Thursday, September 6, 2012

Campaign Workshop - Character Background

In the last Campaign Workshop post, I discussed a useful mechanism to kick-start your campaign building process.

Once you have the campaign slogan, it's time to start developing the campaign theme and story. Since Roleplaying Games are all about fun, and the definition of fun is different for different people, it's time to talk to the players and get their idea of what's fun and entertaining. The rule is simple:

Engaged players => Great game sessions.

At this point, all you have is a slogan and a half-baked idea of the campaign overall story. If you jump into the campaign development process (creating a full-blown story, detailing locations and NPC, thinking about sub-plots, power-groups, and all the other cool stuff we DMs drool on), you might end-up with a campaign that nobody wants to play. You might spend a lot of time building something your players would not find engaging. They will either suffer quietly, or just leave.

So how do we make sure that the campaign is engaging? Simple: we ask the players to provide backgrounds for their characters.

Character Background

Now here is the tricky part: some players find it infinitely boring/useless to write backgrounds for their characters, and for good reasons. A lot of DMs ask their players for lengthy backgrounds that get stuffed inside the DM's binder, never to see the light of day again.

Big Mistake.

The campaign is all about the players, and without player input, the campaign will go where ever the DM will steer it. Some find it a perfectly valid gaming experience, but I personally like (both as a DM and as a player) to be engaged, to have a lot of control of the setting, the action, the story and the events around me.

Character background is probably the first opportunity you (as the DM) have to learn about the player and find out what interests him. So how do we get the players to write good backgrounds for their characters?

Some guidelines:

  1. Character backgrounds can be short - even as short as a few sentences.
  2. The background should include a short-term, achievable goal.
  3. The background should include a complication.

That's it.

Think about it: all you need is something to start with. Make no mistake - if a player produces a lengthy background that include some goals and some interesting complications, by all means, thank him! But a few well-written sentences can also do the trick. Tell your players to come up with several sentences with a goal and a complication, and have their characters end up in a small town called Lakeside.

Here is what you might get:

  • Loan is the daughter of a once capable wizard, now a drooling madman due to a magical experiment that went really wrong. Placing her father is a sanatorium (with all the money she had), she seeks the aid of Magnus Amandas, a great wizard and a researcher of mental afflictions. Upon her arrival to the town of Lakeside, she found out that Magnus was recently assassinated, and now - probably due to her inquiries - she is being followed by the local assassins guild.
  • Tardas Longhorn - the dwarven prince of the kingdom of Ironfoot - is leading a small emissary of dwarves to the town of Lakeside, to deal with the growing threats of bandits on the trade road. Lakeside's mayor - Lord Arbor Gos - has hired a group of mercenaries to clean the roads of bandits, but the dwarves suspect that the mercenaries are actually working with the bandits. As Tardas and his dwarven guards enter the town of Lakeside, some rough looking men take note of them.
  • Pilir Devengil have just reached the town of Lakeside for the annual drinking contest. Overweight, smelly and broke, he has to win it to collect the prize and pay his step-mother for his lodging at her cabin. Dragging his large body on the way to the inn, he bumped into a noble, accidentally breaking the old man's glasses. The noble demands an absurd sum of money, threatening to use his connection with the local militia's commander to arrest Pilir for his rudeness.  
Taking the slogan you have in mind - what can you do with the above backgrounds? More importantly, what do these backgrounds say about the players?

You might notice that both Loan's and Tardas's players like a mystery. Loan's player might be interested in magic, and Tardas's player might like some diplomacy and nobility. Pilir's player might be in for some goofy moments, but he also might be interested in making money.

You might want to start thinking about linking the backgrounds, building a framework that will unite the stories and make them work together. Maybe Pilir's noble will make him work for him, sending him to work as a mercenary with the rough men that "guard the roads". Maybe Magnus Amandas was assassinated because found he out about a scheme to murder the dwarven prince about to come to town? Maybe the local assassins guild did not kill Magnus, and a guild-member who was an old friend of Magnus hopes to use the young woman to lure the real assassin?

Given good backgrounds, it's not hard to wrap your mind around them and create a basic story that will kick-start the campaign. You can always ask your players for background refinements if you find it hard to squeeze a good story out of them, but that refinement should be worked out by the player, after you explain the guidelines and why you need them.

Don't be afraid to tell your players that you want backgrounds that will help you create a better story for the campaign! If these stories will come forward at the very first session - the players will be totally engaged, making the first session unforgettable, and establishing a good basis for the rest of the campaign.

photo credit: quirkybird via photo pin cc

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