There are of course no hard and fast rules about background development. Much can depend on the world the game master presents and any limitations imposed. However, to help you get started, this chapter presents a detailed list of background elements that can flesh out your character. Of course, you aren’t required to address every issue here, and it’s certainly possible to build on your narrative over time, filling in details as you go.
1) Conflict (who or what does your character fight or fight for?)
2) Challenges (what limits your character?)
3) Mystery (what doesn’t your character know?) and
4) Passion (what drives your character?)
If you already have your personality traits worked out, you can use the background to develop why your character is the way he or she is. If you don’t have Part I done yet, you can start with your background and then develop personality traits that fit the narrative.
Writing a complete background can be time consuming. So, if you want something quick and dirty, I recommend answering the following questions as a good way to start…
- Where were you born? (name, size, location, interesting features)
- Who were your family? (family members, social class, profession)
- Name one mystery, conflict, or significant past event
- What is your adventure trigger?
- If different from your trigger, do you have a quest?
I confess that this Guide is geared towards fantasy-based games. However, this shouldn’t stop a clever player from using the basic ideas to create backgrounds for any kind of setting.
- Geography (e.g. desert, plains, tropical, mountainous, tundra, forest, island, etc)
- Local government/nobility
- General character, what it was like (e.g. hospitable, communal, ugly, sleepy, dangerous, educated, commercial, pious, stuffy, fun, historical, youthful, political, upscale, transient, depressing, laborious, etc.)
- Or were you born isolated from a population center or in a group/family that travelled?
- Father, mother, siblings, other relatives in your household growing up. If you didn’t have a “traditional” family, what did it look like—explain what was different. E.g. maybe you grew up with a gaggle of urchins learning how to pick pockets for a local gang.
- What did your family do to earn a living? (See Professions & Crafts below)
- Socioeconomic class (e.g. nobility, gentry, merchant, peasant, serf, slave, etc.) Compared to average, how wealthy was your family? What kind of influence did it have? What kind of connections to power centers did it have? Did this change over time, and if so why?
- What was your family’s reputation?
- Any family myths, curses, or legends?
- Did any members have a mental illness? (see the list above—remember, your character likely wouldn’t know these terms, and might instead think a supernatural cause was the explanation)
- Were you raised by someone other than your biological parents?
- Do you know anything about your extended family and your relationship with them?
Professions & Crafts
Before we go on, here is a handy list of possible professions and crafts, which can be applied to your character, various NPCs, and people from your character’s past. A way to differentiate them is to think of a craft as something a character can do or make whereas a profession is how one earns a living. As an example, one person can know the craft of brewing ale, whereas another has the training to engage in the profession of being a Brewer.
Most player characters are adventurers of one sort or another by profession. Giving up a home life to go around trudging through ancient dungeons and fighting dangerous creatures is a full time job (and takes a certain kind of unusual personality). So, as a rule of thumb, many characters will have learned something of a craft or profession well before they hit the adventuring trail. At the same time, some professions can make for interesting adventuring motivations. Is your character a scrivener or natural philosopher, adventuring to get material to write a book or publish an essay? Is he a spy under the guise of a hapless sorcerer? How about a storyteller who makes a living going from town to town? There are many possibilities, and this list is far from complete. In such a case, there’s a lot to consider:
- What level did you achieve (apprentice, journeyman, or master)?
- Where did you train, and who did you work with—the family or someone else?
- Being a journeyman can require a contract with a master—did you break it to go adventuring?
- Were you part of a professional guild (or still)?
- Did you own a business?
- What drove you to leave the profession?
- Was your profession a family business?
- How successful were you in business?
Also, don’t forget the list of religious roles in the Personality chapter.
