Background Check – Pt. 1

by NPC Chris.

Ahh, the joys of a new campaign’s first session. The heroes were heroes back then: bright-eyed, wide-eyed, other eye-related cliches. They had in front of them the promise of a road less traveled  a world that would be forever changed by their actions, and one that needed their help. In order to get where they would eventually go however, they had to come from somewhere. The first session is always important because it is the chance to set the stage for the events to come, based on the events that have already come to pass.

I began Iron Kingdom campaigns this week. Yes, emphasis on plurality. You see, as I mentioned on the podcast previously, I was very excited to begin running games utilizing this new RPG system by Privateer Press. So excited in fact, that I agreed to run not one, but two separate campaigns. One for the usual suspects of my tabletop gaming group and one for a rag-tag group of coworkers with varying levels of tabletop RPG experience. (“varying” indicating a state of “thoroughly experienced” to “never played one before” and of course the in-betweens) Both of these campaigns would begin with the same first session, which for me, is always used to build a bit of character backstory. The concept of generating a character backstory is not a new one, like, at all. Character backstories have been around since the inception of RPG’s and will always be considered by me to be an incredibly integral part of the experience. In many ways, character backstories and motivations are what set an RPG apart from any other game genre. They allow the “role-playing” part to exist. The way that these backstories are generated and how detailed they can be has fluctuated over the years, but in today’s post I will offer up my thought process in how I tackled them this time around.

Before asking the players about precisely which type of goblinoid murdered their family and left them orphaned, a GM should first ask themselves a couple questions:

“What do I want out of this backstory session?”

I decided that for these campaigns, I wanted something a bit quick, a bit light, and a bit different. I knew going into it that I would be running the session for two groups, and I would be dealing with a wide-range of experience, so those first two are for the new players and the last one would be for the experienced players. I also wanted there to be an established camaraderie between the PC’s from the onset. As this was a new system for all of us, I kept these inaugural campaigns a bit simple, and had already provided both groups with a similar prompt: “You were all members of a very large, recently disbanded, mercenary organization. When it dissolved, you all decided to group together based on your previous experience and apply for your own mercenary charter.” This prompt allowed me to have some semblance of narrative control with which to establish my campaign, but offered enough freedom for the players to make the characters they wanted.*

*To a point. A player may have wanted to make a Ranger/Mage Hunter who always works alone, which is fine concept. By establishing the type of campaign I was running, and where the story started, I was able to make it clear that this particular campaign would not be suited for such a character. It is ok for a GM to do this. Your job is to create the framework for an awesome collaborative story, and sometimes that means telling people no. If you have to say no, do it at the beginning though because nobody wants to be halfway through session 7 before they realize that their character concept doesn’t work with the campaign and they are getting punished for it.

“What information is necessary now, and what can be discovered later?”

I used to ask everything, and used to want to tell everything. I have been in campaigns that began with hour long one-on-one character story sessions and they have been some of the most fun I have ever had role-playing. I have also rolled characters randomly, and then made up that PC’s personality as I went along and those were ALSO some of the characters I was most fond of. As a GM, you need to determine what serves your purpose, per the first question you asked yourself, and act accordingly. Hour long individual character interrogations can be great for experienced players, but can be incredibly daunting for players who are new to the hobby. I am also of the mindset that you don’t really know your character until you play your character, and no amount of backstory you come up beforehand will ever be sufficient to fill in all those holes. Invariably, you will be confronted by something your character has never dealt with, and will have to make a decision in game. Like real life, the character you are portraying will begin to develop quirks as they are faced with challenges, and this is what supplies actual depth.

An example I like to use is “Fear of Spiders.”

You have a character named Philip, and you decide that Philip is afraid of spiders. Not arbitrarily mind you, Philip is afraid of spiders because his father was a scientist who was killed by a spider he genetically modified using advanced fell magics. His father was modifying these spiders because he was trying to extract an anti-venom in order to save Philip’s dying mother, also a victim of a nasty spider bite. Philip’s mother was bitten by this spider while she was en route to a remote island for botanical research, or so she said. Philip’s mother was actually having an affair with a ship captain. Suffice it to say, Philip is afraid of spiders. No matter how much story goes into Philip’s fear of spiders, it will never be more compelling than arachnophobia, and I would also make the argument that arachnophobia isn’t even inherently compelling. Arachnophobia is a relatively boring character trait until the moment Philip overcomes his fear of spiders and leaps onto the web of a giant mutant spider in order to save a fellow party member. Suddenly, Philip’s arachnophobia becomes VERY compelling, because it offers context for his selfless heroism and gives a benchmark for his personal growth.

While backstory provides you with guidelines for what your character does, it is the actions at the table that truly determine who your character is.

TO BE CONTINUED! In Part 2 I will discuss backstory generation a bit further, and also talk about what I did, specifically, in my most recent campaigns.

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