Writing a strong Background

Aka, Let me tell you my tale…

When you see people on the street, at a glance, only a few will ever stand out from the crowd. Be it due to their mannerisms, the way they dress or just their overall feel when compared to the bland and common background.
In RPG’s, these usually turn out to be the quest givers, special contacts or even story hooks designed to stand out so that the party has a clear sense of direction.

Insert more arrow to the knee jokes.

Consider the local crime boss, decked out in an ivory tuxedo while his henchmen all wear the same generic, goon squad outfit.  You don’t really care what happens to the henchmen if they don’t serve your purpose (like giving you information or helping you past an obstacle) and even then, their time is short lived. You wouldn’t typically talk to them, get to know them and dig into their life as you would for a special character. Despite this, should you think about it, all of those henchmen have lives of their own. They can have families, parents, kids, may enjoy a hobby or two or may even have an unlikely past that you may not have considered that brought them into this situation. Much like the guards in Skyrim or the Orcs in ‘Shadow of Mordor’. They all appear generic and bland and you typically pay them no attention if you don’t have to. That is, until they start interacting with you. They may share some bits about their past, their likes, their goals….or stab you in the face to become more important and make your interactions personal in the process. The same can be said about you as a player and your player character. Something must have happened at one point that set your PC on the journey of life they are currently on.

Why is your PC the way they are? What has caused them to set out on adventure? Why are they out in this world, risking their life? And what are their goals? What has set them on this path?
Well, all these answers can be found in your background.

For some players, writing up a background is a chore. And a good part of those people already had a hard time coming up with a name for their character. Hopefully after reading this post, you will see the value of having a proper BG.

A background can contain as much as a single line (Ex. ‘He felt like it.’) or could become a 300+ page compendium written in the style of a personal diary for your PC. Guess which one is going to get you the most brownie points with your GM. (More on that later.)

A good background can provide you with:

  • A better understanding of your character by ‘you’, the player.
  • A better understanding of your character by the rest of your group.
  • Hooks and plot points for ‘you’ and your GM to use.

A background gives you the opportunity to write down some initial ideas about your PC. These thoughts can be worked into fleshing out your PC from ‘stats and sheets’ to something with a personality, hopes, dreams, moral code and possible influences you can bring into the game world. Once your PC is fleshed out, you will have a good idea of how your PC would deal with a certain dilemma or how they would react to the situation at hand. In the same principle, your fellow party members would also get a better idea of who you are and thus, be more aware of how to interact with you and your PC to get the most out of a situation. The same is especially true for your GM, who depends on knowing exactly what your PC’s are about in order to provide interesting and motivated situation for you (as a player) to interact in.
Are you a Cleric and hate the undead? You may happen on a cult that works in the shadows to turn your city into a bastion of undead.
Are you a bad-ass gunslinger in the post apocalyptic wild west, looking for a lead on a split tongued mutant that killed your dog? Well there might be some leads on that and may even become an interesting side story on its own.
Did your PC grow up as a noble in a particular land? Chances are that the locals of that land will be more welcoming of you and your party and may even provide accommodations, suited for your status.

Note that in games like ‘Call of Cthulhu RPG’ the creation and use of a background is extremely important, as it may (likely will) be used extensively to BS your way through situations.
PC1: I attack the cultist with my samurai sword!
GM: Where did you get a samurai sword? You’re a curator.
PC1: At a museum, yes. As said in my BG, my PC’s work is his hobby. He  collects swords. This just happens to the one he had in his car.
GM: Ah yes…that… Carry on then.
(You will likely die in that game, so why not 🙂 )

How to go about creating a useful BG?

  • Start writing. Anything. Put something down and review it. Try and get an image of your character in your head (an actual picture usually helps) and try and write a short story around them.
  • A good first start is writing up some key points like attributes. Are they pious? How would they treat a beggar on the street? Would they face a challenge or prefer to run away? How civilized are they? What was their occupation or education (Mecha-pilot? Blacksmith? Athlete? Street perfomer? to name but a few.)
  • Once that is complete, consider adding in some relations with NPC’s or even fellow party members (talk to them about it first). This way, you are fleshing out your character even more and feed your GM some new NPC’s to work with that could actually mean something to you.
  • If you hit up against a writers block, feel free to get inspired by other characters from movies, books and other media. Be inspired by their behavior, mentality and posture instead of flat out copying their entire being. Pop culture references are fine and great fun but all in good measure. If you flat out copy over a character, chances are that the joke will stop being funny after the first 5 minutes … and then you’re stuck with that character.  (You can only do so many Indiana Jones one liners.)


