Is a character background really essential?

28 09 2009

I for one have always championed good and deep character backgrounds.  Why on earth wouldn’t a GM want the players to have depth to their character?

As a devil’s advocate by trade, I thought long and hard about that question.  And my answer is…

When a campaign is started at, say, 5th level, the characters need to have some pregenerated background.  How did they get from 1st level to here?  How have they interacted with the environment to get this far?  This seems a highly logical argument.

And that’s when it hit me.  When you start at level one, you’re a nobody – literally.  A commoner with a garden tool could take you out with one good hit.  Any creature is a risky encounter.

And, as a nobody, what right have you to know anything about the world you live in?

Simply put:

  • Your PC’s character background should be minimal.  Perhaps no more than why they’ve become an adventurer and why they’ve chosen their current class.
  • They should know hardly anything about the world they live in.  Village knowledge is OK, but they should know nothing about affairs of state (other than the name of the King).

The whole point of progression is to develop a back-story.  Now is the time your character would be making future career (class) decisions.  Now is the time that encounters are meaningful and the tales that are now told in taverns actually happened.  

This is also the time that your PCs will be finding out about the politics and intrigue in the local setting.

So, as a GM, the next time you decide to insist on a full back-story from your PC’s, pause and think again.  And more importantly, before you give them a 300-page background to the campaign to study and be tested on – stop.

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7 responses

28 09 2009
Wyatt

I agree and that’s why I personally detest starting any D&D game at level 1. I like players to have some experience, depth of character and have seen some of the world. Of course even then, the background shouldn’t 8 pages long.

28 09 2009
abstractxp

(As Devil’s advocate)…The downside is that the experience created for higher level characters is by nature, manufactured. Sometimes you just can’t beat organic experience created by playing a low level campaign.
This is especially true if the players are relatively new to the game/inexperienced players.

28 09 2009
Wyatt

I don’t really care terribly whether the background is organic or not personally. Organic growth can still occur during your remaining levels, so unless you’re starting at the very last level possible, it’s still possible to have organic growth. But then again I’m also one of those lunatics who plays high power games and hates low power ones.

28 09 2009
Thasmodious

While I will start a campaign at higher levels, I far prefer to start at 1st for much this reason. I used to be a DM who required extensive backgrounds, and I dutifully put them to good use. Now I generally ask the players a few questions of necessary importance, depending on the setting and let them tell me what they feel they need to to ground their character. I tend to get more useful information and better information. I’ve found that freeing the player’s to decide what’s important leads to them being more invested in that, however brief, background, and they are more creative. Instead of answering like a short answer test in school, they write what they think is interesting.

28 09 2009
Lurkinggherkin

My approach is not to require too much of a background to begin with. Let the player develop a persona for the character organically through the first few levels of play.

At 4th level and above, I grant an xp bonus for anyone who writes a character background, 1xp per word (as long as they haven’t just written something that’s manifestly gibberish), up to a limit of 1000 words / xp.

28 09 2009
abstractxp

In real life, I’ve won my companies awards for being innovative. The truth is, I simply steal widely but use things in a way or setting that others’ don’t.
I love the idea of rewarding players for developing a background. Linking this to other blogs I’ve penned, it encourages behaviour that I want at the table.
My variation would be not to award XP, but to ensure that the player, on the next adventure, comes across an item they covet or character they want to meet (ideally one mentioned in their background).

29 09 2009
wickedmurph

I would say that the importance of character background depends on a couple of things:

First, how much do you want to encourage role-playing? Creating a background is a valuable exercise that helps players flesh out and define character’s personalities, without taking up in-session time.

Second, how tough are the characters. If you are talking 4e characters, I’d say that they should have a pretty solid background, as they are already above the ruck of common folk. Old-school D&D, with interchangeable characters ready to head into the blender, er, dungeon, background not so important.

Finally, what type of game/campaign are you running? If it’s a combat-heavy game that follows a group of mercenaries who leave their histories behind when they join, no background necessary. If it’s an intrigue-heavy role-playing fest using Storyteller mechanics, then you might want to get the plot hooks that a good background provides.

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