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Several times throughout the games, the PC is readily identified by NPCs as a Vault Hunter without so much as a word between them before-hand. Vault Hunters are also generally treated as if they were somehow superior to your average adventurer. The latter is further reinforced in the trailer for the new Telltale Games series, where Marcus tells a couple aspiring adventurers that they'll only get themselves killed in whatever they are trying to do because they are not Vault Hunters.

Vault Hunters seem to come from all walks of life - especially the DLC characters. So far, here's who we've got.

  • Brick (Berzerker): Large and in charge, he came to Pandora to find his missing sister.
  • Lilith (Siren): I can't find much in the way of specifics on her background in a cursory glance, but apparently there's a geek side to her as we discover in Tiny Tina's expansion.
  • Mordecai (Hunter): Professional sharpshooter since he was 17. Has a real attachment to his pet bird-of-prey, Bloodwing, which I'm not sure was ever really explained.
  • Roland (Solder): Again, can't find anything in a quick wiki glance, but he's obviously got some military background.
  • Axton (Commando): Former Dahl military. Came to Pandora seeking fame, fortune, and combat.
  • Maya (Siren): Raised and exploited by the Order of the Impending Storm, Maya has come to Pandora in search of knowledge about her background as a Siren.
  • Salvador (Gunzerker): A freedom fighter, native to Pandora, who found out about the Vault while interrogating a Hyperion soldier who had come to take over his hometown.
  • Zer0 (Assassin): Professional assassin with an overall mysterious past. We don't even know for sure that he's human.
  • Gaige (Mechromancer): A child prodigy who was expelled from school due to an incident involving her latest creation, Deathtrap. While running away from home, she stowed away on the same train that carried Roland, Axton, Maya, Salvador, and Zer0 to Windshear Waste.
  • Krieg (Psycho): Krieg is, well... a Psycho. With a sort-of stalker-y crush on Maya. Yeah, I think that's about it.

The only thing any of these people seem to have in common is that, at one point or another, they decided that hunting for the Vault seems like something they need to do with their life. So, what is it about Vault Hunters that really sets them apart? What is it that makes them stick out? What keeps everyone from assuming that anyone can be a Vault Hunter?

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    It's because they are all PCs and the NPCs are using Meta-Knowledge. – aslum Dec 9 '13 at 19:48
  • Here's an idea, PC has their face on WANTED posters all over the place while NPC do not. Citizen noticed that wanted person walking around saving the town, they might figure something out. – Batophobia Dec 9 '13 at 21:30
  • @Batophobia The WANTED posters are not, ostensibly, put up because the PCs are Vault Hunters - they're also accused of several other (albeit some probably trumped-up) charges. Even then, while this may answer how Vault Hunters are readily identified, this doesn't address the apparent presumption that not just anybody can be a Vault Hunter. It seems, in the game universe, that the Vault Hunters are a well-known and exclusive set of individuals with unique talents and regard inherent only to that group. – Iszi Dec 9 '13 at 21:32
  • Seeing as the posters for the base characters are all over the place, they are likely some of the biggest problems for the powers that be. That said, each one must be pretty powerful to get the attention of someone like Handsome Jack. Also, Michael Mamaril could probably be considered a Vault Hunter as well, despite being an NPC. – Batophobia Dec 9 '13 at 21:50
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    I see the New-U stations as more of an acceptable break from reality for gameplay purposes; if they were actually integrated into the lore they would cause no end of problems. No character would stay dead, and Hyperion could just decide to cut you off and end your game forever on your next death... – JMcMinn Dec 10 '13 at 13:35
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Aside from the Sirens who obviously have special powers, not that much. "Vault Hunters" is just a term used in-universe to describe treasure hunters and explorers. Vault Hunters are the people who haven't died yet; as some NPC in Sanctuary puts it, "Are you the hero, or are you just the best at killing people?"

Gameplay-wise, you're actually not all that much different from NPC characters other except your skill and ability to revive. If you actually take sustained fire you will die pretty quickly. You have your skills and stuff, but compared to Skags that spit lightening and Goliaths who's skulls pop out, characters that can (badly) clone themselves, stalkers who turn invisible...you're really not that special, you're just not dead yet, and you've got some friends in high places (like Claptrap).

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    Wow. I'm not sure anyone's ever described Claptrap as being among "friends in high places". +1 just for that - though the question is still open as to what exactly makes Vault Hunters so special that they're so easily recognized and revered, and not just anyone can be one. – Iszi Dec 9 '13 at 20:14
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Well, I don't have much evidence to back any of this up, but here are my thoughts:

Running down your list, in a way you answer your own question: none of the Vault Hunters are exactly normal people. Brick and Salvador are physical deviants with far more muscle than the average person. Lilith and Maya are Sirens. Roland and Axton have military training and equipment. Mordecai has mad skills as well as a violent pet. Zer0 is some kind of freak- possibly a robot- and is a master assassin. Gaige is a prodigy, and Krieg is an escaped experiment with (presumably) super-strength. So you could say that each of them brings something to the table that normal people don't have.

