Useful character backgrounds

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gentlemanbear

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And that is what, exactly


Did you really just call my preference for sketchy backstories "a bit sociopathic?"


Lemme stop you there.

My defined starting point for Eladio Luna is, un vaquero from Nebraska looking to buy a rancho and raise cattle. My defined starting point for Alcide Pasquier is, a law student looking to advance himself through city politics. My defined starting point for Mulkar Farzef is, a free trader trying to keep spacing and make a credit or three doing it.

Depth and believability come from how I play them as they chase their dreams, not some bit of fiction I wrote before I sat at the table and rolled a die. I learned through actual play to what lengths Eladio would go to be the man he thought he wanted to be, and what it was like once he got there. I'm learning through actual play how the rootless life of a space merchant affects Mulkar's ability to form bonds with others. I want to learn through actual play what qualities war and defeat and devastation bring out in Cpt. Tom Ruzicka as he fights to keep himself and his soldiers alive in the ruins of WWIII Poland.


In my experience, nothing informs the direction my characters go better than actually playing them.

It's called Develop-in-Play. DiP eschews lots of background and relationships created whole-cloth out-of-game for 'play to find out,' building relationships in actual play and creating a background through retrospection.

For me, nothing is 'real' until we sit down together and play the game: ask questions, declare actions, roll dice. Those things really happen around the table, and they define my starting point for caring about my character.

And daydreaming isn't playing.


Jolly good!
Okay, last time into the breach.

A) The aspect of play you are refusing is two-fold.
1) You are refusing to engage with the game world, refusing to establish where the character came from as a product born to and raised in that world. You are declining to cooperate or "play" with the GM in setting up the game to come. That denies him a whole palette of choices for including elements that otherwise might be relevant to that character, to make it interesting for you. You give him nothing to work with in world-building as regards your character, while at the same time leaving the GM holding the bag in regards to integrating your character into his world when that is his job from the start, Session 0.
2) You are refusing to pre-dispose your character towards any sort of relationship with any of the other PCs in the group. That does nothing but completely hamstring the whole party when it comes to figuring out who you are and where you are going to fit in with them. If you gave a crap about anyone else's character in the group, you would help them anchor and establish their own characters by providing pre-game opportunities for bonding between them. But you don't care about your own character until after play has started, so that is obviously a bridge too far for you.

Yes, players of characters who refuse to allow for any sorts of relationships to their characters (good OR bad, PC or NPC) are starting play with sociopaths. That kind of disassociation is classic. They aren't going to end up as sociopaths after you have played them sufficiently, by your method, but that certainly is where you are starting them.

Oh, no. You don't get to retro-fit your "NO background" stance by re-casting it as "sketchy backstories".
You have made it abundantly clear that you are doing NO backstory creation at all. That isn't a "sketch" of any kind.
No, current occupation/class and an immediate goal directly derived from it do not constitute "background" of any sort. It is a flat statement of their current status and activities.

No, you don't get to "stop [me] there" or anywhere else. (You seem not to understand the limitations of this medium.)

"My defined starting point for Eladio Luna is, un vaquero from Nebraska looking to buy a rancho and raise cattle. My defined starting point for Alcide Pasquier is, a law student looking to advance himself through city politics. My defined starting point for Mulkar Farzef is, a free trader trying to keep spacing and make a credit or three doing it."

Your "starting points" are merely definitions of current occupation/class, i.e., what they can do, and what the immediate objective you derive from it is.
That is by NO stretch of the imagination any sort of attempt to describe where they come from or WHY they chose the class/path you gave them or WHY that starting goal is what it is. At the start, they are as 2-d as they can be. You've cut off their past. They have no origins. I don't care how long you play that character, it never will.
That is exactly the opposite of the "depth and believability" you seem to think is only valid if it occurs spontaneously at the table during play.
Sigh.
Classes/occupations are shallow and uninteresting, pedestrian, quotidian. Backstory is used to give them meaning, to make them somehow more interesting. People are drawn to personal stories, not dry labels. "WHY" intrigues people. Check out Simon Sinek on the subject.

BTW, DiP isn't mutually exclusive of an actual "sketch" of a character's background. They can work hand-in-hand quite nicely. And, your "retrospection" into your own character is not the only PoV that is valid. By definition, the GM knows more than you do about the conditions in their game-world and which locations are more compatible with your character choices. It is beginning to sound like you just resent anyone having any in-put into your character backstory other than that you create yourself. That is a tad bit problematic in a cooperative group activity.

AND, the back-and-forth between players during Session 0/character generation when they discuss the ways in which their characters might relate to one another isn't "daydreaming" (could you have been any more dismissive or condescending towards those who cheerfully embrace the practice? That was rhetorical, in case you didn't notice). It's setting up the game so everyone can enjoy it. Together.
It sounds very much like you assume the first time you meet in play is the first time your character ever met any of the PCs. You might as well start the characters off meeting (for the first time) at a tavern. What fun. Never done that before.

