Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827Whether it is a few questions on an index card or a twenty-five page questionnaire, character backgrounds serve two important purposes in RPGs: For the characters they provide motivations and personality, and for GMs they provide ammunition for plot hooks, nonplayer characters, and campaign ideas.

Why does Indiana Jones hunt for treasures? Why does Emperor Palpatine hunger for control and power? It’s not just because one is an archaeologist and the other is a Sith. Those are jobs, not motivations. When I’m writing screenplays, I’ll often turn to a character’s history to explain why they do or act the way they do. Most of the time these histories never make it on screen, but rest assured they are in there somewhere. In RPGs, a savvy character history can provide you with not only concrete motivations for your hero’s quests but also the interesting flaws and quirks that differentiate a living, breathing character from a cardboard trope.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say that I was creating Fitz Braidbeard, a dwarf fighter, for a new campaign. Ho hum. We’ve all seen that a zillion times. But, when I start to develop the character’s background, I might start to ask questions like these:

What went wrong during your childhood?

Why did you learn to wield a weapon/holy symbol/spell/thieves’ tools?

What trauma or crisis led to your career as an adventurer?

Why do three people want you dead?

What are the quirks or mannerisms that people notice upon meeting you?

Notice how specific these questions are? I’m not asking “did anything go wrong,” I’m already suggesting that it did, and I now want you to invent what it was.

Good questions are only half the equation. The answers have to be equally interesting. Don’t go for the easy answers. After all, the people with the easy life don’t tend to go out and become heroes.

In terms of Fitz, our dwarf fighter, I might answers those questions like this:

What went wrong during your childhood?

When Fitz was thirteen, he inadvertently caused the destruction of his entire clan after being tricked into opening a key gate by a kobold cleric magically disguised as an alluring dwarf maiden.

Why did you learn to wield a weapon/holy symbol/spell/thieves’ tools?

After his clan’s death, Fitz learned the ways of the axe from a dwarven outcast named Togan in order to get his revenge on the kobolds.

What trauma or crisis led to your career as an adventurer?

Betrayed by Togan and handed over to the court of the dwarf high king, Fitz was blamed for breaking his clan and sentenced to death. He escaped, however, and left the underhalls to seek his fortune.

Why do three people want you dead?

Togan: While Fitz is alive, Togan cannot reclaim his position in dwarf society.

Captain Verras: Fitz escaped the royal dungeon during his watch, bringing him great shame.

Margat: Another survivor from Fitz’s clan, she has vowed to kill him for destroying the clan.

What are the quirks or mannerisms that people notice upon meeting you?

He is the angriest person you will ever meet. Very touchy about honesty and loyalty, and anything that impinges on those two elements makes him fly into a fit of rage and violence.

Fitz’s pathological hatred for kobolds makes him distrust anything with scales. Interestingly he also distrusts other dwarves.

The depth of detail that emerges from a character history is proportional to how much you put into it. The thing to remember is that interesting flaws will humanize your characters. Weakness, imperfections, quirks, vices, and fears make characters more real, and it gives you someplace to go with them. In screenwriting, this is the character arc, and this term basically means how a character changes over time.

One way to figure out an arc is to determine your character’s want vs. your character’s need. This is a screenplay maxim that we all learn in film school. The want/need equation is a novice screenwriting crutch, though; it is somewhat generic. In an RPG, what is generic in a script becomes useful.

Wants: What your character thinks he or she wants. This can be a long-term or a short-term goal.

Needs: What your character actually needs. This can be something he or she is aware of—or not.

Usually, the need is something that would be obvious to the character if not for that character’s blinding desire to get what he or she wants. A movie example would be the Wizard of Oz. The scarecrow wants a brain but needs to figure out he is smart without it. Fitz wants revenge against the kobolds, but what he needs is to reclaim his place among his own people.

As a player, you can create your character’s history and thereby figure out his or her motivations, quirks, and flaws. With that information, you can then construct a long-term arc that can carry your character from level 1 to level 20 if you want. Should it come to pass that you reach the end of an arc before the end of a campaign, just look back at your character’s career and history and develop a new arc.

That’s the great thing about well-constructed characters: they will grow and change just like real people. The fun is exploring those changes over the course of a campaign.

Next time I’ll outline just what the GM gets out of all of this.

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