We have all heard the horror stories of TPK–where the DM or the dice decided to just off the party. And sometimes it isn’t the whole party, just your character that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Depending on your level and how high the treasure is running, you may have no hopes of resurrection either. Even if you can afford it, you may not have someone able to cast it right away and what are you supposed to do in the meantime?
This is where it can be handy to have a back-up character. Thing of them as second-string, someone to run with the party until your main is brought back to life if they even can be. My group also uses them because sometimes, we get bored with our main or they aren’t the right fit with the party, or even because something story wise has come up that it makes more sense for them to leave the group (usually to settle down somewhere) because their goal has been accomplished or they have been thrust into a role of responsibility.
So this raises a question. What do you do for a back-up character?
I don’t like playing the exact same thing I’m replacing–it feels like cheating. But you have to think about your group dynamics. Do you need a tank, a healer, a damage per second, what? While there is a way around most gaps, it’s something to think about–you can have a party of entirely clerics, but you need to be different types of clerics. So keeping that in mind, then you need to decide what this character is going to be–a loner who is temporarily joining the group, either by their own will or being hired as a mercenary, a permanent addition. That will help you decide on backstory and class archetypes.
Whether or not I have a back-up character usually depends on the campaign. For example, Hekate is basically the linchpin for her campaign. If I lose her, I would need to consult with the DM on what exactly we could do. As a result, I haven’t built a back-up character and probably never will. But for Jadzia’s campaign, where death is a pretty constant threat? I’ve been contemplating a back up for a while, I just hadn’t settled on anything until the last couple of weeks. My new back-up in case of Jadzia retiring or dying is now Aurora, a Justice Archon Legate Paladin of Athena.
Now that I have a concept, the next question is how far should I go in building this character? There’s some schools of thought, such as waiting to build until you need them, but that could bring a session to a grinding halt if you die within the first hour of a planned four hour meeting with your group. (Or at least it would for me.) Sometimes the rest of the group can keep pushing on, sometimes they can’t and they have to wait for you to build. At the same time, your group is going to run into a lot of items that if your character dies, may be good to pass on to your new one. But if you’ve spent your gold on it already, it can become a headache to backtrack. Plus, gold for a new character scales with their level, more headaches.
My personal way is to get the backstory figured out. Race, name, age, family, home region, and class. Also go ahead and get my stats rolled up and assigned as needed. This lets me get my skills sorted, and I usually go ahead and pick out my feats. With all that figured out, I can level this character at the same time as my main, or at least close to it. That will make the needed character creation should something happen to my main limited to just buying items. (Which can also take forever, but once you get your basic kit, everything after that is just bonus.)
Like I said earlier, not all campaigns want or need a back-up character. And you should always talk to your DM if you want to retire your main, and give them plenty of warning. (I saw a tweet where someone had been setting up a character-centered arc for months, only for the player to change characters out of nowhere on them, I felt sooo bad…) If they know who your second string character is, they also know are prepared for what is coming with that new character and can keep in mind how to introduce them if needed.