How To Work With Crummy Character Backgrounds 12 Options For Solving “X killed Y”

From David R.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0354

A Brief Word From Johnn

Please Take A Quick D&D Monster Product Survey

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Dragon and Dungeon Cease

News this week from Wizards of the Coast revealed that Dungeon and Dragon magazines will end publication in September. This is sad news for me. I remember walking into my local hobby store in 1980, picking up Best of Dragon II, and asking the cashier “What’s this?” I walked out with the magazine and the Player’s Handbook, and thus my RPG hobby truly began.

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Use this coupon link to get the discount:

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Johnn Four
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How To Work With Crummy Character Backgrounds 12 Options For Solving “X killed Y”

A common theme with players when asked what their character background is to say that “X killed Y so I hate X.” X is some villainous entity the player is forever hunting, and Y is someone of great significance to the character who is now dead.

In one easy statement the player has a reason to go on killing sprees without any past relations to slow them down. The background of Conan the Barbarian is typical of this type of background as Conan’s whole village is killed, leaving him an orphan with no ties to the rest of society.

The problem with this type of background is it’s so limiting. Players like this limitation because they feel having connections might lead to complications in their gaming life (hostages, financial obligations, duties, responsibilities).

GMs find this troubling as it results in dull and repetitive characters without any background or depth that has not been wiped out. Further, players using this type of approach often claim they are justified in being strong and silent, further limiting their participation and investment in the storyline.

What is a GM supposed to do when presented with the typical X killed Y story from a player? You could simply reject the storyline and tell the player to try harder to come up with something else. This tends to lead to players who state the GM is not allowing them to create the character they want to create.

Another solution is to do what story writers have been doing for centuries when presented with such a storyline: look upon it as a blank slate to create a deeper, mysterious background.

Following are 12 suggestions you can use to provide players with connections that have survived the usual tribe-killing villains.

99% Solution

It is just plain hard to get that 100% kill. Any villain who has been given a prophecy that someone of a particular lineage is going to kill them will tell you it is almost impossible to get the 100% success needed to ensure immortality.

There is always someone who was out in the woods at the time of the slaughter, a baby in a womb of an unwed mother, a relation who was in a neighboring village, a disowned relative, a relation who changed their name by marriage, a relation who was thought to have died, a relation who was thought to have been forever lost at sea, or a relation who was saved from death by a stranger.

Luke Skywalker is a good example of this. He starts as an orphan whose adoptive family dies in the beginning of the story only to find he still has a father and a sister that are alive.

It Was All A Lie

This is good when the events occur at an extremely young age in the character’s background. The character has been told a story of great evil that has occurred but it is all a lie.

The reason for the lie could be to turn a child against their parent, to hide their true heritage (usually royalty or similar power), to hide a greater trauma, to hide the nature of the true parents or relations, or to provide some obstacle to the character asking too many questions of how they came to be in their current circumstances.

The Man in the Iron Mask is a good example. He believes he is a common peasant only to find out later he is a twin to the King.

The Haunting

If a player makes a regular habit of killing off relations, then give them someone they cannot kill. A ghost of a parent or relation makes a perfect person to come by for regular visits and to offer advice or harm. AI intelligences that are “ghost in the machine” or holograms serve similar roles.

These character types are usually immortal, preventing players from destroying them despite their nuisance value. The characters of Hercules and Xena in the TV series were haunted by various gods who served the role of family despite elimination of other family from the characters’ pasts.

Almost Family

Everyone is raised by someone. If the player kills off their real family then usually they have a mentor or surrogate family that raised them. Sometimes players will kill off these individuals as well to make sure they have no past to which a GM can claim connection.

These surrogate families are often large though, and the 99% rule often applies. Frodo is an example of this type of character. He starts as an orphan and has his adoptive parent disappear. He later discovers he has many relations with the elves of Rivendell and with Gandalf through his surrogate parent.

The Non-Human Connection

Harmless animals such as small dogs and cats can fulfill many of the roles of a relation in a story. They can be captured or threatened, and require maintenance to keep them safe. If the animal does not do more fighting or work than a similar NPC would be expected to do, then they can be a useful tie for the player who wants no human relations.

Peter Pan’s companion, Tinker Bell, is a similar style of connection for which he realizes he is willing to go to great lengths to rescue and save. Capture a player’s familiar and see the result that you get.


The events of the tragedy are so horrific that the memory of the events is not perfect. The player assumes X killed Y because evidence points in this direction. Someone else may have killed Y, or Y might not even be dead because the events were just too terrible at the time.

This is similar to the lie, but instead it is the player’s interpretation of events that are at fault. The player sees or remembers blood and has convinced themselves the worst has occurred. The truth could be that Y escaped or was taken hostage. Y might not have even been at the site of the killing.

Wolverine is a character where others know the truth of his family history but refuse to tell him because he has repressed the events of his past. Sabertooth, while an enemy, is also somehow part of Wolverine’s past and is possibly family.

It Was Faked

The events were staged to make it appear that Y was killed. Y could have faked their death or others could have faked Y dying. Many heroes and villains have faked their death and it is a standard of fiction. Players saw what they were meant to see.

