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Character Histories and Background

Posted By Scott Martin On August 21, 2008 @ 4:31 am In GMing Advice | 20 Comments

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 Background

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

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

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!”)

Other Systems

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.]

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




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20 Comments To "Character Histories and Background"

#1 Comment By Virgil Vansant On August 21, 2008 @ 6:46 am

I pretty much demand a character background from my players. It doesn’t have to be much, a paragraph at least. That’s usually enough to get things started. I reserve the right to add in my own things if I feel something is missing, but I always check with the player first. Sometimes they have a more concrete idea in their head then what they are able to get down on paper.

Some players really get into it, and I have gotten multiple pages before. One player even developed some NPCs from her character’s past that are almost as fully formed as the PC.

And now I just downloaded the sample PDF of Spirit of the Century. That sounds really cool.

#2 Comment By PatrickWR On August 21, 2008 @ 7:28 am

I’m a sucker for games that have players hash out their character relationships prior to beginning a campaign. Spirit of the Century does this quite well, and Everway takes a unique approach as well. In that game, players use a standard deck of fantasy art cards (I had a stack of Michael Moorcock cards handy, so we used those) as inspiration for key elements in their character’s background. So a player might come across a card showing a swordsman slumped over on the ground, pierced by many arrows, and incorporate that into his background as the horrific loss of a father figure. It’s very cool, very creative, and easy to graft onto most any game systems.

#3 Comment By Bob On August 21, 2008 @ 8:04 am

It’s not something we’ve historically done for our games. In fact until we picked up our first WOD books we had never even thought of doing it.

These days I generally have a 1to1 with each player beforehand if I can where we talk over how they want to play the character and a rough background for them. There will be that much in a players history that will be missed no matter how much you write that we tend to pick the 3-4 most important incidents and run with that. Anything else is made up as and when it’s needed and noted for later use.

#4 Comment By Rafe On August 21, 2008 @ 8:10 am

My DM just sent this one to me:

http://forums.gleemax.com/showthread.php?t=1036571

Grab it while you can and thank The_Stray who made it! Further down, neceros made a worksheet for it (this link goes right to Save As download screen for it):

http://www.neceros.com/forum/index.php?s=23517682d5156020195f7e1b7d258180&automodule=downloads&req=download&code=confirm_download&id=12

It’s a really good, quick background creator that seems to cover all the bases without over-complications. Asking for much more than that is just asking for fluff and won’t get used. Backgrounds need to focus on reinforcing in the player’s mind who the PC is (personality and approach to things) and they give the DM PC-driven story angles. That’s it. Anything more than that is a waste, in my opinion.

(I hope I don’t get in trouble for inserting links. . . I do so only to make things easier for people.)

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On August 21, 2008 @ 9:30 am

Rafe: Links are great– it saves us the trouble of having to hunt things down ourselves! I like the “name 3 NPCs” part of the sheet– that’s a bare minimum that I require in almost every campaign.

Virgil: Short backgrounds often work out best– if it’s short, you know the GM will read and retain it all. For one campaign I broke my history down into 5 bullet points– while it didn’t flow the way a nicely written history does, the GM did read it and have an idea as to what parts I wanted to see again.

PatrickWR: I’ve never played Everyway, but wish I’d been able to– it sounds like there are a lot of interesting techniques buried in it.

Bob: The 1 to 1 quick discussion is what we use most often– though it’d be smart to write down those history highlights, as you point out.

#6 Comment By BryanB On August 21, 2008 @ 11:23 am

I’m always trying to find the happy medium between too much background and not enough to be worthwhile.

I like to know about the characters immediate family. I like to know about their aspirations or goals. I like to know what they fear or what they desire the most. I like to know if they have any enemies. I like to know what they have been doing in the recent past (prior to game time).

I also like to have that background give me at least 3 or 4 NPC ideas to incorporate into the campaign. Good backgrounds provide the GM with some tools to use, yet leave much of the PC’s character open to development as the campaign progresses. Three or Four paragraphs are usually sufficient. A few sentences don’t provide much and not many GMs want to read a 50 page short story either.

