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Player Backgrounds

Tell us a little bit about yourself…

You’ve probably come up with some oddball character backgrounds, either trying to justify your twinked and leveraged character build, or just because a Somali Pirate-Ninja would be cool. (What’s not to like about a swashbuckling sneak with his own supertanker [1]?)

But have you given much thought as to your own background? What elements from your own past have you used, either to run or play RPGs? (Hey, GMs are a players, too!) I’ll bet that you’re using some skills and abilities, and maybe even a feat or two from the Real Live version of some obscure sourcebook…

I’ll start. I spent my teenage summers at a canoe camp, I did a fair amount of hunting and fishing, and I spent a few years in a little mountain town in Colorado. I’ve pretty much always been familiar with ‘roughing it’, especially with how the weather and terrain can be your best friends or worst enemies. I’ve learned what is and isn’t possible when you’re out in the boonies, especially with more primitive technology. I also learned that overland movement through the mountains is much slower than half speed, Mr. PHB.

While in Colorado, I took a job as a waiter just to pay the bills. Waiting tables teaches a number of valuable skill sets: prioritizing, short-term memory, thinking on your feet, and social skills (among many others). But I also adopted an aggressively friendly personality that my customers enjoyed. The net result was that I became much more comfortable and confident with strangers. I attribute my abilities to speak publicly, manage a table of gamers, and entertain people while getting things done to my waiting experience.

I left Colorado to join the U.S. Army Infantry (hoo-ah!), and learned about military operations, organization, tactics, and the military mindset. I also learned what it means to be a good leader, and how to earn the respect of your team. Some of these skills are useful anywhere, but some of them are tailor-made for gaming. (Honestly, how many other places are small unit tactics going to come in handy?)

After the Army, I burned some of my GI Bill money at a local community college, learning about computers. On a lark, I took an acting class to fill a gap in my schedule. Perhaps the timing was right (after the confidence-inspiring waiting and soldiering jobs), but I learned more than I expected from the two acting classes I ended up taking. I’ve never been much for playing in a true RP-heavy game (it often feels like a teen melodrama), but my GMing is much better because of those classes.

So there’s my character background: camping, waiting, military, acting. Although there’s much more to my past (heck, I’m 42 this year, and I didn’t touch my martial arts or shooting experience), these are the elements that contributed the most to my GMing and playing.

What are the bits and pieces of your history that have helped make you a better gamer? Is there anything that you’d recommend to others?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Player Backgrounds"

#1 Comment By Francis B On November 24, 2008 @ 10:34 am

My friends and I used to do a lot of imrpov acting in high school and I’ve got to say that’s the most important skill I have as a DM. Being able to say yes to your players, read between the lines of where they are going, and play off their reactions is the art of winging it. With a solid foundation you can even let the players write the adventure for themselves. And that’s less work for the DM, a win-win situation.

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On November 24, 2008 @ 10:40 am

My family moved around a lot, and I’ve always been a nerd, so a) I have a pretty wide knowledge of geography and the variance of culture through a diverse nation, and b) read a lot. The geography in particular has come in handy, because it allows me to create realistic ecosystems in both real-world and fantastic environments. People tend not to think about it, but it’s nice to know exactly how a creature the size of a purple worm gets enough food to keep on wrigglin’.

My university training is in political science, with a minor in history. That gives me a lot of flexibility in creating power struggles between factions, again making the worlds I GM richer and more believable. It means that in my fantasy worlds, the PCs often run across civilizations with complicated electorates (a la the Holy Roman Empire), loose confederations of city-states (like the Delian league), or even more surprising things, instead of the standard, vaguely English-style monarchies.

Law school didn’t provide a lot of things that are useful for RPing on the surface of it, but nonlinear thinking skills, historical information about crime and punishment, and thinking of legality and rules from a philosophical perspective have all given me a better sense of -why- rules are the way they are in games, and how best to portray rules -in game-.

Overall, I’d say my own history has improved my GMing by giving me a broad variety of knowledge to draw on, but also by giving me a good sense of why system matters, and how best to tweak a system to give the experience that I think the players should be getting.