End of line.
 

Picaroon Jack

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The "They Fight Crime" page is a classic. Looking at it now, I feel like telling my players to create characters using They Fight Crime as a starting point, I'd do the same for my NPCs and then run a Sin City parody using Cyberblues City.
Player: "So how do we roll up characters?"
GM: "Go to this link. You can press it three times and take your choice. Oh yeah, and they fight crime."
 

Vidgrip

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Good thread, Stan. I've enjoyed the argument. Your three questions are very reasonable as is your count limit, although I'm too lazy to count words so I like a sentence limit. A 2-3 sentence backstory is fine for games I run. as long as it tells me something I wouldn't already know from looking at the character sheet. If I'm playing at someone else's table, I'm happy to write more if they want it.

Most games these days do a good job of including a background table of some sort to help players get the idea. I typically use what the game provides.

Unless players are very familiar with the setting, asking for longer backgrounds seems likely to produce (1) stories that don't fit the setting, or (2) the lone, outcast drifter from an unknown land with an unknown past, which is just a dodge - and an understandable one (It worked for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood).
 

Picaroon Jack

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Good thread, Stan. I've enjoyed the argument. Your three questions are very reasonable as is your count limit, although I'm too lazy to count words so I like a sentence limit. A 2-3 sentence backstory is fine for games I run. as long as it tells me something I wouldn't already know from looking at the character sheet. If I'm playing at someone else's table, I'm happy to write more if they want it.

Most games these days do a good job of including a background table of some sort to help players get the idea. I typically use what the game provides.

Unless players are very familiar with the setting, asking for longer backgrounds seems likely to produce (1) stories that don't fit the setting, or (2) the lone, outcast drifter from an unknown land with an unknown past, which is just a dodge - and an understandable one (It worked for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood).
Something tells me you've heard, "My name? My mysterious character doesn't have a name." a few times, V Vidgrip
 

robiswrong

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The other problem with writing out a big backstory is it creates a ton of expectations about how the player expects the character's story to go (see the "OC" culture of play in that thread). That can be an issue if the game veers another way or the party composition doesn't work with that.

I prefer to err on the side of develop in play, but depending on the game I don't mind some amount of detail added to the character. A reason why the party is together is all good. Some general hints at other characters related to the PC (enemies/allies/whatever), to be fleshed out more fully in play.

I really don't prefer massive backstories because they can impede the character growing organically. But for some playstyles, I guess it's the whole point. "This is my character, and this is the arc I want them to have." I mean, i don't get the point personally, but neither my circus nor my monkeys.
 

Black Vulmea

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Okay, last time into the breach.
Yes, it is.

A) The aspect of play you are refusing is two-fold.
I love that there's an A) but no B), C), &c.

1) You are refusing to engage with the game world, refusing to establish where the character came from as a product born to and raised in that world. You are declining to cooperate or "play" with the GM in setting up the game to come.
Creating a bunch of stuff which never happened, whether individually or collaboratively, isn't playing my character. For me, it's the antithesis of playing.

That denies him a whole palette of choices for including elements that otherwise might be relevant to that character, to make it interesting for you. You give him nothing to work with in world-building as regards your character, while at the same time leaving the GM holding the bag in regards to integrating your character into his world when that is his job from the start, Session 0.
I don't need the referee to tailor the world to my character, for I am responsible for my own orgasms.

Give me a premise, and I will make a character who fits the premise. We're fantasy tomb raiders? My character will be a tomb raider. We're survivors of WW III? My character will be a battlefield survivor. We're street-level superheroes? My character will be a street-level crimefighter. Tell me our starting situation, and I'm integrated. Let's go.

2) You are refusing to pre-dispose your character towards any sort of relationship with any of the other PCs in the group. That does nothing but completely hamstring the whole party when it comes to figuring out who you are and where you are going to fit in with them. If you gave a crap about anyone else's character in the group, you would help them anchor and establish their own characters by providing pre-game opportunities for bonding between them.
If our characters are starting together, then that's my 'pre-disposition' to work with the other characters. The nature of relationships my character builds with the others arises out of actual play. I'm not going to decide my character is buddy-buddy with another character before we play, because in my experience a lot of flavor text tends to evaporate once the dice hit the table a few times.

I don't want to be told who your character is - I want to see who your character is, and just as important, I want you to see who my character is as well. Interesting, meaningful character relationships flow from that experience.

But you don't care about your own character until after play has started, so that is obviously a bridge too far for you.
See, this is where you're very wrong. I care quite deeply about my characters. What you can't seem to wrap your mind around is that caring about my characters doesn't include wanting or needing a lot of backstory.

