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.

This was a good article.

It's a refreshing change to read an article on gaming theory that is well-written, concise, and has a definite point. So many articles of this type tend to turn into long-winded rambles where the author does his/her best to sound knowledgeable and meaningful, without actually conveying information or supporting a conclusion.

Hope to see more from you!

Enjoyed your article throughly. I appreciate your insights into these topics

Ditto. Good article. Upon reading it I recognized a gradual increase in background details of PC's over the years. In my first D&D games, no one ever gave a second thought to who their characters parents were. Or if you did, it was considered a "really detailed background." LOL.

I agree with your conclusion as well. The main point is to have fun. Although it bites to make a really detailed campaign and have players who aren't willing to make any kind of creative commitment, if you have a majority of players who are really on top of it, a couple of slackers won't kill your game. In my group we have one guy who really hates typing and writing so he gives most of his (not very detailed) background information verbally and this is ok because most of us provide a lot of detail. However this is also our resident artist so he pays his dues in other ways.

I have struggled quite a bit with newer and inexperienced players or players who just don't want to work with my campaign restrictions. It taught me to just relax and let people have fun even if it compromises the "integrity" of my universe a wee bit. In the end, it's all about having good memories and sometimes the whako's and slackers make for the finest tall tales.

I liked this article. Probably I'm biased because I've not generally been the greatest at coming up with backgrounds; I usually like to develop my character in play. But part of the reason for that is that before playing, I tend not to know much about the setting (as I'm in a group where the GMs tend to all use different systems, change systems for every game, and use unique campaign worlds of their own design), and as this article notes, knowledge of the setting is pretty important to coming up with a background. I would go so far as to say that a detailed background made without detailed knowledge of the setting can sometimes do more to create problems than to help role-play.

But, of course, there are particular games where detailed backgrounds are just necessary, and those of us who don't like them just have to cope.

Nice article, I share Hazimel's opinion on it.

Background is important, otherwise play Diablo (which is aslo fine). The best I find is having some deep background characters (usually those who drive the initial stories) and as the campaign grows, other players will develop their own just as Sophist said.

My only gripe with your article, a mild one at that, is:
"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."

That is sooo untrue, I've seen just as many hackers, bashers, staid and un resourceful women as men.
The main factor is experience, sure there may be a bit more women who focus on the relational aspect of the game more than the tactical ones, and even then.

All in all though a very nice article, keep 'em coming. And being a second language english speaker myself, I've found that indeed it is easier for me when I play in French (although I do think in english when I speak the language)

I simply have never found women to be more interested than men in the 'relationship' angle of RPG's. I've played many RPG's, with lots of different women, for many many years. Nothing in my experience shows them to be more observant or ore resourceful, to resort to words more often than deeds, and their turns take just as long as the men.

Someone's been reading too much 'Men are from Mars' crap.

As a GM, I never require a background for a PC but I do try to work with one if it is provided. And, for people who do not provide backgrounds for their PCs, I usually invent details and introduce them into the campaign on the fly.

It is easy to say, "You enter Hillraven and Bart (a PC without a background) says, 'My old mate, Vardy, from the Marines lives in the Garden District. Let us go and see him." The player of Bart might say, "Oh, I guess that my guy was in the Marines."

Then, when the players meet Vardy, Vardy says, "Hey, Old Bart, how you doing? Seen any of our brothers from the corp?" The player of Bart might say, "No." "Well, I just saw our captain yesterday, drunk as a fish, mumbling about his daughter. You remember how sweet you were on his daughter? Well, I know that seeing her might open up old wounds but the Cap'n really needs a friend. What do you say we go and see him and find out what it is all about?" The player of Bart might say, "Oh, I guess that I know this captain guy, too, and I guess that I really liked his daughter at some point."

So, I'm surprised that any GM would actually require a background. Even when players provide backgrounds, they don't provide complete lists of every friend, associate or relative that the PC ever met nor do they provide lists of every bar mitzvah or soccer game that the PC ever attended. So, more details are needed at some point.

Inconsistencies can be a problem but they are ignorable or explainable. At worst, you can just say that the PC is schizophrenic. But, usually, ignoring the odd details works fine.

I require backgrounds in my group. I will admit that my players grumbled the first time that I made them write up a background, but they did it and now believe it a great idea.

I place just as much work into their background as they do and sometimes more. I add the items that connect the characters to my story and world and I ask that they write down the personality, goals and quirks of their PCs. It really helps get someone into the game and promotes roleplaying.


RE: dwhoward,
Well that is why I want THE PLAYERS to do the background, so THEY invest some time in preparing the game.
I mean, a few paragraphs will do just fine. Of course for WW's Storytelling games, I'd ask at least a whole page, since the social ramifications and origins of the PC's are of such importance.

