Thursday, March 8, 2012

I Wish I Was Special - Character Backgrounds

I've been thinking a lot about character histories and origin stories lately. Most people who want to play a LARP want to have a unique and interesting character who gets to be a hero in their own way. And plenty of folks use their backgrounds as a way to get there - but sometimes not in the right way.

Maybe there's nothing in them that makes their character unique (I was a farmer then my family was killed by undead so I took to the road), but a lot of times they're attempting to do too much (I'm the secret heir to the elven kingdom). Not everyone is into giving their character a rich background story, and that's okay. Some people don't LARP for that sort of thing. And for those that do, a lot of your character will be defined when you actually play them.

And that's kind of my first point. Some people seem to want to make their characters interesting by virtue of what they are instead of who they are. They want to be half-fae, or secret royals, or destined artifact wielders. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I find that the character rather than their bloodline is more interesting. Examples: "The Phantom Menace" explaining Anakin's midi-chlorians are the reason he's the way he is; versus "The Dark Knight" where the Joker's background is unclear. Joker's the better character, hands down, right? Didn't most of us roll our eyes at the whole midi-chlorians thing? And what happened in "Highlander 2" when they tried to create an explanation for the whole "immortal" thing? Anyway, the point is that not everything has to have a direct, biological reason, and forcing one can take away the magic.

I'm not saying it's not cool to be the child of the prophecy or find out you're the scion of a lost alien race. But I think you've got to have a strong character before you do that, and characters, like people, aren't made interesting based solely on their bloodline. Sure, that can add to it, but it's what the person does with it that makes them who they are. It's their experiences that shape them, just like us. Sometimes it's more interesting to see someone pull themselves out of a normal background and become a hero because of their character rather than special abilities. So instead of telling me what the character is, I'd rather see what happened to them to make them who they are.

The other obvious problem with these types of backgrounds is that they set the expectation that the player/character wants to be more powerful than the average bear already. They're trying to skip in line, so to speak, and start out with a character that has personal plot attention and is ready to receive their pew pew special powers. In most LARPs, that kind of personal attention is earned by being a good player and pursuing it in game. Plot can certainly pick out someone to hook without that, but by creating a background that asks for extra attention, that player can come across as greedy and entitled at worst, or maybe just clueless.

And for me, at least, I don't find it fun to just be handed things - a reward isn't a reward unless you did something to earn it. I know some people don't mind coming out of the gate with eye lasers and an "I win" card, but for me I might as well stay home and write myself into some fan fiction. :) Heroes are heroes because they overcome obstacles, imo. But that's not everyone.

So, if you want to be special, as we all do, but you can't ask for it, what can you do? Well, there are certainly exceptions to the above. For example, a long term player creating a new character with Plot's help.

But the backgrounds I appreciate the most are those that demonstrate an understanding of the setting, based on reading whatever in game material is available, and sets up the character within the world instead of the exception to it. They explain the character's goals, motivations, fears and loves so that Plot can get an idea for what they're trying to play. They do it in a way that shows how the events in their life made them who they are.

And they leave a little room open for Plot to play with. I'm not talking the "I've forgotten everything about my past" cliche, but just a few things that Plot can use as your character develops. If you want to steer the plot in a certain way, steer your background in that direction without coming out and telling plot what to give you. For example, if you want to be more magical, maybe the character's father was on the council at the school of magic and was involved in secret experiments. This could go in a lot of different directions, making for interesting plot and possibly even those coveted special abilities (maybe the experiment was done on the character as a baby!) A lot of times, Plot can be creative in unexpected ways, so giving them room to work not only avoids hubris, but could open the door to something more interesting than you thought!

So put in some side characters and facts that Plot can use to make your story come to life in game. Have siblings, old lovers, best friends; throw in mysterious encounters or significant events your character witnessed. You don't need to write a novel, here, although I'm making it sound like it :) Keep to the main points, and if you have an idea for your character's goals, tell Plot! (although if it's a super powerful artifact or something, that may again come across as greedy).

For the Plot side of things, when I get a character history I usually try to work in some extra information to throw to the player. Even if it's just giving some names to their people and places to get them into the setting. This is especially nice for new players - you can give them not only some more in game info to help them play their character, but you can make them feel special just by throwing some tidbits their way. Give out a few hints that have to do with the plot you're running maybe, so the player can jump in and feel useful right away. This is a great way to hook people in! Maybe while on their farm they witnessed a secret meeting of your evil NPC group and overheard a few things they didn't understand out of context. Maybe one of your NPCs is their uncle. It doesn't have to be a major spoiler or connection, but just something to get them going.