My characters start with goals, and I want my characters to reach their goals. I choose interesting goals, challenging goals, and those goals are my motivations.

Now, here comes my favorite part of gentlemanbear gentlemanbear's post. :smile:

Yes, players of characters who refuse to allow for any sorts of relationships to their characters (good OR bad, PC or NPC) are starting play with sociopaths.
Wait for it.

That kind of disassociation is classic.
Waaaaiiit for it.

They aren't going to end up as sociopaths after you have played them sufficiently, by your method . . .
Satori.

Thank you for conceding my whole argument. :thumbsup:

But seriously, the whole sociopath thing is a complete assumption of bad faith on my part as a player, for which you have no basis.

Oh, no. You don't get to retro-fit your "NO background" stance by re-casting it as "sketchy backstories".
You have made it abundantly clear that you are doing NO backstory creation at all. That isn't a "sketch" of any kind.
No, current occupation/class and an immediate goal directly derived from it do not constitute "background" of any sort. It is a flat statement of their current status and activities.
I posted a few of my character backstories, so I'll leave it to the mob to decide is those qualify as "sketchy backstories" or not, but let's assume you're correct anyway. Let's say I didn't write, "Strong Catholic," as part of Eladio's backstory, but I roleplay him praying regularly with a rosary made from old blue French trade beads, going to Mass and confession whenever he's in town, having one-on-one conversations about the state of his soul with his parish priest, donating to the bishop's cathedral building fund in Santa Fe, and contributing to establishment of a nunnery and a parochial school for the nuevomexicano children of El Dorado County.

So which matters more? That I wrote 'strong Catholic' before the game started, or that I played him as deeply religious and frequently conflicted over his actions as a result of his faith and the teachings of the Church? Is your argument that I would never play my character that way if I didn't write it down first?

I'll let you in on a little secret here: I didn't write down Eladio's backstory, the one I quoted above, until two or three weeks after we started playing. I started him with the rosary beads as a personal possession, but the depth of his convictions were revealed to me in actual play, when he prayed for his soul, and the soul of another, in his hotel room after the first time he killed a man. That's when I knew his faith was more than just ritual, not because of anything presumed before we actually played our characters.

He could just as easily have thrown the rosary away, rejecting the faith of his childhood - there would be a couple of moments on down the line where he was close to that. The beads provided an inflection point in my roleplay, where I discovered something about my character.

Alikhanov, my Mothership belter, received a hammer-and-sickle jacket patch as part of chargen. There hasn't been an opportunity for me to discover the meaning of that yet in actual play, but it's in the back of my mind anytime I 'suit up' as Ali - is he a would-be collectivist revolutionary? did he steal the jacket (Ali's proven to be a packrat who 'collects' anything useful that isn't bolted down, and he'll take that too if a wrench is handy)? or is it someone else's jacket he carries as a keepsake? All of those possibilities could lead me in interesting directions, and when the situation is right, I'll know. I'm just not there yet, and trying to nail that down before we play would be boring as hell to me, 'cause these moments are puro oro to Develop-in-Play gamers.

No, you don't get to "stop [me] there" or anywhere else. (You seem not to understand the limitations of this medium.)
I can stop you anytime I like - put you on Ignore, and it's as if you never existed at all.

Your "starting points" are merely definitions of current occupation/class, i.e., what they can do, and what the immediate objective you derive from it is.
That is by NO stretch of the imagination any sort of attempt to describe where they come from or WHY they chose the class/path you gave them or WHY that starting goal is what it is. At the start, they are as 2-d as they can be. You've cut off their past. They have no origins. I don't care how long you play that character, it never will.
Retrospection really is a thing, even if you can't wrap your mind around DiP gaming.

But I really don't care about origins beyond the bare minimum to connect my character to the game-world, and in my experience there's really no reason why I should. I don't know what my little Scottie dog did before he landed on Vermont Avenue, either.

That is exactly the opposite of the "depth and believability" you seem to think is only valid if it occurs spontaneously at the table during play.
Playing the character is my only source of believability because actual play is real.

Classes/occupations are shallow and uninteresting, pedestrian, quotidian. Backstory is used to give them meaning, to make them somehow more interesting.
Backstories never, ever make a character as interesting as what happens in actual play, and if by some chance your backstory IS more interesting, then your referee is complete shite.

People are drawn to personal stories, not dry labels. "WHY" intrigues people.
So does WHAT and WHEN and HOW, and by the second night of actual play, WHY becomes far more intriguing, 'cause then we really know something about the characters - it's when their personal stories are made up of shared experience, something with which all the players at the table are invested. Your character became a fighter because orcs killed his family when he was a kid? Who fucking cares? Your character saves my character's ass in a fight with orcs? That's fucking awesome, and now it's part of BOTH our stories.

