Maximize The Use of PC Histories
From Kate Manchester
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #494
PC Histories are one of the most ignored parts of a character sheet, but for a GM, it can prove to be one of the most vital. Here are some ways to get the most value from a PC’s biography.
Require A Background
Require all characters to have a background story. It can be long or short (preferably long) and in any format they choose. For my own campaigns, I require players to justify some or all of their PC’s advantages or flaws in their background. If the PC has a 3-point Enemy, I want to know how they managed to piss someone off that badly.
If you want to give the players a questionnaire. It can include (but shouldn’t be limited to) the following:
- Character name?
- Street Name, Nickname or Alias
- Who are their parents? Are they alive or dead? Do they have any siblings (alive or dead)?
- Where does the PC’s family currently reside?
- Where was the PC born?
- Where does the PC live? What is their place like?
- PC’s quirks and habits?
- PC’s short term goals? Long term?
So for example, if I were to complete the questionnaire for my Shadowrun character:
Name: Kimiko Shinju
Street Name or Alias: Kim or Kimmie
Who are their parents? Shinju Kosaku & Shinju Myume
Are they alive or dead? Alive when she last saw them three years ago.
What do they do? Dad is a scientist working for Ares. Mom is a traditional housewife
Do they have any siblings (alive or dead)? No.
Where does the PC’s family currently reside? Ares Arcology in Seattle.
Where was the PC born (if different from above)? See above. However, if she returned, she’d be arrested.
Where does the PC live? What is their place like? She has a ‘hidey hole’ in Yakuza territory and a nice apartment in the former SoDo district of Seattle.
PC’s quirks/habits? She hates to eat dinner alone.
PC’s short term goals? Build her list of contacts and get the next job.
Long term? Make enough money to retire before shadow running kills her.
Review and Look for Inconsistencies
Once you have the PC’s history, look it over. If there are inconsistencies between your campaign world and the PC’s history, either gently inform the player of this (most players won’t be too broken up if you ask them change the name of a person or place) or make changes to your campaign notes.
Feel free to make friendly suggestions about their history to help enhance your campaign, enhance the character, or add connections to the other characters in the game.
Mine The History
Now that you’ve gotten a history and possibly a questionnaire about your campaign’s PCs, how do you go about using this information? Here are a few ways:
Getting the party together for the first time
This is one of the most difficult parts of starting any campaign. How exactly do you get a group of PCs working together for a common goal? One way is through connections.
For example, in Shadowrun, Contacts are a vital part of any character’s arsenal. One contact shared by all the members of the party could well be the impetus to bring a team together. Another way is through common threads in the PCs’ histories (either coincidental or planned by you).
Bringing in a new PC
One of the biggest hurdles in introducing a new PC into an existing campaign is why the PC came to this place and joined up with the party. As the Storyteller of a Play by Post game, probably the most frequent question I get is “how do I bring my PC into the game?”
Part of my solution is that I require my players to submit a history along with their character sheet. Once I look it over, I usually can come up with some suggestions for their opening post (who they’re going tosee, where the character is going, etc.) and chat with them over IM about it.
Using the history to find commonalities and links between PCs helps develop more realistic reasons for a new PC to join a party than simply, “Joe is playing John Doe, so we’re going to invite John Doe to join the group.”
Enhancing player investment in a character
Ever play an RPG at a convention with pre-generated characters and have one of your fellow players decide to do something stupid, like picking a fight with a beholder or blowing up the ship?
This often happens because the player hasn’t invested any time and effort into the character. They have no stake in the character’s survival, so why not let them get killed? When you make a player write up a background for their character, they are investing time, effort and possibly even emotion into this character. This investment decreases the likelihood they won’t care if something bad happens to the character and can reduce the likelihood the PC will do something stupid and potentially lethal.
By studying the back stories of the PCs, you get an idea of where the players want to take their characters. Knowing the PCs’ goals also helps you better tailor adventures to the PCs.
Back stories also help you achieve your own campaign goals. By knowing where the players want to go, you can decide what direction you want to take your campaign and what you (and your players) want to achieve during the course of the campaign.
A character’s back story can reveal friends, relatives and enemies. Use these ideas to flesh out the character’s hometown, create a recurring villain, or an old high school buddy with access to the evidence locker at the local police station.
But a history isn’t just about who the character knew. It’s also about where they’re from. If you’re running short on place names, feel free to mine character histories for creating locations.
For example, after not getting the name of the closest city that I needed to finish my character’s history, I simply came up with the names myself. To my surprise, the party actually had to head back to the very city I’d created.
Similarly, if a character’s history mentions an ancestral home, sword, etc., feel free to make it part of your campaign. It’ll save you work, and your players will appreciate having contributed to your campaign even if it’s in some small way.
Adventures and plot hooks
PC backgrounds are a gold mine of plot hooks. As an added bonus, when you use pieces of a PC’s history, it helps encourage that player’s involvement in the game. After all, players don’t typically throw boring things into their history; they usually include them in hopes the GM might see fit to use them.
For example, a party contains Lodar, a fighter who is really the son of a deposed (and despised) king travelling in disguise. The party may soon find itself the target of attacks. It can also make for some interesting drama and conflict when this fact is revealed.
You can go home again
Have the PCs travel to a character’s hometown? The other PCs can meet his parents (who will likely have embarrassing pictures or stories to tell), his old friends (who might buy the PC drinks and talk about old times), and his enemies (who might well try to kill them).
If the PCs have something in common with each other or with the NPCs, it can often enhance those relationships. For example, I had a PC come to Portland from New Orleans. I decided that he and the current Toreador Primogen made the trip to Portland together and were allies.
Make Histories Dynamic
Realize that a character’s history is dynamic. It can evolve and become more fleshed out over time as the player spends more time with the PC.
For example, I’ve had a character history that started out with the vague reasoning of her transfer away from her native Chicago due to a family dispute. I elaborated on it by deciding the dispute was with her mother and sisters over breaking her engagement (she and her fiancee had different ideas about her working outside the home).
In addition, as the campaign progresses, the characters develop a shared history. As GM, you should keep track of this as part of your notes. You want to give your PCs a ‘blast from the past’ by sending them back to a town or bringing back an NPC.
Keep in mind, though, that as the campaign progresses and characters leave or die, the blast from the past will have less relevance and impact on the PCs, and your players may well have forgotten too.
A character’s history is a gold mine of information. It may take a little work to mine the nuggets, but the rewards are worth it.
For further information on this subject, check out the following Roleplayingtips.com articles:
How To Work With Crummy Character Backgrounds
Lessons from the LARP
Players, Meet Your Characters