Character Backgrounds

On July 24, 2013, in JT Evans, RP Nerd, by JT Evans

rp_nerdI’m going to take a moment (or twelve) to talk about character backgrounds. Some (most?) folks view a character as a set of numbers, a list of abilities, and a collection of equipment that combine to define the character. These are merely surface details. You don’t get to know someone by looking at them and cataloging their visual qualities and what they’re carrying or wearing. You get to know someone by talking to them, learning their history, finding out what they like and dislike, and really delving deep into his or her core being.

The same thing is true of a character in a role playing game. The player should, ideally, know the character almost as well as they know themselves. At the same time, the GM should be able to know all of the characters in the game as well as she knows her close friends. This is a tall order for many people, but here’s how I go about getting to know the characters I create.

The first thing I do is write up a brief background. This usually lands in the one-to-two page range (single spaced), so I can print it on a single sheet of paper (front and back if necessary) and have it with me. I share this with my GM, and sometimes the other players if it’s appropriate. This background includes a brief overview of important events in the character’s life in addition to people he’s met, locations he’s visited, and what region of the world he’s from. Keep in mind, this is a short synopsis of key items in the character’s background.

By writing a background, the GM is given a wealth of information from which to pull. This allows the GM to custom-tailor a campaign to the players that have provided a background for their characters. If a player shows up with a shrug and says, “I’m an elven rogue,” and provides nothing more than that, the player will find themselves sidelined in the story much of the time. Sure the player can participate in the tactical side of things just as much as the others at the table, but they will find themselves looking in from the outside when it comes to role playing opportunities. This isn’t the fault of the GM, but the player. If the player doesn’t give the GM at least a little motivation to include the character in the role playing action, then the GM is excused from doing so.

At the same time, the player can draw from their own background for inspiration as to how to run their character. Traits, attitudes, outlooks, and perspective on the character’s responses to stimuli can be gleaned from a character background. These become vitally important to how a character is run at the table.

As you can tell, I highly recommend writing histories for your characters. However, they do not need to be huge tomes that go on for pages and pages. If you really want to write such a thing, go ahead. Keep it for yourself, but give the GM (and potentially the other players) a pared down version. They don’t have time to read a novel about your character. They’re at the table to play a game, not read how you got a splinter in your finger when you were six years old and cried lots.

One tip that I’ll share with you is to not make the people in your character’s background all powerful. If the GM allows those people into the game as NPCs, it will throw off the balance of the game and ruin it for everyone. The most likely thing that will happen is that the GM will politely ignore the powerful people, and you’ll have wasted your time crafting the folks your character knows because they will never appear in the game. Be reasonable with what you include in your character’s background, and it will have a greater chance of inclusion in the game.

Now that I’ve shared a few background ideas with you, do you have any to share with other folks? If you do, leave them in the comments!

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3 Responses to Character Backgrounds

  1. Hi J.T.

    I find that collaborative creation of backgrounds with the GM is really where its at for me in gaming these days. I might eventually come up with a whole background, but I take pains in advance to make sure it will fit into the GM (and the other players) shared worldview

    • JT Evans says:

      I completely agree with the collaborative background creation. That makes things SO much more fun.

      One trick I pulled from an indie cyberpunk RPG called Technoir was to (as GM) create a list of 6-8 NPCs with one paragraph descriptions and a brief list of how the NPC might interact with the PC during the game. I then tossed the list to the players as they were creating their characters and encouraged them to weave in a few of the NPCs into their background material.

      We just started a Cyberpunk 2020 game a few weeks ago, and the GM did this to good effect. There’s a mercenary assassin as an NPC. One of the other players wove the assassin into his background using the NPC as a mentor. I used the NPC as a wild fling when we were teenagers. It was a hoot when the guy with the mentor-based relationship called the assassin up for advice. When I heard who he was talking to, I nodded and said something to the effect of, “Yeah. I know her. Nice body.” The two different styles of interacting with the same NPC made for quite an interesting experience.

      One thing The Dresden Files RPG does quite well (and I’m assuming it’s in Fate Core?) is that another PC at the table is your NPC with regards to background. Most of the characters are tied together through background (sometimes long-term, sometimes brief), but one PC has 2-3 ties to other PCs. it makes for a more cohesive group.

      • Hi J.T.

        FATE Core has pulled back a bit on guest appearance aspects with other characters, figuring its hard to come up with five of them on short notice. It does help with cohesion even with a reduced connectivity that way, yeah

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