Background Check

"Background Check" (c) 2010 Chris SimsI’ve talked about investing some emotion in your character and, thereby, the game. As a follow-up, I suggested you seize the game by the horns. The “Play Boldly” article seemed more concrete, more useful, than the first. I thought about it, and I have more to say about giving your character traits and a history that make up a backstory.

Before I start–like I mentioned in “Become Emotional”–you don’t need to invest a huge effort into this task. (See the Short But Stout section.) This is especially true if you’re playing a casual game and/or one that focuses on defeating the bad guys and taking their stuff. Sometimes you’re just at the table for the slaying and the looting, and feeling badass. That’s fine. But if you want a background, or your DM wants you to craft one, just think about a few aspects of your character that pique your interest.

Ask Yourself

I have a lot of warmth in my heart for backgrounds in the D&D game. They’re helpful for character creation, and they offer you a little boon just for bothering to think about where your character comes from. The best ones not only place your character in a game-world context, but they also offer you some questions about your character’s life choices.

You can turn any game element–ability score, race, class, build, power, skill, feat, weapon, item–you choose into an element of character background. You just have to make up the questions. What does this feat say about my character’s training or upbringing? How did my warlock end up in an infernal pact? What does low Charisma say about my character? Why is the desert background my primary choice, and why did I choose +2 to Endurance over +2 to Nature?

Reverse Psychology

When you’re thinking about your character in this way, you’re bound to come up with traits that interest you but have no mechanical connection to your character. You can change that, too, with a little reversal. Turn your personality or story element into an actual D&D background.

Suppose you’ve decided that your character is refined and courteous. You can settle on what made him or her that way by making up a few questions and answers. Then create a background based on this polite manner. If you created it for repeat use, it might look like this:

Well-Mannered
Others see your sophistication, graciousness, and empathy your defining personality traits. What made you this way? Did you take after someone who raised or trained you? Were you schooled in courtesy? Did someone require (at least the appearance of) such manners from you? Do your manners mask any passions or darker parts of your nature?

Associated Skills: Diplomacy, Insight

Crook or Hook

When you start asking yourself questions about this imaginary person you’re creating, consider crafting the answers so you create a few roleplaying hooks and a few character hooks. A roleplaying hook informs you how your character interacts with the world. On the other hand, a character hook tells the DM how the world might interact with your character. Both are valuable, but a few character hooks can go a long way toward helping the DM personalize the game.

Imagine our example well-mannered character grew up in an orphanage and took after the kindly monks who ran the place. This one point offers several possible details about the character. He or she is not only polite (roleplaying hook), but is also connected to an orphanage and its orphans (character hooks), as well as, perhaps, a religion noted for kind monks (roleplaying and character hook). A soft spot for orphans and priests (character and roleplaying hooks) might be part of the character’s personality, too. These details lead naturally to defining a few friends, mentors, or even enemies (character hooks) for the character.

Don’t be afraid to create a few NPCs who are relevant to your character’s life. Such people add depth to the game world and act as character hooks. In so doing, they give you and the DM more toys to add to the game. More toys are more fun.

Making this stuff up should be fun, too. You can probably easily think of more outgrowths of the example. That’s why just a few details like this can make for a rich character background.

A Little Help . . .

You can craft details about your character even without knowing a lot about the game world or your companions. It’s easier if you have help, though. The DM can lend a hand in giving your choices a framework specific to the campaign. Fellow players might assist by playing off your ideas giving you similar fodder from their backgrounds.

This is why it can be good for the group members to create characters in collaboration with each other. You can make sure to fill in background details at the same time you’re filling roles. The personal game of creating your character then becomes a shared experience such as a normal DM session.

Short But Stout

Can I give you a sample from my Dark Sun D&D game? If you prefer not to hear about someone else’s character, skip this part.

My friend Robert, a fine player and DM, as well as head honcho of penandpapergames.com, created a dwarf shaman named Malamac for the campaign. He made some basic choices.

