Tag Archives: backgrounds

What’s My Motivation?

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motivation-chartYour GM picked out the adventure, did all of the background work, fleshed out the NPCs, balanced treasure and other rewards. Now it’s finally time to run the adventure, it’s up to the GM to find a way to motivate your character. Right?

[Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeboukobza/ / CC BY 2.0]


True, the GM will most likely provide you a motivation for going on the adventure, but you can help by providing your own motivation for your character.

While “My character wouldn’t do that” can be a legitimate concern (I’m a “method actor”-style player, myself), it’s not helpful. If you try hard enough, there’s usually some way you can provide your character with a motivation to undertake the adventure.

Character History

Even if you don’t have a detailed backstory for your character, you can find a way to work something about this adventure into your character’s history. In fact, it’s probably easier to do it without a detailed history. But even if you’ve written down information for every month of your character’s life, you can still usually find a way to work a motivation for the adventure in there.

Perhaps you stumbled across this dungeon when you were growing up and always wondered what was down there that was so dangerous your parents wouldn’t let you explore it. Or your now-deceased mother had been an adventurer but had fled from this dungeon before exploring it thoroughly and you want to find out what could make a generally fearless woman flee in terror.

These are simply suggestions; you’ll do much better to find some reason yourself. The point is, that it doesn’t have to be a driving passion to provide motivation. Simple curiosity can be enough. Maybe the owner owes you some money and if you can’t get the money, you’re going to take payment in goods of equal value. Or perhaps you want to prove yourself a better adventurer than your mother who’s shadow you’ve been in since you started your career.

Character Relationships

That brings us to our next type of motivation: other people and the relationships your character has with them. It could be your favorite uncle asked you to check out the city sewers to find proof of the giant cybernetic rats and cockroaches he’s always said live down there. Maybe your familiar or a favorite pet wandered into the Mayor’s Mansion and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Or maybe, just maybe, your brother dared you to go into the spooky cave.

Again, the reasons don’t have to be deep of life-changing or part of The Big Picture. It can be petty concerns. The important thing is to have a reason that will motivate you to undertake the adventure. It could even be something simply as the party’s cleric said “Please” when he asked you to come along. Of course, if you want to have this adventure affect your character deeply, go for it.

Character Goals

This brings us to our last set of motivations: your character’s goals. Maybe you want to collect one of every type of potion in the world. Or maybe you need some  scrapings from the wall to to mix the exact shade of grey paint to finish your current project. See, even here you don’t need grandiose ideas — simple ones will do as long as it gets your character moving.

Of course,  you’ll want to clear your motivation with your GM. If he hears, for instance, that you think there may be potions for your collection, then he’ll most likely go out of his way to put one in there as a reward.  Maybe you just want to complete your rock collection and the last type of rock you need is said to exist in this lich-controlled forest. placed in there.

Brainstorming or “Mind-Mapping” can help you find a reason. You can get special software for that, but I find good ol’ pen and paper work great for the job. If you’re really stuck, you might try having the GM other person you trust over for a brainstorming party. If something doesn’t come to you immediately, keep trying until you come up with something you can play. You’ll find the game much more enjoyable.

Other Player Month Posts:

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Livin’ the Good Life: More Random Background Events for PCs

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A roulette wheel.
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Stumped for a background for your newest character? Why not try some randomly generated ones? Last week, we covered the steps for generating a random background event and the tables for bad things that could happen to your character. Today, we’re covering the good things. Check out last week’s post for full details.

Life Path Good Events

  1. Gain a local ally. You’ve gained an ally who has a fair amount of influence or clout in the city, town or village you’re in.
  2. Strike it rich. You come into a sizable sum of money.  Whether you won it gambling, received it as payment for services rendered or simply found it, the money is yours–free and clear. No strings. It’s not enough to retire on, but it can certainly keep in you in some comfort for 1d10 months.
  3. Big job. You perform a job that brings not only financial reward, but also some recognition. Whether your face is widely known in the streets or to an elite few is up to you. In either case, you gain a positive boost to your reputation.
  4. Find a weaponsmaster. You find a skilled warrior/fighter whose abilities exceed your own and who’s willing to teach you. You improve one of your combat-related skills or add a weapon proficiency. The GM will tell you how many improvement points you gain.
  5. Find a skills master. You find someone who can help you either improve a non-combat skill you already have or learn a new one at a beginning level. The GM will tell you how many improvement points you gain.
  6. Powerful favor. Someone in political power in your game world owes you a favor. Maybe you ran an important errand or maybe you just babysat his favorite nephew. In any case, you will be able to call in one favor from this person. The GM will decide whether or not the favor you’re asking for is equitable with the one you received.
  7. Friends in low places. You make some friends with a local group or gang. It could be the local thieves guild or it could be a teenage gang of misfits. In either case, you can call on them for one small favor a month. This does cut both ways and the gang will expect you to return small favors should they need them. These should be easy favors that won’t hurt your reputation or your bank account.
  8. Friend on the force. You make a friend on the local constabulary or town guard. You can call on your friend for information or minor favors once a month. Again, this is two-way street and you friend can also call on you for the same.
  9. Friends in high places. You make a friend to has some measure of clout. Perhaps you rescued a local prince or duke or perhaps the princess has simply taken a liking to you. You can call on your friend for a small favor once a month, but don’t push it.
  10. Gain an asset. You find or are given a very useful or minor magic item (GM’s choice). However you come by it, it’s yours with no repercussions or strings attached.

