Do We Even Need Character Backgrounds in RPGs?
The question posed in the title is open to many interpretations depending on a lot of factors: play style, gaming traditions and personal preferences...and that’s just for a start.
Modern gamers, brought up on the latest version of D&D (and other systems) may think that character background is an essential element in any RPG. To this group of players character motivation, history and details are at least as important as the mechanical and statistical aspects of their character.
Old school gamers, grounded in dungeon crawls, looting sprees and high monster kill totals, might rightly downplay the need for complex histories and backstory. While they might be mildly interesting to share in rare in-game social settings, they often do little to add success while adventuring and... they don’t gain the character any experience points!
Let’s immediately dispense with the edition wars argument, as well as the “absolute right or wrong” approach that is increasingly popular these days. Game systems have traditionally left this choice to the players and provided little in the way of in-game advantage for players who take on the task.
As for right and wrong…
There is no right way to handle character backgrounds across the entire hobby. The importance and utility of backstory in an average home game varies widely by the factors listed above and all choices are fine so long as the players and GM both have a strong understanding of expectations from the outset (session zero) and ongoing game sessions.
To my mind, character background is part of the process of creating a well rounded, well-connected character in the game setting. This intentionally loaded statement implies a lot about what I VALUE in a role playing session. I tend to run games that focus on intrigue, politics and long-range consequences for in game actions. I see this as a thematic overlay on whatever adventure we are currently playing. These elements are present in my dungeon delving, my hexcrawl, my city games and my seaborne adventures. It’s the spice added to the meal.
I am currently running “The Red Hand of Doom”, a terrific 3rd edition D&D adventure which is set in the early days of a provincial war. There are a lot of stats and warfare mechanics. I expect a high body count on both sides of the screen. It’s a game of swords and the players have made characters which are mechanically suited to overcome the obstacles presented.
For some players that would certainly be enough. They are happy to be presented with a challenge that their characters are suited to, or failing that, challenges that require coming together with the rest of the party to incorporate their various talents into a cohesive solution. Background on who’s cousin married the duke 100 years ago does very little to improve your chances in combat. These players are not wrong. Repeating for emphasis...there is nothing wrong with not caring about detailed histories.
And while those players (and GMs) are not wrong, they might be missing out on a lot of unintended benefits implied in those backgrounds. Just taking the simple example above, knowing that a character is a long lost relative of the Duke’s family might provide important alliances in a time of war. Perhaps the character with that relationship can finagle a meeting with the Duke and ask for assistance in the coming conflict, say something like 50 knights and pikemen to aid the party in the next battle. Any character concerned with body counts and mechanical advantage is going to perk up with that kind of assistance on the line.
I run a game that VALUES meaningful character backgrounds and we use that information in almost every session.
Granted, not all players and GMs are going to adopt backgrounds in this way, or allow the latitude that I would in my home game, that’s a matter of personal preference. I value the CONNECTIONS and OPTIONS that backgrounds afford my players at the table. They are stepping stones to making meaningful DECISIONS in the game. These three factors are really critical to me and my players.
It generally boils down to:
Who do you know?
What can you do?
When do you take action?
While these questions are central to all roleplaying games they remain tricky for players and GMs alike. Additionally, there is little in the mechanical side of most games to help with this. I think it is generally assumed to sort of happen during play. Assumptions like this can lead to a lot of frustration.
Backgrounds can really help with all three questions. For this exercise to be most effective the character background needs to be more than a grandiose retelling of the characters previous exploits or a lineage length essay on their ancestors importance. This type of background can be important to creating a sense of justification for how the character is played: their general reaction, mannerisms or preferences. This kind of background is fine in limited doses, but without any connection to the current timeline it’s not particularly interesting to anyone but the author.
What I am generally looking for are hooks in character backstory that I can use to connect the players to the game setting, offer them options or choices and allow them to make better decisions in game. We’ll discuss that in an upcoming post.
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