Second, for a lot of them, the fact that they decided to pursue a career as a Vault Hunter was spurred by the fact that they were made for it- or weren't made for anything else. Going by ECHO recordings found in BL2, both Axton and Zer0 chose Vault Huntery because their respective jobs (hitman and assassin) weren't challenging enough. So it's not that being a Vault Hunter makes you strong, it's that choosing to become a Vault Hunter and going through with it means that you're probably have what it takes to make a good one.

  • Military training is not as good as you might think. Especially given the soldiers walking around Sanctuary in BL2. I like the second part of this answer, though. I think Maya's echos point towards this as well. – Batophobia Dec 9 '13 at 21:28
  • Fair enough, but again: Axton isn't just a military man, he's a man who was kicked out of the military for being too badass. I guess what I'm getting at is that Vault Hunters aren't normal people in any way; they're the outliers or weirdoes who were too brutal, deadly, rebellious, or non-conformist to be anything else. – JMcMinn Dec 10 '13 at 13:50
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Besides, Vault Hunters are the only ones that can use the New-U system -- although they are also the ones that have to be able to use it, since almost everyone else respawns anyway.

However, Vault Hunters are most easily recognized by the fact that they can move around. Townspeople are frozen in one location (which I guess is the price they have to pay for being immortal), so anyone moving is obviously an outsider. Bandits and other bad guys don't go into towns, so anyone moving in town is obviously not a bad guy. And Vault Hunters are the only inhabitants of Pandora that are not townspeople or bandits (or other bad guys) -- so, anyone talking to an NPC MUST be a vault hunter. Besides, I don't think bandits and other bad guys actually get conversations -- so even NPCs outside towns will know that you're a Vault Hunter simply because nobody else is going to click on them.

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What sets Vault Hunters apart from ordinary people are their passions to go above and beyond while searching for the Vault, never giving up in their searches, and almost always coming out on top. As explained by Marcus at the beginning of Borderlands 2, "Some call them fools. Some call them treasure hunters. But me, I call them...Vault Hunters."

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Vault Hunters are controlled by players, and the characters in Borderlands freely use meta knowledge. That's pretty much it.

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I think I can answer your question.

Note this is in universe not meta-gaming

A vault hunter is someone who actively roams Pandora or other planets even moons for extended periods of time without having to rely on fixed residence while searching for vaults (I am sure we all know what vaults are). They are basically like heavily survivable treasure hunters. Some people are adventurers and not vault hunters such as sir Hammerlock. Sir Hammerlock can be a vault hunter but he is not actively seeking the vault and not as well armed. Anyone can call themselves a vault hunter but with the characteristics below and well not dying in the wild the NPCs or your fellow players will determine whether you are a vault hunter in the general sense.

How do you spot a vault hunter? - Sirens are almost always vault hunters (Apart from Angel) and their tattoos make it easily recogniseable. They are vault hunters because and this is a theory Sirens rely on eridium to some extent irregardless if they have knowledge of its existence or not thus they are naturally drawn to it and it is this pull that makes them seek out for "treasure" and riches as they would want to fulfill this itch they cannot explain. this explains why Lilith is no longer a vault hunter after the opening of the first vault she does not have the itch or need for fulfillment because Eridium is satisfying this itch. Although Maya does not seem reliant on Eridium we see the draw for adventure in her backstory echoes where she itches for adventure and treasure which might indicate Eridium affects sirens differently and she may still be drawn to it but only in nature not in use such as Angel or Lilith - Vault hunters that are not sirens can be recognised around pandora through being Sane adventurers who are well armed. Usually sheriffs or shields or turrets protect villages and cities connected with trains and so anyone who enters these areas without raiding it. They are spotted by their immense armament. Just think about it every time you as a player enter a village you have a weapon in your hand with one on the back on your belt is a shield generator and attached to your belt is also a class mod like a book for maya a toolkit for gaige etc. and no one in a village has these characteristics and moves around looking like this thus they are easily recognised as a vault hunter. To Bring up Sir Hammerlock again he does not look like a vault hunter physically thus when he enters a town he is merely an adventurer. Vault Hunters also do not act violently in most cases against the population of the cities and do not have clan colours. As we know bandit clans such as the Hodunks, Slabs etc. have bandit colours which indicates they are bandits but vault hunters do not wear any bandit symbols which explains why Krieg can enter Sanctuary - Vault Hunters travel in groups. This might seem strange since we play the game in singleplayer mostly but with the cutscenes we always see vaulthunters as a group so taking out the player in this instance vault hunters always travel in groups of four so when we see the first generation Roland, Brick, Mordecai, Lilith they are in a group and so forth. This includes Gaige and Psycho as they also travel with the main group - When in groups vault hunters always differ from each other look at the citizens in villages they all follow a similiar cultural pattern like in opportunity everyone there wears hyperion colours in comparison to Liars Berg where we can assume that most people dress warmly or in a more adventure like style as noted by the echo portrait of helena pierce and Sir Hammerlock. People living in Sanctuary dress like winter frontiersmen with a mixture of cowboy clothing and winter mountain clothing. The most notably is overlook as with the side missions that take place there we know they have the shivers so they would be wearing heavy clothing with inhaler masks or mouth coverings. Vault Hunters are thus easily recognised by their unique clothing and looks that do not conform to the culture of the settled area

So this is how you are classified as a vault hunter and how you are identified by everyone else as being a vault hunter without you stating it yourself

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