Of course, you can also use these for “down time” events in-between adventures.

Look for next week when we’ll begin a “Player Month”, with articles for the players in your group.

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Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune: Random Background Events for PCs

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cartoon about simple choicesSometimes a good background is hard to find. Usually I have no trouble coming up with a full-fledged past for my characters, complete with NPCs, subtle plot hooks, and flaws ready-made for the GM to exploit. Usually, I hand the GM a six-page character questionnaire loaded with personality quirks and background events.


A few months back, my fiance (I’ll call him “Jay”) started a 3.5 D&D game and I sat down to make a new character. I’m currently playing a bard/sorcerer in another D&D game and wanted to try something different. I thought playing a “blaster caster” would be a lot of fun, so I built my character as a half-even sorcerer/rogue. I pulled out my well-used list of character questions and sat down to fill it out.


I couldn’t think of anything really interesting to build this character around. All of my ideas seemed trite and over-used. Six months of play later, and I still didn’t have any background to this character.

Now, I know I can play the character without any background material. But I’ve always been a “method actor” type roleplayer and I find it really hard to get enthused about a character that’s just stats and abilities. That’s when I remembered Cyberpunk and its lifepath tables. If I couldn’t think up a background for my character, I could roll one up!

[Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/draconianrain/ / CC BY 2.0]

The LifePath

Cyberpunk’s life path is a very thorough. It involves rolling on several charts to determine what the character’s personality is like as well as what’s happened to him in his background. I’ve simplified the process greatly and changed the options to fit a fantasy game setting.

First, determine how many life events you want to roll for. As a limitation, I decided I could stop rolling for events when I wanted to, but that I couldn’t remove any results already obtained. I developed two tables: one for bad events and one for good. To determine which table to roll on for each event, I rolled a d6. If it came up even, then I rolled for a good event. If the result was odd, I rolled for a bad event. Of course, you can also pick some thing rather than rolling for it at random.

Bad Events

  1. Money loss. You’ve incurred a major debt. Bill collectors track you wherever you go and, depending on the size of your debt, your lender may have hired someone who will take drastic measures to recover the money.
  2. Hostage or Imprisonment. You’re being held captive–either in prison or perhaps as a hostage–Roll 1d10 to find out how many months you’re imprisoned.
  3. Illness or Poisoning. You’ve contracted a serious illness or were poisoned. Roll 1d10 to determine how many months you need to recuperate.
  4. Betrayal. You’ve been betrayed by someone you trusted. Roll 1d10 on the table below:
    1-3 Your betrayer is blackmailing you
    4-6 A dirty secret from your past has been exposed
    8-10 You lost a friend, lover, ally, or job because your betrayer spread rumors about you (your choice whether or not they’re true.
  5. Accident. You were in a terrible accident. Roll 1d10 on the table below:
    1-2 You were disfigured or lost a body part
    3-6 You were under medical care for 1d10 months
    7-8 You lost 1d10 months of memory due to trauma
    9-10 You have frequent and terrible nightmares where you relive the event over and over
  6. Death. Someone close to you was killed. Roll 1d10 on the table below.
    1-5 The death was accidental
    6-8 Your loved one was murdered by an unknown assailant
    9-10 Your loved one was murdered by someone you know
  7. False Accusation. You were framed for something you didn’t do. Roll 1d10 on the table below to find out what you were accused of:
    1-3 Theft
    4-5 Cowardice
    6-8 Murder
    9 Rape or “taking advantage” of someone (like seducing the farmer’s daughter and getting her pregnant)
    10 Treason
  8. On the Run. You’re being hunted by someone in a position of authority. Maybe you committed a crime, maybe you were framed for a crime, or maybe you don’t even know why you’re being hunted. Roll 1d10 on the table below to find out who’s hunting you.
    1-3 Local constabulary or town watch
    4-6 The king’s forces
    7-8 Private guards
    9-10 Bounty hunters
  9. Hunted. You’re on the run from some organization who wants you bad for some reason. They may not want to kill you, but they certainly don’t have your best interests at heart. Roll 1d10 on the table below to determine who’s hunting you.
    1 The local assassins’ guild
    2-3 The local thieves’ guild
    4-6 A merchant’s guild or craft guild
    7-8 A slaver’s guild or gang
    9-10 A powerful local clan
  10. Mental incapacitation. You’re sufforing from something that’s causing you to not be fully in control of yourself and your behavior. Roll 1d10 on the table below to determine what the problem is.
    1-3 Mind control or possession. You’ve been possessed or mentally controlled by a powerful entity.
    4-7 Mental breakdown. Some kind of trauma has left you with severe anxiety attacks and maybe even a phobia.
    8-10 Severe mental illness. Your choice.

