Formalizing the background as a key character feature speaks to the emergence of role-playing as a central aspect of the game. Role-playing always happened, as some grognards will hurry to inform anyone who will care to listen. But in the classic dungeon-crawl, it was generally incidental, a frill on the serious business of killing monsters and taking their stuff. Additionally, it tended to reinforce hierarchies within the gaming group. Good players roleplayed; average players sat quietly, paid attention to the group's stars, and were ready to roll dice when it was their turn. Today, the purpose of the dungeon crawl, the hexcrawl, or the urban escapade is not (or is not simply) power, wealth, and fame; it is also a product of the character's biography - a tough childhood, a family quest, a tragic flaw, a mission from a god or a patron, and so on. Moreover, a disengaged player is not simply shy or bored - they are the player of a character who has not been incorporated into the adventure, because the GM has ignored their backstory, or because their goals are not aligned with those of the rest of the party. In the modern gaming mindset, each character should get to roleplay and be the star at least once in a while, by having their background or backstory take center stage.
But to fully benefit from the narrative turn in gaming, backgrounds and backstories need to be selected with some care. Sometimes, a background which seems like it would be cool to play, and makes a character stand out, actually marginalizes the character, and breeds tension in the group. This doesn't mean that any background can't be made to work by the right player in the right environment. It simply means that some backgrounds are much more difficult to pull off in most cases. The key thing to remember when building a character is that a good background is not just for you - the player. It is something that helps embed the character in the world, and in the party. It provides hooks that the other game participants can easily latch onto, so they can develop the game into a truly collective enterprise.
|Butcher, baker, mother, crone...|
In what follows, I detail some typical backgrounds and backstories that are problematic, and a few that I believe increase both player and group enjoyment.
The Lone Wolf. Little more needs to be said about this type that hasn't been said already. Loner characters that march to their own drummer, never compromise their principles, and are always ready to strike out on their own might work well in novels or films, but they don't work well in media in which the Party, rather than the Hero, take center stage. In RPGs, the Lone Wolf typically refuses to accept party decisions, splits the party (creating a headache for the GM), and generally acts like the sociopath that most Lone Wolves are in reality. The Lone Wolf may be a model for the Adventurer Type (which accounts for the type's social marginality nearly everywhere). But even adventurers, as I have argued elsewhere, belong to and form social bonds if they expect to succeed. If you want a wolf, remember that most wolves are pack animals.
The Enforcer. This is a fairly common adventurer type that typically solves problems through force. Subtypes may include soldiers or gang members. There is an important difference between the Enforcer and the Lone Wolf, however. Enforcers are a part of a power structure. They recognize someone's authority, and, when they can, replicate that authority over others when they can get away with it. This creates the potential for long-term relationships with NPCs, as well as long-term tensions that may yield role-playing gold. Attempting to force a PC party to bend to the will of an NPC will create problems, however, and becoming the henchman of the party leader will create even more.
The Guy Whose Family Was Killed. This is really a variant of the Lone Wolf. At first sight, it appears that the dead family creates both a motive for adventuring, and opportunities to solve the mystery of who did it. It can also prompt the GM to create a villain who will serve as the character's foil for the duration of the campaign. In reality, this backstory is a bit of a trap for all involved. If the character seeking the family's killers does not immediately find them, frustration can set in, as that player will not feature heavily in the narratives that are being spun around the party and its other members. It is possible to give clues here and there, but this only works if the character with the dead family is local to the area in which the adventure is set. If that character has come from far away, the suspension of disbelief begins to be stretched for the killers to suddenly turn up in the distant region as well. Then, even if they do, they will have to have some sort of relationship to other characters, or to the situation the party as a whole is dealing with. A creative GM can make such connections, but the background of the family-less character certainly limits her options. Assuming these pitfalls can be negotiated, and the killers are found, and dispatched, what then? The main part of the character's backstory goes up in smoke. On the whole, this trope tends to force the GM to focus attention on this character, or perhaps, after a few failed attempts, to increasingly push them to the margins of the main story. In many cases, I find that the trope is really just a placeholder instead of a real backstory: even when culprits turn up, the character whose family they wronged isn't even that interested in them. This character really needs to have an additional shtick, like a coming of age story (and letting go of revenge), or descent into tragic hero-dom, in order to make this background work.
The Quester. The Quester is a better option than than the person hunting for the family's killer. The thing the quester is looking for is probably an item (or occurrence) of importance to a wide range of people, not just to himself. Asking around for word of an artifact, or signs of the apocalypse is a credible course of action in any given session, whereas saying "hey, I lost my family, have you seen the person who killed them?" is not. A quester is likely to be pleased with any information, no matter how vague; and the quester implicitly recognizes that the Holy Grail lies at the very end of the adventuring life, and seeking it is as important, if not more important, than finding it. A person looking for a killer, or revenge, will not be happy with anything but concrete information leading in a particular direction.
The Frustrated Aspirant. The Frustrated Aspirant can be every bit as antisocial as the character looking for vengeance. This character turned away from society because of a personal tragedy (such as participating in a disastrous military operation), or because they were passed over for promotion or recognition. In either case, the Frustrated Aspirant is likely to develop a grudge against whole categories of NPCs, rather than specific people. From a role-playing standpoint, however, that's a plus, because it can apply in a variety of different situations, involving NPCs that the character dislikes. It also presents opportunities for growth - perhaps over time, the character can meet a variety of people that he once disliked, and to realize that these NPCs are not at all what he imagined.
