Character Background

Currently I am writing my own “Indie” game and I am about to flesh the systems bones out with my setting.  It occurs to me that before I start this daunting task that this is the prelude to people playing and testing the game.  I am coming up with the scope of everything that has happened before the point that people will start playing.  All of the before to make an interesting setting.  This fact got me thinking about the character generation process of a lot of players, inclusive of myself, and how much a lot of the background of a character is ignored.  A lot of the time we just grab the character and make them our own without any thought to their past, and in fact, in person games I have played in largely encourage this.

I realise that I, as a fully rounded (fat joke!) person have a history.  I have skills that are based on that history.  I have hang ups that are based on that history.  Each portion of my skills, psyche and physical condition have a point of reference in my history.  Now while we cannot be expected to spend a life time building a character so we know every second of their life, perhaps we should consider their past a little more to get a feeling of what the character would be like.

Give your characters a little more colour with a realistic
background highlighting their goals and drives!

My in person games have been plagued by players who when approached about the character’s family will automatically tell me that they are all dead.  So I ask how did they die?  Who cares? Is commonally the answer I get back.  The reason behind this is obvious to me as I am a player myself and I have been guilty of answering my GM in the same way.  It is to stop the GM from having any way of forcing you to do anything you don’t want to.  For the same reason I stopped pursuing in game romances as the one that I did have gave the GM the ability to have her kidnapped and force me into a game I would have been happy not to have played.

Through my life experience though I know how important those questions are.  Consider this sequence of a character generation and think how much more interesting the character would be;

GM: Do you have a family?
Player: Yes.  A mother, Father and Brother.
GM: What are they doing?
Player: Two of them have passed away and my Father is retired.
GM: How did they pass away and what did your Father do?
Player: My brother was the first to pass away in a freak mining accident that the Coroner declared was a one in a million accident.  My Mother’s health was failing after taking medication for over twenty years so rather than having her life trail away she chose to stop taking medication and passed away about a week later from a failing heart.  My Father was a policeman.
GM: Anything else about your family history?
Player: Yes, my Mother has a brother and a sister.  They each had two children each.  Each family has lost one of the two children to unusual or freakish circumstances.
GM: So how does that make your character act?
Player: He feels cursed. He thinks there may be something more to this coincidence than simple happenstance.

Most rulebooks have a good deal of background material
in them for you to weave into your own story

See how interesting a few basic questions can make something?  Character motivations and actions can and do come out of the simplest of family details.  Even families that seem happy and complete all have their secrets that cause behaviour of types to be exhibited.  Embrace these concepts, think about the past for your characters.  As a GM, try not to abuse these links by opting for the “Ooops I forgot to prepare today so I will just have a character’s sibling kidnapped” kind of trope.  If a player is good enough to spend time building a family or pursuing a love interest try not to punish them for it and they will be more likely in the future to develop interesting backgrounds.

So, on to skills or abilities.  How did your character obtain them?  The amount of times I have rolled up a character and not given any thought at all to where the skills came from.  This hit me recently when I started my Classic Traveller campaign and started the character creation process (as I use mostly pre-generated characters for this campaign).  It is something just for a character to survive the character generation process in this system!  I am fairly certain that in generating characters I have killed more than have made it through to play.  The reason for this is the system models what the character does in their vocation.  You know what your character is doing in his job for a four year term(at the basic level, using the more advanced books for the system does this on a year by year basis for the term) and you know which term you learnt what skills from.  How hard is turning that into background?  The term you get commissioned as an officer you learn the fine art of piloting a starship.  Turn that into I received my stripes as a Lieutenant from Captain Hale on the TRR Silnaron on completion of my first Jump.  The Captain was so proud that I had paid such good attention to his tutelage.

An example of a Traveller character.  The bare bones of
the character is the term by term detailing of their lives
up to the point they join the game!

Some systems do not encourage the idea of building background from skills.  Some players will simply tell you that they have the skills because it is part of the class.  If this is their approach then don’t worry too much about the individual skills but try and find out who taught them?  What was their master like? Was it an arcane academy with lots of teachers?  If they do choose a skill that is cross class though find out why?  Who taught you this and was it done in secret?  Interesting points that will make players think about their characters with more detail.  In game systems that utilise Feats like DnD or Pathfinder how did they come across their starting feats?  Did the character always react swiftly in a fight (I am thinking Improved Initiative here) or did the master teach them to look for the tell tale signs that telescope a combatants actions before they do them?

The amount of super hero campaigns I have played in or run where really there is no backstory as to how the character got their powers!  I should be ashamed of myself for such laziness!  Imagine what Spiderman or Superman or Spawn would be like with no backstory!  In fact look to nearly any comic book super hero and the one thing you will easily be able to recall if you have ever read them is how the superhero got their abilities!  Some of the newer games today like Fate Core have this built neatly into the system.  They encourage players and the GM to sit down and make a character, and setting in this case, that looks exactly at the character and tell their story.  To justify the aspect you write a paragraph on how you got it or the source of the aspect!  Fantastic stuff!

Characters are much more than some
stats rolled randomly

I realise that you cannot do this all the time.  After all, players want to “play” the game and long time players are likely to be the most resistant to this style of play.  New comers will take this in their stride.  But if you designate some time for a character generation session and have all your players make a character, and as a GM make one as well, the least you will get is a fleshed out NPC.  Spend some time asking them about the history of their character.  Ask them about the character’s family and how they came about their skills/aspects/powers or whatever.  Lead by example and share a detailed background of the character you are making.  If this becomes commonplace when starting new games your players and yourself can only benefit from it!

Recently I have started my Pathfinder Skull and Shackles campaign for my in person group.  In this campaign I am allowing Hero points (Villain points my players call them) but I am tying them to aspects like is include in Fate Core.  So the aspects give me a bit of an idea for their characters as a start as I asked them to come up with a story as to why they have the aspect verbally.  They also involved their own characters with others by coming up with a story that included the pair and then provide the person they are with an aspect from it.  After this was done (as most of my players are old school and hate the inconvenience of backstory) I told them that they could earn their characters a Villain point if they detailed a character history for me.  This worked a treat!  I got one of my players who has probably never written a piece of prose since High School (and I am sure the teachers would have had to have beaten it out of him even then) write me a two page history!  It was excellent too.  Funny and provided insight into the facets of the character and justified his skills and mean streak.  So far there is only one player that has not supplied me a story, and they are the one that likes writing stories!

Ooh Aarrgh! It be Cap’n Knights of the Skull and Shackles!

When you have a character generation session and you turn to the background focus make sure one of the questions you ask is how do you know each other?  There is no worse start to a game than “You all meet in a tavern and…”  Have the players already spent some time together.  Why are they together?  Does somebody owe someone a favour?  Are they related?  This was very important to me for the Skull and Shackles campaign as I knew the players were keen to make this a campaign where they were to play “evil” characters.  To head off any underhanded dealings with each other (as my daughter wants to be an assassin and I knew she would try to kill one of the PC’s otherwise) they were asked to involve themselves with each other before they were press-ganged!  This worked a treat as some of the players decided they had served on a ship together and were “brothers in arms” whilst others were saved from incarceration and owed favours etc.  This starts the camaraderie at the beginning and before a die is even rolled the players have a sense of togetherness.

So, I put the challenge out to the players and the GM’s of the world!  Try, try, try to start a game with more than a two dimensional sheet of paper and a set of dice.  Build the character in every concept, statistics (if the game has them!), skills, abilities, traits, feats, AND background.  Every portion of character creation is important and I promise you that if you do this you will benefit from the results!  Let me know in the comments if your group already does something cool to enhance the process!

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