The Necessity of the Character Background
A couple of months ago, while my latest RPG campaign was in its birthing process, I found myself leafing through players' character backgrounds. Several people, veterans of character creation, easily vaulted this obstacle. One player was not as gifted, however. He found the task intimidating. In addition to his inexperience in writing, English was not his primary language. Despite my frustrations in reading his attempts to portray his character's life before life, I tried to encourage him with topic lists such as those from the gaming sourcebooks or various gaming webpages.
A couple of months ago, while my latest RPG campaign was in its birthing process, I found myself leafing through players' character backgrounds. Several people, veterans of character creation, easily vaulted this obstacle. One player was not as gifted, however. He found the task intimidating. In addition to his inexperience in writing, English was not his primary language. Despite my frustrations in reading his attempts to portray his character's life before life, I tried to encourage him with topic lists such as those from the gaming sourcebooks or various gaming webpages. To make a long story short, inconsistencies continued to plague his efforts until he gave up. (My personal peeve was a PC with a reputation of being a murderer who makes a living telling stories to children.) I was told he had some errands to attend to because of an unfortunate turn of events regarding his family and I left it at that.
Months passed before I learned of the truth behind his absence. Because of this, I began to wonder if the character background was indeed an essential to gaming in itself. Did it really inject so much in a storyline that it became a necessity? This line of thinking led to an exploration of the origin of character backgrounds.
Character backgrounds were unheard of in the late 1970s until the early 1980s. The alter-ego type of RPG began with the advent of Top Secret. Created by TSR, Inc., the first edition of the game included random generation tables for a character's family and cover occupation among other things. Alter-ego RPGs were different from the known RPGs of the time as the PC began with a new life that had utterly no connection with his present one. Backgrounds eventually became vital components of character creation during the heyday of the superhero genre as randomly generated secret identities failed to accomplish their objectives. This was later followed by the dawn of the horror genre of RPGs, most of which were alter-ego RPGs as well. Reviewing this timeline revealed one fact: character backgrounds are essential only to RPGs that dealt with alter-egos. Fantasy RPGs rarely have the need for a background as the PCs begin adventuring usually in their late adolescence or early adulthood. Keeping this in mind, I then considered the possibility there might be other reasons to consider before invoking a mandatory requirement for a narrative. What follows is an enumeration of factors to consider when requesting your players for character backgrounds.
These factors are divided into two groups. The first group includes characteristics internal to the gamer himself. In my opinion, experience in RPGs counts for a lot in this category. This embraces not only quantity but quality as well. A player with little or no experience in background and character creation might find the activity rather foolish to begin with. As beginners, I feel they live in an RPG's here-and-now. Details of their character's past are not really important for them because they are still weighing the entertainment value of the game and whether or not to maintain it as a regular pastime. This is in contrast to players who are known to be power-gamers, hack-and-slashers, or munchkins in general who have large amounts of a type of role-playing experience. In their case, the character background is a useful instrument to involve them in a more introspective game. In my experience, shifting a conflict from an external to an internal one effectively negates most of their game-controlling attempts.
Another factor is imagination. This is where you, as a GM, can plumb the depths of your personality reading talents. Do you feel a player has any untapped potentials remaining or is he just the best hack-and-slasher on the face of your RPG? Human talent is not as equally distributed, as are human rights. If you are fortunate enough, your player may opt to produce one on his own without your prompting. It helps if you allow your players to read the players' guidebooks on their own time.
The gaming group's familiarity with the RPG setting is another aspect. A player is more likely to produce a well-written character background when going into a RPG he is already accustomed to and whose backdrop he is comfortable with. The corollary is equally true as too much pressure may result in a player resigning from the game before it has started.
Lastly, the GM must consider his player's intellectual backgrounds. What is his educational attainment? What is her primary language? (To clarify, a person's primary language is one she uses when she thinks. This question is very important for countries with bi- or trilingual populations.) You must match your expectations with your answers.
As a rule of thumb, women find it easier to enjoy an introspective game. They are also more observant and resourceful. Men often resort to deeds rather than words. As an offset, women play out their turns slowly compared to men. Of course, experience in the game eventually levels the playing field. Keep in mind there are exceptions.
The second is a smaller group comprised of external factors. The first aspect to consider is the length of your game. Single-shot modules do not really require character backgrounds. I've never done this sort of thing because I felt regardless of the party's outcome, all of them die either on or off the story. Campaigns, however, are an altogether different matter.
The playing style is the last on my list. There are two style extremes, these being the cooperative and the GM-as-enemy. As defined from Phil Master's article, "On the Vocabulary of Role-Playing," a cooperative style is where the GM 'acknowledges his players' interests, the nature of their own playing styles, and the need for their characters to accomplish their own goals.' The latter style is the opposite of the former, where the GM is 'assumed to be setting the characters' serious and potentially often lethal problems, and the players set out to defeat these by any me as permitted by the rules.' Each GM's style is found somewhere between the two poles. Cooperative styles tend to delve into issues of introspection more often, increasing the need for a character background. GM-as-enemy focuses on the present timeline more than the past and rarely presents an arena for internal conflict. Finally, a pre-existing setting for a campaign should not be a reason for a player to create a background. The game exists for the players and not the other way around.
Before I end this essay, I would like to state that I am not against making character backgrounds. I am, however, against a blanket requirement of them. Albeit larger than the community in the 1970s, RPGs require a constant infusion of new blood for the hobby to thrive. Placing a hefty burden at the gateway is not really attractive for newcomers and is more likely to push them away. After unintentionally pushing a newcomer away, I would rather give players the option of constructing their past on a case-to-case basis. If you feel that your players are non-abusive, you might even give them the alternative of making it as the game progresses. The only requisite of the RPG is to have fun.