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.

Play Boldly

Following up on my last post, I intend to disparage no one, including my players past and present, but a malaise sets in on me occasionally when I’m playing a D&D game. Players seem lethargic. They don’t respond to the information given to them. Their characters act far different than the intrepid adventurers those characters should and must be.

Players should be as bold in game action as their characters are in the game world. Why? Because it pays off in fun and energy at the table.

I don’t mean that you should be the type of player who opens a closed door in the middle of combat or pushes every shiny, red button. Don’t go your own way at everyone else’s expense, despite what a certain famous D&D-playing author has said to the contrary. That’s jackassery rather than boldness. (Rule X: Don’t be a jackass!)

Instead, decide how the happenings in your game present opportunities for your character. Can you take cooperative actions that also work toward your character’s goals or display your character’s personality? If not, might you help further define the narrative or push the game onward? This can be as simple as making a deal with another character in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way. At other times, it’s a no-brainer how your character acts. Although some events in a game might fail to fit your character’s aims, think of how the smaller picture of the current situation might fit into the larger frame.

Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to take actions that make for a great game. Several bits of boldness follow.

Have Fun

Playing a D&D game is all about having fun. If you’re not having fun, say so constructively. Try to help figure out what’s going wrong. Maybe the subject of the game makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps play has bogged down. It could be you just crave some action. If you do say something (again, constructively), the game can be altered to accommodate your desires. A good DM wants you to have fun.

Ask Questions

Whenever you want more information, ask. A detail might be important to you or your character, and that’s fine. The game is about exploration and investigation, as well as fighting and character interaction. If you fail to ask questions, you might not receive some information you want or, worse, need. It’s not the DM’s job to give you every bit of information—sometimes you have to work for the goods. Further, detail should be built based on player interest rather than dumped by the DM in a way that slows the action. The DM is justified in assuming no one’s interested in details if no one asks any questions. By asking, you’re also telling the DM what you’re interested in.

Use Powers, Rituals, and Skills

Be familiar with your character’s abilities, and then use them whenever it seems appropriate. Suitability of use can be defined tactically, like the right spell for the right moment, or by roleplaying, such as how your character reacts to a situation. Most adventures are constructed assuming that a party has particular skills and abilities. If you have those abilities but don’t use them, the game might just go nowhere fast. Think about problems in terms of how your character’s abilities can solve them. It’s not the DM’s job to remind you of a ritual you have or to make sure you use your other abilities wisely. Know then do, bold one.

Have a Hunch

It’s the DM’s job to provide a situation, but few complex situations have clear-cut answers. Maybe you have an idea–it’s out there but it seems like a possibility.  You might just be right, even if evidence suggests otherwise. Sharing your idea is always good for the game. If you have an opinion, then, voice it.

And don’t keep ideas to yourself just because your character might not know. Although your game might vary from mine, I see player discussion as the collective cleverness of the party. It’s fine to roleplay, after out-of-character discussion, that the wizard came up with the idea. It’s also possible that your barbarian just had an amazing flash of insight. (That could even become a permanent and regularly appearing character trait. How does she do it?)

The caveat here is that you avoid using knowledge the party has no way to know, such as verbatim attributes from Monster Manual. In my games, especially, relying on such player knowledge is a sure way to end up in trouble. Instead, use your player knowledge as a reason to use character skills and other abilities. It’s fine to ask for an Arcana check to learn about a monster, even though you, the player, think you already know some of the creature’s attributes. Perhaps it’s even fine to roleplay what your character assumes about a monster from details the DM has given. (“Careful with fire around this beast . . .”) Such roleplaying might even lead the DM to grant a bonus to your skill check.

Ham It Up

We all game to have fun creating a story about a group of awesome characters in fantastic situations. Part of the fun is the personalities of characters and how they interact with their world. As a DM, I use accents, changes in voice, scare tactics, and all sorts of theatrics to get across the situation or person I’m portraying. I do the same with my PCs when I’m on the other side of the table. You can too. Don’t be shy. Only a jackass would ridicule you for increasing the fun. (Rule X.1: Don’t game with jackasses.)

When in a game situation, consider how your character might react. Even if you try to focus on the cooperative alternatives, this can result in actions that seem inappropriate to the situation. Don’t worry about what other players think, unless their characters have a chance to react. (Try not to coach others on their own actions, as well.) Sometimes, however, your portrayal will rub another character the wrong way. This can lead to appropriate drama as long as everyone’s comfortable with that course of play.

A druid I play is very bold with her sense of righteousness and proper authority, and she also refuses to take any crap. She has to back down at times to please or appease her comrades. Her boldness has become part of the way the whole group plays. Something happens, and everyone wonders how she’s going to respond. It adds fun.

In all cases, though, it’s important to distinguish between what your character says in a scene and what you, as a player, are saying at the game table. It’s remarkably easy to become confused. (This is why I, as DM, try to use accents and voice changes when speaking as a non-player character.) One misunderstanding in this vein can send a whole scene awry.

