Player Advice: 3 Reasons to Have a Character Background

I was recently chatting with some chums about characters and their backgrounds. In my Shattered Star campaign about half the players have created background for their characters while half have not.

Ryane by Matt Morrow

Ryane by Matt Morrow

 

I’m a huge fan of character backgrounds. If I’m playing a character—even for a one-shot—I almost always knock up a background. I see the process of discovering a character’s background as an integral part of character generation.

To my mind, there are three basic benefits of writing a character background. While they ring true for a one-shot game, all are particularly relevant for campaign play.

You are More Invested in the Character

This seems a total no-brainer to me. As a player, I love to know more about the character I’m playing. To me, a character without a background is totally disposable—he’s not a “real” person. (I know, the irony). He’s just a collection of stats and abilities.

While I might not ram every small detail of the character’s background down my fellow players’ throats it helps me portray the character.

A background helps me as a player:

  • Understand the character’s origins.
  • Understand why he is adventuring.
  • Understand and develop the character’s personality, hopes, dreams, fears and so on.
  • Understand the character’s long-term goals.

Your GM is More Invested in the Character

I think this is something a lot of players forget. A background gives your GM a deeper understanding and appreciation of your character. A background can explain those strange and quirky things the character does that otherwise people might find annoying.

A background enables your GM to craft interesting, flavoursome side-quests and rewards that are totally unique to your character. Some GMs may even run entire adventures based on your character’s background or goals. If you don’t have a background it’s hard to do that.

It also enables your GM to give you bonus XP for roleplaying. Free XP—sign me up!

Your Fellow Players are More Invested in the Character

I think a lot of players think of a background as something that only benefits them.

However, a background helps you bring your character to life at the table, which in turns invests your fellow players in the character. This can be critical in your character’s survival. If you character is just one in a long line of one-dimensional stat blocks few—if any—of your fellow players are going to be overly fussed if it dies. They are also less likely to expend considerable resources or put themselves in serious danger to rescue your character.

As a player, I’m going to make a considerable effort (and take considerable risks) to aid a character in which I’m invested. I’m going to make considerably less effort and take considerably fewer risk to save one which seems to me little more than a stat block.

You Are Not To Busy To Write A Background

When you made your character, how long do you spend looking at books, reading spell descriptions, choosing skills and so on? Do you obsess for hours, days or weeks about the smallest mechanical detail? How many books do you read?

Don’t get me wrong, the crunchy bits of your character are jolly important. However, the fluffy bits are equally important (and here’s how to design them along with some secret character motivations to get you going). Spending even half the time on fluff as you do crunch is time well spent. It doesn’t have to be some kind of magnum opus after all.

What Do You Think?

Is writing a character background worth it? Is it a waste of time? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply to Dave Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

24 thoughts on “Player Advice: 3 Reasons to Have a Character Background

  1. I don’t come up with character backstories in advance. Usually, I build on the character in play and simply improvise when details of background come up. Even then, my primary group feels they can’t go on without me, cancelling sessions I can’t make when I ask them to go on without me. I try to have characters who engage the party and the world, regardless of backstory, and be more about the here and now than the past.

  2. I think that this depends on the player. I have a casual player that developed a really good background but is not invested in the game or her character at all. However, my current group is all new players. I wonder if the article is more applicable to experienced gamers. Almost all experienced gamers I know do develop backgrounds.

  3. i can’t stop developing my character backgrounds.

    please help. because after reading this i want to turn my 3-page background into a 10-page background. and i’m pretty sure my GM might club me to death with his 400+ page hardback copy of Numenera or something. i don’t think my old Planescape DM-screen is going to provide enough shielding.

    😉

  4. Character backgrounds are just an additional part of character building for me. I may not write it out to hand to my DM, but I always try to figure out a little bit about my character before sitting down at the table. If I don’t know what motivates them, scares them, or makes them angry then how am I supposed to play this character in a way that they aren’t just one dimensional? I like knowing where my character comes from, why they’re on a quest, and how they relate to other people.

