View Full Version : What Makes A 'Good' Background?

2007-09-15, 09:17 AM
Half in attempt to defeat my own writers block, and the little disruption on the forum, I've decided to ramble on abit and try to pin down just what makes a good back story.

Rule 1: "Always write to at least one person - arguably it should always be yourself."

This rule is to help us write. We're not writing to impress the other party members. We're either writing for ourselves, to help us define how we're going to play our character, or for the DM- to make our character more than a free floating character in our campaign. Once we write a back story, the DM can go ahead and weave all us into his word. We're part of the story, from before the time the story even happens. I've always encouraged players to help their DM build their world. This can really help get anyone focused and into the story.

Rule 2: "Back stories are like a skirt. Long enough to cover the important bits, but short enough to keep it interesting!"

If you write a 12 page back story, odds are you're over doing it. This is a game you play for X hours a week/month/year. The focus -isn't- what they did in the past. It's what they're doing now that makes them interesting. It's a very rare scenario to travel through one's prior life. Keeping it short keeps us focused on our goal.

That'll do it for rules. The rest of it, we decide on an individual case..

Scene vs Summary: These are two of the engines for writing; novels frequently find a balance between them both. We could go that route and blend them, but you run the risk of running on and on..

Pure Summary allows us to see all of PC's past trials, family ties, schooling.. but it doesn't often allow us to catch the moments of doubt, the terror of black orcs killing our fathers, or detail. But it's a damn good way to keep it simple.

Scene Allows us to paint the specifics of how our brave adventurers got their knees to stop wobbling and take their first swing with a sword, the escalation as pure magic shoots from their fingertips. If you find yourself wanting to kick your literally skills, a single scene can lead to much inspiration of how your half-orc will respond the next time death's icy grip claws at his heart.

A mix is generally what you want- Hit all the important notes, but really milk one scene for all those precious details.

Perspective: Who's telling the story, really. 1st person (as the character sees it) or the omniscient 3rd, (who can convey our character's feelings, as well as other's, and thoughts as they know -all details-) or Objective 3rd (A narrator with no insight to how anyone's mind works. they simply veiw and report).

1st person can be awkward for some. Without a firm sense of who the character is, writing this from the get go can be tough. But it allows you to concentrate on what the character thinks, feels and sees (or doesn't see!).

3rd person is often easiest. We know our distance from the narrator and generally, we are that narrator and trust them to accurately tell the story. We get facts, cold and hard. Sometimes, it helps the DM and yourself to have "Sir William Trusts his giant otter, Squiddy". There's not much to argue with.

This may be added to: but I need sleep right now.

Haha. Forgot: revision. ALWAYS REVISE YOUR WRITING. Not just in spelling/grammar, but go and look through the ideas you slammed onto paper or internet space; do they match up; are the ideas coherent; did you leave any unintentional loose ends? I just realized I didn't hit my intent by any means. So I'll invoke you forum goer's: "What makes a good backstory?"

2007-09-15, 09:26 AM
Epp... NO Background?

You know, There is good news like no news?

I usually write something for my players... little short stories about half a page. This is because:

a) I have lazy players who don't like to write background.
b) I get the exceptional player who want to put everything into his/her background - you know, gods as their great grand daddy type of stories.
c) I put in little bits and stuff that I use as plot hooks later during the game.


OBeQuiet UWannaBe

Shas aia Toriia
2007-09-15, 09:28 AM
Well, it's good advice, but seems to me as a tad obvious (the advice you give).

For back story, I usually just do a summary of life, and maybe a little more detail for the last year or so, but even then not much. It also helps to give NPC's in the backstory, because then, the next person you meet for the adventure isn't "That dragon slayer", but "Aryal, Slayer of a Hundred Dragons, and your childhood idol."

2007-09-15, 09:33 AM
Thankfully my players are pretty steadfast in coming up with backgrounds. (The campaign's part of our school's creative writing club's set of activities, in any case) Part of what I consider to be a good backstory is detail. Not verbose detail, but words that summon the imagination. Like my creative writing professor always used to say:

"Show, don't tell."

In order to show and not tell, here's our rogue's backstory. It's gotten a bit long now since she's using this as a writing exercise, but I don't think it's become any less good.

2007-09-15, 09:45 AM
To be perfectly honest, I never bothered with writing detailed background. I just detailed character's sympathies, antipathies, where he comes from, etc. I prefer to define my character by that s/he does in game, not in backstory that probably won't come up anyway.

2007-09-15, 09:50 AM
Well, it's good advice, but seems to me as a tad obvious (the advice you give).

There was recently(and there have been more) a rather nasty clash regarding someone's backstory. So, I think, this might be an attempt to circumvent that sort of thing, by providing advice that others haven't heard.

