Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When do you write your character background?

I discovered something interesting about myself.  I can no longer create a character without creating a character background.  The background may change significantly during the character creation process, but it informs so many of my choices that I simply cannot continue unless I write something up.

In case you don't recognize it, this is the Holy Symbol of Wee Jas This really became clear to me a couple of weeks ago when I had to make up a character for a D&D 3.5 game that a friend of mine was running.  I had already decided I was creating a Crusader/Cleric of Wee Jas who would be aiming towards the Ruby Knight of Wee Jas prestige class.  That is a pretty strong direction from the start, so I decided that I would skip writing my character background until after I finished the character.

Well, it seemed like a good idea.  I soon found that my character creation stalled when I was trying to determine skill and feat selection.  There seemed to be a number of equally good choices, so I waffled between them.  I then began to second guess ability score placement.  Finally I stopped the character creation process and decided to focus on the character background instead.

After I finished the character background I was able to finish the rest of character creation easily.

I know I tend to be a bit more into character background creation than some of my fellow Lords of Tyr, but I have to admit I was surprised how important character background had become to the overall character creation process to me.

So I was wondering, when do you create your character background?  Do you find it essential to the character creation process or is it jotted down as an afterthought?  Are your backgrounds elaborate or is “I was an orphan who took up the sword to make his fortune” sufficient?


Red Jack said...

Once upon a time I wrote lengthy, flowing backgrounds for nearly every character... I think my first 2nd Edition character had five pages of narrative written before I even picked up dice to roll his stats. It was fun, and it gave me a real incentive to play the character, but I always felt a little cheated when a game didn't continue for long and I didn't get to "finish the story."

Later on I'd slipped back to mechanically wringing every plus and bonus out of the system I could and generally wasn't concerned with background... in the exceedingly rare case that someone asked, I'd improv something vague but mildly entertaining, before and promptly forget all about it.

Recently I've gotten back to caring a bit more about the stories. While I don't write novellas anymore, (I'm finding people I game with only want to read it if they think they can get useful meta-game info) I do start with a concept and build on the story as I flesh out the character. While I've usually got a pretty strong concept in mind and he mechanical choices come from that, sometimes a passage in the books or a certain selection of skills sets off a bit of inspiration, and I wind up altering things a bit.

Pontifex said...

If you are interested in this kind of character depth, you should check out my free RPG; Synapse.

Anonymous said...

I found that proper role play of a character is impossible without a good picture and a solid background consisting of several pages of information. At least for me this is the case.

Besides I've heard of groups where characters are attacked and players treated poorly for having anything less.

Red Jack said...

I'm not sure If I'd want to play in a group like that or not...

I've always loved the opportunity to play with other folks who were interested in creating and playing a rich story but I hafta admit, bullying from RPers seems as tasteless and counterproductive as it is when it comes from the hack & slashers bashing "RP-#@&s."

benensky said...

This is another great article hero. I think about what I want to write in my character background than I write the character background. I am a bit lazier, when it comes to writing character backgrounds, than you are. However, the more I develop my character’s background the more I feel attached to that character and the more I enjoy playing him. In addition, the more I play a character the more I develop his background. I find the length playing the character and the more I develop a background works as a symbiotic coupling that helps me enjoy playing the character and the game.

Scafloc said...

Personally, I tend to do all my brainstorming as I make the character, fleshing things out after I have worked through the mechanics. I have discovered that in many cases, story elements which I normally would not consider are often introduced by some obscure rule or another, and wrangling them into a coherent plot is a fun challenge.

Medraut said...

@Red Jack - I do have to admit I can feel a bit cheated when I write up a full background and the game lasts a couple of sessions. It happens more often than I care to admit.

@Greg - I have bookmarked the site, I will check out the details soon. Interesting initial pitch though.

@Anonymous - I agree. I have found a good character background makes it extremely easy to determine what my character will do in certain situations, even if it is something I never considered when writing the background.

@Red Jack - I am a pretty deep roleplayer but... I agree that some people use "roleplay" as an excuse for bad behavior at the table. People do have to remember that everyone is taking time out of their busy lives to get together, game, and have a good time.

The real challenge is to find ways to roleplay effectively which are not an excuse for constant "Prima Donna" style attention grabs.

@benensky - Thanks for the complement. I like dynamic characters and think developing character backgrounds during play may be even more important than the initial writeup. Having a character who dislikes elves because of past events is interesting. Having one who eventually overcomes this feeling to become best friends with an elf is more interesting.

@Scafloc - I my character backgrounds often undergo radical changes during the character creation process. Just as often the character can change wildly with just a few revisions to the background. My favorite story of this type is my Brujah Vampire who became a Fianna Theurge Werewolf with only a few minor tweaks to my background.

Red Jack said...

"The real challenge is to find ways to roleplay effectively which are not an excuse for constant "Prima Donna" style attention grabs."

I'll admit I tend to get a bit carried away when it comes to telling my character's stories, and reigning in my own Prima Donna action has been a problem in the past. Something that seems to help (and encourage other players to avoid the same) is to start integrating other characters with mine during character creation. While I'm building backgrounds I'll work with some of the other players to start throwing the party together in meaningful ways, throwing together past relationships, general attitudes, ways for them to compliment eachother, etc.

DMs seem to appreciate it, as it frequently takes the pressure of getting the party together off of them, and it's somethign I've encouraged my players to do when I GM since it seems to result in a lot more cooperation in the group--in and out of character.

Kinocetus said...

I never mind when people role play to their character's background so long as it isn't a prelude to bad behavior. "I was just doing what my character would do", or "I was just playing my character the way I made him" are call signs of the JERK player and shouldn't be tolerated. Hence ground rules I use are as follows…

Character Creation Rules
1) Never create a character that has an automatic switch, malfunction or mental defect that requires him/her to attack anyone or anything. This is often used by Jerk players as an excuse for PVP combat and tends to derail the game.
2) Never create a character that is openly hostile to others. Being gruff or reclusive is okay, but you cannot be a lone ranger if you want to allow other players to have fun.
3) Never create a character whose race or affiliation makes them (and or) their associates automatically the target for all NPCs, or would automatically become the enemy of the group. Lawful Good group and new Chaotic Evil character, not the best bed fellows.
4) Never create a character without consulting your DM… If the DM is okay with what you've created everyone else should fall in line.

Game Play Rules
1) Role Play to the size and makeup of the group. If you are amongst others who love to role play and the group is small, great! If you're in a large group or somehow consists of players who just want to hack and slash, keep role play to brief moments and watch reactions.
2) Never monopolize the moment, unless the DM has specifically tailored a moment for you, and then keep it brief.
3) Never engage in PVP combat unless the DM and player have previously signed off on that combat, and then do as little harm as possible using disarm attempts and the like. Attacking other player characters is an out-right sign of disrespect and should never be allowed.

I can live with rules like this and I imagine most other players could to.

Medraut said...

@Red Jack - I have always liked the concept of interwoven backgrounds as well. I remember West Ends Star Wars game recommended each character figure out some way they were connected to two other characters. It didn't have to be a big thing, it could just be that both of you attended the same academy or something, but it really did increase group cohesiveness.

@Kinocetus - I agree with most of what you said. In fact, I had a future post in mind about this subject that hit most of these same points. Now I am trying to decide if I still need to do it.

Red Jack said...

"In fact, I had a future post in mind about this subject that hit most of these same points. Now I am trying to decide if I still need to do it."

Go for it, says I.

Expand, expound, add, spin, and tinker. Give me another excuse to goof off at the office. ;)

Kinocetus said...

I mirror Red Jack's feelings, haza!