Okay, to be honest, I really like the picture for the post because, hello… Death Metal Lawn Gnome Bard!?! Hell yes! More importantly, is the nod this awesome picture of insanity and text gives to gestaltism and the idea that the whole (the Player Character in this example) is primary to the sum of its parts (stats, equipment, powers, etc.), which are all secondary. Robert’s article last week, “I Was a Teenage Munchkin,” and the recent creation of a Sundered Skies character for a play-by-post game made me want to look into something that I’ve always taken great stock in, character backgrounds, and give my two cents on the topic.
Now, since it’s late, the reference to gestalt is probably as heady as the article will dare to be, but in a nutshell, every player at one time or another has allowed the “tangible” stats, powers, and equipment written on a character sheet to be what defines them. Sure, everyone around the table understands what Sir Stabby McHolysword is a Paladin of Pelor, has a bad-ass white stallion, and can one-shot just about any evil thing thanks to his Holy Avenger. That’s all well and good, but the real question about Sir Stabby is thus: Which is more important – What the character does and how he does it, or who is the character and why does he do it? That is where character background, and all the benefits it reaps, come in.
Something is Better than Nothing – Often times, when a GM lays a background requirement at a player’s feet, it can seem like a chore. However, even the most motivators can serve as a useful exercise for the player, in addition to providing a valuable tool to the GM to help the story progress. Like Robert had mentioned, the typical “Batman Approach” (my parents are dead) is pretty cliché, but at least it is something. Personally, I have a tendency to go overboard (if you’ve listened to the podcast, you’ll understand), even in the early days of gaming, but only once we found ourselves engaged in an actual ongoing campaign. When you’re rolling up a new character every week for a dungeon crawl or bar fight, the why is far less important than the what. However, once that character begins delving deeper into the story being told, why and how they act quickly takes top priority.
Adventure Hooks – From a GMing perspective, having even a few tidbits of information regarding a character’s past can open countless doors for the story and campaign ahead. One of the hardest steps when starting and running a game is figuring out how to railroad the PCs into working together and also making them think it was their own idea. Additionally, because the point of a role-playing game is to tell a story collectively, giving the GM opportunities to make an encounter or setting personal at one time or another to each PC helps to keep the players engaged and really adds to the depth, tension, and excitement of the game.
Character Motivation – While often times a little character background can simply serve as flavor text, it really helps the player to understand how to play their character. When creating a character, a player should ask themselves why they are taking this or that power, or such and such skill. Backgrounds can potentially keep power-gaming to a minimum, while also encouraging players to add an extra challenge for themselves during a game. My limited experience with games such as Savage Worlds and Hero System have shown me that, while hindrances can often serve as a gateway to gaining an extra benefit, they can also really help to define who the character is. For example, my AD&D 2E dwarf had self-imposed penalties for being an alcoholic (he was either drunk or hung over at any given time), a condition that was a result of the fantasy equivalent of PTSD, along with the paradoxical situation of being both disgraced and exiled from his homeland while simultaneously being destined by his god to be its savior. That’s how I roll!
So in closing, because I need sleep, don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild when it comes to the why of a character. Bounce ideas off of other players and your GM before, during, and after character creation. After all, you’re going to be playing that character’s life, so you might as well make it interesting, unlike Dwight Schrute.