Shas aia Toriia
2007-09-15, 09:52 AM
There was recently(and there have been more) a rather nasty clash regarding someone's backstory. So, I think, this might be an attempt to circumvent that sort of thing, by providing advice that others haven't heard.

Sorry, I've been gone the last few days, so. . .

2007-09-15, 10:17 AM
Good background on an interesting character:

Who are they?
Where do they come from?
What are they into?
What do they dislike?
What did they do before setting off to save the world?
Oh, and potential plothooks for the GM. Lots of 'em.
As for presenting background: have it come out as character colour, passing comments and assumed knowledge during play. How do you know so much about recurring characters in yer fave TV shows or movies? Yep. Work in your character colour in the same way. Take a couple of quirks, traits, hobbies or whatever and slowly build on them.

Don't bother writing out more than about a paragraph before play begins. The other players will (rightly) just go "tl;dr" at this textwall infodump, and get on with playing the game.

Funny thing that. We call it background, but by-and-large introduce it in media res. :smallwink:

2007-09-16, 01:16 AM
I'm inclined to have a slightly different take.

My approach was inspired by something I read about worldbuilding and writing fantasy, and is best suited for those people who really need to write like anything (and have the room to decide their circumstances): Have two sets of background.

The first--write like there's no tomorrow. Old friends, old enemies, silly little bits of information, anything that might be even remotely relevant. Or a bunch of events in first-person that give you a good idea how the character works. Or whatever your style is. And then file it. This version is the part that gets you into the character's head, but your GM really isn't going to need that much and would probably be overwhelmed by it. (Some GMs may vary; I have one who will cheerfully read just about anything I put out, but in general, if they haven't asked for detail you should ask before giving them anything more than the basics.)

Then you condense it down in to the meat and potatoes. Description, little bit of history, little bit of plothookable motivations. Be minimalistic. This is the one you're giving to whoever's in need of it, and it's basically the least amount they need (unless they tell you they want more, of course). The rest can come up during play.

2007-09-16, 02:09 AM
all you need for a background is enough information to define the decisions your PC will make in the game. some players want more and some want less than this. so it should be short and to the point, like this:

Alignment: this is a very rough definition for your PCs basic actions

Likes: what things does the PC like, 3 is fine
Dislikes: what do they Dislike? again 3 is plenty
Interests: outside of their class what does your PC enjoy doing? 2 is heaps

Corrupter: the one element of your PC that could damn him. Ale, gambling, stealing. that one thing that could turn your Paladin into a Blackgaurd.
Redeemer: the one redeeming element to your PC. the helpless, the poor maybe kittens. its the ray of light that might redeem your PC.

for example:

Anakin Skywalker
Alignment: LE
Likes: Speeders, Padme
Dislikes: Hypocrisy, fools
Interests: building droids, Pod Racing
Corrupter: Power
Redeemer: His Children

It doesn't feel like a lot on paper but its enough to make decisions on in game, and that is what will define your PC. his actions in the game, not those he made in a 4 paragraph backstory (not that there is anything wrong with a PC having a personal history).

2007-09-16, 05:02 AM
No written background at all, instead a solid (and concise) character concept.

2007-09-16, 09:36 AM
I don't like the usual 3rd Person background. For most of the forum games, I write up a short scene, containing my character and 1-2 others who reveal the character's history, mannerisms and goals through a dialogue. This method will not cover anything about the character, but it should give the others a feel about how the character will act later.
Also...it works as a training for me. I can see how well I can put together lines for the character.

2007-09-16, 09:51 AM
Hmm. With the exception of Earl, everyone's tossed some good advice into the ring, so allow me my two cents -

- The "flow" of your backstory can be a powerful tool in indicating character personality - simply how your words flow together and what words are chosen can tell a wealth of information without dumping it on the reader's head. Like Alan said above, Show, Don't Tell.

- Heroes are unusual. This is an iron fact of RPGs. But your character doesn't -need- to be waaaay out there every time to make an interesting backstory. Honestly, what interests you more - Malkav Brinth, another generic tiefling struggling against his evil side, or Kristina Lightheart, a neophyte paladin who is absolutely dependant on having a purpose in her life to the point where she becomes suicidal after a mission is complete?

- While we're at it, backstories are not something to use as an excuse to powergame. You did not recieve the Sword of Kas directly from your god. However, they -can- prove interesting springboards for homebrew concepts, IF YOU WORK WITH YOUR DM. I've made countless templates, feats, and PrCs just trying to fit a character's backstory.

- Have fun with it! Your backstory doesn't need to be a chore. Heck, make a funny one in a serious game sometime and just see what happens.

