Background Check

"Background Check" (c) 2010 Chris SimsI’ve talked about investing some emotion in your character and, thereby, the game. As a follow-up, I suggested you seize the game by the horns. The “Play Boldly” article seemed more concrete, more useful, than the first. I thought about it, and I have more to say about giving your character traits and a history that make up a backstory.

Before I start–like I mentioned in “Become Emotional”–you don’t need to invest a huge effort into this task. (See the Short But Stout section.) This is especially true if you’re playing a casual game and/or one that focuses on defeating the bad guys and taking their stuff. Sometimes you’re just at the table for the slaying and the looting, and feeling badass. That’s fine. But if you want a background, or your DM wants you to craft one, just think about a few aspects of your character that pique your interest.

Ask Yourself

I have a lot of warmth in my heart for backgrounds in the D&D game. They’re helpful for character creation, and they offer you a little boon just for bothering to think about where your character comes from. The best ones not only place your character in a game-world context, but they also offer you some questions about your character’s life choices.

You can turn any game element–ability score, race, class, build, power, skill, feat, weapon, item–you choose into an element of character background. You just have to make up the questions. What does this feat say about my character’s training or upbringing? How did my warlock end up in an infernal pact? What does low Charisma say about my character? Why is the desert background my primary choice, and why did I choose +2 to Endurance over +2 to Nature?

Reverse Psychology

When you’re thinking about your character in this way, you’re bound to come up with traits that interest you but have no mechanical connection to your character. You can change that, too, with a little reversal. Turn your personality or story element into an actual D&D background.

Suppose you’ve decided that your character is refined and courteous. You can settle on what made him or her that way by making up a few questions and answers. Then create a background based on this polite manner. If you created it for repeat use, it might look like this:

Others see your sophistication, graciousness, and empathy your defining personality traits. What made you this way? Did you take after someone who raised or trained you? Were you schooled in courtesy? Did someone require (at least the appearance of) such manners from you? Do your manners mask any passions or darker parts of your nature?

Associated Skills: Diplomacy, Insight

Crook or Hook

When you start asking yourself questions about this imaginary person you’re creating, consider crafting the answers so you create a few roleplaying hooks and a few character hooks. A roleplaying hook informs you how your character interacts with the world. On the other hand, a character hook tells the DM how the world might interact with your character. Both are valuable, but a few character hooks can go a long way toward helping the DM personalize the game.

Imagine our example well-mannered character grew up in an orphanage and took after the kindly monks who ran the place. This one point offers several possible details about the character. He or she is not only polite (roleplaying hook), but is also connected to an orphanage and its orphans (character hooks), as well as, perhaps, a religion noted for kind monks (roleplaying and character hook). A soft spot for orphans and priests (character and roleplaying hooks) might be part of the character’s personality, too. These details lead naturally to defining a few friends, mentors, or even enemies (character hooks) for the character.

Don’t be afraid to create a few NPCs who are relevant to your character’s life. Such people add depth to the game world and act as character hooks. In so doing, they give you and the DM more toys to add to the game. More toys are more fun.

Making this stuff up should be fun, too. You can probably easily think of more outgrowths of the example. That’s why just a few details like this can make for a rich character background.

A Little Help . . .

You can craft details about your character even without knowing a lot about the game world or your companions. It’s easier if you have help, though. The DM can lend a hand in giving your choices a framework specific to the campaign. Fellow players might assist by playing off your ideas giving you similar fodder from their backgrounds.

This is why it can be good for the group members to create characters in collaboration with each other. You can make sure to fill in background details at the same time you’re filling roles. The personal game of creating your character then becomes a shared experience such as a normal DM session.

Short But Stout

Can I give you a sample from my Dark Sun D&D game? If you prefer not to hear about someone else’s character, skip this part.

My friend Robert, a fine player and DM, as well as head honcho of, created a dwarf shaman named Malamac for the campaign. He made some basic choices.

• Malamac’s family was part of a dwarven nomad tribe that eventually settled in the dwarven village of Kled.

• His family has profound ties to the primal power source and ancestor veneration. Malamac learned of the spirits and ancestors primarily from his mother.

• Kled is the site of the excavation of an ancient dwarven city. (This actually part of Kled’s story in the world.) Malamac’s family was deeply involved in this heritage project.

• The templars overseeing Kled destroyed Malamac’s family for blasphemy and heresy. Artifacts discovered in the ancient city suggested the sorcerer kings of Athas are not the immortal god-monarchs they claimed to be. They also indicate the world was not always as it now is. Malamac’s mother spread these “lies.”

• Robert chose the Desert background, and he gave Malamac +2 to Endurance from it.

Expanding on all this, Robert then decided that Malamac, at least for most of his life, possessed not even an inkling of primal power. He grew up ashamed of this lack, thinking he would never amount to much. Malamac, therefore, looked for any excuse to get away from Kled and the source of his shame–his own family. He took regular trading missions to a nearby merchant outpost (Endurance). There, he found love (a woman named Ilyna) and a measure of success. He was on the road when his family fell to the templars. Instead of perishing with his kin, he was captured later, told of his family’s fate, and sold as an arena slave in Tyr. His enemies expected him to die on the arena sands, but a losing battle instead quickened his tie to the ancestors and the spirits of the earth. Then King Kalak of Tyr fell, and all slaves were freed . . .

Malamac’s story has a little more to it involving other characters in my Dark Sun group. However, most of the pertinent details are above. It’s simple yet loaded. With it, Robert told me a lot, such as that he’s interested in the legacy of the ancient dwarves and that Malamac has some great character hooks to explore or exploit.