|PROFESSIONS & CRAFTS|
|Apothecary||Chemist, druggist, pharmacist||Joiner||Cabinet or furniture maker|
|Architect||Lady in Waiting||Noble woman who waits upon higher nobility|
|Assassin||Limner||Paints signs and heraldic devices|
|Bailiff||Serves writs and makes arrests||Lumberjack|
|Barber||Marbler||Worker in marble or stone|
|Barrister||Lawyer||Mason||Builder in stone|
|Bellifounder||Bell maker||Mercer||Dealer in textile fabrics|
|Bonder||One who keeps slaves||Messenger|
|Bookbinder||Metalworker||Silver, gold, bronze, iron, etc.|
|Bookkeeper||Midshipman||Officer in training|
|Breeder||Dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, etc.||Miner|
|Brewing||Maker of ales, beers, or meads||Moneylender|
|Calligrapher||Page||Noble child in service to another noble|
|Cartographer||Map or chart maker||Parchment maker|
|Cartwright||Performer||Juggler, tumbler, acrobat, fire-eater, etc.|
|Clockmaker||Philosopher||Law, ethics, or the natural sciences|
|Confectioner||Maker of candies||Potter||Makes pottery|
|Cook||Prostitute||Can be noble, religious, or criminal|
|Coper||A horse dealer||Quarrier||One who cuts stone from natural deposits|
|Costumer||Rancher||Horses, cattle, or other livestock|
|Cryptographer||Writes and breaks codes||Scribe|
|Dancer||Scullion||One who cleans in the kitchen|
|Draper||Deals in cloth, clothing and dry goods||Seamstress|
|Dyer||Dyes cloth into various colors||Ships Captain|
|Embroiderer||Shipwright||One who makes ships and boats|
|Engineer||Designs public works, like bridges||Soap maker|
|Engraver||Soldier||Rank and file or officer class|
|Falconer||Trainer of hawks for gaming||Soothsayer||A fortune-teller|
|Farmer||Spinner||One who spins into wool|
|Fisherman||Steward||Servant that oversees the running of a household|
|Fishmonger||A dealer in cheap and imitation goods||Storyteller|
|Florist||Tanner||Tans animal skins to make leather|
|Furrier||Dealer in furs; trapper||Teacher|
|Glassblower||Thatcher||One who thatches roofs|
|Groom||Horse keeper||Tinker||A maker in small devices for common use|
|Groundskeeper||Toolmaker||A smith who makes metal tools|
|Harrier||Trainer of hunting hounds||Torturer|
|Hatter||Maker and repairer of hats||Toymaker|
|Hawker||Sells goods by yelling in the street||Tracker|
|Headmaster||Head of a school||Trader|
|Healer||With or without magic||Trainer|
|Herbalist||For healing or hurting||Treasurer|
|Hoyer||Animal driver||Wainwright||Maker and repairer of wagons|
|Iceman||Keeper of the ice house||Watchman|
Significant past events
Anything, even something small, can change you in major ways and lead to interesting game play. You can always look at your personality traits and come up with reasons why you’re that way (an example: your Primary Motivator is Liberation because you were sold into slavery until you managed to kill your owner in the night, swearing that you would forever help free anyone in bondage). The possibilities are endless.
- Did your father tell you a dark family secret?
- Any unusual problems, deaths, illnesses, or trauma? E.g. did the landlord throw your family into the street? Were your parents or yourself taken into slavery?
- Or did something of great fortune happen?
- Were you taken far away from your family for some reason?
- Were there any interesting traditions, celebrations, or holidays in your family?
- Did you ever fall in love or have a serious relationship?
- Do you have a spouse or any children of your own? Where are they now?
- Were you ever really sick or injured?
- What kind of education did you have, if any?
- Were you ever betrayed?
- Did you find a magic item buried in the woods? Or did a rabbit suddenly start talking to you?
- Were you ever dirt poor or filthy rich for a brief time?
- Did you ever commit any crimes, or be falsely accused of one?
- Did something happen that revealed an unusual talent?
- Did you do anything interesting, like travel with a performing troupe, join the military, serve the local nobility, or jump a trading ship for a year?
- Were you ever active in a church, religion, cult, or secret order?
- Did you ever have a chance to show leadership, such as leading a local rebellion, founding a school or animal sanctuary, being elected mayor of your small village, etc.
- Did anything really funny ever happen to you? Embarrasing stories can make for great tavern entertainment.
- Any strangers come through town that gave you an unusual gift?
- Did a fortune teller predict something strange and unlikely?
- Was there a nearby hermit that taught you about herbs or other lore?
- Any local clergy to influence your religion?
- Did you ever have any mentors or patrons before adventuring?
- Did you form any close friendships while growing up or in early adulthood? Is there anyone out there that you can really trust or look to for help?
Mysteries are great opportunities for role-playing and help keep your character interesting. They can provide the GM with ideas for sub-plots or even whole adventures, so be sure to let her know what you come up with. The ol’ amnesia hook is discouraged unless you can come up with a really good story to support it. Some good mysteries could be:
- Who murdered my best friend?
