RPG character backgrounds are rubbish - here’s how to make a good one
Or; why Obi-Wan Kenobi is a terrible RPG character.
Creating a character for a roleplaying game is a labour of love. Coming up with a cool concept, poking and prodding the crunchy stat bits into shape. It all takes time, care and attention, but it’s also a lot of fun. Apart from coming up with a name. That bit sucks. Roleplaying parents will tell you that it’s easier to name your actual offspring than it is your latest half-gnome demon wrangler, or whatever.
However, there is one painful truth that all roleplayers must come to accept and I’m going to rip that plaster off for you right now: nobody, not one solitary person, gives a flying ball of goblin snot about your character background.
Some of you might be in denial. “Caelyn,” you cry “my game master specifically asked for a character background, so they must care!” I’m sorry to tell you that you have been deceived. GMs are all liars, charlatans and knaves, it just comes with the territory. While they may have said that they wanted a character background, what they actually desire is a short list of buttons to press in order to inflict emotional pain and trauma on your character. I suppose they could be looking for other character development hooks as well. Maybe I’m just too used to running games for jaded cynics who are desperate to feel things.
This leads nicely to the real nugget of wisdom I’m here to impart, which is that character backgrounds are tools. Just like stats and skills and dice and minis, they’re a means to the end of having a good time with your friends at the table. I’m not suggesting that you don’t bother with a character background, just that you should think about what you actually want from it before you embark on writing your 30,000-word epic.
Character backgrounds are tools.
Your GM is looking for material to mine for the campaign. Potential locations, allies, antagonists, organisations, all that jazz. They’re also looking for clues about what you want to do with your character. Whether it’s simple monster punching, Shakespearean tragedy or deep explorations of the nature of faith, your GM needs to know what you want before they can give it to you.
You could give them a lengthy character background, maybe with the important bits highlighted and a couple of appendices, or you could go with the radical technique of just talking to them. If your character concept calls for specific people, places and events, ask the GM if they have existing campaign elements you can use, or if they want to work up the details with you. As for your character development and goals, just tell them what you’re looking for. Open collaborative discussion between players and GMs will always make for a better game for everyone.
As a player, a character background exists as a roleplay aid. To make a character come alive, you need to know what makes them tick. What are their motivations and goals? What makes them happy, sad or angry? How do they react to those feelings? Writing a detailed background can help you answer these questions, but you mustn’t put the cart before the horse. You can craft the best fantasy epic since some hobbits went on a long walk to dispose of some jewellery, but it’s pointless if it doesn’t help you figure out who your character is. It’s often better to decide on some character traits and work backwards. Why are they cheerful with a tendency to whistle? What happened to make them a real penny-pincher? The best part is that you don’t have to decide all the answers straight away.
Keeping things simple helps you avoid the common trap of coming to the table with a character who has nowhere to go.
Laying things out in broad strokes is generally the best approach. Think about how you’d introduce yourself to a group of people. You’d probably mention what you do, where you come from, a few hobbies and interests that are important to you. Try and do the same thing for your character. Combined with a few personality traits and a couple of quirks, you’ll have everything you need to start roleplaying. Keeping things simple also helps you avoid the common trap of coming to the table with a character who has nowhere to go. If they’ve already experienced life, love and loss, and been through all kinds of character-building situations, what’s left for them?
Star Wars: A New Hope provides excellent examples of good and bad character backgrounds. (Watch out, spoilers for a nearly 45-year-old movie ahead.) Obi-Wan Kenobi would make for a terrible RPG character. Imagine being a GM and being presented with the prequel trilogy, the entire Clone Wars cartoon and the upcoming Disney+ show as Obi-Wan’s character background. Confronting Darth Vader is pretty much the only place left to go with him. Then he dies.
In the end, the most important thing is to craft your characters in a way that works for you.
Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, is a fantastic model for a character. There’s some tragedy in his past, but he mostly leads a good, simple life. He’s naive, a bit whiny, but clearly has some talent as a pilot. He wants to get out and see the galaxy. Luke’s player has told the GM that Luke’s father was actually a war hero and they want Luke’s arc to be a classic hero’s journey. You can just picture the cogs whirring in the GM’s head as they concoct the plan to have Luke’s father turn out to be one of the campaign’s major antagonists.
In the end, the most important thing is to craft your characters in a way that works for you. If detailing every aspect of their history helps you create better characters, then go right ahead. At the same time, keep in mind that roleplaying is a collaborative activity and coming to the table with a character that is fun for you, your fellow players and the GM is always the goal.