Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Character Background Weight

Here's a hypothesis:  If there are some character background details that
  • a) impose less on the imagined world and other players, and 
  • b) are more interesting, compelling, or challenging for players
there might be a subset that is true for both a) and b) that we could utilize even in old school games.

By imposes on the world I mean you want something for your player that will make certain things have to be true for our imagined but unexplored world.  I had a player that wanted to play a Drow exiled because he was good.  So, if I let him do that, first, it means there are Drow in my world, second, they are not innately evil, or at least their evil can mutate like hair color or something.  It would also mean his character would have special racial powers, infravison, languages etc.  It seems that impositions on the world fall into these two main categories assumptions about the greater world and personal power increases.  Well, maybe a third as well-- player desire for the spotlight.

Fun Characters
I don't have a lot of experience trying to inhabit different creative and interesting characters in rpgs.  I usually just play me with magic.  Though I have played an alcoholic mage, a naive robot, etc.  Still, I'm no expert on what someone who detests OD&D style "faceless pawns" wants in a character background.  Is it hooks that can help them decide what this imagined person would decide in different situations?  "He was an orphan so he's doesn't want to leave the kids behind."   Or, is it more about a challenge?  "Hold on, my priest's 23 strictures make this one tough."

I'm running out of time and have to get to work, but what would be some background details that might be true for both a) and b)?
  • Things common to all humans or societies seem like they would work: having a parent die young, being a member of a big family, moving a lot as a child, being an only child, etc.
  • Pseudo-medieval jobs might be safe (but even this depends on the weirdness of the world) : farmer, blacksmith, ostler.
  • Privileged backgrounds seem more in danger of assumptions: if you're a member of royalty how does that work in this world?  How much money do you have?  If a lot, why are you risking your life in the caves?  Maybe you like adventure but your party members could probably make money safer by just holding you ransom.
  • Personality or physical traits seem like a good bet.  I think my hireling traits chart does a good job of hitting the biggest ones.  You're really tall, or never drink,  foolhardy or sullen.
  • Crimes seem like a pretty universal thing too: did you murder someone in a fit of rage, commit adultery, are you a secret arsonist?
What else?


  1. In my experience, many - if not most- gamers who want a weighty character background do so with the expectation that the referee is going to use the details to build a plot and even part of the game-world around them. It's the exact opposite of my preferred player-driven playstyle, where if you want something to happen in the game, you make it happen through your in-character choices and actions.

    Another (a) and (b) satisfying background might be The Mentor, the npc who perhaps trained the player character, or at least provided him with the impetus to begin an adventuring career. Maybe the adventurer's starting gold came from The Mentor along with training and a bit of advice (like a couple of starting rumors).

    Some players will want to keep going back to The Mentor's roost, for training to level up and such - this can work, in my experience, but it can also become a situation with some players where The Mentor is expected to perform as some sort of adjunct to the adventurers, and that can prove problematic. With that in mind, it's usually more convenient to say The Mentor is no longer in the picture.

  2. Hey, thanks for the comment. Acch, so most people wanting multi-page character backgrounds do so intending them as the plot elements they want interacted with? I hope my post doesn't come off as ignorant then.

    I don't think my chart of background details I was thinking of will
    help with that.

    just some rambly thoughts

    I can kinda sorta of envision a game where all players submit big backgrounds and then the DM goes away to try to weave elements of them together like an HBO series or novel. But, it seems like the main pleasure of that kind of game "I thought it would be interesting if those two elements clashed and now they are!" can still appear in the more random adventure game, after characters survive a bit, start developing a history and knowing npcs. But the adventure game also offers up "I have no clue what might happen!" which the other type of game not only probably wouldn't be good at but seems be opposed to.

    I don't really like the idea of the mentor, at least not per player-- there's 6 of us and each has a mentor? I don't have a mentor in real life. Maybe the group as a whole knows an npc but then the DM should probably pick that one.

  3. I think Black Vulmea has the right of it, players are looking to provide plot hooks in addition to trying to find ways to be the special snowflake that shines so bright.