    As a DM, I really appreciate when my players give me these kinds of details, too. I don’t run a game strictly for my ownentertainment, I want my players to get involved! I want them excited about each session, and they just aren’t going to be if all their character does is walk up and whack a monster. I like to challenge them, and reward them, as individuals.

  5. Totally worth it. I’m saying that both as a player and a GM.

    Players with even minor back-stories have motivations based on those events. I understand that sometimes you get the players who vomit forth their backs stories at every opportunity. I get that sometimes characters do annoying and impractical things based on their backstory. It’s still worth it. I will take them every time over the blank slate characters. Characters with no backstory are just the player doing what they player would do. Chances are, everyone knows them pretty well and knows what to expect, but characters with back stories by definition AREN’T them, so they make choices that the player might not. That’s always more interesting for everyone.

    As a GM it’s my responsibility to use their backstory to make the game more interesting and personal WITHOUT exploiting everyone they care about as hostages. That move should be done very, very rarely. I know players who have been so abused by this tactic that they wont make character backgrounds because they know the people they are connected to will become victims of the GM.

    It takes finesse on both sides, but having more developed characters always makes the game more fun for me, regardless of which side of the GM screen I’m on.

  6. “A background enables your GM to craft interesting, flavoursome side-quests and rewards that are totally unique to your character.”

    Bwahahaha!

    I love backgrounds because they allow me to just that. And also bring the character’s past back to haunt them. Nothing gets a player’s attention like them realizing that you actually did read their background and took notes because the shadowy, heretofore unknown villain is actually their long lost father/mother/sibling. And they know the character’s secrets.

    Encounters stop being just encounters and XP.

  7. I am a big fan of rich character backgrounds. I like to have a one-on-one session with each player to work up a background. We look at the character skills choices, race, economic status and other factors and work up a background that helps them see there place in the world and introduce some NPCs of note. I often have a “defining moment” mini adventure with each character before the campaign begins. Each character is a few years younger than they are at the start of the main campaign and they are faced with a tough life choice/situation or offered one of severals paths to take that helps define the characters personality. Everyone seems to find these sessions helpful and fun.

  8. Why is my character adventuring? Because I don’t wanna role-play an accountant going to a 9 to 5 job 5 days a week. As a player, I usually figure all this stuff out in the first two or three sessions… you know, those seminal events that change a commoner into an adventurer: first time away from home, first combat, etc.

    As a DM, I don’t want you to waste time on any of that. If you have such urges, write a novel and I’ll be glad to read it. In the meantime, I want you to sit at my table, join the game and explore my world! You’ll figure out motivations for further action as you experience the world!

    I don’t buy into the Method-Acting a Superhero style of play in my fantasy campaigns or my science fiction campaigns… If you wanna be great, you can’t write me a story explaining why you are, you have to take action during play.

    • Thanks for the counter-view, Dave. I totally agree with your points about exploring the world and having action during game play! I’m huge fans of both. I just like the characters to have context and backstory that grows from and compliments the world/campaign.

  9. I’ve started to write backgrounds for my characters as entertainment. No matter if they die at 1st level, it’s excercise for the next one to be even greater. As backgrounds passed i’ve changed from raw descriptions, like height and eye color, and went to feelings and motivations. I’ve noticed that keeping the story short helps a lot with the reading, skip anything not relevant for your story, otherwise the TMTR (too much to read) will kick in, and your 10 pages bg will fall into oblivion. Avoid all boring clichés, like “I’m and orphaned child…”, which nobody really cares or “I’m the chosen one” it just doesn’t fit in the campaign your GM has prepared and all that chosen one crap will be lost in time, like tears in the rain 😛
    My latest backgrounds are under 30 lines in a facebook post, that’s around 400 words. I’m certain that I have very poor writing skills, so I borrow a lot from literature and then come up with a new character, that loosely resembles some real character. That’s my experience with background writing. Enjoy writing your own BG. For me, it now makes up for half of the fun of roleplaying, where I can make this bg come to live.

