There’s a continuum about character backgrounds. I use detailed character backgrounds in my games; in fact, I warn players that I reserve the right to fill in any character history they don’t. Other GMs don’t bother with backgrounds at all — a sentence or two at the top of the character sheet. It really depends on the individual GM’s game style.
I can’t even begin to building campaign until I know the PCs involved; for me, the PCs are the campaign. Player-written character backgrounds provide me with a wealth of ideas I would have never come up with on my own. I give my players free reign to create NPCs in their background, with the caveat that all NPCs need to approved by me. This takes some of the background work off of my shoulders; I can use the PCs backgrounds to help flesh out the population of my city/world/setting. Frequently, I find I can substitute someone from a PCs background for one listed in the adventure, thereby helping to get at least one PC more invested in the current story.
Sometimes I can even tie NPCs from one character’s background to those of another PC. This makes a connection between those two PCs, right off the bat. These connections don’t have to be friends, or even like each other. Having an NPC from one character hate the NPC from another character has led to some great role-playing in past games. Even better is when I can actually use the same NPC for at least one additional PC. Locations are something else I mine character backgrounds for. Usually, the player has given me some idea of what that location is like, even if it’s just “small farming town”. Businesses, towns, homes, farms from character backgrounds have all become integral to various campaigns I’ve run.
I always have players give me written copies of their background. That way I can go back and look up details I may have missed the first time through. If a player is having a hard time coming up with anything for a background, I sit down with the player and walk her through a series of questions. I’ve found character questionnaires can really help a player get “unstuck”.
Even really basic stuff like “how old is your character” or “what color is his hair” can trigger ideas for the player. Every player I’ve ever dealt with has at least an idea about what his character looks like, including clothing. If a player seems really stuck, I’ll ask questions about that: “why are your character’s colors red and blue?”, “why would she wear that hat?”, etc. And if a player is really, really, stuck for ideas or is looking for a challenge (I’ve had players who said “surprise me”), I’m more than happy to take over. But in that case, I warn them they’re going to be stuck with whatever I give them.
Usually, a PC only needs their background tweaked; in that case, I’ll make my revisions and hand the player a copy. Maybe I swap out the town in their background for one that already exists, or maybe I change their childhood friend to an NPC already in the game — I try to keep as much of the player’s work as possible.
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