Points to avoid and/or embrace:

  • The golden standard: Your BG should at least contain the very reason (and hopefully some context) as to why your characters are the way they are. Why they ended up on the path ahead. How they got into the adventure. Did a robbery go wrong and are they now forced to work off the debt? Have they grown up listening to stories of great space captains and wanting to become one themselves? Did ‘X’ kill your family and are you now seeking to become stronger so you can have your revenge on them? All of these are valid reasons. Just be sure to fit the setting and context of the campaign as previously agreed upon.
  • Tropes: Ex. ‘The Big Evil killed my family’ or ‘I got raped and was never the same again’ as a reason to set out on your adventure. While not always as original or interesting to some, tropes can give the rest of your party an immediate idea and feel of what your character is about. The same is true for stereotyping. Avoid it if you want, just know that stereotypes aren’t always a bad thing.
  • Writing story hooks: Using story hooks to better the story and flow of a game is a staple of both the GM AND the player. Adding things to your background may prove useful as story hooks or plot utilities in certain situations. As mentioned before, being a nobles son may get you certain benefits in your families domain. Proper housing, a meal or even some credibility with the local guard. However, overplaying your hand on such things may result in your GM dealing out swift justice to end your story hook abuse.
    If everything you do seems to ride on the fact that ‘your dad owns a dealership’ or that you ‘know the president personally’, you’re doing it wrong and things may quickly backfire on you both out- and in-game. If everything can be solved by dropping your dad’s name, then why are you playing? In extreme cases, your dad may give you an angry phone call about all the shit you’ve been causing for him and disown you. Thus having forced your GM to end the hook and give you a negative experience during the game.
    That said, if you can give a good reason as to why your criminal background would likely have you store some extra empty barrels in a safe location somewhere, it will likely happen and get you some brownie points or good karma with your GM (to spend on later fuck ups most likely). Again, do note that your GM will always have to read and clear your BG first before you can even attempt to use bits from it to further the plot. If you suddenly decide (during play) that you are the true heir to the throne all along as part of your background and your GM has not cleared this info beforehand, your GM has every right to say ‘no’ and call you a dick for doing so. (The Call of Cthulhu example from earlier is a great example of abusing story hooks, which most players in that system are prone to do. You’l likely die anyway, so why not.)
  • Selectively exposing your BG: You may have written a few pages of background about some shady things your PC has done or is ashamed of. Or some things you wish to use as a big reveal to the rest of your party at a later date. In such cases, feel free hold back from sharing this information with your party. That said, unless expressly communicated with your GM, the GM must ALWAYS be able to see the full scope of your Background (and player sheets for that matter), as is their right and practically mandatory.
  • Adding a relation with another party member: Want to avoid mistrust among your party? Want to start the game without being strangers bunched together in a group and avoid the same old starting interactions? You could always decide (along with the relevant party members AND your GM) that you know each other before the game even starts. This does not need to be included in your BG to take effect but it may give your bond some added strength given the fact that you (as players) now agreed upon shared hardships and good times together. It may also serve as a basis for in-game story hooks. When writing it down, it gives you a moment to think about these things instead of just agreeing that you know each other and moving on.
  • Plot holes & inconsistent writing: Nothing pisses me off more (before play) than having to read a forced, garbled mess that you call a background… If in one paragraph you proclaim your father to be dead (and that for example the trauma was the reason you set out in the world) and in the next you say that while on the road you could always count on that same father to provide you with food and shelter, without any explanation as to why he’s suddenly alive again…..You’re doing it wrong!
    A GM cannot expect their players to be on the same literary level as a professional writer but seriously, take the time to read what you have written and get the bugs out. Check your spelling. Ask yourself if what you have written down makes actual sense. Mistakes may still happen, but at least you have shown yourself willing enough to try and deliver a proper BG and your GM will thank you for it.
  • The Mary Sue: The worst kind of offense during play AND while writing a BG. If you’ve designed a Mary Sue, you are asking to either get a ‘no’ from your GM or for rocks to fall on your character to kill them off (likely in the first session). There is no such thing as the perfect life. No, you can’t have god powers or a +20 on every roll just because your background says you are just ‘that’ good at something. In fact, its likely you were in fact NOT fathered by Zeus en hence you are not a demi-god. Seriously? Did you really graduate from the navy seals, spetsnaz and SAS? You’re also a Buddhist Deity and know all forms of martial arts? You’re a sheriff of the current city your in and you’re an actual living Angel? Really? Who are you? Steven Seagal?
    I am… ‘that’ good!

    If you start with such a resume, then why are you playing? Seriously, just be humble and let the story build your character. Since you will likely all start at the same level and will still get your ass handed to you just the same as the rest. Ex military? Great, but be a corporal instead of a general. Worlds greatest thief? Ok, how about just ‘well known’ or very good, but aiming to be the best? In a setting like exalted and you’re an actual demi-god? Ok, just know that there are likely other demi-gods around who are stronger than you (your party for example) so there is no reason to go full Thulsa Doom to those around you. You get the idea.

Everything else is fair game. Just confer with your GM and have them clear your BG first. As always, communicating and working together will net you the most result and will make for a better playing experience.

I hope this has helped


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.