  10. With you 100% on this one. I ask all my players to write basck stories. Those that provide physical detail (character pic, sketch, detailed description, etc.) usually get extra experience points. I converse with the players during creation of these fluffy stories; getting a feel for their feelings toward their families, friends, or even enemies. I’ll make recommendations to players that get stuck, or when they want to be orphans. No orphans! Make one parent dead… or horribly sick/diseased/insane instead! 🙂

    When players have no idea about what even motivates their character, mush less any sort of familial relations, names, dates or places I employ specialized tables that generate background elements ranging from number of siblings to hobbies the character enjoys. Elements such as; likes/dislikes, place of birth, family heirlooms/prized possessions, family status and even vague, mystic prophecies about the character’s death can all be organized in tables for random generation. In the instances players chose this method of character fluff generation, it turned into a creative discussion and the players all we happy and invested more in their personas.

  11. There’s certainly a sweet-spot, and it’s dangerous not to mention it.
    I know many players who don’t construct a background, and it sucks because they keep playing the same old murder hobo. Yet I know others who walk into a game, get handed a generic NPC who’s been tagging along to hold our bags, and simply through their acts, make it the most beloved character in the series.

    Some players spend time developing their stories, and it provides a rich and exciting narrative, just like you say; others write their latest novel on why they are the major of Badassville, expecting every player to spend half an hour noting the times they punched some dude through a wall for spilling their drink. Interestingly, the players who do this create the blandest murder-hobos I’ve ever encountered, all the while insisting how cool it is that they’ve min-maxed some rule and their character is practically invincible.

    Backstories are not bragging contests, and they do not make your character interesting on their own. They are a set of guidelines that makes it easier to find substance for your roleplaying when you lack spontaneity.

  12. I don’t know whether or not I mentioned it to you but I swear by character backgrounds….the way I put it to my players who are either just starting or coming in with a character is that you just don’t go “POOF, well here I am let’s get started, I’m 18/19 for a human, 60something for a drawf, or 100something for an elf, come on let’s get going?” We—lll oookkkk so you are, well what have you been doing all those years??mmm????you an orphan?, lived with you parents?? Relatives??…’well, I, I I, don’t know’..says player…..’So how am I supposed to fit you into my scenario?’..of course I’m the DM, I can do anything but that’s beside the point…….it’s like you said, if you have a background story, the PC and the DM are more invested in the scenario along with the characters….’So you’re a 1st level Ranger and your parents were rangers for the kingdom of Forsooth???’ That means you should know the area around here pretty good, of course on the flip side you could be a target by relation..since your parents made an enemy of Weevil Dohicky and his organization..they could be out looking for you……it all helps in the enrichment, development and atmosphere of the characters and the scenario for the DM…….I may go a little overboard but I even develop mini backgrounds for my NPC’s….at least enough to maybe interest my PCs into why they, the NPCs, are doing what ever it is they are doing…….”I might be digressing here but have you noticed how most DM’s just have, The Inn, as their place for the PCs to go to in between sessions or game days?…i make up backgrounds for the inns, taverns, whathave you as well, along with the proprietors as well, it just into having more ‘atmosphere’ for that particular world setting…who knows, maybe the PCs can get hired by Rowra Cleavehammer, the owner of a drawven sword store because he needs a certain element for his swords or whatever….My final thought for the day….it all boils down to, ‘Are you playing a Roll playing game?’ ‘Or are you playing a Role playing game?’………

  13. I almost always start with fluff and add crunch. It helps me get into the character’s head. They don’t always play out the way I think they will when I’m planning, but it’s a mark of a good character to me when they take on a life of their own and I can’t do that without a solid idea of where they come from…

  14. A good back ground separates ROLE playing from ROLL playing. I also think it gets the creativity going. After all, we are talking character.

  15. My first ever character (back in the D&D 3.0 days) had a (hand-written!!!) 20 page backstory. Yeap, that long. So you see I’m a sucker for character backstories. I even write backstories for characters that I will probably never get to play, although most of them end up as NPCs in the games I DM.

