Top 11 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Player’s Background
From Jesse C. Cohoon
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #579
Player backgrounds are important. They tell where characters have been, what their goals are, and who their friends and enemies are.
Character histories can tell you where campaign might go, how to get there and who to involve.
All characters should have at least a basic background. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your PCs’ histories.
Limit Your Player’s Choices
This is not to say you should write your player’s background for them, but instead set boundaries to help them exercise their imagination. The more refined your limits, the better you can create a storyline together.
Think in this order:
It wasn’t until recent times that people could travel large distances. Most people didn’t travel more than twenty miles from their home in their lifetimes. If they did there was major upheaval for them to do so.
Travel was tiresome and alternated between dangerous (sickness, attacks by animals and other people) and boring.
Regional or National
If a major regional event happens it will affect a character’s life.
If there’s a war and the King drafs people into service, how will that affect the character? Is the King even in the right in his actions?
If there’s an outbreak of plague or a natural disaster causes people to flee from a region, and there’s an influx of visitors, could one of the characters be one that’s displaced?
Continent or World
Is there a great evil the players must travel across the world to confront? What adventures will they have along the way? What tools, abilities, alliances will they have to get to successfully face it? How did they find out about the evil, and how are they personally affected if nothing happens?
But don’t be too strict. Work with your characters. If they have an idea, see how you can incorporate it into the game. If you can work with it, do so. If you need to change it so it works better in your world, go that route.
Keep In Mind What They Did Before The Storyline
If the story is set in a classic fantasy setting, is the character a guard, a serf, a beggar-thief, an entertainer, an outdoorsman (either a druid or ranger), sailor/fisherman, temple acolyte or mage/sorcerer in training?
If the person was in the Weird Wild West, is the character a gunslinger, bartender, whore or steampunk scientist?
In more modern times a person could be a lawyer, computer programmer/hacker, restaurant worker, inventor, writer and more.
Was the character a prisoner and if so what were the conditions they were in? Were they a “protected guest” but unable to leave, or were they rotting in a dungeon cell?
Whatever the character was before the start of the campaign, they still have the skills they learned up to this point.
Maybe between adventures or during downtime, they are able to use their old skills as a means to earn money and introduce other skills, characters, plot lines or aspects of the setting.
Don’t Forget About Their Appearance
Is the character scarred in some way? If so, what is the story behind it?
Is the person amazingly beautiful? How do they keep that way?
Are there any incidents in the character’s life that shaped them to be what they look like today? What are they and what are the effects?
Remember Who They Know And Knew
Give the PC past and current relationships.
Maybe the character was involved in a war and knows the Captain of the Guard?
Did the character serve as cup bearer to the King?
Is the character a member of a guild, faction or secret society?
Who were the PC’s friends and lovers?
Keep a bio sheet on each of the NPCs they knew. Keep track of how they met, whether they were friends or enemies. Also note what organizations, societies and groups they are a part of.
Don’t Forget About Those Working Behind The Scenes
Everyone has enemies. Or, at least, conflicts.
When dealing with character background, the PC may have made an enemy of some lackey of someone powerful. When the higher ups find out what the character did, the party may have some problems.
On the other hand, if the character helped someone who works for a powerful NPC, he may get unexpected help in the form of a follower, free or reduced cost equipment, the use of a library, etc.
Keep In Mind What Else Is Going On In The World
Other parts of the world may have different societies, rules of magic, technologies/equipment, governmental bodies, ways of dress. When bringing in characters from other cultures, keep in mind how other characters will react to them. How has the character been reacted to a while wearing a traditional costume of their culture or performing ceremonies from their homeland? These experiences should deeply affect a character’s outlook on life.
Don’t Forget Character Flaws And Skills
Maybe the character has spent their time reading by dim candlelight and has ruined their eyesight and must wear glasses. If they lose their glasses, they could be in a world of trouble.
A character could be an alcoholic, drug or sex addict. A character could have been abused in some way and has debilitating flashbacks. A character could have a severe phobia that paralyzes them.
Whatever the flaws are, there should be a story to them, and a struggle to avoid or confront.
Conversely, the oddest skills might have use. A person might be an expert game player and able to win contests of any stripe. A person might not have been trained as a rogue, but through practice and sleight of hand is able to perform legerdemain or able to pick locks.
I eliminate secondary skills in my campaigns because I’ve always found them to be annoying as a player. If a PC has a good background reason for having them, it shouldn’t matter that they’re not officially trained to do something, they just know how to do it.
I advise giving extra skill points for things in the background.
Reward Roleplaying The Background
If someone attacks a monster, and as they do so, remembers their training, reward that. If a bard sings a song, they could remember tearfully their instructor as they sing. A cleric or paladin could remember their mentor who was killed by an undead hoard.
If a player works their PC’s background into a scene, give them an XP bonus, a bonus to their die, or both.
The more the player adds in those types of touches, the better.
Remember Background Is Ongoing
Don’t discard anything the characters do, good or bad.
That shopkeeper they were rude to in the first level could have moved to where they are currently and has formed a coalition with other shopkeepers to raise prices.
The small feudal lord they killed has a son who’s now out to get them, and he’s formed an alliance with other tribes to eradicate the characters and all that they love.
The first level cleric in the temple they said a kind word to long ago is now the leader of the temple and raises one of the characters from the dead for free or gives them valuable scrolls to fight the rising problem of werewolves.
The beggar who a character gave coin to was really a powerful NPC in disguise and now favors the character’s party.
Backgrounds Should Incorporate The Main Plot
I’ve always found it’s a good thing to let the players know (at least in general terms) what the plot is, and how their characters fit into it.
Without this, the players may have a more difficult time getting involved. If the character is personally hooked in the situation, due to some unfortunate circumstance or tragedy, so much the better – it means they have a personal stake in the outcome. When it all works out in the end, they’ll have the satisfaction they were there to help see it through.
Background Should Be At Least Partially Played Out
Before the game, try to do a one-on-one session with each player to get them caught up to where their character is going to be starting.
This also gives the players a chance to wet their feet when it comes to playing their characters.
It also helps your players get more familiar with the world you’re presenting.
Comment from Johnn
Great tips, thanks Jesse.
Readers, if you want more tips on mining PC backgrounds or creating them, try these links:
Turning Coal Into Diamonds – How To Mine Backstories To Create Killer Campaigns
Maximize The Use Of PC Histories
How To Work With Crummy Character Backgrounds
Brief Word From Johnn
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