BTW, DiP isn't mutually exclusive of an actual "sketch" of a character's background. They can work hand-in-hand quite nicely.
Never said they can't. Doesn't mean I choose to do it that way, and more importantly, it's not necessary to DiP

And, your "retrospection" into your own character is not the only PoV that is valid. By definition, the GM knows more than you do about the conditions in their game-world and which locations are more compatible with your character choices. It is beginning to sound like you just resent anyone having any in-put into your character backstory other than that you create yourself.
Say what now? Someone else is supposed to create my character's backstory? Am I understanding that correctly?

That is a tad bit problematic in a cooperative group activity.
So are backstories which end up tossed aside or become meaningless distractions to what's happening in actual play, which I've see far more often than 'interesting.'

ND, the back-and-forth between players during Session 0/character generation when they discuss the ways in which their characters might relate to one another isn't "daydreaming" (could you have been any more dismissive or condescending towards those who cheerfully embrace the practice? That was rhetorical, in case you didn't notice).
It's daydreaming to me, and if others take offence at that, well, I s'pose I must learn to live with their indignation.

It's setting up the game so everyone can enjoy it. Together.
Sit down at the table in good faith with one another and play to find out. That's what I enjoy about roleplaying games.

It sounds very much like you assume the first time you meet in play is the first time your character ever met any of the PCs.
Our Boot Hill campaign started with three guys meetin' on the trail to Mad Mesa and ridin' together for company. Our Mothership campaign began with three characters on the same starship headed out to different worlds.

Does it really take more than that to play an adventure game about gunfighters or space explorers? Again, from my own experience, a modicum of good faith smooths over the cracks just fine.

You might as well start the characters off meeting (for the first time) at a tavern. What fun. Never done that before.
The fact that you don't find players and their characters getting to know one another through actual play "fun" is quite revealing.

Up until now, I've never really thought about how much I take good faith on everyone's part for granted. For the longest time I felt the reason many gamers are deeply invested in collaborative character generation or shared backstories or even collaborative setting creation were intended to scratch the frustrated novelist itch, to 'tell better stories,' but now I wonder if it's not something else entirely: a profound insecurity and presumption of bad faith around interacting with other human beings in a shared pastime without the safety net of an explicit social contract disguised as 'working together.'

Gawdamn.

Shakubuku.

End of line.
Yes, it is.

:fu:
 

xanther

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As long as back story is setting consistent fine with it. It is when the player is conflicting with the setting (almost always intentionally it seems) and/or clearly has some story arc in mind all must follow (which invariably in my mind comes with plot protection it seems) I have issues.
The key is reasonableness, never had a problem with reasonable people it is those who want to start with far more resources and/or powers than everyone else (or want to be the "chosen one" / "heir to the throne")...and you know the game will need to revolve around them instead of the group.

These days, I give players a wide range of choice where they come from and they can choose there relationship to that origin, from operative to outcast (each has it's benefits and costs).
 

ffilz

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I get some folks like extensive back stories. For all the reasons folks who prefer sketchy or non-existent back stories have mentioned here, I prefer them. I think there's two camps and most people prefer one or the other and will never convince those in the other camp...

This point of play to find out is one of the things I love about RPGs, something that was not in my world view before playing RPGs and it's a great part of what excites me about RPGs.
 

raniE

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I’ll usually want to know about the setting so I don’t make any of those faulty assumptions Otherwise I can’t make a background worth having no matter how brief. For real world examples, maybe my long term goal is freeing all the slaves in the US, only the game is set in 1873. Or I want to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe, but the game takes place in 1560. Unless I know these kinds of facts my backgrounds can always be wrong, no matter how brief. Usually I’d rather have a discussion with the GM about the kind of character I’m making and what that might entail in this setting. So maybe I’m thinking of some kind of upper class warrior. Normally maybe I’d think Knight, but talking to the GM about the concept he says it’s more of a Greek/Mediterranean city state vibe than feudal European. Ok, so a hoplite type then, rich enough to supply his own arms and armor.

In summary, I think the first question to players should be “what general concept did you have in mind”, then I’ll take what they give me and work out, in concert with the player, what that could translate to in this campaign world. Then we can go from there. Personally I like knowing stuff about my character before play begins, as otherwise I find it difficult to keep their personalities clear and distinct. Others don’t. To me that doesn’t matter because my backstory is to keep my character focused, no one else needs to read any of it. I’m very uninterested in the GM taking my character’s habit of writing letters to his sister to mean I want the game to focus on my character’s family. At least most of the time.

on a side note, if you really don’t think character backgrounds are worth having, why are you posting in a thread about them?
 
