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Blond Gamer Girl

PC Backgrounds

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In my humble opinion, there are three perspectives to character backgrounds: literary, player and GM.

Literary: As a highly novice writer, every book on fiction writing will tell you to start with your characters. Characters make the story. Characters come in three parts: description, background and motivation. For physical description, I pull a picture and make sure my words reflect that picture. The other half of description is their personality: funny/serious, introvert/extrovert, smart/stupid, sophisticated/hick and so many more. For their background, their family life, profession, nationality and such should determine their skills, merits/flaws, language and the like. For motivation, why are they on this quest? That is the crux of the story to begin the plot. All of the above needs to be addressed to make a great background.

Player: Honestly, the background helps me to get into character and play it well – blame the LARPing and writing for that one. After the background is done, I match the character sheet to the background. My mathematician will have a high intelligence and math skill but not proficiency in the broad sword. Further, I think that in makes me more interested in the game. Most of all, writing backgrounds for me is just plain fun. On that note, if a GM ignores the background, it makes me less interested in the game. If they make it a point to destroy the background, it makes me walk away.

GM: As a GM before I truly incorporate a player’s background into the plot, I require them to attend three game sessions to prove their commitment and to ensure that our styles match before I go through that much trouble. However, as an immediate reward I give them extra character points to start with. Once that is said and done, I use the player’s background to motivate them.

To set up motivation, I will augment their background to include NPC’s and sometimes other PC’s. The more they give me, the more plot considerations I give them. The mysterious benefactor can be the NPC who’s bringing them together. Using the car accident that killed their parents, I will add clues in the police report to get them on board with finding the killer. I NEVER destroy a background nor drastically alter. I equate my changes to adding some side dishes to the main course. During game play, sometimes I’ll simply give the player a clue because their background warranted it.

Now that you’ve read my take, what do you folks as players and/or GM’s think of backgrounds? How do you use them?

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  1. Malruhn's Avatar
    In my campaign, the background is the basis upon which I base my entire campaign. I use the backgrounds to build the campaign. I want... no - I NEED to know how the PC's are going to react to various stimuli, and the background is how I get it to work. If (yes, it's a tired trope) the character's family was slaughtered by orcs, then odds are that he will react poorly when confronted by orcs.

    It works the same for alignment, but this is another argument.

    We work together in gaming. I provide the input, they provide the reaction. They provide the input, I provide the reaction. It's all about cooperation.
  2. SDJThorin's Avatar
    As you can tell from my other comments I'm very into backgrounds, and I wish that all of my players were too, but some of them just don't have the time or inclination to write them up.

    To remedy this, I talk to them on and off about their character before/after the games asking them about the PCs and what/where they would like to do/go with them...

    This is my way around the background issue...

    I do have a few people that love the background stuff and write up pages of the stuff, sometimes they share it and other times it's just for them.

    Strangely enough there is only one other DM in our group that has ever even asked for a background.

    In my older groups, backgrounds were a big thing and sometimes even mandatory to get into the game. They were also some of the most fun and involved games I've played in, but these days, like I said before, people just don't seem to have the time, and with game days limited to sometimes once a month... well... I'm sure you know what that's like.

    The Dresden File RPG rectifies that a bit by making it part of Aspect generation, which is why I think I am jonesing over it so much
  3. bloodtide's Avatar
    I'm not the biggest fan of Character Backgrounds.

    1.The first problem is just bad backgrounds. The player just makes up something that is just bad and unworkable. Typically this type of gamer listens to no reason and wants to stick with the bad background no matter what.

    2.The Cheat. This is were they player tries to sneak something into their background for free. Such as they are rich or a prince or archmage daddy gave them a spell book. This just often leads to problems(''my dad the king gives me a million gold coins, as I'm his only son'').

    3.The Pointless Background. The player does make a good and detailed background, but ignores it. So they have the classic 'parents killed by orcs', yet show no reaction when orcs show up, good or bad.

    4.The Handy cap. This is where the player just uses the background to cause trouble. In their background they hate gnomes, so they slaughter every gnome they see.

    5.The Background Plot Whine. This is where the player has made a background with a plot hook, say find the three parts of a sword. But the problem is the player refuses to do Anything but that. So when goblin bandits attack, this player is ''I ignore them and cast a divination looking for the sword''.

    I've found the best way to do Backgrounds is in the game. The characters start out as blanks, but are told to think about a history. It takes a couple of games for everyone to know each other, both players and characters, and then we will take a bit of time to make everyone history.
  4. Blond Gamer Girl's Avatar
    Mal and SDJ - I am in complete agreement with you.
    I think backgrounds add to the gaming experience. Plus it gets off the typical cliché plot hooks in games: money and/or someone in authority told you to. When a player doesn’t give me a background, I too ask questions to see where they’re at.

    Blood – I have some fixes for you.

    1. I always saw that I reserve to right to augment to make the subplots more workable. Any effort to write a background is appreciated because it shows a players interest in the game. IMHO – It’s rewarding as GM.

    2. Pre-emptive strike – Tell them the character sheet must match the background.

    3. Well – that’s just bad roleplay and happens regardless of background.

    4. Combat mongers happen – Just give them what they want but in spades.

    5. From the get go, I say troupe play (unless the group does something stupid) as a pre-emptive strike.
  5. Dytrrnikl's Avatar
    Only one of my player's go into the same detail that I do when creating a character. Most often, my player's will keep their backgrounds detail lite, waiting to add details until they get an idea of the character after playing for a few sessions. This has given me a lot of freedom to add tidbits to there backgrounds, enabling me to draw them more fully into the game. Such as, in my Star Wars game, I have a player playing a tactic minded tank, capable of dishing out a load of damage toe-to-toe or with 'Lucindra' (his trusty Blaster Rifle). During one particularly nasty combat for the players, I told him that the Mandolorian Commando he was facing was using an unorthodox, yet familiar fighting style - He gave the Commando a name, we traded a few comments that established the familiarity of the characters, as well as hinting at a deeper history between the two...now I have a recurring personality, where a little more is revealed each time he shows up. That's just an example of what happens on a regular basis in my games. On the flip side, I have one player that enjoys creating a novella like background for his characters, from which I cherry pick the details that I believe will add to the game...coincidnetally, the player loves it.