JP On Gaming

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

[Old Pro Tricks] Character Backgrounds: How Long?

I was lurking around on RPG StackExchange and happened upon a question that made me pause. The poster asked the following question: "How much detail should I put into my characters backstory as to not be annoying to other players?"

Katharan al-ZawreeThe question was shut down because it is very opinion-based - true. But still the question is worth asking. How long should you have your backstory?

I will go from a historical view. I created characters that had a LOT of backstories: a few pages. And I created characters that had a very short backstories: a sentence or two.

I will differentiate between a background and a shtick.

A background links the character to the setting, creating ties between local events and NPCs. They tend to be rather specific in terms of which element you relate to. For example, my winter witch Katja grew up with her paternal grandmother after her father, a mercenary, dropped her off when she was about 5 years old and disappeared. This gave Katja a reason to help the locals: she grew up there, she had a grandmother present, and she was known as a quiet girl by the rest of the party. She had a few possible side-quests: finding her father and mother, discover her own powers, and an interest in books.

A shtick is typically short idea that gives the character a reason to be present but does not really get too close. For the past few characters we built for the Adventure League, ActionMan and I based and named our characters out of characters from Treasure Island. Captain Flint, Ben Gunn, Billy Bonescrusher, and Israel Hands all made appearances in games. They are all pirates and speak using "YARRR". They are there "just because". The shtick can generally be conveyed over a sentence of two. "We are pirates from Captain Flint's crew," gives most players a quick idea of what you look like.

Werner von Breshlow-GiersbergenSo how long should your background be?

I have a bias towards "keep it short". Why? Here is a short list of my thoughts.

- You want to integrate with others. The more you detail your background, the more likely you isolate your characters from the other party member.

- Easier to change and adapt. Nothing sucks more than to have to go back and redo all your background because the plot suddenly took you to a different place. "What do you mean my father is the brother of Sauron?!"

- The GM has other things to think about. Perhaps the biggest reason for brevity, the more expansive you make it, the more the GM has to remember all your stuff. Few points makes it easier to remember and integrate in the plot.

- A good shtick may be good enough. A simple one-liner "I am a son of the nobility who came here thinking it would be fun".

So I will add a caveat to this list. If your GM asks you for more of a background, then go as big as he wants it. Still try to keep it open: avoid the "I am a complete loner and I never met anyone and have no friends or family outside the party."

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