Saturday, September 7, 2013

Incorporating Player Backgrounds into Your Chronicle

            One of my few House Rules is that players receive 2 experience points (or a few hundred XP in D&D or Pathfinder) if they submit a 1 page, typed background.  I like using this rule because it forces the players to create a history for their character and to explain how their new character fits into the world.  The character is no longer just a set of points on a character sheet.  He/she has some history that will inspire the player’s role play.  Also, I’ll have some idea of how that character will be played.  Player backgrounds also provide a great resource for Storytellers to exploit if they need complications, antagonists, or allies for their stories.  Backgrounds are also the first place I would look if I wanted to create a side-quest. 
            Assuming the players actually write backgrounds (many don’t even when they are offered free XP) and you’re now looking at their backgrounds, just how do you use them?  The first and most important step is to realize that your plot is not carved into stone tablets.  Your plot is mutable, and you should be willing and happy to adjust it to fit with the players’ histories.  Every plot that you develop is going to need a big, bad, evil guy. Why can’t that villain be the Sire of one of the Player Characters or the woman who murdered one of the PC’s brothers?  The best advice that anyone can give a Storyteller or Game Master is “adapt” to your players and embrace their ideas.  Role playing is collaborative storytelling; you should be collaborating with those people across the table.  Sure, it may seem convenient that the six-fingered man who killed the fighter’s father is also the evil prince’s enforcer, but players will enjoy having their back stories become a part of the party’s or coterie’s adventure.
            More important than the antagonists are the players’ allies.  In Storyteller System games like Vampire the Masquerade, Allies are listed on the character sheet and can either be a few dots that add to a roll or they can be fully fleshed out characters.  I recommend the latter.  Allies, Contacts, Mentors, Retainers, and even Herds should all be introduced and explained in the character’s history.  The Storyteller should work with his players to fully develop these characters because these NPCs can help flesh out a city adding depth to an otherwise one dimensional gothic punk landscape.   If a player has a Contact at the local police precinct or in the mayor’s office, those NPCs can be used to both pass along information about the plots and to reinforce the mood of the game.  If the city is crumbling under corruption caused by the constant meddling of vampires in the city’s politics then the mayor’s office may be trying to declare bankruptcy or stop an impending bankruptcy.  This will highlight the desperation of the city’s officials and could provide opportunities for the players to either help the city or profit from the upcoming bankruptcy.  In this example, the mood of corruption and decay is reinforced and the players have been introduced to side-quest where they can either help the city or improve their own resources by taking advantage of the faltering city government.  Whatever the players choose to do, the city now has greater depth just by exploiting these NPCs. 
            Another way to mine a character’s back story is to have the antagonist kill one of the NPCs from that character history.  The Backgrounds section on the character sheet is not inviolate.  This is a chance to hit the players where it hurts.  Not only do they lose points (which will rile up even your power-gamer) but they lose access to characters that they care about (especially if one of your players gets attached to NPCs).  It’s important that the players like the character you’re killing off, otherwise the death loses its impact.  The death of an NPC Mentor or Ally should be meaningful and serve a purpose within the story.  If every NPC that the players meet and develop a friendship with starts to drop dead then the players will stop developing those friendships.  I would suggest that the death of an important NPC that the players like should happen only once or twice per Chronicle and no more than that.  Killing off a major NPC also increases the tension of combat because the players start to realize that anyone could die.  Much like Game of Thrones, as the body count builds up, the reader/viewer has no idea which character will die next.  Unlike Game of Thrones you don’t want to kill everyone because the players won’t get attached to characters that they know are going to die. 
This isn't a spoiler.  Everyone knows that Sean Bean dies regardless of the plot.
            For most people family is one of the most important things in their lives.  The same could be true for the average PC.  Unfortunately, many players don’t take the time to discuss their family, and if they give any though to them, it’s only to note that they died in an accident or were killed by muggers.  However, if players take the time to describe their family, then it’s important to bring those characters into the game.  Those of you familiar with Kindred the Embraced, the Fox TV Series based on Vampire the Masquerade, may remember that even the city’s Prince still kept tract of his descendents, protecting them when he could.  Like Mentors and Allies, killing off a PC’s family is a great way to add tension and drama, but family is also a source of assistance and support when a character is down.  Can a character who has fought terrible monsters and made deals with creatures more terrible than the devil himself return home?  How does a character react when he runs into his sister while out hunting for blood?  Can a character explain why she can only come out at night to a worried parent? 
            Family also provides a point of comparison between what the character was and what the character has become.  This is especially useful for characters who have lost their Humanity or who have changed to one of the Paths of Enlightenment.  When a beloved family member retreats in terror from a character’s monstrous demeanor, it will highlight just how far the character has fallen.  This same narrative device can be used in Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Star Wars or any other RPG just as effectively.  Rather than just showing how evil a character may have become over the course of an adventure, this technique is wonderful for emphasizing the growth of a character.  A wizard who has spent the last 5 years and 15 levels traveling the world, battling dragons and aberrations, and even exploring the Outer Planes will have nothing in common with his family when he returns home.  How would his family react to the return of a relative who can cast spells that could destroy the entire village?  Does the wizard have anything in common with these commoners who farm and hunt for a living?  The shock of that meeting would be a great opportunity for role play. 
            Whether they are contacts at the local police precinct or a loving, worried sister, NPCs from a character’s back story provide depth and complications to an ongoing plot.  Like Superman or Spiderman, the protagonist will often go to great lengths to protect his loved ones.  In Vampire the Masquerade the PCs will have to protect their family and friends from their own bloodlust as well as from their antagonists.  Family members get kidnapped.  They get into trouble with the law.  They get swindled by conmen.  These are all examples of great complications and side-quests that could be created from a PC’s history. As much fun as it is to exploit a player’s history for complications, it’s just as important to use that history to help the player solve dilemmas.  More often than not, family and friends are a source of support and comfort rather than complications.  Allow players to have this support when they need it.  If nothing else, it offers opportunities for role play when a vampire PC runs back to his family because he has no other place to go. 
Batman, Spiderman, your PC...being a parent is a death sentence!
            If the PC’s family was murdered by a mugger in some back alley during a visit to the local cinema (most likely to see The Mask of Zorro), a Storyteller or Game Master can still make use of the character’s family.  What happens when this angst filled character runs across the man who killed his parents when he’s out feeding one evening?  Does he kill the man?  Does he torture him?  These moral dilemmas can be the start of a character’s fall.  If he does lash out in rage, he’ll probably lose Humanity.  Small encounters like these that draw on a PC’s back story can make the events of the game much more personal and therefore more meaningful for the player. 
            Many players will write pages of character history and give their Storyteller tons of hooks and interesting NPCs that can be later introduced in game play.  Why not make use of these characters and plots?  Storytellers and Dungeon Masters wrack their brains all week to prepare a good adventure for their group, but if they took a moment to look over their player’s character histories they’d discover plenty of great plot hooks.  Player histories can provide allies, enemies, plot hooks, complications, and an array of other resources that can be exploited by a good Storyteller in any Chronicle.  Just make sure that when you’re developing stories from character histories that you balance the negative and positive. 
            Thank you Brian for suggesting this topic!   I am always looking for new topics to discuss whether it’s a book to review or a question about Storytelling.  Just send me an email or tweet with your topic!  Thanks!


