I’m juggling a lot of balls at the moment. Not literally, but it feels like it! I’m trying to actually sort out days on which to write content for this blog and although nothing has been finalised relating to which day I will do this on, I have a few ideas that I wanted to get writing about. This being one.
As you might be aware I play an RPG called Mythras. It’s a d100 ruleset which I have to say I enjoy immensely. Character generation within it takes you through your cultural background and then profession and even takes into account your age! But there is one thing as a GM which I hate and actually consider a waste of time for the players to do. What is it? Well writing their character’s background!
Before you all cart me off to the nearby lynching tree I would like to explain why I think spending time creating a believable and involved background for your character is a waste of time.
Too much knowledge is not a good thing
In the current campaign we play in, the Odes Campaign, the players actually journeyed to a distance shore to start their adventure. As a GM I purposefully created this start because I wanted the land to be new and surprising for the characters and the players.
There is a skill within Mythras called Locale. Essentially this is a skill which players can roll to see what they know about the general area, for example the location of villages, the local flora and fauna, the trade routes and possible rites and rituals. I actually made this skill to be zero for the start of the adventure. The place was new to them and I wanted their skills to reflect this.
Sometimes players create backgrounds to provide themselves an advantage in certain situations. I’m not a fan of this, but accept that if a player wants to play like that then who am I to object. However, it does grate on me when players say things like;
“In my background I was a living with an ancient druid who told me everything there was to know about this local woodland – therefore I would know which way to the hidden shrine”
Now, if the player has invested significant points in developing their locale skill then I might be less flustered about it all. But in most cases I just see it as a power play in the game – trying to get something for nothing.
However, if the character/player has built that knowledge up within a game, then I am more than happy for them to use the skill – in fact I would actually suggest it! Which brings me to my next point – we are just starting out…
The story has just begun
As a group we played some sessions of Starfinder. It was a good few games, but I didn’t like the rule set at all. But I remember thinking about a class/race combination and the possibilities it would bring to the campaign.
Often, certain races and/or classes do not work well together. What I mean by this is that some races have a natural affinity to others or a natural hatred. As a GM, if players wanted to play these opposing factions then I would allow it. This is because I want them to develop the relationship as we narrate the story. As the campaign progresses, one might save the other or cause them harm. There could be moments when they bond and moments when they fight. They could become life long friends or continue to be enemies.
That is what I really like about a campaign rather than one off sessions. I like to see the characters progress and develop. At the start of the campaign I don’t want them to be complete. I don’t want them to have their own personal aims and quest lines. I want these to develop as they interact with the world and the adventure progresses. Coming to the campaign with predefined aims and passions means that I question, why leave those and start going on other adventures?
I guess what I am saying is that I want characters to be a clean slate. Something which we can work together with, developing as we play. I’m fine with making some basic background details, but that should be the limited. Why are they adventuring? Where did they all meet? What do they have in common? and what do they disagree on? And what they actually share brings me onto my final point.
Just what other players see
Have you been to a party or other social gathering recently? Even if you haven’t think back to the last time you started a new job. As you walk in and you are introduced to everyone, what do you say? how do you introduce yourself?
I’m taking a bet that you do not share all your family background in your first meeting. You probably just answer the sort of questions I posed in the previous section. One thing I like about RPGs is being able to slowly reveal the hidden depths of a character. I like slowly peeling back the layers as if I am revealing the inside of an onion. When I am playing an NPC, this is what I do. They don’t start of the conversation by stating their hidden desires and previous activities. They just let the players know some small nuggets of information and, next time they meet a little bit more.
The more observable players might have been saying at this point – hang on! as a GM I bet you haven’t made all this up before the NPC meets the players. CORRECT! I haven’t and that is what makes it so much fun. The NPC reacts to the players, they develop and they mature like a good cheese. I can add and take things away from them rather than having everything ready made and static.
When players first meet other characters I much prefer them just given the bare bones of a description. The rest of their ‘character’ can slowly be revealed as they progress within the campaign.
I recognise that some players really enjoy making up backgrounds. They like to dwell in the past making an almost complete character before they even start a campaign. Every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ crossed.
But as a GM I would prefer characters who are not complete. I want them to have many blank pages within the chronicle of their life so that ‘we’, the players, GM and the campaign itself, can write on those blank pages to make a reactionary and embedded story that really shows not the background of the character but their actual life within the campaign.
So next time you get to the part in your character generation when you think about their background, just stop for a while and have the courage to smile and think about the possibilities of the campaign and take that first step in creating your character’s story.