• Malamac’s family was part of a dwarven nomad tribe that eventually settled in the dwarven village of Kled.

• His family has profound ties to the primal power source and ancestor veneration. Malamac learned of the spirits and ancestors primarily from his mother.

• Kled is the site of the excavation of an ancient dwarven city. (This actually part of Kled’s story in the world.) Malamac’s family was deeply involved in this heritage project.

• The templars overseeing Kled destroyed Malamac’s family for blasphemy and heresy. Artifacts discovered in the ancient city suggested the sorcerer kings of Athas are not the immortal god-monarchs they claimed to be. They also indicate the world was not always as it now is. Malamac’s mother spread these “lies.”

• Robert chose the Desert background, and he gave Malamac +2 to Endurance from it.

Expanding on all this, Robert then decided that Malamac, at least for most of his life, possessed not even an inkling of primal power. He grew up ashamed of this lack, thinking he would never amount to much. Malamac, therefore, looked for any excuse to get away from Kled and the source of his shame–his own family. He took regular trading missions to a nearby merchant outpost (Endurance). There, he found love (a woman named Ilyna) and a measure of success. He was on the road when his family fell to the templars. Instead of perishing with his kin, he was captured later, told of his family’s fate, and sold as an arena slave in Tyr. His enemies expected him to die on the arena sands, but a losing battle instead quickened his tie to the ancestors and the spirits of the earth. Then King Kalak of Tyr fell, and all slaves were freed . . .

Malamac’s story has a little more to it involving other characters in my Dark Sun group. However, most of the pertinent details are above. It’s simple yet loaded. With it, Robert told me a lot, such as that he’s interested in the legacy of the ancient dwarves and that Malamac has some great character hooks to explore or exploit.

I’ve used those hooks extensively. Malamac, alongside his comrades, recently put down one of the templars involved in his family’s demise. This was a happy side effect of freeing Kled from that same templar’s black magic. The scenario of opposing that evil templar could have been played without any emotional involvement on the part of the characters. Robert’s short background for Malamac just made it more poignant.

Your background can do the same for you and your gaming group. Here’s hoping this article is clearer on that point. If you found it useful, let me know.

Comments

  1. I ask my players to fill out a questionaire at the creation of each character to this effect. They can either give me short and simple answers, or long detailed origin stories. I use alot of the questions i learned to ask myself when studying acting and a few more that relate to the game and campaign.

    Questions like what was your childhood like? Why are you adventuring? How did you gain your powers/Prowess? Who is your greatest enemy? Who is your closest friend? Where have you spent the majority of your life? What is a defining moment that shaped who you are?

    What is your favourite colour? – This last one is to get a laugh, but it can go much deeper. Deciding a favourite colour for the character can speak loads about the personality they want their character to have. For such a simple question it can really help define alot about who they are and help other players sense where they are coming from.

    I have more that i use but that is just a sampling of the questions i get my players to ask themselves. They can answer them all or a minimum of six, as a have some hardcore kick the door down grab the loot players and some hardcore Role Players. All in all i find that even a little background can make a huge difference in your game, other players game and the DM’s game
    .-= Scott´s last blog ..The Planar Orphan =-.

  2. Thoughtfully written, and I like that you underscore the inportance of what you called “Character Hooks”. I think it’s really important to be able to personalize a D&D campaign to the Player-Characters, and there’s nothing quite so frustrating from behind the DM Screen than a “hookless” character.

    Like Scott, I’ve used questionaires in the past for players that tend to be resistant to developing a Character beyond the roll-playing level. Another method I use is to offer the PCs a substantial experience point bonus during the first level of play for completing a character background. It turns out that an XP bribe will get even the most reluctant Player to sit down and write a short essay about their Character!
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Review of Karma Deck by Creation’s Edge Games =-.