In the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones sees Marion Ravenwood die after being kidnapped. She later returns to the story healthy and a hostage of the villain. Death is rarely final in fiction.

They Live

Speaking of death being hardly final, cloning, resurrection, demonic possession, androids, doppelgangers, changelings, stasis chambers, reincarnation, and other story devices can bring back any relation who was killed.

If Y is important to the character, then even the possibility one of these avenues might exist should send them scurrying to the rescue. Villains often use such methods as well to taunt their foes as they show off their terrible power. The character Blade discovers that his mother is now a vampire instead of being dead as he previously thought.

Memories And Dreams

Players can have connections to flashbacks or dreams of people they knew prior to being killed. These connections can make for deeper connections or provide insights into present situations.

Through dreams, characters have full conversations with these people that relate to present events and can even have people manipulate these dreams creating the hostage effect (the “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You are my only hope.” image).

Highlander the series often made use of flashbacks to provide the highlander a connection to the past he had left behind due to his immortality.

I Read It Somewhere

Players can find connections their character did not know existed due to letters or journals written by Y prior to death. A character has all of their relatives killed only to learn their mother or father exchanged letters with some stranger. Finding the stranger and their connection to the character’s dead family can attach the player to a new surrogate family. Romance stories like the Bridges of Madison County and the Notebook use this device.

Often It Is The Servants Who Suffer

If all the members of a family are killed, then often there is a loyal retainer or servant who is willing to step up and act as family. These people often take oaths, as do their families, to help out and become a surrogate family for the character.

In the movie Dragonslayer, the apprentice Galen inherits Ulrich’s servant after Ulrich is stabbed in the heart. In the book Dune, Paul Atredies inherits the servants Duncan, Gurney, and Thufir.

There Is Always Time For Family

If there is no family in the here and now then there may be family in another time, place, or dimension. A player subjected to any of these conditions can find family members and possibly bring them back to the present.

The character Lessa in Dragonflight travels back in time hundreds of years and returns with large numbers of dragonriders who repopulate the world.

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I hope these 12 suggestions have shown there are a variety of ways that “X killed Y” does not mean a player has eliminated all past relationships. It merely provides the GM more opportunity to develop connections the player did not realize existed.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Start Sessions Mid-Combat

From mrmike65

I recently began using a new session-starting technique and thought to share it with you.

Generally, I try to end each session in the middle of an action scene – combat or otherwise. At first, the players were less than enthused, until they realized I would be starting the next session exactly where we had left off.

Let me tell you, the players went nuts when they realized they would have several days to think about what their character would/could do when the action resumed! I’m getting 4-5 emails between each weekly session, just with ideas and questions from the players about what their characters might do.

I had been beginning each game session with a quick recap of what was going on when the previous session had ended, but realized the players weren’t really focusing on what I was saying. So, I took to beginning the recap with a quick sentence or two – as a cue for the players – and then calling out for someone to continue with the recap.

As the previous session’s last scene is being retold, I will interject with my own observations and ask other players to fill in details of what their characters had been doing. I try to include everyone involved with the scene.

This has had a number of gratuitous results:

  • It gets the players focused on the game and back into character
  • It gets the narration back up to speed
  • It lets me hear the scene from the player’s point of view and see what was important to the players
  • It saves me from having to remember all the details of the action
  • It keeps the players thinking about the adventure between sessions
  • It gives the players a chance to ask questions that might otherwise get lost during the heat of the moment
  • It gives me a chance to hand out xp for roleplaying that I might have missed
  • It begins each session with action and player involvement

There are more benefits the players and I get from this practice, but this list hopefully gets the point across.

Game On!

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Encounter Template: Threat, Problem, Resource, Or Reward

From The Ryan of Stoughton

I believe any encounter the GM puts in should be a threat, problem, resource, or reward.

Passing a caravan is a terrible encounter, unless:

Threat: A mudslide or flood threatens to wash the caravan away.

Problem: The caravan is stuck with a broken wheel, and is blocking the road. A harried merchant’s five kids are running wild while he tries to coax intransigent animals into doing something useful.

Resource: The caravan sells stuff the PCs want, or has information the PCs can use.

Reward: The caravaners recognize the PCs, and give them a free lunch for being great heroes.

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Example GM Organization

From Kyle

I just read in your archives where you ask how other GMs organize their stuff.

  • I have a binder divided into folders that collects maps, reoccurring NPCs, and the like, and 10 sheets of white paper in sheet covers that I use for notes.
  • I use wet erase markers.
  • I have four sheet covers I can overlay on my battlegrid to show terrain and area of effect.
  • Information relevant to the current session is taken out of the binder and put in a stack from most to least important.
  • I have custom character sheets that are reusable, which I copy monster information into so I don’t reference the monster manuals at all during the session.
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New PocketMod Tool

From Scot Newbury

In Issue #283 you published a tip about PocketMod and I wanted to pass along that the creator has added a new utility – a PDF to PocketMod converter. It will take any 8 page PDF file and line everything up into a single page (also PDF) that you can then print and fold to create a PocketMod.

One thing to make folks aware of, the OpenOffice export to PDF is not compatible with this new tool, so to use it they’ll need to download and use one of the many PDF print tools out there (I use dotPDF 5 – after it is installed you print to it like any printer).