For both player and plot, it's important to be willing to work together. Plot should have an open mind and be willing to maybe add a little spice to a character history. The player should be aware of what they're asking in terms of fairness and setting, and be willing to work with plot to create something that fits for everyone.

What do you think about character backgrounds? Do you use them? What do you like or dislike about them?


  1. I gotta admit - this is a part of LARP I'm just awful at. Speak only for my personal taste here - 95% of character backgrounds bore the pants off of me. There's like five tropes, tops, that people use. Once you spot the trope, you know where it's going!

    When I had to read dozens of character backgrounds (or as a friend calls them, 'character baggage'), I was reading for only one thing... what kind of experience is this PLAYER (not character) looking for?

    From reading the background, you can tell what themes and game styles that player is most interested in. A lot of character backgrounds go so far as to describe that player's ideal game experience.

    For example, a bio that involves rescuing your character's parents out of slavery says a few things about that player. They want to feel like a hero. They want to roleplay a character that's in some way distressed, working towards a goal over a long period of time. And that the player will be motivated and energized if you put his character's family on the line.

    Two tips for people writing character backgrounds

    (1) unless you've got a knack for fantasy writing, keep it short. Your 30 page novella about your character is kind of impenetrable. We don't need prosaic descriptions of what your relatives look like (they'll probably be played by a random NPC anyway), nor do we need to know every one of your cousin's names and birth order. Bullet points are your friend!

    (2) don't be afraid to ask your game's plot team how to plug your bio into their setting. If your father was killed by somebody, instead of making somebody up, use a long-term villain already established at your game. A lot of people write random villains into their backstory, villains which may never come on stage until somebody decides to run personal plot for you. But if your nemesis is an established bad guy, every time he comes on stage, you're getting background plot.

  2. I'm a big fan of building the background of the character up over time as the character is played. Part of this is because I don't like to throw too much at plot teams, but the other part is that I don't always know what I want to do with the character.

    If I write up this big long treatise about how my character seeks revenge on something to almost no end, and then I find that I'd rather play my character as a merchant or a care-free chap, then I've got to break my story, and going back on your story is going to mess up any background plot you're given.

    So instead, I start with a framework. Then, as I decide on how my character acts, I flush out the background and come up with a reason that I act like I do. While this often doesn't give a lot of personal plot, it does help me flesh out my character in my mind, and gives a few stories I can tell to keep up the RP during downtime.

  3. Yet another reason Dan should staff Mirror Mirror; no backgrounds. ;)

    I want to echo a few things and then add some.

    1) BULLET POINTS!!! People like to write long things about their characters, bullet point that at the top for ease. Not only will having the framework in mind while I read help me in understanding your weird prose, it will make it easy to remember key points when I go to look it up later as I'm plot writing.

    2) It is ok to be explicit about what kind of experience you want and don't want. The kind of character you, as the player, are seeking to make. it's ok to tell the staff that even if your character is seeking a wife to take home, you as the player never want that to actually happen. Or whatever. Communicate your desires. And honestly, this is where I disagree somewhat with the main post in that while certain overblown background things do come off as kind of annoying (I want to start game with my unstoppable sword) for the most part it's better to outright state your preferences and desires rather than try to subtly suggest them through textual hints. As long as you're ok with a staff saying "no" you should be encouraged to be as open and forthright as possible. The player should do their good faith best to stay within the setting and genre, but the burden is the staff's to set and maintain limits. And even if I can't give you the unstoppable sword, knowing that you want something like that is at least more information about the experience you're going for.

    3) Staff, create a questionaire. You want to know character goals, certain details, desires, Things They Do Not Want, etc? Ask them. Have them fill out a questionaire so you always have the minimum data in an easily viewed and searched document/database. Name, kingdom of origin, race, main goals, etc.

