Building Background

Today I had an awesome time working one-to-one with a player to create the background for their character in our new fantasy game set in the Northern Isles. I wanted to talk a little about what I learned.

The short version is that I discovered a deep richness in doing something I previously was too impatient to really invest time with.

Firstly, let’s remember that the primary goals of our new game include:

  1. We are playing with the purpose of continuing to play.
  2. We are playing to increased Otherworld-immersion.
  3. We are playing with more focus on Character-immersion.
  4. The GM will bring as many rules as possible behind the screen.

Thus, we are not aiming for some randomly rolled-up cookie-cutter character who will emerge more fully-fledged as we play. If we’re being honest, I think it’s likely we will admit to being somewhat less-than-attached to six random stats and a set of standard class abilities… at least, not in the first few sessions. My view is that these initial sessions of play are important and coming to the table with a vague outline of character has been less than satisfying in the past.

Today I took the plunge and, after hearing the basic concept and short outline written by the player – invited them to try out a series of very useful guided character creation tools I discovered in my chosen (currently under wraps) game system. By the end, I was feeling quite attached to the character and I got the distinct impression the player was too.

What was different?

We started with a concept and then I used a combination of intelligent design and random table suggestion to co-create a series of background events with the player. It was a one-on-one play session wherein we discovered several past family events and small scenarios that arose during the character’s early life. Along the way, I sprinkled in questions about skills the character learned and how these connected to the people in their life.

For example, during babyhood we discovered that the character had siblings and used the player’s notes to establish facts about his family. From there, we discovered that his father had left the service of the army early, while the character was still under 18 months old. During childhood, the eldest brother become ill and had to be nursed by the character and his mother, heaping more responsibility on the young hero. And so on.

In the past, I have been too much in a rush to “play” – by which I meant the act of roleplaying in a group – that I have missed out on this opportunity to play one-on-one with each of the players as we conceive and develop a character they can care about. Because the rules are behind the screen, I have enjoyed the process of co-creation and been able to lean into the role as guide.

Discovering Moral Character

All that said, my favourite thing was the scenarios arising from childhood – an idea I first experienced with one of the early Ultima computer roleplaying games – wherein a simple scenario is pitched to the player and they are asked, “What do you want to do?” Their answer forms the basis for their character’s moral and philosophical viewpoint, which might be termed as Alignment in some games.

Here’s an example: as a kid (2-5 years old), you approach a gathering of your peers. You watch a large kid beating up a smaller kid whom you do not know. The smaller kid doesn’t appear to be fighting back. What do you do? Through the player’s answer – playing in role – we learn about the characters feelings and responses to basic human challenges. It was deeply illuminating and rich… and remarkably easy to do.

I learned a lot from this today. Not least, I learned that investing in the character alongside the player deepens the commitment of both to the character we are creating. I also learned that dropping unexpected challenges, events, and scenarios into the character creation process produces a rich play experience akin to my earliest experiences with Traveller (minus the premature dying). I also found myself deeply enriching my conception of the setting which can only lead to better adventure writing down the line.

All in all… I had a blast!

Game on!

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