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.