August 17, 2003

WISH 54: Background Hooks

Ginger asks in WISH 54:

Do you like to have bits and pieces from your characters’ backgrounds appear in the game? Do you write hooks into your character background for the GM to use in the campaign for your character? Do you like it when the GM gives you a background hook into an adventure or scenario with a previously unknown hook, such as creating an old friend of your character’s who is somehow involved? What are some examples of cases where hooks have worked or not worked for you?

This gives me an excuse to launch in to a long ramble about character backgrounds in general, the psychology of roleplayers, and maybe even answer the question.

Character backgrounds are something I tend to go all or nothing on -- but I prefer 'all'. The best way to get a decent write up of a character out of me is to present me with time and a well detailed game world.

A man is the sum of his memories, you know -- a Time Lord even more so.

Some of the defining moments in the life of a character can be caused by world changing events. Even if the character doesn't influence the event, the event can have a strong impact on the character. Take Lloyd Cole for example, he's a character I put together for a Babylon 5 game. Thanks to a combination of the Psi Corps and the Mars Food Riots, he is alone in the universe -- at least as far as he knows; its quite possible that some family member will pop out of the woodwork at some stage. He has a few allies, with more then a slight chance that some of them would ask him to do something he'd rather avoid.

I'll apologise for being so vague above, the group has decided to keep backgrounds secret (except from the GM obviously) to reduce the possibility of accidental meta-gaming, and putting all the background in a blog that some of them read would rather scupper that idea!

This is one reason I love Babylon 5 so much, the setting is very well detailed so there is lots of scope to pick defining moments in characters lives from. In a game world which isn't so well detailed there are a couple of choices. The first is to keep things highly localised, which doesn't lend itself too well to providing plot hocks. The other option is to build the game world, but I don't like to do this -- it makes me feel like I am trespassing in the GM's territory, its his universe, we just get to play in it. All in all -- I'll take a good setting and time to get to know it over anything else any day.

By now you probably have the impression that I like having a good character background, so lets address the first couple of questions. I do like having elements of the background appear in the game, and I do try to produce backgrounds with plot hocks in them.

If the backgrounds aren't used, then there is little point in writing them (except to get some idea of the character's motivations). It is as if the character just appeared one day without knowing anyone in the country / on the planet / in the time zones. When writing a background I find that hocks appear without me having to put any great thought in to what they are, what is a hock other then part of the background which hasn't been resolved yet? Hocks are easy to create, make most GMs happy, and improve the odds of the campaign lasting -- so I don't see any reason not to use them.

The next question is a little trickier. I mentioned earlier that I felt a player writing major events in to the background of a world was trespassing in the GM's area of responsibility, I also feel that a GM throwing in random bits of character background is the same.

Of course this can lead to character backgrounds being exhausted before too long, although he can introduce new hocks in to the background through the events of the game. For example, the characters manage to get the aid of a servant to sneak in to the castle, and three sessions later that servant needs their help.

Adding new bits of background isn't entirely off limits of course, in some cases its even expected (e.g. a period of time of which a character has no memory). Whatever happens, any background hock retroactively inserted in to the character needs to be lausiblee, and ideally discussed with the player before hand. The cunning GM will plan a scenario several scenarios ahead, develop a few background hooks for the character (including red herrings -- GMs are supposed to be devious) and then let the player forget about them before they are actually used.

A recent background hock that seems to be working out quite well in the Thursday night D&D campaign is the old chestnut, 'He doesn't know how his father is'. This gives him the ideal reason to team up with the other party members, because magical device that offers his best hope of having his questions answered is currently in the possession of the enemy the rest of the group is seeking. Where this will end up, I don't know.

Now lets turn this around and face the question of character backgrounds from the perspective of a GM, although admittedly an inexperienced one.

My answers to the first three questions are pretty much the same as from a player's perspective. I only have one story of an example of where I've been able to use a background hook, I did say I was inexperienced at GMing! It involved the party being approached by an agent of a government because the semi-official leader of the party considered himself in their debt.

I've found that the hardest part of integrating character backgrounds is to persuade the players to produce them in the first place. The two key techniques for persuading them to be creative are to make it as easy as possible and to make it worthwhile.

Lets deal with those in reverse order. Why should the players produce wonderfully detailed backgrounds? Hopefully they will realise how much benefit can be had from a good background. Unfortunately we don't live in a world packed full of the greatest of roleplayers, and some of use have to deal with people who have lots of potential but little experience. Sometimes things need a bit more of a push. The solution to most problems involving people not doing what you want them to do usually turns out of be the carrot and the stick. Rewarding players who produce good backgrounds can encourage other people to do the same. The rewards can take a number of forms, the GM of the online game of B5 that I will be playing in, for example, gave out contacts -- although not contacts as powerful as might be gained from the feat of the same name. Other options include experience points and equipment.

Next comes the question of how to make it as easy as possible for the players to produce the backgrounds. There are several things that can be done here to help. The first is to make sure that they have a good understanding of the game world, in the case of a TV series it might be worth while gathering the group together to watch a few carefully selected episodes as an introduction, ideally you would want all the players exposed to every episode -- but this could be time consuming.

Once they have the knowledge needed to write the background it helps if they have guidelines to work from. I will now shamelessly steal some guidelines from Kynn.

  • Players must come up with at least five people important to their character's backgrounds.
  • Of these five, one must be dead and the other four alive.
  • Each type of character should have a different relationship to the player character.
  • Stats, character classes, etc., aren't important (but optional), as the most important things are what effect the other person has had on the player's life, and vice versa.
  • 'Important' doesn't necessarily mean friendly. Enemies, opponents, and competition are encouraged here, as well as ambivalent relationships. Old lovers and dead parents are welcome too.

Could it be any easier then that? Well, yes. If a player is really stuck for ideas, its time to crank out the old automatic background generation tools. Mongoose Publishing produce the Ultimate Character Record Sheet, which I think includes a series of background generating tables. I haven't tried it yet, and probably won't, it probably deserves the title of Most Expensive Character Record Sheet. I did have a link to a fairly nice free RPG which included a series of tables for randomly determining a character background, but I can't find it any more. That leaves me rather lacking in background generators, so please let me know if you have links to any good ones!

Now, at the beginning of this ramble, which has reached a length that surprised even me, I promised some thoughts on the psychology of roleplayers. Following the links from the original article I found that just about everybody loves plot hocks in their character backgrounds. VASpider thinks they are essential for MUSHes, Harald loves them but warns of problems with party coherency, something that isn't a major problem in a lot of Babylon 5 campaigns in which diversity and infighting is the order of the day. Looking through all the trackbacks and comments from the question, I can't find anybody who doesn't like having background elements used as plot hocks. That just leaves the question -- is this something to do with roleplayers in general, or roleplayers who like writing enough to produce a blog?

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