#3 Comment By thelesuit On November 24, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

I find it interesting how our backgrounds influence and inspire our Game Mastery.

I acted in HS and Community Theater which has really influenced my ability to get into roles or portray NPCs. I also have a flair for accents which comes in part from this experience.

I left home right out of HS and thus have constantly had to make new friends and learn how to manage and relate to strangers. As a GM I’m not afraid to have new people at the table and regularly invite complete strangers to sit down and participate.

I spent a number of years in the Coast Guard. I wasn’t military like the Marines or Navy, but I learned a lot about command structures, bureaucracies, and even more outrageous accents. I also got to see a healthy portion of the globe. As a GM I know what far off lands look like and what is to be thrust into a land where no one speaks your language. Languages in my campaigns are a big deal – in most there is no common tongue.

I’m also very picky about all things nautical and maritime. I know boat design and how things on the sea work.

After the CG I went to college and got a bio degree in evolution, ecology, and conservation. I tend to pack a lot of ecosystem details and biological science into my worlds and campaign settings.

History and cultural anthropology have always been of interest to me. This gets reflected in the cultures and rich tapestry of my campaign settings.

I’ve been paid as a writer and editor over the course of my varied career, so churning out tons of campaign material is second nature to me. It also means I can be very critical of professionally published work.

#4 Comment By Swordgleam On November 24, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

Theatre, like a lot of people. Probably the only thing unique in my gaming background is that I’ve spent the last three years riding horses. It doesn’t come up incredibly often, but it is handy when people want to have mounts. Some of the rules for horses in games are just silly.

Because of my particular riding experiences (ie, being terrified of horses), I think Riding and Bluff should have skill synergy. People who hear this think I’m crazy, unless they’ve ever seriously tried riding a horse, in which case they generally agree with me immediately and wholeheartedly.

Sailing helps, archery helps, reading every fantasy novel I can get my hands on helps. Psychology and computer programming and all of that come in handy from time to time, too.

Studying classics helps a lot, though it frustrates everyone who tries to DM for me, because if they use a Latin name for something, I know it right away. I’m the only one in our group who knows any Greek, so I can get away with using it. Plus, the classics are full of inspiration.

#5 Comment By Karizma On November 25, 2008 @ 12:12 am

@SWORDGLEAM: Greek and Latin roots is a wonderful toolkit for speaking English! And you give me an interesting idea. What if someone organized a “Game Master Camp” where a bunch of silly dorks get together and undergo a series of fantasy-esque activities. Archery, some basic Swordplay, lock-picking, horseback riding, camping, and maybe even some time on the lake!

But silly pipe dreams aside, I’m actually still in University (I’m not even old enough to drink). My major is anthropology, with a focus along sociocultural anthropology. As THELESUIT mentioned, it’s very inspiring and helpful for coming up with foreign lands. A cruel GM can evoke culture shock among his players!

My two favorite things to focus on as a GM is creating interesting, believable cultures, and what has been a real joy is writing up enough fluff to justify magic from such varied sources as Rolemaster (the primary focus), Vancian, television shows such as FullMetal Alchemist and Avatar: The Last Air Bender, or anything else. Through it, I’ve made a cosmology that I like, and am thoroughly overjoyed at my ever-growing material. (Eight typed pages of fluff with hand-drawn diagrams, and still growing!)

#6 Comment By Cole On November 25, 2008 @ 9:12 am

When younger, I was exposed to music and public speech. Later on, I found that GMing had a lot of similarities with both. So it was easier for me to make the transition than most of my friends that didn’t have that background.

#7 Comment By Swordgleam On November 25, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

@Karizma: That sounds like fun! Lock-picking is, I think, the only one of those missing from the camp where I work. It’s full of geeks; we just hide it when we’re there. Except for when we’re teaching our campers swordplay, which is not technically a camp-sanctioned activity. I inadvertantly sent one of mine home with bruises, but she was the daughter of the costumer for the local theatre, so it worked out okay.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On November 25, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

Most of my experience comes from book knowledge– I don’t seem to have as much practical experience as many of you. My engineering background gives me insight into buildings– but it’s actually pretty narrowly bounded historically. It is useful for coming up with floorplans of buildings– if I’ve worked on one of its type before.

