Player Advice: How to Design Your PC’s Background

A PC is so much more than a set of stats and some equipment. A decent background is a fundamental part of any well developed character…

By William  McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

The good news is that a PC’s background does not have to be some rambling epic. Some players like to write extensive background notes for their PCs while others devote only a couple of hundred words to the task. It doesn’t matter how long your PC’s background is as long as it gives you (and the GM) a good feel for the character.

What’s the Point?

A PC’s background has two main functions:

  • It gives the player a base from which to build his PC’s personality.
  • It provides the GM with insights into the PC’s background and motivations.

Basic Things to Include

I recommend answering the following basic questions in a PC’s background:

  • Where was the PC born?
  • What is his family like? Who are his parents? Does he have siblings? What are his relationships like with his family?
  • What major events happened to him before he became an adventurer?
  • What prompted him to start adventuring?
  • Why is he adventuring? What is he trying to achieve?

Other Cool Things to Include

As well as answering the above questions, adding a couple of extra things into your PC’s background is a great idea:

  • Adventure Hooks: Is your PC obsessed with finding a certain artifact or magic item? Is he wanted for a crime? All these hooks provide the seed for great encounters and mini-adventures your GM can craft especially for your PC. While you shouldn’t expect them in every session or adventure it’s cool having events specifically designed for your PC. They provide tailored opportunities for the PC to grow and develop.
  • Enemies or Allies: Does your PC have any notable enemies or allies? These don’t have to be notable in the sense of character levels or role in the campaign setting. They can be personal foes. Perhaps the local cleric took a dislike to your PC and won’t help him in the future or the PC saved a local wizard from goblins. Both relationships create an interesting situation if the PC should bump into that NPC again.
  • A Mystery: Adding in a personal mystery (what happened to your brother, who is your father etc.) to which you don’t know the answer can be tremendous fun. It enables the GM to know things about your PC that you don’t. Discovering the answer can be incredibly satisfying!

Help Your Fellow Gamers

Do you include other things in your PC’s background? Do you write yours for other reasons? Let us know in the comments below and help your fellow gamers write better PC backgrounds!

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.

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8 thoughts on “Player Advice: How to Design Your PC’s Background

  1. I tend to go for the “long and rambly”: the more I write, the better a handle I have on when a situation crops up my character is more likely to act in a certain way, and I can be prepared for which vector the GM nemesis etc. comes from.

    It just helps me not stare at my character sheet for ten minutes making everyone else mad I can’t figure out what to do next on the fly (that still happens, but it happens less…)

  2. As you might expect, when I care to create a background for my PC, I fill in one of my entity templates (see http://www.kjd-imc.org/blog/entity-template-updated-and-explained/ for more detail and explanation of fields below):

    Name (including titles and aliases)

    Role
    * Theme
    * Goals
    * Threats
    * Rewards

    Relationships
    * Allies/positive
    * Enemies/negative
    * Conflicted/neutral

    Identification
    * Description
    * Signature (signs he was here or involved)
    * Location (where he can be found)
    * Scope (not really relevant for a PC)

    Status
    * Entanglements
    * Hooks
    * Events

    Mechanics
    (see character sheet, might include build plan notes)

    Story
    (‘backstory’)

  3. Two other points I would like to add:

    I think backgrounds give most player’s a stronger “buy in” to the character and the game. By committing to the extra creative work of a background, the player is more strongly invested in the character and the story, which, in my experience, has let to more engaging games in which the players have a stronger drive to succeed and are not so quick to write off a character because another one is a few dice rolls away.

    We have also done a piece of the background called a “First Look” which encourages the players to write a physical description of their character or to find an equitable image. This adds further “buy in” but also makes the character more engaging to others at the table as well as providing the DM an important element of role play in the game – namely what the character looks like to the NPCs around him, which can have a direct influence on how those NPCs respond. The first look can be brief or detailed, as the player likes. I just want them thinking about what the character looks like and how he appears to others.

  4. To tell the truth my background and stuff for my characters is nuts. Like I use my own custom made RPG, but I have ah loaded template for every starting character that is use…. I have like right now 7 unplayed characters I have laying around that I will use when I find players. I use to have ah friend who played but he joined the army and moved away and there house got bought by someone else…. Here is my template. I will explain anything that is not understandable by just looking at it….

    Name: .
    Sex: .
    Race: .
    Age: ? years old.
    Height: ? feet and ? inches tall.
    Weight: ? pounds.
    Hair Color: .
    Eye Color: .
    Skin Tone: .
    Homeland: .
    Current Home: .
    Deity: .
    Morals: .
    Career: .
    Likes: .
    Dislikes: .
    Weapon: .
    Armor: .
    Personality: .
    Background: .
    Level: 1.
    Damage: 5.
    Armor: 5.
    Accuracy: 5.
    Dodge: 5.
    Pace: 5.
    Speed: 6.
    Health Pool: 17.
    Spirit Magic: .

    The stats all but Health Pool can be moved around on a 1 point for 1 point to another base up to 10 and as low as 1. Health Pool is 12 + Damage if you can’t tell. You only gain +2 to Health Pool each level and you gain 1 point to add to any score but Health Pool each level. Spirit Magic is my magic. It is more free wheel then most as it is mostly flight, boosts, ranged damage attacks, and other weird stuff of magical nature that you cast at will. My game is very high powered fantasy by nature… But there is no revive or heal magic in the world. There is a my blood oranges fruits that heal 5 Health Pool points but they are crazy expensive as it takes two years just to grow one and they require ah lot of maintenance and care. I don’t like healing magic or bringing people back from the dead unless as undead…. So you can die real fast if you don’t pick your battles good and give respect to your higher ups.