Let's take the example you gave us. I'd have been satisfied if that player had writen something that said he was in the marines for X years, served in X Y Z bases under so and so and that he got along yadi yada yada with the rest of his platoon. Finish it whith how/why he left and that is a nice background

Thats what 10 lines of typed text? It ain't exactly a complete background but it sets the character a little.

And if the story you gave us is any hint of how it truly happened, then I'd get mad at the players. You throw them lines and they don't bite, that's just plain lazy, if you ask me. Roleplaying is an interactive hobby, if they want no part in the telling of the story, go play Diablo or Halo!

I'll stop right now before I start foaming at the mouth.

Sure, yes, I'm a very liberal GM. Probably more so than most.

For myself, I strive to make the game so good that players *want* to provide backgrounds. As a player, I've been in the situation where I invested a lot of time creating a PC only to have the game fizzle or the GM bail. So, I don't ask for a lot of commitment upfront; I want people to give that commitment voluntarily.

Admittedly, my example was a worst case. I've never seen a player do worse than that, though it is possible. If I throw them lines and they don't bite, I just move on.

And, sure, I could slap players around or kick them out for lack of commitment or a multitude of other "sins". It is certainly a valid choice but I just choose not to.

Yeah I get that, but there is a middle ground between kicking 'em around and spoon feeding 'em, no?

And certainly, making them want to invest is a goal all GM's should share. Still, there are lazy players.

As a player or GM I always try inform my gaming buddies of my needs and I try to know theirs so we can better enjoy our favorite hobby. Sometimes, I realise I can't game with other people and leave or have them leave the table. I usually goes smoothly.

So, in Sam's case, not providing a PC history is an offense (or incompetence) that makes a player ineligible for his group. In mine, it isn't.

I see why Sam as a GM might be angry but, in my own case, I just don't really think that it is a big deal. I don't think that a PC history is essential to a good game.

Woooo dwhoward, that's taking it further than what I mean.

I'm saying that all in all when a player doesn't invest at all in his/her character I'm unsatisfied as a DM, especially if the majority of the party does the same.

As I said a background is important, but not absolutely essential. I'm not talking about a complete biography and family tree here, just a something to flesh out the PC's.

What I've noticed though, is that the no-background characters tend to make no sense in terms of feats and skills. Like a cleric of the god of arts without perform or a paladin that has lotsa ranks in bluff but none in religion.

What I'm saying is that I can live with a very short and summary background as long as I don't feel like I'm DMing a game of Diablo.

What would have made me mad was the example of the player who didn't take the cue cards you were flashing him about his lack of background. I mean, if I'm the only one telling the story, I should just read a book to them or write a story and give it to them.

Oh and if the person doesn't have good storytelling skills but invests in other ways, keeps adventure notes or paints figurines or helps me in any other way by adding something to the campaign I'll be very glad to have them aboard. There is nobody incompetent enough to be barred from my game (you wouldn't believe what I can put up with and have fun). There are however people who's expectations and needs aren't compatible with what I am willing to accept or give as a player or GM.

I try to use an established setting – a specific location in Greyhawk, where the locus of the story will begin, and I work with all the players to create character backgrounds that mesh with each other. I want compelling hooks for the players right from their start, rather than ‘so yer in a tavern…’

I discourage lengthy treatises which won’t get used in play, but I do appreciate basic material – what they are like, what they look like, where do they come from, and why are they there, with these people.

I’ve encountered experienced players who simply have no concept of background, and I too have been disappointed with some of them. One player not only provided no background, but couldn’t even provide a physical description for the other players. “Non-descript” she said, as the players asked her what she looked like. Grasping at straws, I took over and made her an amnesiac, and developed my own background for her that was well integrated with the story. Except she was ultimately put off by the background I created for her (her amnesia was caused by her encounter with a Big Bad). Finally, we mutually agreed that she’d be better not playing, since her style wasn’t ours. No hard feelings, I hope.

Sorry for the misunderstanding, Sam. Please accept my apologies.

But does each and every PC have to have a background?

If I have two PCs with backgrounds and two PCs with none, there is more than enough material there usually to have good adventures, I think. That's why I don't mess with the PCs without backgrounds; I don't need them.

In fact, in my campaign, it is hard to touch on all the backgrounds often enough to keep the PC personally relevant. Without forcing the backgrounds to relate to each other (e.g. PCs have the same mortal enemy), backgrounds can even lead to some minor party strife.

"I must avenge my father!" "No! Let us go to my homeland and foster a revolt against the evil king!" "Ok, ok, guys, let's avenge *his* father first *then* go to *your* homeland. Then, let's look for dungeon because I'm going broke with all these damn epic quests."

dmhoward, those examples are hilarious and true! lol
I try to keep the backgrounds relevant to the first adventure, rather than going all divergent. The goal I set for the players is to write backgrounds that fit together, rather than flying apart. I'll even offer them a bit of what the story is about.