The Emo. Artiste character types are not too common in standard fantasy, though they are more prevalent in urban gothic and other genres. Though they seem unique on the surface, they are really Lone Wolves, even if they may not always be as violent. Emos have a rich inner world, but narrating it often detracts from the collective character of the game. Their fallback perspective pits them against the rest of the world. They can form strong emotional attachments with other characters, though this does nothing to diminish their anti-social attitude toward all others - in fact, quite the reverse. They can work in a party if other members come to tolerate or enjoy their antics, but again, this places the onus to change on other characters (and players).
The Credit to the Family. The character with an extant family, with which she is in good standing, is a good option. Maybe she is working to save the family from a disaster, or possibly to find it a new home. Maybe she just has an aged mother on whom she drops in, and to whom she delivers a share of the treasure, or a wayward brother, whom she is trying to rescue from the gutter. Whatever the case, being on a family-related mission is usually a long-term enterprise that keeps the character engaged and committed to activities other than slaughter and looting. Having a family member near adventuring sites is also a good trope - other party members will be introduced to the aged matriarch, may receive favors and shelter from her, and in time, might even start to feel like a member of the clan. One caveat, though: families must not be allowed to completely dominate the game. The character who has an unlimited number of NPC cousins in a game with liberal levels of player agency can start to annoy other party members, and the GM, very, very quickly.
The Scion. I'm not one to dissuade people from writing multi-page family sagas instead of backstories. Whatever floats your boat. But aside from your own personal edification, there is little reason to compose family histories. There is simply too much material in a long saga to meaningfully incorporate into the game, and feeling that the GM is beholden to you to do so just because you invested the energy in writing it is to set yourself up for disappointment or conflict. As with cousins, be reasonable.
The Diplomat. Diplomat characters are useful. If your raison d'être is peacemaking, there will always be a call for you, no matter the situation. Problem-solving through innovative (i.e. non-confrontational) means is usually refreshing, and can put interesting twists on plots. Diplomats also tend to be skilled at languages, which opens more space to communicate with different kinds of creatures (that one might otherwise end up fighting due to communication problems). The drawback with diplomats is that they are often wishy-washy and indecisive. Their comrades typically pine for simpler decisions, and want to just pick a side, and then fight those on the other side. Diplomats seek peace and balance where they might simply be unattainable. Particularly stubborn diplomats will go against the grain of party consensus, and sometimes, they will slow an adventure's progress down to a crawl.
The Exile. This can be a variant of the character who has lost his family, but usually, it's a better variant. The exile can be sent away because of a crime, a misunderstanding, or being on the wrong side politically. This character is also focused on the past (as well as on a distant land), but his nostalgia exists in the interstices of past and present, here and there, and it is the contrast that makes the character interesting. He might be pursuing personal growth, atoning for the crime, or looking for an item or proof that will exonerate him, and perhaps allow him to eventually return. Waxing eloquent about the old country (or complaining about its barbarism) can be entertaining role-playing, if it is not overdone. The exile's player should also develop some of the details about the exile, and figure out how they might fit in with the developing campaign arc. Otherwise, the character risks becoming just another desperado.
The Specialist. The Specialist is commonly a craftsperson, trader, or perhaps a guard or a guide. She has a unique skillset, at least as far as the rest of the party is concerned (if not, the Specialist may become a bore, so make sure your merchant has something to trade, and your armorer - something to make or fix). Often, this leads to the character being curmudgeonly, which can be entertaining, but should be used in moderation. To be especially interesting, the character should have a shtick - sayings, superstitions, a particularly engaging approach to customers, a particularly grumpy attitude toward bosses, etc. A Specialist may develop a general appreciation of specialization, which would make her interdependent with other character, who can do things she can't. The specialist is therefore a good "buddy" character.
The Drunk. The Drunk is a gimmicky character who can provide comic relief to a party - for a time. The Drunk is the instant life of the party - at least until he gets his companions in trouble, whether through commission or through omission. When Drunks start being as much of a burden as real-life drunks, it's time to change things up a bit. The Drunk should have periods of sobriety and contrition, and perhaps try (seriously or not) to change their life - perhaps even by changing their class or alignment. Related character types - the Lech, the Lovable Rogue - usually evince similar trajectories. Following such characters on their benders, and watching them take over a session with their shenanigans one too many times is a common pathway to the dissolution of an adventuring party (or a gaming group).
The Preacher. The Preacher is another Drunk, though less entertaining. In the old days, when most clerics tended toward fundamentalism, Preachers abounded, always spouting off about their divine patron, and demanding some some level of obeisance in return for their ministrations. Today, they tend toward a more New Age-y spirituality, and are less likely to preach, though one still finds examples of the type from time to time, e.g. in the form of Evelyn Marthain (of the popular Dice Camera Action stream), who rarely goes more than two minutes without informing her companions and enemies about the Light of her deity Lathander. Given the character's wide-eyed innocence and her player's acting skill, the performance is a success, but for most players, the watchword should probably be: don't try this at home.
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This seems a reasonable overview of backgrounds and backstories, although other types can obviously be added to the list as well. In a nutshell, the main concern when considering backgrounds should be: how will this play with the other group members, and with the GM's setting. Ask specific questions about others before writing your own story. In most cases, they will only thank you, because it will allow them to refine their own narratives, making them more interesting and lifelike. Also, try to have escape hatches that allow the character to change somewhere down the road. Going up levels is a progression, but the best characters grow as people, too.