That’s enough for one day. I’ll post the good events next week.

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Evil Does Not Equal Stupid: 8 Tips for Playing Evil Characters

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evil-vs-goodWhether as a PCs or an NPCs, evil characters tend to get the short end of the stick. All too often, they’re portrayed as short-sighted, reactionary, shallow, and … well, stupid. Frequently, all evil characters look and act the same, like they are clones of one another. Which is a real shame; after all, what’s more engaging to your players than defeating a worthy opponent? Here are eight tips for making your evil characters more in-depth and engaging.

(Image courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/helico/ / CC BY 2.0)

  1. Evil is not a personality trait. It’s too broad a term to be a personality trait; it’s like saying that “human” is a personality trait. If you ask someone to define evil, they’ll give you a laundry list of actions, beliefs, and attitudes. It’s these things that can be called “evil”. An evil person is someone who performs these actions, just as a good person is someone who performs actions we identify as “good”.
  2. Evil is culturally determined. While there are some broad generalities—most (if not all) cultures in our world view intentional murder as evil, for example—what actions and beliefs are classified as “evil” or “good” vary from culture to culture. A classic example is slavery: most modern cultures would classify slavery as evil, but most ancient cultures viewed slavery as a part of everyday life.
  3. Evil characters don’t necessarily view themselves as evil. Usually, evil characters believe their actions were necessary and justified. A Lawful Evil ruler would view himself as a law-giver, someone who brings order out of chaos. A Neutral Evil character could see himself as a survivor, someone who’s forced to take the actions he does because of how the world treats him. A Chaotic Evil character might seem himself as a revolutionary, breaking down or circumventing unfair rules.
  4. Evil characters have relationships with other people. Every character has relationships. Even if they’re dedicated loners, they still know people and at least some people know them. Evil characters have (or had) families,  playmates, fellow church members, fellow students, bosses, underlings … all the relationships other characters have.
  5. Evil characters have many emotions. Too many evil characters (in film, novels, and TV, as well as RPGs) seem to be little more than cardboard cutouts. Their only emotions seem to be selfishness, hatred and revenge. The best evil characters are those that have the full variety of emotions—love, hate, revenge, happiness, sorrow—the same emotions good and neutral characters have. They can even fall in love. The main difference between evil characters and other characters is that they express those feelings in very selfish ways.
  6. Evil characters have back-stories. Evil characters don’t (usually) spring full-grown out of thin air. They have histories: they were born/created somewhere, grew up somewhere, learned their skills somewhere. Generally, there are people somewhere who knew them before the present moment. And those histories and past experiences helped to shape them into the people they are now.
  7. Evil characters have values and goals. Evil characters do the things they do for a reason. Only in parodies or broad comedies can they take actions for no other reason than “to be evil.” An evil character can seek to bring order, remove a threat, increase their wealth. Generally, they won’t view their goals as evil: instead they’ll see them as justified or necessary. These values and goals (rather than evilness itself)  should motivate your evil characters. A big difference between evil and good characters is that an evil person will take whatever action she deems necessary, regardless of its impact on other people.
  8. Evil characters can do good works. They can act law-abiding (usually out of fear, rather then a desire to do what’s right), generous, gracious, concerned, affectionate, if that’s what needs to be done to accomplish their goals.

Playing evil characters

Generally, you’ll play an evil character just as you would play a good one. The main difference is that the evil character will pursue his own agenda, no matter the cost to other people. But that doesn’t mean she’ll do the most rash and immediate thing, nor does it mean that when faced with a moral question, she’ll always take the opposite action of a good character.

Make sure your evil character has a reason for taking the actions beyond “it’s the evil thing to do.” That one thing alone will make your evil character stand out in a good way 😉 .

