27 February 2014

Building Character Backgrounds Gradually

I firmly believe that player characters should have a background. And a description. And a name. When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons, it didn't matter too much. Two out of three was usually considered good enough, but my very first character had none of these. He was just a class with attribute scores and some possessions. Needless to say, my experience with that character was not fulfilling, and I attached part of the blame to the fact that my character was more like what we now call an avatar, an artificial means of interacting with a virtual environment, which is still, nonetheless, myself. After that character came to an end, I vowed that I would never again run a nameless, faceless character as a player, nor would I tolerate them as a DM (or GM as the case may be). A character needn't have a lengthy biography nor a medical record accounting for every bruise nor even a picture, but he or she must have a name, a general physical description (preferably one that notes distinguishing features), and at least a rudimentary background. As a GM, I reserve the right to fill in any basic details that the player couldn't be bothered with. I have been known, for instance, to surprise a player with a sibling he didn't know his character had, but that is a story for another time. The rewards of all this effort should be self-evident. You are creating a character who is unique, who occupies a space in another world, who interacts with other characters and has adventures and may live to tell memorable tales.

Ah, but there's the crux of the problem. After all the effort of truly creating a character with a terrific name and an interesting background that explains who that character is and why, what if this character is snuffed out of existence in his first adventure when he falls into a pit lined with stakes? Or when he is swarmed by angry kobolds? Or when he is tenaciously pursued and torn to shreds by a ferocious man-killing rat? (O.K., that last example is from the Intellivision ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Cartridge game, but the idea still applies.)

High mortality is a more of a problem in some games than others. Call of Cthulhu is a popular example, but so is Dungeons & Dragons (and its retro-clones). Most adventure games, in my opinion, are more enjoyable when there is a risk of a character not surviving. It increases a player's sense of accomplishment when it is not only achieving the goal, but survival itself, that denotes the successful adventurer. Risk is part of the thrill of the game. How then does one reconcile the time spent creating a character with the life expectancy of the average low level adventurer?

I submit that the answer is gradual background building. In most works of fiction, we do not learn everything about a character as soon as that character is introduced. We learn about their backgrounds gradually. By all means they should have a name and a physical description, but perhaps, at first, we know nothing about their background beyond what their accent tells us. Perhaps we know where they are from, or at least where they must have been living for some time. As the story progresses, we may learn something about their religion or philosophy, or their family, or their ancestry. The same can be done in a role-playing game. Once you have rolled up, equipped, described, and named your character, write a single sentence pertaining to the character's background. If the character perishes from an ill-fated encounter with green slime in the first outing, all you've lost is the effort of writing one sentence (backgroundwise). If the character survives the first adventure, write another sentence into the background story. Repeat as needed. The longer the character lives, the longer the background story grows as well as the story that is being created with each succeeding adventure. In a way, your character is growing both forwards and backwards in time. And if your character meets an untimely end after a long career of adventures, the background you have written will make your memories of the character that much richer.

[Originally posted here in Fudgerylog.]

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