Going beyond the last few hundred years, I’ve picked up as much from general sources [like roman building specials on the history channel, Castle,Cathedral, similar books, and wikipedia] as engineering theory.

#9 Comment By Epiktetus On November 25, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

Now that you mention it, my martial arts training has been very helpful in imagining and describing realistic actions in battle. I even had an NPC escape being held at knife-point by doing a move learned in class.

I may never have the opportunity to get mugged myself, but at least my NPC got to use it. 😀

#10 Comment By Bookkeeper On November 25, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

I’ve been a Russian linguist and interpreter for 12 years, which has led me to helpless laughter whenever I read the ridiculous ease with which most PCs learn languages. Those 12 years have been in the Air Force, which does not lend itself to a whole lot of military doctrine, but joint units let me lay hands on the USMC Rifle Company tactical manual, which has made my sqauds of goblins the terror of PCs everywhere.

I’m a former polisci major, which has led me to intrigue and power play games like 7th Sea. Now back in college, I am an econ major, which has led to a ban in my household on my playing Syndicate Technocrats.

#11 Comment By David M Jacobs On November 25, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

I spent several years as a professional political campaigner (and later as a senatorial press advisor).

Everything that the above PolSci students mentioned holds true. I also learnt to think on my feet, how to get people’s attention, and how to tell a good story as succinctly as possible.

You also need to know how to motivate people (“Of course you want to letterbox an entire suburb at 2AM!”) — an essential skill to introduce wary new players to the hobby.

Oh, and I can lie with a straight face — something every GM needs to do from time to time. #%o)

#12 Pingback By How who you are affects how you roleplay (or DM/GM) » Perception is Truth On November 26, 2008 @ 7:02 am

[…] was reading this interesting article over at the Gnome Stew which discusses how your life experience affects how you roleplay.  I read […]

#13 Comment By penguin133 On November 26, 2008 @ 11:06 am

As a kid I was extremely shy; it took Army experience and training in Instruction, etc as an NCO to let me stand up in front of a crowd of people and to some extent lecture, “explain” etc., even my own creations, and to have enough faith in my own imagination to think that people would find it interesting? Like someone else, I am a reasonable linguist (in my case German though) and quick to pick up and imitate accents, either Welsh, Irish or Scots or more oddly “fractured” English, a lot of what a character or villain sounds like is often in his voice or sound?
Thinking on your feet and improv are also useful GM skills, often needed as an NCO when tou’ve got yourself in the tutti and need an out, fast!
My main asset as a GM, I think, is that I love to tell stories and ame reasonably good at it, either others’ or my own, which is what attracted me to RPGs in the first place!

#14 Comment By BryanB On November 26, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

My insurance knowledge allows me to relax and accept a rules system as an approximation of reality rather than as an exercise in “realism.” I’ve seen and read some amazing things about the unpredictability of human survival: Some incredible accidents that people walk away from completely unharmed, and then strange accidents that were fairly minor that resulted in death.

My love for Star Wars has been beneficial in harboring an enthusiasm for all things imaginative and wondrous. It sparked my imagination when I was young. The continuation of my interest has accomplished two things: I have a plethora of otherwise meaningless Star Wars knowledge that boosts role-playing games and I am invincible at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit.

#15 Comment By Qi Chin On February 6, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

I think the GM knowledge here needs to be separated into two groups: The first one being knowledge of how to effectively run a game, the second being knowledge of things that can come up in the game itself.

For the former, my two years of HS theatre arts helped tremendously, as did moving into a new city for university where I didn’t know a single person, and having to manage my life. Giving loads of presentations regularly both in school and now in uni helps with public speaking, creating effective notes, and presenting facts in a concise but clear manner.

For the latter, I guess a wide variety helps. Archery, sailing, horse-back riding, martial arts, playing instruments, growing up in two different cultures, proficiency in several languages, as well as my major (historical linguistics) and my minor (economics) in uni all help me understand what various activities or things in the game actually mean.

I guess you could add a third type of skill – writing and/or drawing, which allows you to create good narratives and stories, and to illustrate them for your players to see.