Playing evil characters can be a lot of fun. Just remember that they take as much (or more) work than a good character of similar importance to the game. Look at your character as a whole person, figure out his goals and what he’s willing to do achieve them. You’ll get more enjoyment out of your game and so will your players.

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What Your Players Don’t Need to Know

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I’m taking a break from Meadowbrook for a few days; I don’t want this blog to become “all Meadowbrook all the time”. I’m considering starting another blog devoted to world-building that would chronicle my development of Meadowbrook and it’s surrounding world; if this is something that would interest you, please leave me a comment. Now, onto your regularly scheduled post. 😉

For years, I’ve used information as a commodity in my games. I generally run “limited information” campaigns, where I try not to give the players any more knowledge about the situation and/or world than their characters would know. This isn’t about “cheating”; I have excellent group of players who are well-skilled at separating character knowledge from player knowledge and playing accordingly. What I’ve found, though, is that when player knowledge matches character knowledge, the players can relax more. They don’t feel like they have to police themselves to stop and think Hey, would my character actually know this? before they take action.

An useful outcome of this is that information becomes its own reward. Especially when it comes to a PCs individual goals. For example: if the party does a favor for a prince, as a reward he may be able to tell them the location of the tower belonging to the evil wizard that killed their team member.  You don’t always have to give out money, treasure, spells, or what-not to your PCs. Information can be just as valuable and won’t ratchet up your PCs experience level or ability to obliterate your bad guys; this can help you keep the PCs from rising in power earlier than you’re ready for them to.

You can make choices about how secretive and hard to gain information is in your game. Do all party members know everything any other member knows? How closely do they guard their own backgrounds from the rest of their party? This can vary between one GM to the next. I’ve known many GMs who don’t like the PCs to keep secrets from one another; they feel it causes divisiveness among character who are supposed to work as a team. I err on the restrictive side: more often than not, I tightly control information in my games. I usually set up their character’s background with her player separately, then let the player decide how much information to give the others.

During the game itself, I generally give information out based on PC had access. If one or two of the PCs wander ahead and overhear a conversation between a vampire and her childe, for example, I usually take them aside or write a note (if it’s short) to describe what they hear. I then leave it up to the players to reveal the information as the characters see fit. If, on the other hand, I know that the scouting PC is going to go and immediately relate what he overheard, then I’ll go ahead and describe the conversation to the whole group, so neither the player nor the GM has to repeat themselves, particularly if the conversation is long or complicated. So it’s purely situational — think “Will the other PCs also hear this or will they know about it in the ten to fifteen minutes?” If so, it’s a lot easier to tell the whole group what transpires.

Sometimes even players will get into the limited information act. I once ran an Amber game where two of the PCs decided to marry and all of the players kept it secret for a couple of weeks, real time. They didn’t want me to find out about it beforehand so I wouldn’t have time to plan something to go wrong with the wedding. Other GMs might hate being in the dark about any aspect of their game, but I loved it.

Some games lead themselves to secrecy better than others. Amber and Vampire have secrecy as a core concept and I rigidly control the flow of information in those games. I tend to be more free with information in a D&D game, for example, but I still allow the players to determine how much of their character’s knowledge they share. It all depends on your style and preference.


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Character Questionnaires

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I’ve mentioned how useful character questionnaires are to me as a GM. I can draw reams of campaign ideas just from the questionnaires I receive. My questions run the gambit from “What does your character look like?” to “What gives your character’s life meaning?” I ask players to answer the questions in character, except for those specifically stated “as a player”. It’s a long list, but I require players to answer only what I call “The Basic Six” questions. These questions are:

  • What do you look like?
  • Everyone has a few mannerisms unique to them. Describe three of yours.
  • If you could accomplish one thing before you die, what would it be?
  • Name five things about you that would drive a college roommate nuts.
  • What do you, as a player, like best about your character?
  • What do you, as a player, like least about your characer?

I encourage players to answer as many questions as possible and, for the most part, my players seem to enjoy doing it. I do give player contributions (see my post Player Contributions for more info on that) for finished questionnaires. If a player’s answers are really detailed, I’ll often give extra contribution points.

Also, I allow player to go back and change their answers, as long as they don’t change anything already known to be true in the game. It sometimes takes several game sessions for a player to find their character’s “voice” and I don’t want a player stuck with an answer that no longer seems true for their character.

My questionnaires have changed over the years; I’ve added some questions, dropped or reworded others. I have one “master list” of questions that serves as the base questionnaire, but I usually rephrase the questions to fit the game system I’m currently running.

Character Backgrounds

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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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