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ffilz

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mob a side note, if you really don’t think character backgrounds are worth having, why are you posting in a thread about them?
Well, for one, the OP's suggestion is something that would be mostly OK in my campaigns. He is suggesting very short backgrounds, not the short novels some folks like to write. And even if it's on the higher end of what I like, I don't mind in the least a few sentences about a character.

One thing I don't like is the multi-page backgrounds that are hard for me to read through and contain many contradictions to my conception of the setting and when I try and talk to the player, they stick firm. Yea, that happened to me. I sort of ignored the background, but it solidified my objection to long backgrounds. Or another player more recently who worked up all this background of his character that happened off map, and then wanted to go off map to work his background rather than engage ANY of the content I had provided for the campaign. Yea, at some point, things will come up that creates a desire to go off map, but when you've written it into your character from the start, ultimately you're refusing to engage the campaign I offered.

Now if you write a few paragraphs and are OK that I don't read them and don't insist that I honor anything in them, and you want to use them to inform your role play, go for it.
 

raniE

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Well, for one, the OP's suggestion is something that would be mostly OK in my campaigns. He is suggesting very short backgrounds, not the short novels some folks like to write. And even if it's on the higher end of what I like, I don't mind in the least a few sentences about a character.

One thing I don't like is the multi-page backgrounds that are hard for me to read through and contain many contradictions to my conception of the setting and when I try and talk to the player, they stick firm. Yea, that happened to me. I sort of ignored the background, but it solidified my objection to long backgrounds. Or another player more recently who worked up all this background of his character that happened off map, and then wanted to go off map to work his background rather than engage ANY of the content I had provided for the campaign. Yea, at some point, things will come up that creates a desire to go off map, but when you've written it into your character from the start, ultimately you're refusing to engage the campaign I offered.

Now if you write a few paragraphs and are OK that I don't read them and don't insist that I honor anything in them, and you want to use them to inform your role play, go for it.
I need to know if my conceptions of the setting and the GMs conception of the setting differ radically. Otherwise, how can I even play a character in that world? And sure, discovery through play, but not every setting can be Barsoom and not every PC John Carter. To me it just seems like more communication is key.
 

ffilz

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I need to know if my conceptions of the setting and the GMs conception of the setting differ radically. Otherwise, how can I even play a character in that world? And sure, discovery through play, but not every setting can be Barsoom and not every PC John Carter. To me it just seems like more communication is key.
Well, there is a difference between concept and background... But yea, there should be some conversation about the setting, but no matter how much up front communication, there will be misunderstandings that show up in play. The GM should be prepared to address those as they come up and not pull a gotcha on the player who had a misconception. Background may or may not help resolve misconceptions.
 

xanther

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I like to leave a lot of room in the setting so players are less constrained on back story but I'm more than happy to work with someone and if all else fails they can be from off-world/off-map...just don't expect the game to shift there.

Likewise, thinking on being the "heir to the throne", "chosen one", even "offspring of a god." Fair enough if want that back story it just will not change your starting power or resources or guarantee you anything in the future but can guide our play as long as the other players are on board.

Sure a player can have those elements, but as Referee I have the agency for the people, ruler and nobles of the kingdom, know the true meaning of the prophecy, and have the agency for any god you claim as parent. Heck on the god front you can even pick their idiom, alas though the Referee decides how wide spread they are and how the other gods view them. I've plenty of ready explanations for why you have no more power than the mortals around you...perhaps your parent is testing you, you need to get to a certain level in certain "classes" for them to manifest (guess what, this will be a level where you are already pushing demi-god hood :smile: ), other gods do not approve and are holding you back (THE classic Greek god reaction), etc.

Similar stories can be told for heirs and chosen ones.

In short, character improvement will lead you eventually to all these super-powerful things, if you want to pre-ordain the flavor they will take it is fine with me but they will only actuate when you reach that level...just like all the other players.

I can see the idea of asking players for goals as a way to help them focus, but in reality would like the players to work together to make sure their goals/missions/what have you line up. The one rule is this is a group adventure, I can give a reason (however thin) why you have all banded together or you can come up with your own, bottom line though is cooperative play (no PvP unless mutually agreed by the involved players) is the social rule at the table. Nothing in your back story or character build is going to excuse PvP.
 

robiswrong

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I will say a few things (that may be obvious based on this thread).

1) I do generally expect people to go along with whatever setup the game does, or at least compromise to some extent. Refusing to do so is a red flag, just because it indicates an inability to be flexible.

2) As far as backstories go, I generally prefer minimal. A more brief backstory is less worrisome to me than an overly elaborate one.
 

Silverlion

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I like enough information to build on, but since I'm mostly GM; that means A) You ask about my world/setting or we're making one together using some guided questions. B) You give me a reason for why you're with the other hooligans, if you don't, and I do you will be stuck with that--as what is true or seems to be true. (As a GM I make no promise that I won't change elements in play that surprise your character if you don't give me at least a basic few elements--a paragraph of who you are.)

