When does a character’s story start? Books and novels often begin just as some exciting event kicks the characters out of their routine and pushes them on a new path. Occasionally the movie will give you a few minutes, or the book a few chapters, to get used to the character’s normal life– then it all changes. Thanks to A Butterfly Dreaming  for inspiring this post and its sequel with Character Development: Flashbacks .
There are a number of techniques you can borrow to include character background in your own games. The following all involve background created before normal play begins. I bet you can guess what the sequel involves.
Written backgrounds are the most traditional method of establishing character background. Many GMs expect written backgrounds for new characters: some GMs establish specific length or content requirements, while others clutch whatever they are given. Some GMs let the player write anything into their history, but others weigh and debate the contents to ensure no character gets an unfair advantage. Some game systems like Amber Diceless (and many campaign house rules) give bonus experience or skill points for provided backgrounds. Play by post or email games often require written backgrounds as part of the application to play.
Writing down a character’s background can help players find their character’s voice, give the character a consistent viewpoint, and codify the character’s experiences before play begins. A written background allows the player to convincingly argue about whether a character has seen or experienced something and often provides the GM with several NPCs.
Background writing has some common drawbacks. Many GMs don’t read backgrounds– particularly long backgrounds– with enough attention to produce the common ground that is this style’s real advantage. It can be frustrating to pour effort into detailing a character’s history only to find out that the GM never read it. Some players enjoy writing the background so much they’ve resolved their pasts  before the game begins. Instead of leaving hooks for the GM, some backgrounds make it sound like the PC has no challenges left– she accomplished everything, is loved by everyone, etc. That can be one of the greatest concerns for some GMs about this process: PCs may start with extra goodies (lands, relationships, favors due, etc.). As a solo experience, writing a character’s background may impede collaboration with the GM (or fellow players), leading to characters who are completely independent of each other. Getting too attached to a character concept can make it hard to compromise enough to join the party and play!
As a player, I have written myself into a corner many times– the PC is cool on paper, but the first interactions and die rolls of the game point the character in very different ways. (Sometimes as a consequence of not knowing the system, sometimes because the the dice cause you to flub your romantic poet’s first three courtships, and sometimes because the GM’s adventure has no interaction with your history at all.)
Preludes are quick sessions, usually run for one or two characters at a time, concentrating on the life of the character before adventuring. (In White Wolf, play often concentrates on the time before they gain their supernatural powers.) Preludes are occasionally played out freeform before the character is done, but often wait until mechanical character creation is complete. Preludes often use the dice much less than the normal game– we know the character survives until the campaign begins, so what are you rolling for? Preludes are often run as the second half of a character creation session, though setting aside a full session for preludes or making individual appointments between sessions (especially for latecomers) are also common.
Key scenes at various ages help illustrate the PC’s development. In games like Vampire, the selection and transformation of characters into supernatural beings is almost always played out. How this occurs can have a dramatic impact on the PC’s interaction with their creator and worldview. The prelude is a good time to foreshadow upcoming NPCs and foes and to introduce any themes or baseline ambiance. The feel for a setting is easily introduced in these intimate sessions, and the GM can tailor each character’s experiences.
Lifepaths are a type of character generation where the character picks (or rolls for) their experiences prior to play. (Your character might be drafted into the military in one lifepath step, for example.) Lifepaths often explain how a character acquired their skills and identify formative experiences for later roleplaying. Many games build lifepaths into the system– Traveler, Cyberpunk, and Burning Wheel are three popular examples. (I understand that the new Aces and Eights also features lifepaths.) Other supplements allow PCs to tack lifepaths on to other systems, like Central Casting books.
Lifepath systems excel at making the character’s history have an impact on the character’s stats and skills. Sometimes the lifepath will spark new thoughts or introduce new relations for the character. When it works out well, a lifepath can inspire interesting characterization and imply a lot of history. Sometimes a random lifepath generates actively distasteful concepts– whether you’re allowed to throw out those results depends on the system and GM.
If you like the idea of a lifepath but it’s not provided by your game system, consider a tarot reading  for your character. It takes more interpretation than system specific lifepaths, but can get you thinking about your character’s story before play.
Structured Character Generation
Some games require character development in stages. FATE Pendragon has characters generate aspects and pick the skills the acquired during each period of the character’s life. So a character has childhood experiences that give them skills and lingering personality traits, then advances in time to being a page when they acquire new aspects and improve or gain new skills, etc.
Often these phases are played out– sometimes at a high level of abstraction, at other times with extensive roleplaying like a prelude. The process can also guide solo character creation, where it reminds us that the character developed their skills and personality over time– they didn’t just walk straight from the incubator into play. (Well, not in most settings…)
In Spirit of the Century, characters are developed and pick their first two phases of aspects. For the third phase, the character names their pulp novel (like Dr. Strange and the Animatronic Apes) and picks aspects related to that novel. In the fourth and fifth phases, characters guest star in another character’s novel– which builds in common experiences and foes, and may lead to aspects linking the characters. (The book’s example is “Sally Save Me!”)
There are a lot of other ways to develop character histories before play. Quick question and answer sessions can flesh out a character– Shadowrun has a good “20 Questions” section that prompts thought about a character’s background. (Similarly, Heather Grove’s 365 questions (big pdf) can spark a number of interesting ideas for characters in any setting.) Other times Players and GMs often verbally sketch the PC’s history as a quick discussion.
In online play, sometimes players are encouraged to coordinate with other players to establish the previous interactions of their characters. [I’ve encountered this most often in Amber, where the characters often know each other for years before the game starts.] This can be a great deal of fun, and a good way to kill a few days before the game goes live. Unfortunately, I’ve participated in games that stalled and died during this phase, because we never advanced the timeline to that dramatic start point.
What methods have you used to develop your characters before play? GMs, what do you want from players in the way of histories? Is there a sweet spot between enough background to be more than numbers on a page and a 20 page biography? Have you run into characters who “did it all” in their backstory and have nothing left to do in game?
[Part 2 will deal with flashbacks and out of continuity play.]