2007-09-16, 10:09 AM
I've always had little stock in backgrounds both as a player and a GM. The reason for this is that the vast majority of PCs I've seen grow into who their own in time. They acquire quirks, "hm why would this character have this ability?" moments, and likes and dislikes (Did you hear Hida Zuchika doesn't like merchants?). Often a long background ends up confining a character's growth in game.

You do need a bit of a background or character description before a game. I has to be enough so the other players and especially the GM know what you're playing. This avoids issues like "he's a lone wolf lol!" or "he wouldn't become a pirate (for a pirate game)."

Now there's another problem with backgrounds. Some GMs like to hurt your character due to their backgrounds. An example is that my friend was playing a Vampire character. One of his hobbies was PKing people in Diablo 2. The GM then said "He's addicted to this and therefore has to do at least an hour of this every night or take a penalty on social skills." My friends response was "Wow, I've being penalized for fleshing out my character." This greatly encourages the "my family is dead and I don't have real friends and I didn't do nothing" character since fleshing out a character can hurt you. Now it's okay to have characters with flaws. But you should plan for those not get them thrust upon you by the GM. Hero system does a good job of this by making flaws/disadvantages a part of character creation (you have to take X points of flaws).

Viscount Einstrauss
2007-09-16, 10:40 AM
I like having backstory pieces that will actually affect the game. Like right now- I'm playing as a knight from a long line of knights who believes he was given a vision by the gods that he was to become king of the world, and now he's borderline obsessive about this. I left my family alive back for three generations and active in the backstory as well- not too terribly interesting, but they make for good plot hooks. His die-hard reverence for St. Cuthbert is very important to how I roleplay him, as though he has a bit of possibly misguided megalomania (I've left it up to the DM whether the visions he thinks he saw were real or not) he refuses to acquire his rule through injustice or any form of dishonorable means.

In summation, a good backstory should aid in the direction of your roleplaying. If it won't change your roleplaying, then it's mostly inconsequential.

2007-09-16, 10:45 AM
"Wow, I've being penalized for fleshing out my character." This greatly encourages the "my family is dead and I don't have real friends and I didn't do nothing" character since fleshing out a character can hurt you. Now it's okay to have characters with flaws. But you should plan for those not get them thrust upon you by the GM. Hero system does a good job of this by making flaws/disadvantages a part of character creation (you have to take X points of flaws).

So does Vampire, actually - I believe addiction is a 2-point flaw. Shame on your DM for not giving him the points for it if he's going to force it on him.

There's always the Camarilla's 13 Questions for Character Approval, which I've found helpful as an ST/DM/GM in the past. They're somewhat vampire-centric, but I've used them for both Changeling and D&D with little modification:

1. What does your character hope to accomplish in the near future; why these particular goals?
2. What are your characters long term goals?
3. What is the real reason the character is where they are?
4. What gives your character reason to continue existing?
5. What are his/her greatest joys and fears?
6. Which emotions are the primary drives for your character?
7. How does your character view the mortal world and its events?
8. What major events shaped your character's past; what were the pivotal moments?
9. What are your character's relations with his/her clan/tribe/court/kith/etc?
10. How will this character make the game more enjoyable for others?
11. What will this character add to the game?
12. Why do you want to play this concept in particular?
13. How will you be like a storyteller in the play of your character?

2007-09-16, 04:25 PM
My RM GM had us write a description/back story for the place our characters were from before we made our characters. It was an interesting take. It put the ideas of society vs. the individual and exactly what pressures were put on our characters growing up into our heads before we made our characters.

Generally, however, I don't "write down" character back stories, because, well, I don't know why. I usually take a week thinking about the char after I've made it until we're playing asking questions, describing his key ring, the usual character writing things. I just very rarely write them down.

2007-09-16, 04:49 PM
I think a decent amount of background can help players and gm to craft the world that everyone wants to play. (if homebrew) but if its a out of the box setting then having a character that belongs to the world is also very important

Decent means however much the character needs to be played realisily for the player.

I like writing backgrounds because i need to make the character real for me but i also think how steryotype the character is also has a effect how much back story you need for him/her aswell.

Anyway do what you need to make it real for you in short.

2007-09-16, 04:53 PM
Places to go, the story of your character is In-medias-res. Alot of backstories ive seen tend to be complete stories with begginings, middles, and ends. Meaning that the character is the person who has done X, not the person who wants to do X.
Also, simplicity, if your backstory requires an index, its proably too complicated.

2007-09-16, 05:11 PM
What I particularly enjoy are those rare occasions when the GM uses a something I put in my character's background for a plothook.

It's an awesome feeling.