  3. When I started playing just over a year ago, I was worried that I was “doing it wrong” because I created my character before my character stats. Since it was a surprise for my husband and I hadn’t met all the wonderful twitter people yet, there wasn’t really anyone to give me guidance on the matter. So I’m so glad you wrote this post, not only encouraging character backgrounds but explaining what that means. If I hadn’t done that part first, I’m not sure I would have kept playing. I have so many more opinions on the subject, but I won’t bore you with it now, at least not yet. Thanks again!
    .-= Sarah Darkmagic´s last blog ..A Game for Two =-.

  4. I ‘ve had a problem of trying to get all of my players to come up with extensive backgrounds. I like backgrounds because it helps me create stories around the characters. I just have to remember, though, that some of the players aren’t interested in that – and since it’s “our” game, I have to respect that.

    -Tourq
    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Special Thanks =-.

  5. I fully agree. I really enjoy the fact that 4e has so many background options, but taking aspects of your character and molding them into personal backgrounds is a wonderful story tool. I’m often a bit miffed by players who only use character backgrounds to give them a stat boost and then ignore them for the rest of the game. Creating them specifically from the story of each player would help to work past this. Great post!
    .-= Thadeous´s last blog ..ritualistically speaking: Tenser’s Floating Disk =-.

  6. Ive always wanted to make a somewhat extensive background for my characters but never got around to it till now, my first 4e campaign, after reading the background Wil Wheaton did for his avenger i was compelled to sit around and doing something good. What i did was simply a story of the birth of my char that develops into who he is… after reading this articles Ive come around about rolling his stats/background better and i think im ready to keep developing some more storys about him 🙂

    In case anyone is curious, im posting here background/session related topics http://community.wizards.com/baloo01/blog/

    Again, great posts chris, keep em up 🙂

  7. Chris Sims says:

    @Scott and Neuroglyph: I’ve tried the questionnaire, too. I think I overdid it. I learned that a few simple questions go a long way. Too much, however, intimidates the more casual players. It was newbiedm who mirrored my favorite question: what past event pains you the most? This is especially right on for Dark Sun. I hesitate to use XP as a bribe, though, especially since I don’t use XP. Characters that have more hooks tend to receive more limelight, though.

    @Sarah D: Sometimes the best parts of an RPG character are the intangibles, for sure.

    @Tourq: Sound right on insofar as the group dynamic. I wonder if a brief questionnaire and an explanation that it helps you personalize/character hook the game would motivate the players? Casual players can decide to stay out of the limelight by limiting their character hooks. And that’s okay if that’s what the player wants.

    @Thadeous: Another good option is allowing players to latch onto story elements as play progresses. Also, you as DM can emphasize a background choice if you want to. I can imagine you saying something like, “But Aristobulus, being familiar with ways of the nobility, knows that’s not true . . .”

    @Papabaloo: Cool. Will Wheaton is awesome–I wish he was still writing a column for Dungeon. It’s all about the fun.
    .-= Chris Sims´s last blog ..Background Check =-.

  8. @Chris, I know what you mean be overdoing it, one of the first questionnaires i released was about thirty questions long. No one wanted to fill that monstrosity out but me. I now have a refined questionnaire that is still 28 questions long! The only difference now, is that players only have to answer the questions they want to (minimum of 6, i’m contradicting myself i know). One of the best characters at my table started from 6 single word answers.

    Thanks Again Chris.

    Scott

  9. Good article and I enjoyed the example, not only for the story, but for another glimpse at Dark Sun. Initially, I didn’t think I was going to use the setting. I have no history of playing in that setting because I got into DnD at 3.0 even though I have been playing RPG’s since Classic Traveller was just Traveller.

    I really like the background system that 4E uses. I like that it lets the player pick a skill that can be trained that isn’t from the base set of skills for his or her character. The short description and the questions that each asks can give the player a starting point to think about for where that character came from.

    Even if the player doesn’t use that in his or her character’s backstory, the DM can come back later and ask questions pertaining to that background and help the player build a deeper background.