I recently started an Icons campaign and was working through character generation, including working on character backgrounds. I find character backgrounds in superhero stories to be very useful for the GM, as it gives you a lot of ideas of the NPCs in the character’s lives as well as how their powers work, etc.

As we were going through backgrounds, I asked a question, and the player said, “I don’t think I will know that until we start playing.” 

That was definitely the player’s style. They liked to make up things during play, and in many cases, their spontaneous answers would take the game in exciting directions. So I decided not to push the point, and not ask the players to answer. At that moment it made me realize that there are two types of character backgrounds: planned and emergent.

That is what we are going to talk about today. What they are, the roles they serve, and how best to GM and play with them.

What’s In A Background?

A character’s background, or backstory, serves a number of purposes, but the most important thing is…

The background is the player’s prep for their character and should make the player feel comfortable enough to play the character at the table. 

This is a very subjective sentence. What makes a player comfortable enough to play the character will depend on a multitude of factors: the type of game, the play-style of the player, the style of the group, if the game is a campaign or one-shot, the type of campaign, etc. 

As a player, I have made backgrounds that have been a few sentences on an index card and I have written small essays. Depending on the game, they have both been valid. 

But a background can do more than just make a player feel comfortable. It can also do the following:

  • Create plot hooks for the GM
  • Create NPCs 
  • Create relationships between NPCs or PCs

This means that while the primary purpose is very centric to the player, the other things it does are important for the GM and other players. Thus everyone has a vested interest in a character’s background. 

Ways To Create A Background

The primary way I learned to create a character’s background was during character creation, or what I am calling planned backgrounds. This type of background is done before the character is played. The player has a concept for their character, they generate the character in the system and then figure out “who they are”, which often includes something about them before the player took agency of the character. 

In my early days of gaming, this was an unstructured activity with it resulting in various amounts of information, based on how creative I was feeling at the time I rolled my character up. Later, I would learn about character background questions, when I first ran Amber: Diceless RPG. These produce more uniform amounts of backgrounds, and let GM’s create questions to get the information they need. 

Later in my gaming career, as I got more into indie RPGs, I got into making up background information in the middle of a session, or what I am calling emergent backgrounds. These details would be revealed often by the GM asking leading questions, but sometimes it would be me offering information spontaneously. 

With emergent backgrounds, it is often pertinent to what is occurring in play. If an NPC has just been encountered, the GM may ask a leading question to a player, such as “Which of your relatives is this? And on what terms did you leave after seeing them last?” The answers to that question at the moment directly shape the upcoming play, as well as add details to the background of the character.

 The emergent background often helps to define elements that are in play or immediately coming up in play. 

To compare the two methods, the planned background starts by helping the player understand their character, and can provide some additional elements that a GM could pull into future sessions. The emergent background often helps to define elements that are in play or immediately coming up in play. This helps the GM, at the moment, by coming up with details that they did not need to come up with during prep. 

Background Tips

Here are some tips for how to best use these methods of backgrounds as both a GM and a player.

Planned Backgrounds

  • Player
    • Come up with as much background as you need to feel comfortable playing your character.
    • Don’t expect the GM or other players to know your backstory if its long or complicated.
    • Prepare an “executive summary” of your background for everyone else.
    • Answer background questions creating things you want to see in future games.
  • GM
    • Use background questions to focus what you want to know about the players.
    • Have some common questions for everyone.
    • Make some specific questions for each character. 
    • Review their backgrounds from time to time to find interesting things you can pull into your adventures.
    • Look for ways to link their backgrounds (a Baron from one’s background is the Uncle from another). 

Emergent Backgrounds

  • GM
    • Ask leading questions so their answers get you what you want.  (i.e. “Who’s relative is this? vs “Who is this?”)
    • Sprinkle these moments into games. Don’t overuse them.
    • Make sure you ask different players — spread the love.
    • You can also ask about things the group did together before play.
  • Player
    • Make your answers evocative. No “safe” answers. 
    • When possible, have your answers connect to other players. Who is that person? It’s their Uncle.
    • Record your answers as they are now part of your background.

Finding A Balance

As a player and GM there is a balancing act between how much of a planned background you need and when you can just rely on emergent backgrounds. Each group will find its own balance for it. What I discovered while getting my Icons game going, is that you need to do planned backgrounds until everyone feels ready to play, and once you are playing you can always get more information by using emergent background questions.

Background Checks

Character backgrounds are useful to the player and the rest of the group, and there are ways to create backgrounds before and during play. Each method has its own merits, and they work best when combined. 

What is your preferred way to handle backgrounds? And what are some of your favorite background questions to ask?