Game Master Musings – Why Do Players Not Write Backgrounds For Their Characters?

Recently a good friend of mine asked “Why do players never write backgrounds for their characters?” It’s a good question that’s stuck with me for weeks. Since I’m a player as well as a GM I thought I’d give a crack at answering it.

Here it goes:

1) Creating Characters Is Work

GMing will always require more work than playing but don’t belittle how much effort your players put into making their characters. Take standard D20 character creation for instance: There’s rolling and jotting down stats, choosing race (jotting down all the racial bonuses), choosing class (jotting down all the class bonuses), feats, skills, saves and that’s even before  rolling starting coin and jotting down, in pain staking detail, each and every piece of equipment and its corresponding weight.

Remember too that your players may not know character creation as well as you do. Much of their effort will be spent referencing the main book,  asking questions and helping other players create their characters.

Depending on the system character creation can be exhausting; Asking your players to then generate a background, right after their recent struggle, will seem as inviting as homework on a weekend.

2) There May No Viable Purpose Behind It

Every stat serves its purpose and you need to write down equipment in case the GM calls you on what your character has. Background on the other hand? In many games it’ll be something you write once, hand to your GM and it’ll never come up again.

This is a problem.

As a Game Master never tell your players to create backgrounds if you plan to do nothing with them. It”ll be wasted effort on their part.

Another friend of mine uses character backgrounds to drive his entire game. If you put a lot of work into yours then it’ll directly correspond with how much the game is about ‘you’. The family, friends and foes you draw up will show up as major plot elements. On the other hand if you don’t put anything into it, you won’t get much of the spotlight at all.

I trust you can see how this can motivate.

Even if you don’t take this approach, if you ask for a background make sure elements of it come up at some point during game. Otherwise, your players are just throwing their ideas into a vacuum and that’s no fun at all.

Note: Some games, such as Pendragon and Fate roll character background into the rules, therefore there is an immediate insentive to write them up. However, even in cases where there are no special rules why not award some sort of bonus or XP for such extra work?

3) You Will Use This As A Tool To Screw Me Over

If you’ve turned PC backgrounds against players before the y may be hesitant to let you do it again.

Players write backgrounds to compliment their characters. If I make a paladin I expect that I may need to rescue my wayward brother at some point. If I make an assassin I (the player) will relish the upcoming confrontation with my kingly father.

If you twist these in uncomfortable ways that make a character look foolish, it frankly sucks. As a paladin I don’t expect to be served my wayward brother in a meat pie without ever having the chance to save him. As an assassin I don’t want to be drugged in my sleep only to wake up naked to be ridiculed in front the court.

Before you do such horrible things be sure you know it’ll be something the player, if not the character, will like.

4) My Character Will Most Likely Die in 5 Minutes

Incredibly gritty and lethal games can be fun but don’t expect players to make detailed backgrounds for characters that you plan to Gorge R.R. Martin.

If you invest a ton in a character and he dies in the first round of the first conflict, that’s a lost investment.

5) I Don’t Have Any Ideas

It’s quite possible that a player may not have any immediate ideas for his character beyond race and class. Perhaps even a short creative writing assignment reminds him of his asshole English prof. Mr. Withers. Whatever the reason, if a player can’t or doesn’t want to write a background then don’t force the issue.

However, if he’s cool with, it there is a work around. Come up with a background for him. Either write it up on the spot or make up, and document, elements of it as the campaign progresses. I’ve found this technique has worked really well in drawing shy players in. Suddenly introducing the character’s Mother, who just happens to be the leader of the friendly resistance cell, does wonders for helping a player feel involved.

 

And those my answer to this question. I hope you’ve found them informative and helpful.

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3 Responses to “Game Master Musings – Why Do Players Not Write Backgrounds For Their Characters?”

  1. James Hays Says:

    Regarding the note at the end of 2, the word you actually want is ‘incentive’ rather than ‘insensitive’.
    Regarding the last word of 5, you reversed the L and the V.

    Good analysis. Something else for backgrounds is to let the player come up with their character background a little at a time, which is sort of like springing character background on them, but possibly less harrowing (ie – when Mom turns out to be very different than the player figured they’d been).

  2. Thanks for the feedback and fixed.

    One GM (a very good one at that) I know uses said ‘background on the fly technique’ exclusively. It works out pretty well.

  3. […] said this earlier, creating characters is hard work. The time you spend doing  it is an investment. You are, in […]

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