The methodology varies but I usually try to get the PC to answer around ten common questions. I also have the players discuss their backgrounds together (even via e-mail) so that they can establish connections (if any) or common events in their past. I offer suggestions and tweaking until the player and I are satisfied with their back-story. I think this approach worked well in my most recent Star Wars series.

I think part of the success is being able to sell the players on the idea that the game will be much more interesting if you do the pre-game effort. While it was a pretty easy sell in my group, my responsibility as a GM was to use the tools that they created in order to enhance the gaming experience. Apparently it was pretty successful as everyone wants to see the sequel.

#7 Comment By Swordgleam On August 21, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

When I’m a player, I like to know at least a couple of the other PCs before the game starts. I’ve yet to find a GM (besides myself) who actively encourages this, but I usually manage to cobble together at least a couple of relationships.

I think it really helps answer the eternal question of “so why is this character with the party, anyway?” Well, the misanthropic droid is with us because he was on my pirate ship and we both got kicked off at the same time, and now I’m the closest thing he has to a cover. The suspiciously honorable bounty hunter is with us because this planet was his port of call, and since I don’t know anything about what’s going on here, I’m sticking with him since he has bigger guns.

Different character goals or alignments can often be a problem, but I think having the characters know each other to start can mitigate the issue fairly effectively. Why is the paladin sticking around with the bloodthirsty barbarian and the wizard with questionable morals? Because they were childhood friends, and you don’t abandon a friend that close just because you’re not entirely positive he needed to fireball those hobgoblins. After all, he’s your friend; he must have had a good reason. If you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust? Best to stick with them. Even if that rogue your wizard friend claims to have gone to school with is a rather shifty-looking fellow..

With that in mind, my preferred method of character generation is usually, “Show up with some idea in mind of who your character is and where they came from, then talk with everyone else to see if you can make your backgrounds work together.” There’s usually a tacit agreement that anyone can add background details to the relationship once the game has begun. “This is just like the time you screwed up your featherfall spell and ended up bringing cloud giants down on us!” “Yeah, well I’m not the one who got caught in bed with the Viscount’s eldest daughter!” “You’re just jealous. Ow! Hey, healing over here, someone?”

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 21, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

Swordgleam: I ask my payers to have the characters know each other– if they’re unwilling, it’s on them to provide their character’s motivation for joining the group. My most successful campaign, To Sway the Stones started with the characters spread across town– but they came together quickly and naturally when events prompted because they each had links to other PCs during character generation. I like that style a lot.

Bryan: Q&A before and during the game are good ways to encourage reflection on characters or prompt specific details. (I’ll say more about that soon…) A brief history sketch and some back and forth to deepen the characters made for great characters. I am looking forward to the sequel.

#9 Comment By Dasis On August 21, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

Interesting idea that a good friend of mine had with background creation was for the group to have had one adventure together written by the players about all the characters, that way if they wish to have no connection to the other characters they can, but must explain why they worked with them on the first adventure. Always thought that was a good way to bring them all together in the background and let them figure it out.

No meeting in the tavern leading to tavern brawl.

#10 Comment By LesInk On August 21, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

Lately, I’ve taken it upon my self to write the character histories for the players myself after talking to them about some general features. This allows me to setup threads and NPCs they will encounter. Most backgrounds are typically only a page. If someone does not like the background, I let them come back for edits. In this way, I find I’m able to setup long term relationships and goals that I will pay attention to instead of dropping them. Some items will get dropped as they no longer fit into the path the players are taking, but many still get used.

Truthfully, I would like the players to get more into doing this themselves, but it does solve some problems listed above.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On August 21, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

Lesink: While I wouldn’t want to take on the extra burden of writing backgrounds, those are some great pluses you’ve dug out of doing so. You get to hook them to your NPCs instead of needing to stat up new ones, etc.

Dasis: Sounds like fun. How long an adventure did they usually submit? Did they ever submit “and we stumbled on the cave of a dead red dragon and now have 1.3 million gold pieces” type stories?