I’ve used those hooks extensively. Malamac, alongside his comrades, recently put down one of the templars involved in his family’s demise. This was a happy side effect of freeing Kled from that same templar’s black magic. The scenario of opposing that evil templar could have been played without any emotional involvement on the part of the characters. Robert’s short background for Malamac just made it more poignant.

Your background can do the same for you and your gaming group. Here’s hoping this article is clearer on that point. If you found it useful, let me know.

Become Emotional

"Sympathy for the Devil" (c) 2010 Chris SimsThe psychology of desire and attachment defines our lives in countless ways. This fact is true even in the roleplaying games. Every character you play is an extension of you and the desires you want to fulfill by playing. More elusive, though, is real attachment–emotional connection–to a game’s goings on. Fulfilling player desires is where much of the fun is, and this is something the DM should facilitate. But when circumstances in a game also hit a personal chord, they have more meaning and can create even more fun.

Have you ever noticed how almost every player enjoys the fights in a roleplaying game? That’s because combat has real stakes and real consequences to something valuable to each player–his or her character. The danger to each character strikes that aforementioned personal chord. This is an example of attachment or emotional investment at its simplest in an RPG.

Attachment, and the significance it provides to imaginary events, is hard to pin down. No unaltered publication, such an adventure, can pull it off for you or your fellow tableside explorers. Hooks in such products exist only to help your DM make the connection between a published work’s assumptions and the campaign’s reality. However, even with these tools, your DM can’t create all the necessary emotional involvement. You have to help. And you should, because everyone at your game table will have more fun if you do.

If the roleplaying aspects of a game aren’t as fun and exciting as combat, somebody has failed to make those aspects personally significant. Perhaps you haven’t provided the DM with the tools to create situations you (character or player) care about in more than a superficial way. Define your character meaningfully, and you’re on your way to bringing such game-enhancing situations forth. Even a shiftless, unaligned mercenary has motivations and secrets that can be tapped to enrich a game’s storyline

The 4e Player’s Handbook goes into a little detail on this subject in its second chapter. It aims at inspiring you to describe your character in nonmechanical ways, and it’s right in that you need no complex history or extensive motivations for your character. But like countless other RPG systems, it fails to clearly define why this exercise is necessary. Therefore, your choices can seem arbitrary.

A character’s quirks, appearance, and history can be interesting as a simple narrative that allows you to roleplay consistently. It’s more important, however, to define traits that motivate your character or others in ways that push game’s unfolding tale forward. Such traits should make the story personal and evocative.

Extremes, opposites, and mysteries are good places to start when defining meaningful traits for a character. The most interesting characters in literature and movies have strong attributes with contradictory flaws. Straightforward but potentially significant qualities also work. A noble warrior who hates orcs has difficulty when faced with an orc that displays honor or begs for mercy. An addict might put her addiction before the welfare of others. A thief with a heart of gold can’t just take the treasure and leave suffering in the theft’s wake. An adventurer who values family and friends returns home often and might share the wealth. A strange birthmark might have meaning.

Once you have a few of these traits for a character, simply answer one question for each–why? Does the noble warrior hate orcs because orc raiders slaughtered his or her family (cliché but still useful), or is this hatred based on the teachings of a mentor, religious order, or leader? Is the addict’s addiction someone else’s doing or the result of an addictive personality, or due to accidental exposure? Is the thief kind because of personal suffering or regret for a past deed? Do the ties that bind the family oriented-adventurer come from burdensome duty or genuine affection? (What if he or she is adopted?) Does the birthmark single out the character as a messiah in the campaign, or is the mark just the thing to send a religious fanatic over the edge for one encounter?

Players can (and probably should) work together as a group to come up with a few traits that two or more characters share. Is another character a lover, a sibling, an old friend, or a onetime rival? Could the party share an overarching affiliation or loyalty? Have similar circumstances forced the characters together?

These traits, even simply detailed, should give the DM a springboard from which to weave a tale  that is emotionally motivating to a character (and player) and the party (and players). The DM might, for example, decide that the noble warrior’s mentor is corrupt and deceitful. Clues woven into the game could eventually lead to a momentous confrontation with an unexpected but wholly personalized villain. Perhaps the party, sharing affiliation with the warrior’s religious order, has an interest in seeing such corruption rooted out. Will the warrior be able to confront and destroy a once-trusted teacher? How will the experience change the character? Certainly none of this will happen without some play-enhancing emotional investment.

Such traits also give other players special points of interest to interact with in your character. People are complicated, and groups even more so. Motivations mesh and clash. This give and take can be interesting at the table.

Players and the DM should emphasize the positive aspects of character traits, though. A DM should use them to influence the path of a session or game rather than to force an outcome. Players should use them as a means to facilitate roleplaying, rather than derailing the game with the infamous, “My character wouldn’t do that.” (Maybe not, but what would he or she do when faced with something important to a comrade?)

Molding a character and party to purposely build attachment to the game is a worthwhile task. Doing so allows the DM to reinforce emotional investment by taking cues from player desires expressed as character traits. The game then becomes a shared narrative that is sharply focused on its protagonists, rather than a series of unfortunate events heaped on the shoulders reluctant participants.

More to Come

If I get some interest, shown in the comments, I’ll write more about this from my perspective as a DM, using my recent campaign episodes as examples. I can also expand on player emotional investment in a session rather than just at character creation. Something can be said for using 4e’s background system to create more emotional investment and mechanical benefits, as well.

Feel free to use the comments to critique, as well. Is the essay too long, too impersonal, too whatever. That’s valuable information, so spill it.

Also, I have some interesting mailbag topics. I’m looking for more. Email me.

Check out the new bio, too. Identify the classic AD&D monster and source if you want.