In my attempt to put a series of posts together, I'm here today to continue on that road as I discuss: What Makes a Character. This time I'll look at Backgrounds' those wonderful life stories that may never see the light of day.
During my many years of roleplaying I don't believe I have ever been in a game that played off of any background story I created for my character. Granted Dresden Files sort of delves into that, but in those games I played the actual background had no effect on the game. However, that's not to say that a good background story isn't important. In large part it is, it's what makes your character unique.
The great debate about background is just that: is it important? As I said above in most cases background didn't mean anything and so it was omitted from character creation. It was always something we glossed over, as the majority of us were more interested in the here and now; our character's past was irrelevant. On the rare occasion that a background was required it was just a short blurb that was used as a plot hook to get the character engaged in the story. After that it was never of any further use.
But, background IS important. Even if it never gets used, it helps define your character. On those rare occasions in which it is explored it will help develop your character even further. For instance, in an play-by-post game that I am in I have slowly been divulging my character's background story. Though I had not written one out ahead of time, I knew one was needed immediately after writing my first post.
In many of the D&D games I have been involved in, my character's background was maybe a couple sentences to help bring the character concept together. It was always for my personal use and was never explored in character, until this game. When the GM had set the initial scene my immediate thoughts were to bash the 'holy day.' It wasn't something I usually would do, but for some reason my character was becoming an atheist. But I couldn't just leave it at that so I had to figure out a backstory to help explain his attitude. And since this was a PbP game, I knew I'd have an opportunity to tell my story for once.
As it came out, my character was once a devout follower of Bahamut, but when his eldest brother died he cursed the god and set out on his own forgetting his previous life in hopes of starting anew, or dying. When he returned home his family was missing and it had been said that they left town. Which is what had brought my character to the town that the game is currently set in. The background story has since been developed further, and I hope to have the opportunity to tell it in its entirety.
I hadn't intended for his background to be so rich, but given the chance to express it has made me believe that backgrounds, no matter how short (referring to both the shortness of the game, and the length of the backstory) is worth having. Had I not given my character's reaction to the church service any further thought I probably would have just let things slide and moved on with the game. But now that I've laid out some points of interest, I want to make sure to eventually explore those plot points. Even if it means having a couple of lengthy posts of flashbacks.
Even for short games it is important to know where your character came from. This is especially helpful in one-shots, so you don't have to spend precious game time determining group cohesion. Here is where Dresden Files comes in and does an excellent job of bringing a group together. The author of each pre-gen game has a little questionnaire that is conducted at the beginning of each game, which basically asks how each person is tied to the NPCs and PCs. Though its not a descriptive background, it's enough to give players a sense of motivation.
I did something similar for the con game I ran last year at AnimeUSA. But rather than ask questions, I wrote a short paragraph on each of the preg-gen characters which tied everyone together. In that case, everyone was linked to the Imperial Officer PC -- which made his character somewhat vital to making the adventure go forward. Yet, he was their motivation.
And that's what it all really boils down to, motivation. You could have a three page backstory about where your character has been. Where they're going. What they've been through. Who or what they're looking for. and how they're going to do it all. But it don't mean squat without some motivation. What drives the character to do what they're doing. Is it gold? Is it power? Sex? Drugs? Rock-n-roll? Whatever it is, it defines your character.
Background makes a character because it helps drive the character through the campaign/adventure. You don't have to be a Stephen King or Tolkien to figure out what's going to motivate your character to go out and risk their life for fame and glory. Writing a lengthy novel of a backstory isn't required here, all you need is: Motivation. Put that motivation into a sentence and you've got a background story.
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Next time on Dice Harder: What Makes a Character Pt 3 - Skills and Ability Scores
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