Repeat: Be Bold

It happens that all it takes to get things going in a game is bold action on the part of one or more players through their characters. Player characters are supposed to be heroes, after all. Although the DM does provide the scenario, background characters, and plots, the game requires player (and thereby character) boldness to keep things moving. Like in life, timidity or inaction can be the worst choice. Lack of boldness can leave you with little but regret to nurse your wounds. Regret is a terrible bandage and a bitter medicine.

In a recent game, one player decided her male rogue character was too wounded to go toe-to-toe with the villain. He timidly hid, taking pot shots with shuriken, sans combat advantage. But he could have taken his mace, the clever strike power, and a little boldness to hit that guy dead in his face, with combat advantage, ending the battle dramatically and covering his wounded self in the glory. Instead, he just made me (the DM) sad and seemed a lot more like a punk than the tough guy he really is. Circumstances dictate that this might be the character’s final impression on the game. Double sad.

Don’t play to make others sad. To adhere to this point, you have a simple creed: when in doubt, just do something. Whenever possible, make that something audacious, cooperative, and entertaining. You won’t regret it.

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.

Mailbag 1 – Character Contortion

(C) Wizards of the Coast and the ArtistHere’s the first question from the mailbag. Jon Hixson asks:

How do you deal with players new to 4e who want to run characters that the system doesn’t support? I’ve got one player coming from 3e who wants to run a “Buffing/Utility wizard who does very little damage.” There’s really not a lot of buffing powers outside of the leader classes (and the “buffs” are fairly short term and small), and not a lot of utility outside of rituals. Considering every power does some form of damage, and pawning this player off on a cleric is unlikely, I’m not sure what to say.

Here’s the first essential step to overcoming this problem–stop equating class name with what the character is in the game world. I’ve heard players say, “Boy, I miss druids being able to use healing spells.” Well, I play a 5th-level druid, and she can heal as just about well as any 3e druid of her level. See, she’s a multiclassed bard. In the game world I play in (Jeremy Crawford’s Oberon campaign) her social title is “druid.” But that would be her title even if her class were wizard. If I had wanted to emphasize healing and retain the “primal” feel, the shaman class would have suited that purpose just fine.

I also allow my players to customize the narrative appearance of their character and powers to support character concepts. For instance, the shaman class talks about primal spirits, emphasizing animals. Those spirits can just as easily be ancestor spirits and stay well within the intent and description of the primal power source. But, in your own home game, you don’t even have to be beholden to the power source description. I’ve seen a player create a deva “shaman” whose spirit powers were manifestations of her own past lives. In the game world, she was not identified as primal or a shaman. In my Dark Sun campaign, the shaman is a dwarf “animist” who calls primarily on ancient dwarf ancestor spirits. Mechanically, he’s a bear shaman–but bears don’t exist in my Dark Sun campaign. The classifications exist only to define the character for the player with reference to the rules, rather than to define the character in the world.

Some players want the character’s performance to be a complete match to concept at 1st level. That’s rarely possible in any roleplaying game. The concept solidifies only after the character advances to a certain point. That’s cool, in my mind, because the character (in the game world) might have the ambitions the concept embodies (in the player’s mind in the metagame). Like anyone with an ambitious agenda, the character is unable to express the full extent of that ambition yet. That’s a roleplaying opportunity.

As an aside, and not meaning to be snarky, one also has to go with game. What I mean by this is some concepts don’t match the tenor of a game. The 4e D&D game is high heroic fantasy that emphasizes beating monsters and overcoming obstacles. Other editions of the D&D game had the same core concept.

All that buildup is so I can say that a character who doesn’t pull his or her weight in a fight doesn’t belong in a typical D&D game in any edition. A character needs to be able to do some damage. Further, in 4e, the nature of most effects is “short-term and small.” The fact that the buffing powers work that way shouldn’t trouble anyone. They have their intended effect within the game’s framework.

Enough with the philosophy, though.

It’s clear to me your player actually wants to be in the leader role, probably without being beholden to the other meanings of “leader.” Arcane magic power is also part of his or her goal. I’d recommend he or she start with the bard class. Emphasize the Cunning Bard build, along with Charisma (obviously) and Intelligence (for the AC and Reflex, as well as multiclassing into the wizard class). Wear leather armor–it can look like fancy, heavy robes. Choose implement powers, focusing on those that help allies or hinder foes in place of higher damage. The character already has the Ritual Caster feat, so I’d recommend multiclassing into wizard immediately. For this player, I suspect a desire for wizard cantrips, so I’d allow access to the cantrips in place of the at-will power Arcane Initiate grants. I’d even grant training in a wizard class skill instead of Arcana, since bards already have access to Arcana, but I’m generous. Along the lines of my “narrative appearance” philosophy, I’d allow the player to ignore the “music magic” aspect of the bard, allowing the player to describe power effects “in-game” as he or she desires. I’d probably ask for a general description of power usage as part of the creation process.

There are other ways to solve the problem, such as a hybrid bard/wizard. My feeling is that full-fledged leader-role character is what this player is really looking for. The freedom to customize should result in something close to his or her desires, if not an exact fit. This sort of nonmechanical customization should be encouraged anyhow, and it often solves the problem you speak of.