So, what do you do if you want to make sure that your players produce a little bit of character background?
I want my players’ characters to be tied into the game world. I want them to have home towns, family, and reasons for doing what they do. It gives me handles for writing adventures that will appeal to them and hook them in, and it lets me give certain characters a little bit of the spotlight when needed by pulling in something from their backstory.
Some players will automatically write up a complete history for their character. Sometimes it’ll be multiple pages, with great detail, family trees, accounts of first love and best friends, and all the secret tragedies of their lives. They do this as a matter of course, in an attempt to solidify their characters before play begins. I tend to fall into this category.
Others come up with a name, then sit back with an exhausted sigh, glad all the heavy lifting’s done.
And, as gamers get older and develop outside lives and families and jobs and interests, some start out to be the first kind, but wind up being the second kind.
What to do?
The first thing I tried was to make three pages of character background mandatory: if you want to play in my game, you’ve got to write three pages of background for your character.
See, I’m a word-whore. I’m a technical writer by profession. I’ll write a thousand words about what I had for breakfast. I toss off three-page backgrounds in my sleep. So, three pages is nothing to me.
Three pages is a lot to some people, though. And when I made it mandatory, I got people promising to get it to me and never delivering. I got players deciding not to play in my game, because they’d have to write the background. Worse, I got people deciding not to play in my game because their significant other didn’t want to play because of having to write the background.
Not the effect I was looking for, at all.
So, I decided to steal from Amber. Say what I will about Amber, there’s a ton of good ideas in the game.
In Amber, you can make contributions to the game in order to get extra points to build your characters. This is a rather stunning idea because:
- The contributions are OUTSIDE of play. Things like recording quotes, bringing snacks, creating stories and art, etc.
- The reward is MECHANICAL. You actually get stuff that helps your character in the game.
- It is VOLUNTARY. No one has to make a contribution.
- It is SEDUCTIVE. Almost everyone winds up making a contribution. Certainly everyone in the game I ran did.
And so I instituted The Bribe(TM)*.
I did not require background from my characters anymore, except for some very basic things demanded by the system (Race and class in D&D, the phases in SotC and DFRPG, etc.) Instead, I offer some game benefit for each page of background they give me, up to a maximum (usually three). They can give me more, but the benefits top out at the maximum.
Sometimes, I make special requests, such as having a short list of questions that must be answered in the background, or asking them to create a little bit of the world outside their character. In cases like this, I usually set the minimum amount of material at a half-page. Format doesn’t matter; full prose is fine, bullet lists are fine; hell, if they want to write it in a series of sonnets, I’m good with that.
So far, in the games where I’ve used this (most of the games I run, that is), everyone has gone for the full bribe. Even the people who hate writing up background.
To use the Bribe(TM) most effectively, I’ve found the following considerations useful:
- Make the reward significant. If the reward is an extra bonus to an attribute, the players will go for it. If it’s a healing potion, they probably won’t. It’s got to be something that will make a difference throughout play.
- Give them options. Give them a number of options of things that count towards the Bribe(TM). Let them pick from a list of rewards.
- Make them choose. If you’ve got a list of rewards, limit the number of times they can take a given reward. I usually say that you can choose each item only once.
- Not all rewards need to be equal. The first time I used this in a D&D game, the rewards were +2 to a single stat, an extra feat, and a masterwork item. The first two rewards are pretty tempting, but the third one is only useful until magic items start cropping up**. Still, everyone wound up with a masterwork item because, if you’ve written two pages of background, you might as well write a third, even if the reward isn’t as cool.
- Be aware that you are changing the power of the starting characters. Adjust the challenges accordingly, or they’re just going to dance through the adventures. This will follow them throughout the game, so bear it in mind. Just toughen up the opposition a little.
- Use the stuff they give you. Show them that it’s valued and appreciated, and incorporate it into the game. DO NOT use it to smack them down, but DO use it to personalize things. This is a tough balancing act, but pay attention to how your players react to things to find the sweet spot.
- Set a deadline. Do not start play until you have all the Bribes(TM) delivered to you, or take away the rewards from the late folks. You can return the rewards later, once the Bribes(TM) are complete, but make sure that only people who complete the Bribe(TM) get the rewards. Otherwise, you wind up with the same discrepancy in material I started this whole mess with.
Give it a try with the next game you start. Hell, you don’t have to wait that long; easy enough to drop it into an ongoing campaign, and give the players the rewards to improve their characters.
Just a little something that I’ve found useful.
*I added the (TM) later, after I decided that it worked, the players liked it, and the other GMs in our group started using it. Standard question when talking about creating characters for a new game is, “What’s the Bribe(TM)?”
**This was not actually the case in that campaign, because of some house rules on weapons acquiring enchantment based on the heroic deeds they were used for, but anyway…