After responding to Corrosive Rabbit‘s thread about character backgrounds yesterday, I realized that I wanted to go into more detail on this topic.

I’ve been GMing since 1989, but it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve formulated this approach to handling PC backgrounds. I’ve never put the whole thing to the test, but I’ve used most of the pieces to good effect — and seen them used by great GMs, too.

The two most common tacks I see GMs take (and have taken myself) are requiring lengthy character backgrounds and not requiring PC backgrounds at all. The problem is that five pages of background may not be useful, but zero background means zero GMing fuel for you.

This approach falls somewhere in between those two, and hits the high notes that I’ve found to be most useful.

Why are PC Backgrounds Important?

There are are only three reasons why character backgrounds are important:

  • Some players have fun creating them (not all players do, though).
  • They give your players a guide to roleplaying their characters.
  • They provide you with hooks to create a more personal, dramatic campaign.

If you generally require detailed character backgrounds from your players, or bribe them with XP or other in-game benefits to get them to write long backgrounds, ask yourself whether you’re doing so for any of those three reasons. If not, don’t do it.

In the past, I’ve required lengthy backgrounds and then never used them, and I’ve seen other GMs do the same thing. I think I required them because I thought it was the “right” approach, even though it’s the completely wrong approach for a lot of groups.

Knowing nothing about the PCs at the start of the game isn’t an option either, though, so you need to find the sweet spot where you get useful stuff without forcing your players to write too much material.

Players and PC Backgrounds

Over the years, I’ve found that players tend to fall into three groups when it comes to writing backgrounds. They either:

  • Love writing backgrounds, and write long ones whether you ask them to or not.
  • Hate writing them.
  • Or prefer to develop them over the first few sessions of play.

The problem is that unless you’re running a pure hack-and-slash game, you need at least some material to work with. So how do you satisfy all three types of player?

Ask for What You Need, and No More

As the GM, you want every PC’s background to contain hooks you can use to draw the party into adventures, craft encounters that play to their allegiances and otherwise customize the campaign to your players’ interests.

And that’s the key element: Background-wise, all you need is the stuff that lets you create a more personalized campaign — one that centers around the stuff your players are interested in. Anything else is just gravy.

Instead of asking for too much or too little background material, just ask for a few things you’re guaranteed to be able to use to improve the game, and let your players decide what else to provide (if anything).

What you ask for should be discrete (each element can stand alone, and doesn’t need a lot of context to explain) and simple, but lay the foundation for other background stuff. For instance, you could request:

  • A bit of info about a living, non-enemy NPC who is important to the PC.
  • Something the PC is passionate about (an ideal; a person, place or thing; a goal).
  • A living rival or enemy NPC (or organization).

Those three are pretty basic, and may not work for your campaign, but they hit several high notes.

For starters, two of them are about characters that you can then create yourself and introduce into the game — boom, instant personalization. The third makes a good default motivator: if a PC is passionate about X, that player is interested in seeing X come up in the game, and will perk up when it does.

They’re also pretty simple, and shouldn’t take long to create — so they should be less of a chore for players who hate writing backgrounds. Some players who don’t generally write long backgrounds will respond better to being asked for three small, short things, rather than feeling like they have to write a novel.

Players who prefer to develop their characters over the first sessions of the campaign shouldn’t mind being asked for three things like this. You’re not forcing them to define everything about their characters, and what you are asking for will likely lead in interesting directions as they continue to craft their backgrounds.

And lastly, the folks who are just hardwired to enjoy writing backgrounds will provide what you need, and then some — there’s no downside for them here, either.

Use the Whole Buffalo

Your players have gone to the trouble to craft useful GMing hooks for you to use, so make sure that you use them. There’s nothing worse than being asked for background material, providing it, and then never seeing it come up in play.

And since you only asked for useful stuff, rather than seven generations of each PC’s family tree (or other things that aren’t likely to come up in play), it should be pretty easy to accomplish this goal.

Don’t wait too long, either: Just as you shouldn’t hoard your best ideas, don’t be stingy with working in background elements, either.

So to sum up:

  • Only ask for a few elements, and ask for things you know you’ll be able to use.
  • Let your players find their own sweet spot for the rest, whether it’s writing a lot more, writing nothing else or figuring it out as the game progresses.
  • Use every single thing that you asked for — not all at once, of course, but at some point fairly early on in the campaign.

What do you think of this approach? Have you made mistakes when it comes to requiring lengthy PC backgrounds? How did you find your own sweet spot?