I also will use this if I want the game to have anything like important details (Note: Not my original sheet, it needs some cleaning up, but I've not had the time, a friend uses it for her games.) But most games I prefer a short bit and then build outward.
 

TJS

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I also will use this if I want the game to have anything like important details (Note: Not my original sheet, it needs some cleaning up, but I've not had the time, a friend uses it for her games.) But most games I prefer a short bit and then build outward.
A GM asks me to fill out a sheet like that - I'm gone.
 

ffilz

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I also will use this if I want the game to have anything like important details (Note: Not my original sheet, it needs some cleaning up, but I've not had the time, a friend uses it for her games.) But most games I prefer a short bit and then build outward.
Wow, that sheet is a lot...
 

raniE

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Well, there is a difference between concept and background... But yea, there should be some conversation about the setting, but no matter how much up front communication, there will be misunderstandings that show up in play. The GM should be prepared to address those as they come up and not pull a gotcha on the player who had a misconception. Background may or may not help resolve misconceptions.
Absolutely there's a difference. Hence why a player can come up with a concept on their own just knowing the basic idea of the game, but unless the setting is very well known to them (such as being set somewhere in the real world in a known time period) they'll need to collaborate with the GM on a backstory that works in the game. And this doesn't have to be anything like "ok, you've written you are the bastard son of the king but this place is a republic". Another real world example: I'm playing a Chinese character born in 1981 and I put in his backstory that he writes regular letters to his sister. Except China had a one child per family policy in 1981 so the guy wouldn't have a sister. This may not have a giant impact on the game, but for me it would throw me off if that detail emerged in game. My idea of my character would be changed. So I'd prefer to know about that stuff upfront.
 

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As a GM, I hate being handed a small novel and told its the background of my 18 year old PC. On Five Rings Online, we insisted on a background fir characters, using the L5R 20 Questions and a couple of paragraphs.

A few months later as a GM sanctioning characters for play, you see some shitty backstories. The same wonder kids over and over. Sociopaths, ultimate charmers, mass murderers and people born with not just a silver spoon, but an entire silver service set in their mouths.

If you're not playing a game with a lifepath, then this is the kind of thing I like to see. Adapted for a PC, obviously. Short, relevant and no corners to paint anyone into.

 

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As a GM, I hate being handed a small novel and told its the background of my 18 year old PC. On Five Rings Online, we insisted on a background fir characters, using the L5R 20 Questions and a couple of paragraphs.

A few months later as a GM sanctioning characters for play, you see some shitty backstories. The same wonder kids over and over. Sociopaths, ultimate charmers, mass murderers and people born with not just a silver spoon, but an entire silver service set in their mouths.

If you're not playing a game with a lifepath, then this is the kind of thing I like to see. Adapted for a PC, obviously. Short, relevant and no corners to paint anyone into.

The problem with shitty backstories isn't the backstories, it's the players. They'll probably be shitty with or without the backstory.
 

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Absolutely there's a difference. Hence why a player can come up with a concept on their own just knowing the basic idea of the game, but unless the setting is very well known to them (such as being set somewhere in the real world in a known time period) they'll need to collaborate with the GM on a backstory that works in the game. And this doesn't have to be anything like "ok, you've written you are the bastard son of the king but this place is a republic". Another real world example: I'm playing a Chinese character born in 1981 and I put in his backstory that he writes regular letters to his sister. Except China had a one child per family policy in 1981 so the guy wouldn't have a sister. This may not have a giant impact on the game, but for me it would throw me off if that detail emerged in game. My idea of my character would be changed. So I'd prefer to know about that stuff upfront.
OK, but if we don't have deep back stories, less of this is a problem. And if I had your Chinese character in such a campaign, I wouldn't automatically shut down the letters to a sister. Siblings DID occur. What's the story here. Your misstep (assuming you weren't aware of or forgot about the policy) opens the possibility of enriching the game. The truth is that unless we are already in lockstep respect to setting, no amount of GM sharing about the setting is going to avoid a misstep. And this is where part of my preference for less back story comes from. If the player hasn't written a novel in isolation, but is teasing out facts about their character in play, it's MUCH easier to put the brakes on a misstep as it happens than two weeks after it's been written on page one of a novel... And if those letters to a sister matter in the game, even if it's just color that helps you get into character, show me in play how they make a difference. Don't just have it in a many page back story that I'm going to forget (and you may also).
 

