Tag Archives: PCs

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.

Next post: character questionnaires

Player Contributions

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Said while making snacks for the group …
Dave [player]: Hey, can I have experience points for baking cookies?
GM: Sure, Dave can have 200 experience points; Billee [his character] can’t.

[12 Aug 2009 Note: There’s an updated version of this post at Player contributions, Take Two.]

I first ran across the idea of player/character contributions when I started running the Amber Diceless RPG. The idea is simple: you get more points to build your character if you agree to do something helpful for the GM every game session. The exact details are left up to the GM and player to work out. I tried it as written in the rules, but soon met a major snag — getting players to follow through. Usually, I’d get enthusiastic contributions for 3-4 game sessions, then nothing. I tried giving giving out “luck” penalties — i.e. the player’s character would have strokes of bad luck for that game session — to those who didn’t live up to their agreement, but that seemed too punitive. Especially since most “non-contributors” just found they simply didn’t have time to keep up with it. Real Lifeā„¢ would intrude.

Finally, I came upon an idea that worked. I honestly don’t remember if someone else gave me the idea or if I thought of it on my own. Instead of giving extra character creation points at the outset, I would hand out a small amount of experience points each game session I received a contribution. That way, no one would have to feel guilty if their child got the flu the previous week or if term papers were due, etc. Also, if a player who normally didn’t turn in anything got a sudden burst of inspiration, she could make a single contribution, without having to take on a long-term commitment she wouldn’t be able to keep up.

What kinds of things make good character contributions? Most of my games are very character-driven. Character backgrounds really do matter and will have an effect on the game as a whole. So the more I know about someone’s character, the better I can include them in the game. I generally hand out an optional character questionnaire to each player at the beginning of a new campaign. Filling that out and returning it to me is a favorite contribution for my players. Character portraits also count and, yes, I do accept references to book covers or movies as character portraits, as well as written descriptions; I don’t think this contribution should be limited to just those who can draw. As far as character journals go, each player can specify if his journal exists in-game (where another character may be able to find and read it) or out of it (just between the player and the GM).

Character journals and game session notes are definitely my favorite contributions to receive. I run “off the cuff”; frequently, my game notes for a particular session are a list of NPC names and possible locations. I make up most of the details during the game session and I find that if I stop to take notes, I lose the flow of the game. So having someone else in the group writing this stuff down for me is a huge help. That way, I don’t run into a problem of Bill But-You-Said-Last-Week-His-Name-Is-Fred, the baker.

I’ve also given out experience points for writing in-game newspaper articles, making topographical maps of an area or architectural drawings of important buildings, mapping genealogies of a country’s royal family, creating game “props” (such as a treasure map), … even writing an in-game academic dissertation complete with fictional bibliography and proper footnotes, penned by one of the PCs.

Basically, I’ll give out small amounts of experience for anything that is pertinent to the game and helps decrease my workload. How small? In Amber, World of Darkness, etc. games, I hand out one experience point per game session. On rare occasion, I might give out two for something that the player worked really hard at (see the academic dissertation above). For a AD&D game, I usually award 100 – 200 experience points, depending on how useful and detailed the contribution is. But in all cases, I have one overarching rule — a character can only get experience for one contribution each game session.

Of course, I’m the final arbitrator about what constitutes an helpful contribution and how much experience a PC gets.

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