You are commited to a cause.|
|40||(Male) You are a visitor to the convent caught in a web of deceit, love, and escape plots. You blundered into this.|
|41||You were planning to betray your sisters' escape plans to the Abbess, but you are now in too deep to avoid blame. You need to get out.|
|42||You aren't from the convent at all; you were sent to infiltrate it and assist this escape attempt for unknown reasons.|
|43||You really want to get married. Not just any man will do though - your ideals have been influenced by chivalric poetry. You want a hero.|
|44||Your parents live in poverty to support you in the convent. You think they might be better off if you vanished.|
|45||You were caught in a particularly compromising, possibly blasphemous, act. You didn't do anything wrong but you can't prove it.|
|46||You want to resume your former career, no matter the risks.|
|47||Your family sends you grimly patronizing letters, saying that it's fine that you'll never do anything memorable or useful in your life.|
|48||Your hated rival in the convent was just promoted, glorified, and given more authority. You can't stand it.|
|49||You've secretly been stealing and eating roast turnips. It's your only sin, but the guilt is unbearable. You are growing paranoid.|
|50||(Male) You were traveling and stayed at the convent overnight. You fell in love with a nun who really wants to escape.|
Now What?Most nuns who left their convents returned eventually.
It is no wonder that the majority of these apostates returned. What were they but individuals? Against them was arrayed the might of two great institutions, the Church and the State. Sometimes the might of the Church alone availed to retrieve them; terror brought them of their own free will, or they found themselves caught in a net of threats and excommunications, involving not only themselves, but all who helped them. When Isabel Clouvill, Maud Titchmarsh and Ermentrude Newark, for some time nuns professed in the house of St Mary in the Meadows (Delapré), Northampton, left their convent and went to live in sin in the world, they were excommunicated. Moreover their Bishop ordered the Archdeacon of Northampton to summon them to return within a week, and all who received them in their houses or gave them any help and counsel, were to be warned to desist within three days and to be given a penance. The names of the villages where they were received were to be notified to the Bishop and their aiders and abettors were to appear before him. How many people would suffer for long the displeasure of the Church for the sake of three runaway nuns? Lovers might be faithful, but even lovers must eat and drink and sleep beneath a roof: a nun was no nut-brown maid to live content in greenwood, “when the shawes be shene.” If the pair could escape to a town where their story was not known, there was some chance for them; but sooner or later the Church found them out.
Suppose they scorned the Church; suppose powerful friends protected them, or careless folk who snapped their fingers at the priest and knew too much about begging friars to hold one amorous nun a monstrous, unexampled scandal. Then the Church could call in the majesty of the State to help, and what was a girl to do? Can one defy the King as well as the Bishop? To a soul in hell must there be added a body in prison? Elizabeth Arundell runs away from Haliwell in 1382, nor will she return. The Prioress thereupon petitions the King; let His Highness stretch forth the secular arm and bring back this lamb which wanders from the fold. His Highness complies; and his commission goes forth to Thomas Sayvill, sergeant-at-arms, John Olyver, John York, chaplain, Richard Clerk and John Clerk to arrest and deliver to the Prioress of Haliwell in the diocese of London, Elizabeth Arundell, apostate nun of that house. The sheriffs of London and Middlesex and Essex and Hertford, as well as a sergeant-at-arms and three other men, are all set hunting for Joan Adeleshey, nun of Rowney, who is wandering about in secular dress to the great scandal of her order. The net is wide; in the end the nun nearly always comes back. She comes to the Bishop for absolution. He sends a letter on her behalf to her convent, bidding them receive her in sisterly wise, but abate no jot of the penance imposed on her. The prodigal returns kneeling at the convent gate and begging admission, for it is an age of ceremony and in these dramatic moments onlookers learn their lesson. The gates swing open and close again: Sister Joan is back.
But luckily, these are player characters, and they have many more options. Living in the wilderness might be difficult for most nuns, but raiding a dungeon, taking up false identities in a distant city, catching (or even stealing) a ship, or otherwise evading both the Church and the State are possible. Where that fails, they can always use large chests of gold to smooth over any difficulties, set up their own convent, acquire noble protectors, or otherwise bend the usual rules of medieval society.
Class IdeasThe most obvious class is the rather specialized Monk/Nun class, but just because you are an escape nun doesn't mean you're going to level like one. Most of the classes listed here have backgrounds that could work with the table above, with a bit of adaptation. Knights might be tricky, but the rest should work.
You don't need to be a member of the First Estate either. You can continue to act like an initiate, with the benefits and penalties of the role, or kick the habit and start fresh as an Outlaw or a member of the Third Estate.
|1||Collapsing. The roof leaks, there is never enough food, and half the buildings are falling apart. The administration is corrupt or absent.|
|2||Strict. Scrubbed to perfection, ordered to excess, and utterly joyless, silent, and unwelcoming.|
|3||Debauched. The convent might not be a brothel, but it's certainly not a pious, restful, or comforting place. Possibly exploitative.|
|4||Cloying. The convent is loving, caring, and saccharine-sweet. It's intolerable.|
|5||Indebted. The convent's finances are imploding. Every conversation relates to coins, debt, and ways to raise funds. It's depressing.|
|6||Isolated. The nearest civilized place is a day's walk away; the nearest city is a distant dream.|
|7||Dominated. The Abbess' personality and whims control every aspect of life in the convent.|
|8||Cursed. Nuns keep dying of mysterious illnesses or tragic accidents.|
|9||Hospitable. The convent is used as a stopover point for pilgrims, soldiers, nobles, or merchants. They constantly disrupt all activities.|
|10||Factionalized. A handful of noble widows, proud and powerful, vie for control of the convent. Letters and intrigues abound.|