  1. "Bad news, I'm afraid. Your baby's... a player character."

    I suspect a lot of player pre-emotively orphan their PCs so that (a) they can go adventuring with no major ties and (b) the GM can't kill their family as a motivational trick.

    1. I think that's a big mistake for players to make. If the players don't have ties to the world then what does it matter if the city gets overtaken by the Sabbat or the world gets conquered by the Evil Lich? Having family and friends gives a character a reason to care other than just getting more treasure or XP.

    2. And then relatives show up, wanting a share of the estate, or the authorities want to put you in foster care or up for adoption, or your uncle puts a claim on you because, at age 22, you're too young to be on your own.

      Or you find yourself having to pay homage and veneration to dad and mom because they are now honored ancestors and deserve such things. Or they harass and annoy your from the after life, and spread rumors about your lack of respect among mystics and mediums and similar types.

      City Official: According to my staff medium you burnt cheap incense to your late mother last Wednesday. If you can't honor your ancestors properly, how are we to trust you in any agreement you make with us?

    3. These are all the awesome things that I wish I could think up when I'm running a game and I need to come up with a complication based on something silly & cliche that the players are doing.
      I actually have some NPCs show up in my campaign that are parodies of the double katana wielding, trench coated loner, Blade Wannabes from the games that I ran in my college years. (I even played a few of these sadly).
      I'll bet your drive your players mad with all these little complications that you come up with!

    4. There are players for whom connections are inherently disadvantages. I try not to be the kind of GM who fosters this siege mentality.

    5. Absolutely, GMs are frequently the cause of this. It's either learned behavior from experience with GMs who abuse players or behavior learned from other players seeking a sort of optimized character, even going so far as to minimize the ways a GM can use their backgrounds.

  2. I think the fear of having detailed backgrounds for ones PC (like family, friends, etc.) comes from overzealous GM's using and abusing these backgrounds too quickly and too frequently. There's a temptation as a GM to make things "epic" and "meaningful"; what better way to do this than to burn their home village to the ground/murder their children/turn their siblings into monsters? If done too early and too frequently, this can feel "cheap" and manipulative--and players HATE feeling manipulated or forced by the GM into things. So why give them these easy targets. A list of family is just a hit list in many games.

    So, while I agree with your post, the major advice I would give is to use them judiciously. Sure, have the man who murdered your father be the Prince's enforcer, but do your best to resist the urge to kill off the PC's mother. These backgrounds can do wonders to flesh out the campaign, particularly by providing contrasts or different points of view to the goings on in the game.

    The best way that I've seen them be used is to focus on the bonuses they provide, and if possible to "downtime" interaction with them. Most groups, though not all, will find it awkward to roleplay a scene where the GM plays a PC's sister or lover or childhood friend. Talking "out of character" in these scenes can actually make the interaction MORE powerful, since you don't have a "Uncanny Valley" like effect happening. Also, let their Mom's house be a nice, secluded out of the way place where they can hide out, or their friends can function as "free" contacts or allies in certain cases--they're not just there to kidnapped by the big bad, but they're the guys that get you the customized ammo or a copy of a targets tax returns. Making them a real part of the game, and not just an awkward/emotionally manipulative plot bait, can really make the Chronicle come alive.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I agree with everything that you've said. You are right, I think of a lot GMs have "trained" their players over the years to be orphans & loners because the GMs use any family or friends as targets to be killed or captured for their plot. This plot element has been way overused and now players always play orphaned loners. I think the way to fix this is to have characters who have families get a benefit from that. They get a little extra support and have allies they can turn to.

      I have always had a problem playing "emotional" scenes because I'm just not very good at acting out those scenes. And I don't know anyone who is comfortable RPing a romantic scene.