    So yeah, backstory is essential. Luckily, we play now 5e D&D, and there are lots and lots mechanics (and tables!!!) for one making a good backstory, even for the players that do not easily get to do it.

    But even for the guys that do not get to do it (that I totally respect, although resent), I encourage them to get to do it when they reach 3rd level, as then they have a more firm grasp on what kind of character they are playing or at least what kind of character they want to play. And I insist on that because PC backstories give me as a DM lots of hooks and ideas to make the campaign more linked to the players and having some “personal” elements as also they give stuff to work on when I have writer’s block.

  16. I require all my PCs to have background histories due to the fact that you just don’t go “POOF, HERE I AM”.” Depending on your race, you’ve had 17-20 yrs of growing up, learning tales of lore, learning things from your family and extended families along with what ever village you are living in as well, if you’re human, up to 100, I believe, if you’re a drawf….you get the idea. While it’s not really sanguine to the history of any one particular PC, I usually give a small item of some importance to that particular PC that they might have inherited or were given to by a teacher, or guide that might have the family crest on it. I had given a PC once, a cross, that was imbued with detect evil, like a paladin, Light , as a 1st lvl priest. He had inherited it from his grandfather who had been a priest of Selune.
    Well his grandfather had a run in with some Shar’s followers and he desecrated on of their temples..so now every time they see that cross, they are out for blood. It makes for a good “distraction” sometimes:)….

  17. At my table I encourage but do not require backstories. For myself — and I am a writer of some decades and have facility with characters of the literary kind — a backstory is hit and miss. I, personally, really hate investing in a backstory and then discover that I wasted the time because the play at the table is a three session crawl and the characters turn out to be “disposable”. Why did I bother? But the DM insisted.

    I’m cunning and experienced enough that I generally do little more — unless I want to for my own satisfaction — than the personality traits suggested by background. If there is a campaign map I’ll pick an origin point. From way back, that’s much more backstory than any character less than 5th level needs. Too many promising and interesting backstories over the years cut tragically short.

    If the DM is not going to provide similar levels of information about the setting, or make use of backstory material in the game, then insisting on backstory is rude. So unless it’s my sandbox I will not insist. But in my sandbox I do provide a meaningful map, setting history and descriptions, and suggestions for where characters are from and consequences that are meaningful for the choices the players make.

    Fair is fair. If I want them to engage with a backstory, then I need to provide something to engage with. Otherwise, don’t create a burden for people trying to have some fun.

    Not everyone is creative like that too. In my sandbox I encourage backstories but also say that three lines are plenty until the character is up levels and offer to help with the writing. And I have a “get to know you” where you answer simple questions from the characters’ perspective. Like several meet and greet social games.

  18. Like you, I ALWAYS give my characters backstories, even if it’s only a one-shot, no matter what kind of campaign it is. I love backstories, for exactly the reasons you stated. Plus, good backstories can provide some wonderful plot hooks. 😀

    Always make a backstory, even if it’s only a brief one!

  19. I’ve always enjoyed writing a background for my characters, something that explains why they may have a different set of options for the character. For example I am playing a while mage arcanist in Eberron right now and we knew the party would not have a rogue. Meet Whitefoot, a lad who was orphaned early and grew up having to beg/steal his meals. At 10 he was was begging in a better part of town when a Member of House Jorasco (Healers) spotted the lack of pigment on his left foot and offered a weeks food and housing to study this abnormality. He made himself useful and stuck around helping out in the clinic until around puberty, when strange lights and sounds started appearing near him. The healers could not have these interruptions, but the did introduce him to a wizard who needed an assistant.
    Working with the DM I was given a trait that gave me disable device and slight of hand as class skills, and the background with Jorasco provides some hint of why I can convert Arcane Spells into healing spells. We overcame a party deficiency and now have 2 sets of people who can be worked into plot hooks/sub adventures.