raniE

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OK, but if we don't have deep back stories, less of this is a problem. And if I had your Chinese character in such a campaign, I wouldn't automatically shut down the letters to a sister. Siblings DID occur. What's the story here. Your misstep (assuming you weren't aware of or forgot about the policy) opens the possibility of enriching the game. The truth is that unless we are already in lockstep respect to setting, no amount of GM sharing about the setting is going to avoid a misstep. And this is where part of my preference for less back story comes from. If the player hasn't written a novel in isolation, but is teasing out facts about their character in play, it's MUCH easier to put the brakes on a misstep as it happens than two weeks after it's been written on page one of a novel... And if those letters to a sister matter in the game, even if it's just color that helps you get into character, show me in play how they make a difference. Don't just have it in a many page back story that I'm going to forget (and you may also).
Right but then that suddenly becomes something it wasn't supposed to be. Maybe my character's family is supposed to be die hard party loyalists, having to figure out how an illegal sibling fits into that is an unwanted intrusion. And this is why I have advocated through all my posts here an approach you don't even address in this post. The player does not write a novel length backstory and then present to the GM, nor does all backstory get discovered in play. The player and the GM hash this out together, at the same time, to whatever degree they like, based on the basic concept the player brings and the setting the GM presents. That is how you avoid any missteps or differences in how the setting is viewed.
 

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Right but then that suddenly becomes something it wasn't supposed to be. Maybe my character's family is supposed to be die hard party loyalists, having to figure out how an illegal sibling fits into that is an unwanted intrusion. And this is why I have advocated through all my posts here an approach you don't even address in this post. The player does not write a novel length backstory and then present to the GM, nor does all backstory get discovered in play. The player and the GM hash this out together, at the same time, to whatever degree they like, based on the basic concept the player brings and the setting the GM presents. That is how you avoid any missteps or differences in how the setting is viewed.
Of course if the letters to sister are introduced in play, we have the opportunity to resolve the disconnect right there... That's the thing I like about developing back ground in play. It is relevant to the campaign, and we can address missteps right away.

The longest background I can ever remember receiving was the player turning in a multi-page background without any consultation with me, and then when it contradicted my ideas for the setting, he was stubborn. Another player in another campaign worked up a bunch of background with another player during the campaign. This was sort of OK because it was off map, and they indicated they understood that. Until they decided they wanted to chase that stuff off map. That case was a little more collaborative with me, but ultimately killed the campaign.

So yea, I kind of have a thing against too much background, especially when developed before the campaign starts.

I have had some more extensive background worked up after the campaign started. That played off a lot better when it was actually in response to the campaign and focused attention back in on the campaign.

What my experience has suggested to me is that players who want to present me an extensive background before play starts are trying to play their character before the campaign starts, and are trying to protect their character from the GM in some way. I play RPGs to find out what happens as the characters encounter the situations that arise from the campaign. In my mind, too much background interferes with that.
 

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Of course if the letters to sister are introduced in play, we have the opportunity to resolve the disconnect right there... That's the thing I like about developing back ground in play. It is relevant to the campaign, and we can address missteps right away.

The longest background I can ever remember receiving was the player turning in a multi-page background without any consultation with me, and then when it contradicted my ideas for the setting, he was stubborn. Another player in another campaign worked up a bunch of background with another player during the campaign. This was sort of OK because it was off map, and they indicated they understood that. Until they decided they wanted to chase that stuff off map. That case was a little more collaborative with me, but ultimately killed the campaign.

So yea, I kind of have a thing against too much background, especially when developed before the campaign starts.

I have had some more extensive background worked up after the campaign started. That played off a lot better when it was actually in response to the campaign and focused attention back in on the campaign.

What my experience has suggested to me is that players who want to present me an extensive background before play starts are trying to play their character before the campaign starts, and are trying to protect their character from the GM in some way. I play RPGs to find out what happens as the characters encounter the situations that arise from the campaign. In my mind, too much background interferes with that.
So, did you not read past the first two sentences in my post or did you just choose to ignore everything I wrote after them? Because again you're presenting a dichotomy of "background written by player before play" and "background discovered through play. Here, I'll put in a paragraph break to make it easy to find.

There is a third option: The player and the GM work out the background of the character together, before play starts. And I don't mean together as the player writes something and the GM looks it over. I mean that they have a conversation and through that conversation work out how to translate the concept the player has into a character that fits into the game world. There is no long background handed in by the player in this concept, yet at least part of the background is developed before play.
 

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So, did you not read past the first two sentences in my post or did you just choose to ignore everything I wrote after them? Because again you're presenting a dichotomy of "background written by player before play" and "background discovered through play. Here, I'll put in a paragraph break to make it easy to find.