    In my Player's Guide, I have one page player creation guide, which has an optional set of short "background" tables. One of the tables is "complications", of which they can have 0-5.
    roll 2d6
    2 Royalty
    3 Slavery
    4 Bastard
    5 Family
    6 Lover
    7 Friend
    8 Debtor
    9 Enemy
    10 Obsessive
    11 Addict
    12 Murder

    They seem pretty generic to me, and I figure they could mostly go either way, as good or bad. a couple of my players wrote more elaborate backstories using these, which was great, but did not feature in our game. (yet)

  4. In my game basically I decided:

    -character generation will not require anything be made up from whole cloth (except the PC's name) but only ask for a player to pick (or roll) from the options on the table

    -however, anything the player DOES want to make up as long as it doesn't contradict basic 1st-level PC basic effectiveness expectations is in the game. Period.

  5. Thanks for more feedback.

    Lasgunpacker, I'm a buffoon, I commented on that very post of yours but missed the link to the players guide. There are so many things I like about that guide, really cool. What's a KSA, though?

    Zak: The first I agree with and this was me doing thinking towards a interesting/kooky background chart to roll on. (Heck, I even have name lists because some firs-timers found that the hardest step)

    For the second point are you talking about players making choices that make them less likely to survive? Like a blind thief or something? Or by "contradict . . . expectations" do you mean they are trying to jump the power curve to fast, giving themselves a laser arm or whatnot?

    I might be a little too constraining here. I'm probably a little too selfish about the tone/idea of my world. Has there been anything you vetoed because it was too out of whack with your idea of Vornheim?

  6. KSA: Knowlege, Skills, and Abilities. The acronym comes from Federal job postings. (at least in my usage) I figured it was a handy catch-all name for listing out all of the various random things of that nature that a character accumulates.

    And I am standing on the shoulders of giants, so any useful elements no doubt come from them.

    1. I plan to incorporate some of those ideas-- the single page walking a person through character creation like a game, the visual depiction of choices people can make as they gain levels in a class-- just don't have time right now.

  7. The recent Neverwinter from WoTC has a variant on Weighty Character Backgrounds that I almost like: they give ~ 20 detailed backgrounds (i.e. you were part of this particular gang in the next city north, or an apprentice to this cabal of wizards over yonder) and most locations in the campaign already has a tie-in to two or three of the character backgrounds. So the characters are choosing from the palette, rather than imposing. My biggest problem with it is that the palette only seems to span about half of the archetypes my players would want. It allows the characters to all be strangers to this *place* without being totally uninterested in the *situation*, which avoids the problems of character knowledge > player knowledge you can run into if the characters are natives of the starting city.

  8. Uggh, does this new reply to a single comment feel unnatural to anyone else? It feels like we were all having a conversation at a table and now we're supposed to step off into a side room to talk to anyone in particular. Anyway,

    @Tom: Thanks, that's interesting. So is the reason for this so that the players has something to interact with in the setting from moment one "I can go talk with my mentor"? Because relationships, fueds, situations are going to build up in normal play, it just might take a few sessions.

    Or is it more about making sure each individual player will be getting some spotlight "this adventure is about finding my family"?

    1. I think it's a mix of the two; it's left in the DM's hands.
      The book has a "Theme Tie-In" sidebar every 2-4 pages.

      For example, one of the themes is "Neverwinter Noble: a true heir to Neverwinter". The book notes how the current ruler could respond to discovering this about the character, both in discussing the faction and in parts of the gazetteer that deal with his powerbase. It also discusses how one faction might try to recruit him, or how the citizenry might ask him to stop another faction. There are side-mentions of possible connections to one or two minor groups.

      Another theme is "Harper Agent: A betrayed Harper trying to regain the trust of the organization." This ties the character to recent events in Neverwinter, and puts them directly between the Harpers and a group of rebels the Harpers were working with.

      And those are probably the two most citified themes and the ones with the narrowest faction ties, since they're both "about" the struggle for control of and pacification of the city - I seem to recall some DM advice saying "If you have a Neverwinter Noble, somewhere near the climax of the campaign you should resolve the question of their heritage" (although I can't find that at the moment). There are a couple of barbarian themes, two for elves, one for dwarves, a Renegade Red Wizard, an ex-cultist, an ex-gang member, ... All of them have ties to multiple factions and some central goal they're expected to be motivated by.