    4) Staff, learn to say "no". Players, learn to accept "no". Some things just don't work and everyone needs to be ok with that. Do not destroy your cosomology to accomodate a background that just doesn't fit. Do not throw a tantrum when your background, even if you didn't know why, doesn't fit. Example, my first ever Madrigal character background was written before Rob had released 99.99999% of the game world. So I invented an organization called The Inquisition (it did something a bit different than what you're thinking) that my character belonged to. Rob rejected it as, unbeknownst to me, there was a major group in the game by that name. No biggie, I changed the name and all was well.

    4) Staff, learn to say "yes". I know, I just said the opposite, but I find that people have trouble with both. Know your world, know your limits, but give players the opportunity to add to it and flesh it out. Players, learn to suggest cool additions. Another example, I created a minor noble house for my current Madrigal character that wasn't in the rulebook. The staff accepted it and it's been a lot of fun to be a part of. Dad showe dup once in game and it was a blast, etc.

    5) Change things that don't work once game starts. It's ok to retcon and revise as needed. Just try not to violate what has already happened and TELL STAFF so they can work with you on something that isn't as fun as you thought.

    1. I may not have been clear, but I didn't mean that people should be intentionally vague with what they want. I did say to ask for what you want, although that got overshadowed by my rant :) So what I'm trying to say is if they're open to surprises, to leave openings in the story, since I've usually found plot has more fun with those. And if they want their character to be along a theme, to leave openings in their story along those lines. If someone wants an unstoppable sword, well, that's what they want :) But if they want an artifact, and are open to what it is, maybe instead they could say that their home town is under a curse of ancient evil and they are seeking for an item to cure them. (General example) Most plot people I know gravitate to the stories that are a little open so that they can add their own flavor in.

      But that's true, you can still learn what people want and like even if they just tell you they want to have eye lasers :)

      The other issue I've found is that people who ask for the big stuff are usually really disappointed when you tell them "no." So maybe the point shouldn't be just to not ask for it, but to be aware of what you're asking. :)

  4. It's time for character background cliché bingo!

    Hey everybody in the tavern! Can you hear me? Good, okay, everybody raise your hand.

    Now put your hand down if either of your parents are dead.

    Now put your hand down if you're not on good terms with them, or they're prisoners, or there's something like that which prevents you from spending the holidays with them.

    Put your hand down if you were raised by parents of a different race.

    Put your hand down if you don't know who one or both of your parents are.

    Put your hand down if you have no salable skills or trades outside of adventuring.

    Put your hand down if your family or clan or whatever has an heirloom you may one day acquire (or already own).

    Anybody left?

  5. Admittedly, you had me at the first one. But it's not that they were mysteriously killed or any such revenge. I just don't see the need for them to be in the story.

    I passed everything else. :)

  6. Personally, I hate character histories. Maybe its the weird, systemic way that my brain is wired but personally, I much prefer a character "profile" with a list of fields to fill in. In general, character history = fanfic; fanfic = unreadably bad. There's almost never anything substantial in them that I can bade a plot line or module on.

  7. Lol. Dan, I actually passed all of them. I'm with Bill. I like to start with a general framework that I can build from and then flesh out the character as I play them.

    Jade started as a Hobling baker, interested in learning the lores of outside races and cultures, very loyal to Lumberton.

    Rika started as one of the Children of the Black, the Barbarians that fought with Telicaf's forces during the Horde War. After the war, not so much to do, so started adventuring.

    There are several more, but eh, whatever.

    One thing that I would like to point out when designing character histories---don't be afraid to use the packages that exist (like cultures, histories, etc...). Don't write yourself in to them as a hero, but rather use them to build a base from that you can rp around. Perhaps you were an Elven Scholar that studied at XY school and left after the XY thing in the histories to pursue knowledge on the artifacts of others races. Perhaps you were in XY city when it fell, forcing you to look elsewhere for safe haven.

    I think as I'm writing this, I have to say that I am the biggest fan of those character histories that denote an interesting rp aspect that could, possibly, tie in to plot later (I.E. you were from that city that fell? Well, here's some interesting stuff from it. Maybe they are trying to rekindle it, maybe get royal family out, rescue a book, whatever) Meaning things that don't directly affect as a player, but COULD open up all kinds of rp action for you. Again, USE the packages that so many people have spent so much time developing. Create the persona, likes and interests, rather than "this is the one goal my character MUST complete."

    All of characters parents are living, but I never write them in to my character history. One time, a "dad" showed up. It was awkward to rp.

    Rambling? Yes, lot of thoughts this time around.

    Great article!