Of course not all of 'em need detailed backgrounds, they especially don't need to be filled with quests. I just want to know why the F... they didn't stay home to make shoes, plow the fields, raise catle etc like normal people.

Also, as you showed in your example, I'll discuss the backgrounds with the player in the way I discuss alignment, so they fit well together in a dynamic way.

Nice to know but not essential to a great game, right?

For me, hounding players to write backgrounds and *then facilitating and coordinating all the backgrounds to fit together* is just way too much work for what I get back. Others may disagree but, in my humble opinion, the payoff doesn't justify the effort to make that all happen.

If players provide backgrounds, good. If players spontaneously provide backgrounds that all fit together, great. But, as the GM, I'm totally overloaded anyway so, unless somebody else does it, I let it go.

But, if a PC's background is mundane and does not include epic quests, I'm not sure if I care if he writes one or not. If a player does not provide a background, it is easy to assume that he had some generic reason for adventuring: money, fame, desire to be different or whatever. Sure, I could hassle him and force him to write it up. But, if it is mundane, I'd just let it go. Maybe he'll see another PC with a background have a great adventure and want one himself. Or maybe not.

Maybe it just depends on how important it is for the GM to bring his players up to (well, his perception of) par. For some GMs, they consider it the players' jobs to regulate and organize themselves. For others, they regulate and coordinate the party closely to ensure a very smooth and consistent game.

But dmhoward, for me, the character backgrounds are an essential part of the story hook for game 1 in a campaign, and perhaps food for the 'blue-booking' we do in email between games. So yes, the backgrounds fit together, but ensuring this is simply a part of writing the story hook, premise, setting - not much more than that.

If this is a journey, where does it start? Who are these people? For me, the character backgrounds are kept brief and relevant to what happens next, or rather 'first' in the story. I just roll my eyes when a game begins with 'so you're all in a tavern...'

By coordinating with the players on their backgrounds, I can help ensure that their dynamics do not ruin the plausibility of this group of people hanging out together, and getting involved in the events around them.

What do you do if a player steadfastly ignores your request for a background that fits into the other PCs, like the player in the article?

I'm sure that you've heard all the excuses. "My dog ate my background." "I forgot." "I don't have time to read all the other backgrounds." "I thought that my background *did* fit in." "I'm not a good writer." "Please write it for me." "Please rewrite it for me because I'm too lazy to use a spellchecker." "I wrote one; I'm a boring farmer." "I wrote one but I have no imagination." "I wrote one but it changes things about the game world." And, the perennial favorite: "I am god."

Of course, most players will eventually get it right after a false start or two. So, the author's example is a rare case. But, if you do run into that case, do you burn a whole lot of time trying to get a decent background from him, do you just write it for him or do you say, "Sorry, buddy, but you are just too untalented/stupid/non-fluent for my game. See ya!"?

Well, it doesn't happen too often, since it's mostly important for the first game in a campaign. We don't introduce unknown players very often, and we don't start whole campaigns that often.

In the prior example, I tried to incorporate the 'cipher' into the story as an amnesiac. I wrote her backstory and revealed it gradually, eventually revealing her to be the slave to one of the villains in the story. I created a reason for the party to meet her, and did the work for her. Seriously, when the players asked what she looked like, she just said, "non-descript". Our party just likes to have a nice sense of dramatic plausibility in the story, and most enjoy each other's stories.

We DON'T include giant quests though, to kill the six-fingered man etc. or anything that would require the DM to change the existing story arc significantly to highlight one single player. We tried this once, with a character who basically wanted to play Joan of Arc in the Against the Giants campaign. It was a disaster.

I will offer various hooks to players though that highlight the setting, factions, and interests, while also highlighting the players. Economy of prose.

I don't burn a whole lot of time on it though, since the character background will often be an extension or an on-ramp to a pre-existing campaign. In the single case where the player then threw rotten tomatoes at the background which was written for her, we all, she included, talked about it and agreed that she really wasn't into the game, and she left by mutual agreement. Not that I think she was dumb (on the contrary), but she simply offered no contribution. The game was better without her negative vibes.

Yes, I guess that the case is too rare to be worth discussing.

Maybe. I dunno. I suppose it depends on what the group wants out of the game. Prior to that point, most of that group's campaigns seemed to consist of materializing at dungeon doors before walking in to kick ass. There just wasn't anything else.

The reason for starting the new game was to tell a bigger story. She was a fairly talented actor, and if she'd really wanted to play, then she could have contributed something for the rest of us, or at least worked with the DM to create something. She simply wasn't interested.

The 'backgroundless' characters served us for many years, but these days, we want a richer storyline.