#12 Comment By Scott On August 21, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

I’ve begun to make character creation the first session of the campaign. I ask the players to think about two or three concepts they’d like to play, and then everyone rolls up their characters together. I give them a capsule summary of the game world, they create backgrounds (often elaborating on aspects of the world). Often I have a basic set of guidelines, such as “You all know each other” and “You’ve all come to (location the campaign starts in), for whatever reason.”

After hashing things out, they then write up a more formal background before the second session. It’s usually between one and three paragraphs long. I usually ask that it be kept to a single sheet of paper. Players print off one copy for themselves, and one for me.

I flesh histories out further with flashback sessions (thanks for the link, by the way).

This method has two advantages: The players tend to choose a reasonably balanced party (as opposed to all showing up with a paladin, say), and they often develop backgrounds that work together, even if I don’t specifically ask that they’ve all met each other.

#13 Comment By leurnid On August 22, 2008 @ 2:11 am

I used to play GURPS, and was always loading up on weirdo disadvantages and quirks, not for min-maxing, but because it was so much fun to have a really whack character.

On a few occasions, the psychosis, neurosis, and quirks I would pile up on my character would become such a compelling component in our gaming sessions, that the GM would incorporate some of the elements into the plot lines- proving (to my character at least) that it is only paranoia if you are wrong.

#14 Comment By Dasis On August 22, 2008 @ 9:38 am

HA yes there are jokes but my groups are pretty reasonable. But you can always say yes to that and build a campaign around first the thugs that take that money, and then the progressive campaign where the characters are just trying to get there money back. Would that not be funny have the characters entire campaign based on them being collectors, trying to get their money back.

They length i get ranges from a couple of pages to a quick summary, but i really like that background page Rafe put up. about the basics, and they must have that for me.

#15 Comment By Scott Martin On August 22, 2008 @ 10:48 am

Scott: A character creation session is a great thing– it provides a good chance for everyone to make sure their characters will be compatible and give everyone what they want.

Leurnid: Disadvantages can do a lot to steer the campaign. Hunted was a good way to make sure your favored enemy would show up in Champions…

#16 Comment By Bob On August 24, 2008 @ 3:02 am

Scott going back to your To Sway the Stones campaign comment about making them have a connection in the past and starting them all over town has just gave me a an idea.

The prelude that I was working on was going to be done over MSN as I can’t get the guys together for a while but they want to get something started. If it works out I’ll have the players sworn to secrecy on who they are playing, hopefully, and have the chat windows open for each and run the game as individual preludes. Once they work out who they have to go see from their list of contacts and friends they’ll eventually move over to a joint chat window. It might not work but hopefully the group dynamic will end up with an actual leader coming from roleplay rather than from character classes as it usually ends up with this particular group of players.

#17 Comment By David Reese On September 5, 2008 @ 8:20 am

Scott,

I particularly appreciated your suggestion about preludes. I have a couple of new folks joining my campaign this season, and they’re also new to the system, and tabletop rpg’s in general. It was great to run a little session for them a couple weeks before the main campaign started up again: we got to review the rules of the system, get to know their characters (both personally and mechanically) and I gave them a good hook for meeting the other characters and moving the whole party into the season of adventuring.

Plus, I got to play while most of my group was still out of town for the summer!

#18 Comment By Scott Martin On September 5, 2008 @ 9:23 am

Bob: Sounds good– a really nice way to make the new people feel welcome and ready to play with everyone else.

David: Thanks! I hope that they bite on your hook and smoothly integrate right in with their companions.

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#20 Comment By Katana_Geldar On October 26, 2009 @ 4:21 am

I like a little background from players, some detail but not too much. Enough to know what the character is like but with quite a few holes that I can fill in later.

The first character background I was said was akin to a Mary Sue fan fic, the player had made himself a hero by the age of fifteen…so what else was there to do?

Having said that, I have found I am rather hesitant in giving my players characters a particularly good or bad background simply because of the bad associations that can come with it.

It is nice though when you learn that the Baron that your group may have to meet is actually your character’s uncle, the brother of your mother who ran away from the Baron’s court to get married to your father. I look forward to all the awkwardness this will envolve if we get to meet him, and likely we will, knowing the DM.


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