- Who is my real mother?
- I had a strange vision when I was ten—what did it mean?
- Why do I keep having recurring nightmares about a flaming sword?
- One morning I woke up with this strange mark on my chest
- Why does the full moon fill me with dread?
- What did that cryptic prophesy given by an oracle mean?
- Why did the king grant 100 acres of land to my father 20 years ago without an explanation?
- Every now and then I think I see strange creatures out of the corner of my eye—what are they?
- Just before he disappeared, my father gave me a magical box that I can’t open.
- A black cloak appeared one day in my room; I don’t know who put it there or what it’s about
- I was drinking one night at the local tavern and the next thing I remember I was alone, naked, and lying on a stone altar in an outdoor temple dozens of miles away
It is possible to have ongoing conflicts in your character’s life. Such conflicts are often between individuals, but they can also be between groups and institutions (such as another village, church, guild, school, family, or the law). You can add other details, like if you are mainly out to get them, or they you, or if the antagonism is mutual. If you choose to have a pre-existing or ongoing conflict, create the circumstances surrounding it:
- Who exactly is the conflict with?
- Why does the conflict exist? What happened?
- Why can’t it be worked out?
- How do you think it will end?
- What are the emotions surrounding it—hate, jealousy, vengefulness, grief, bitterness, regret, fear?
What triggered adventuring?
Even if you don’t answer many other questions about your background, this is a good one to know. Again, look to your personality traits to get ideas for your triggers, especially the Primary Motivator. Also, any of the background items above can act as your adventuring trigger. But if you’re still not sure, here are some ways to explore the essential question—how did you happen to take up a sword, lockpick, or spell book and go looking for trouble?
- Was it a thoughtful decision to go adventuring or did circumstances compel you? Why did you make that decision or what circumstances pushed you into it?
- If you left home, what set you off? Are you looking for something? Or…
- trying to accomplish anything? Or…
- was it wanderlust? Or…
- seeking fame and fortune? Or…
- trying to walk in a parent’s or sibling’s footsteps?
- If you are a fighter, you must have some minimal training with a sword—where did you get it and how did you learn to use it (friend, a job, parent, military)? Or if you have a knack for picking pockets, how did you learn the ropes? If you are a cleric, did you get “the call” from a deity, or were you indoctrinated into a religion?
Think about it this way—if the very first place you get to on your adventure is a pub and someone asks “so, what brings you here?” an honest answer to this hypothetical question would be based on your trigger.
Do you own anything other than what you are wearing and what’s in your backpack? Do you have a family home, or own land? Also, don’t just think about adventuring equipment—look at your hobbies, quirks, and craft skills above and think if you might have items related to those things.
Are there any outstanding obligations or oaths that you need to fulfill? Any unusual debts? Is anyone looking for you for deserting service or a contract, or for some other reason? Did you make a promise to your family or friends?
Like the adventure trigger, this is the other background area that should be known for a well-played character. If you have filled out a good portion of the other background areas, then it is likely your quests are already known—they can come from anything in the Events, Mysteries, or Conflicts sections, for example (your trigger can also be a quest). You should add more quests as you continue to adventure. Having short and long term quests is a good idea—developing both can allow you to accomplish things sooner rather than later while still retaining something that drives you.
When working on your quests, think in terms of clearly defined goals—e.g. to become rich is a motivation, not a quest, but to obtain Brad’s Chest of Neverending Gold from the Cave of Certain Death is. Here are some basic ideas—remember, it works best if you can develop quests that collaborate with your personality traits:
- Solve a mystery
- Resolve a conflict
- Fulfill an oath
- Deliver a message or package
- Find or save someone or something that was lost or taken
- Discover a mythical place
- Solve a crime
- Remove a curse
- Provide a suitable person as a physical vehicle for your deity
- Earn membership in an exclusive organization
- Kill every last troll in the Brashduk Clan
- Open the portal to the Fifth Dimension
- Depose the local baron
- Fix the terrible mistake I made long ago
- Obtain Brad’s Chest of Neverending Gold from the Cave of Certain Death
Again, the possibilities are endless. It might be worthwhile to work with the DM on coming up with quests that fit within the game world.
Basic and Full sheets