Monday, July 9, 2012

Character Histories - The GM Perspective

A lot of advice when it comes to the PC backstories is focused on the Players. How to write a backstory, what to be sure to include, what to avoid mentioning, and things of that nature. Thing is, there is another side to how a character history works, and that is how you, the GM, can read and use the character history to make the game better for the players involved. Today, I want to talk about that.

Do I Need Backstory Involvement?
The first thing you should be able to answer your game is how much the characters' backstories are going to influence the game. Are you going for a character driven story? If so, then you will definitely need to milk those histories for everything they're worth. A more plot/event driven story gives you more freedom to use or ignore the histories as you want. Finally, the campaign type game may never ever touch on the character backstories at all, as the game is more about exploring the land and going off on random adventures.

In all three types of game there is still room for character driven/related plots to be sure, but if you are just going for a small story game where you've already got the plot worked out and it more matters that you have PCs than it does who those PCs are, then you may want to save yourself some time. The story will still work for the player, and you can still include elements, but you don't have to worry about it. If you're in that bracket most of the time, the rest of this post may not be for you.

The Longer The Backstory...
...the more likely the play cares about who their character is. This isn't a rule that is true all the time, but in general the person who passes in a 5 page backstory cares more about just who their character is than the person who passed in 2 paragraphs. Again, not always true but a good rule of thumb. Other factors can always contribute - one player enjoys writing, while the other is kind of lost with how to write a history - but it still works.

Because of this, it can be good to read those long back stories a bit closer. The player has shown care in crafting their character, and more so in addressing who the character is and where they came from. It is next to impossible to write out 5 pages about anything and not give the GM something they can use in their game if they want to. Whereas a shorter backstory is likely to just cover the basics and get the character into a playable state.

Short Backstories Aren't Bad.
This isn't to say that short backstories are bad. I've told my players a number of times that anything they don't define about their character is open to be defined during the game, by them or by me. I've had some people who started GMing after playing in my games take this rule a bit far, but it is still a good rule, and a reason to not be upset if a player can only manage a few paragraphs for their character, or even less.

All of that blank space in the character background is potential room for you to explore, and other things that you can play with.You just have to be able to find the stuff between the lines.

Family and Other Memorable People
Enough about length. One of the first things I look for when reading a player's backstory is the memorable people in their characters lives. A lot of players neglect to mention family, but they will mention other things. Time in the military means time with a unit. Learning martial arts means having had a teacher at some point. Running with  a gang means, well, running with a gang. All of these events in a character's life give you people you can draw from.

These people are important. Why? Because the second you use one you've given the player a personal hook into the story. That isn't just anyone calling for help, it's the girl who pulled them out of a burning tank during a fire fight. It's not just anyone who got shot down on third and main, it's the guy who got them out of the gang and down on the street. The PC, and by extension the player, now has a history and a connection with the character that they are interacting with. It makes it personal, ups the tension, and increases the drama which is good for you. For the player, it makes the story more about them which is good for them. Everyone wins.

Early Obstacles
When it comes down to it, the early challenges we face in life often have a way of defining who we are. People who are challenged a lot, and over come those challenges, are often more prepared for handling things than those who don't. More to the point though, the shape of those early challenges also often shape us in other ways as well. To go with an extreme example, let's look at Batman. His earliest obstacle - parents gunned down in front of him - shaped him into a vigilante and into having that aversion for guns. Then, according to Batman: Year One, his early failures as a masked vigilante inspired him to take on the persona of Batman to give him the edge of fear when fighting crime. Had neither of these obstacles showed up, Bruce Wayne would be a very different character.

Now, your player dictates these early obstacles, so why do you care? Well, you care because these early obstacles also dictate the basis of who the character is and how they got to where they are. This means that you have a glimpse at what makes the character who they are, and now have an idea of what to challenge. You want an interesting story? Put a gun in Batman's hands and see what happens. There are things like this hiding in your players backgrounds as well. You just have to find them.

How The PC Wants To Be Played
The last thing I'll talk about is that backstories can tell you about how the player envisions the character being played. Watch how the character got through life, and that is often the strengths the player wants to emphasize. If they have a lot of martial challenges, the player probably wants to get into fights. If they snuck around and stole things, the player probably wants to do that. If they charmed their way through life, again, that is how the player probably wants the character to act.

This can give you the means to plan adventures for the group. Include elements for each of the players, based on how their backstory - and character sheet - says they want to play their character. It makes it more personal, and gives them a time to shine.

Other Advice?
Have any other advice for how to read, and what to look for, in a player's backstory? Sound off in the comments!


  1. I've got one group without backgrounds, and one with. In each case the style was chosen to suit the type of game the players wanted. As GM I've enjoyed both groups, but prep for the group with backstories was initially much less labor-intensive, as you've said.

  2. I've got one group without backgrounds, and one with. In each case the style was chosen to suit the type of game the players wanted. As GM I've enjoyed both groups, but prep for the group with backstories was initially much less labor-intensive, as you've said.

  3. I've mentioned this elsewhere, but my current take on this is Cyberpunk 2020's way of doing it. I know it can end up with some bizarre random events and styles, but it's something every player can and should do that takes very little time at all. If the players then want to expand on any of it, they can go right on ahead, but if not, I have no problem with them, as you say, filling in the blanks during play.

    I do agree that there should be a limit to how much they do this, but a general rule of 'don't take the pee' is usually enough for people to get the balance right.

  4. 1st edition AD&D practically from the get-go gave you the bare bones of a back story with it's "Secondary Skill" roll, a character creation roll that was oddly enough in the DMG. Unearthed Arcana greatly expanded this by giving you both a socio-economic background and siblings, if you were open to using that book. The Oriental Adventures book gave you a grand tapestry of family and backstory as a part of character generation, which I always enjoyed making fit together.

    The new game I am playing, 43 AD (set during the Roman invasion of Britain)is somewhere in between; random events during character generation might make reference to your family or not, but they will create at least a paragraph or so of backstory for your character, more if you want to really flesh them out. I like it so far.

  5. Pendragon is a fun system for backstories if you're going system specific. Character creation involves retelling/discovering your family history back 2-5 generations along with accomplishments and deeds. When you're done you have a good sense of where your character is coming from and going forward.

    Shorty, what does "don't take the pee" mean? Never heard that phrase before.