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From Screenplay to RPG: Character Backgrounds (For the GMs)

From Screenplay to RPG: Character Backgrounds (For the GMs)

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827When you get your players to develop detailed histories, they will see them as ways to explore their own characters, but you, as the GM, know what they really are: game generating fodder.

When I’m writing a screenplay, I interweave my plot with the backgrounds of my characters. Often I find ways for the plot to intrude on the character’s lives in order to create emotional conflict. It is why, in action movies, the bad guys break into the hero’s home or family’s home. It makes the plot personal.

In RPGs we have a bit more freedom, but screenwriting has taught me that a good background should provide you with everything you need to create campaign hooks, locations, and nonplayer characters (NPCs) specific to that character. It is where you find people to help or hate them, places they should fear or love, and plots they want to get involved in or can’t avoid.

If you are running a goal-oriented game, the elements you pull from a background link the character to aspects of the world, generating emotional gravitas where none might currently exist. Basically it’s a way to make your players care about what is going on. After all, they might not give two coppers about the plight of a small village, but if their sister lives in that village it suddenly becomes personal.

In a sandbox game, on the other hand, these elements actually become the plot lines of the campaign. If a player says that her character is trying to find her missing father, that goal should spawn all manner of clues, roadblocks, breakthroughs, and obstacles leading to the emotional reunion.

How to Use a Character’s Background

The major areas in a character background that you want to pull from are NPCs, locations, and events. As I mentioned in part 1 (For the Players), these should be as detailed as possible, but since not all players bring the same level of enthusiasm to the game, at the very least, they should name specific names.

Make a list of the NPCs who played a role in the character’s life. If the player has given you names, great! If not, go back to the player with questions. Character backgrounds should be a joint creative process, not a test. Hopefully, the background itself provided these NPCs’ personalities and/or goals. If not, add them. For me, creating this list generates some campaign ideas. Don’t forget to jot those down! That said, you shouldn’t feel compelled to fill in all the blanks. Having some ready-to-go background-linked NPCs is a great thing to have in your back pocket. When you need to tie a character to something during the course of the campaign, you can whip out one of these NPCs and just drop him or her into place.

Now, do the same thing with locations that you did with NPCs. If you know the map of the world, you can place these locations ahead of time, giving you areas that are emotionally connected to certain characters. If you don’t know the map, you have a bit more freedom to add in locations. My suggestion in either case is to foreshadow the location by giving hints to the characters that they are approaching such a place. These hints can be anything from NPCs mentioning “I passed by the old battlefield a day ago, you know, the one where the king died?” to something as simple as a road sign for “Jardor’s Ford.” The list of locations should give you some ideas to use to torture…er…provide fun gaming experiences for your players and their characters.

One thing not to do is expect your players to know that their character witnessed the king’s death on the battlefield or that a character’s sister lives in Jardor’s Ford. Don’t expect it, because they probably won’t remember. You will pour over their character backgrounds whereas your players might not have ever looked at them again once they hand them to you. In many ways, you know their characters better than they do, so cut them some slack and pass them a note or whisper a reminder.

Much like locations, you will also want to make a list of the events that happen in a character’s life. Concentrate on larger events or ones with important significance. You don’t really need to know that the character learned to like kale during their tenth year. Where they learned to wield a sword or cast a spell, on the other hand, can generate game elements.

Given enough details, a savvy GM can pull game elements we have discussed from any background entry simply by asking questions. For example, if a player says his character suffered a brutal assault as a teen, you can generate NPCs (who assaulted him?), locations (where did this happen?), and events (what if he runs into the assaulter again?). Almost instantly you have a whole plotline.

3 thoughts on “From Screenplay to RPG: Character Backgrounds (For the GMs)”

  1. Charles Carrier

    Okay, you inspired me when you wrote “You don’t really need to know that the character learned to like kale during their tenth year.”


    Tor Grundwald looked back at the group of pilgrims he was escorting. Their horses, all of them, were gravitating to the right side of the road. No doubt lured by the scent of kale; the field next to the road was lush with a ripe crop, ready for harvest.

    “Keep to the middle of the road,” he called back to them. Most heeded his words, but one man’s mount had already reached the edge of the field. As Tor watched, the nag lowered its head and ripped half the leaves off the nearest plant without ever breaking stride.

    Tor sighed and turned his horse toward the miscreant. The nag was chewing noisily, still strolling along the roadside, already eyeing its next target.

    “Don’t worry”, said Tor as he leaned over and took the horse’s bridle. “It’s not your fault you have a bad master. You won’t be punished for his shortcomings.”

    The man protested as Tor turned the nag’s head away from the field. “It’s just a few heads of lettuce. Who cares? The farmer will never miss them.”

    Without a word, Tor hefted his axe and backhanded the rider. The first blow was enough to kill the man, but Tor struck twice more before the corpse even had a chance to topple from the saddle. The man’s horse whinnied and tried to shy away, but Tor spoke softly and quickly calmed it.

    Jayzen blinked his eyes in astonishment, then spurred his horse to gallop the short distance back to his adventuring partner. “Tor, what the hell? We’re supposed to be protecting these people, not chopping them up!”

    “There are plenty of oats for the horses, but kale is for people. I like kale.”

    Jayzen achieved the impossible by looking even more astonished. Tor continued forward as his friend sat speechless. Finally Jayzen turned his horse and caught up to Tor.

    “You just killed a man,” said Jayzen.


    “You killed him over a head of cabbage! Not even your cabbage, but someone else’s cabbage!”

    “Lettuce,” answered Tor.


    “Kale is lettuce, not cabbage. I don’t like cabbage.”

    Jayzen’s usually-mellow voice was becoming shrill. “Tor, you are completely missing the point!”

    Tor fixed his eyes on the horizon. “When I was ten, it rained all summer. All the crops rotted in the field before they were ripe enough for harvest. All but the kale. Kale likes rain. In the famine that followed, I had a choice. Eat kale, or eat the raw flesh off my dead mother’s body.“ He took a deep breath before continuing. “I also learned to how fight with an axe that summer. That’s how I kept the wolves away from her long enough to bury her.”

    Jayzen swallowed what he had been about to say. A famine twenty years ago, no matter how horrible, was not sufficient reason to kill a man now. But he would never convince his friend of that.

    Tor glanced back at the column of pilgrims. They were all riding in the exact center of the road, lined up nose to tail with near military precision.

    Tor let a grim smile curl his lips. “I like kale,” he said quietly.

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