There is a third option: The player and the GM work out the background of the character together, before play starts. And I don't mean together as the player writes something and the GM looks it over. I mean that they have a conversation and through that conversation work out how to translate the concept the player has into a character that fits into the game world. There is no long background handed in by the player in this concept, yet at least part of the background is developed before play.
Sorry, in my mind I was addressing that, but I really didn't :-(

So how is the third option actually different from background discovered in play? Or are we spending hours in character generation? Are these conversations between just the GM and one player? I don't have time for an extensive conversation before play starts. Now I have had players engage me in chat before creating their character, working out some possible background stuff and getting some understanding of the setting. Other players may or may not be involved. But that still develops a pretty thin background.

If a more extensive background IS going to be used, certainly more collaboration with the GM is better. So really there's two options, an extensive background worked up in collaboration with the GM (at least, preferably actually with all the players) or a brief background (also worked up in collaboration). Either kind of background should be open to being expanded in play. The background written up in isolation by a player is simply a non-starter in my mind.

And I still prefer a shorter background than a longer one...
 

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Sorry, in my mind I was addressing that, but I really didn't :-(

So how is the third option actually different from background discovered in play? Or are we spending hours in character generation? Are these conversations between just the GM and one player? I don't have time for an extensive conversation before play starts. Now I have had players engage me in chat before creating their character, working out some possible background stuff and getting some understanding of the setting. Other players may or may not be involved. But that still develops a pretty thin background.

If a more extensive background IS going to be used, certainly more collaboration with the GM is better. So really there's two options, an extensive background worked up in collaboration with the GM (at least, preferably actually with all the players) or a brief background (also worked up in collaboration). Either kind of background should be open to being expanded in play. The background written up in isolation by a player is simply a non-starter in my mind.

And I still prefer a shorter background than a longer one...
It's different in that it doesn't change a character and it gives me as a player something to work with from the start, rather than a complete tabula rasa. The conversations could be had between the GM and one player, or as a group. Those would be different approaches. You may not have time before the game begins, but many groups do. And it doesn't have to happen at the game session, phone calls or chat programs work perfectly fine. Usually I won't show up to a session and be surprised by what we're playing. That could happen of course, but if we're rolling up characters right then and there I'm going to want some time with the GM to go over this stuff. Otherwise it'll just feel like I'm playing a cardboard cutout on a stage with an obviously fake background.

Expanding stuff in play should always be possible, sure, but nothing major. Not for me at least. I don't want to suddenly run into that sister my character is always writing to and it turns out she's been a part of a demon worshipping cult, and my PC knew.
 

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A GM asks me to fill out a sheet like that - I'm gone.
I don't normally use it much, a friend uses it a lot. But for some games, it makes sense, particularly where we expect a lot of the interpersonal stuff to come up in play. If you can't put that effort in, then it's probably not the kind of game you'd be interested in playing. (That may not be a bad thing, but we're not talking about your typical D&D game or the like.) Me? I've filled it out a few dozen times.
 

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I don't normally use it much, a friend uses it a lot. But for some games, it makes sense, particularly where we expect a lot of the interpersonal stuff to come up in play. If you can't put that effort in, then it's probably not the kind of game you'd be interested in playing. (That may not be a bad thing, but we're not talking about your typical D&D game or the like.) Me? I've filled it out a few dozen times.
It's not about effort. To my mind any answers I would give to most of those questions would be entirely arbritrary. Is "I don't know" an acceptable answer to most of those questions? Because to my mind answering a question when I can't 'feel' what the answer would be is not only meaningless but counter-productive.

I have a real hard time with this idea of a character as some kind of elaborate model of a person you build in advance and then introduce to the game. I could construct such a model but I wouldn't be able to meaningfully play it and within one or two sessions of actual rubber hits the road play I would know a lot more about the character, including things that would contradict any number of arbritrary pre-selected details.

I also feel that if I knew everything about the character in advance there would be little point in actually playing it.
 

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It's not about effort. To my mind any answers I would give to most of those questions would be entirely arbritrary. Is "I don't know" an acceptable answer to most of those questions? Because to my mind answering a question when I can't 'feel' what the answer would be is not only meaningless but counter-productive.

I have a real hard time with this idea of a character as some kind of elaborate model of a person you build in advance and then introduce to the game. I could construct such a model but I wouldn't be able to meaningfully play it and within one or two sessions of actual rubber hits the road play I would know a lot more about the character, including things that would contradict any number of arbritrary pre-selected details.

I also feel that if I knew everything about the character in advance there would be little point in actually playing it.
Hence, unless it is extremely vital to the game concept, I think every player should put in as much or as little background as they want and need. I like having a skeleton to build on, otherwise I feel like I have nowhere to start with my character. It sounds like you go about things differently. So we might end up coming up with different amount of character background even if we're in the same game, but almost all of the time that is perfectly fine. I don't think background is a place where a one size fits all solution exists, or is necessary.
 

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It's different in that it doesn't change a character and it gives me as a player something to work with from the start, rather than a complete tabula rasa. The conversations could be had between the GM and one player, or as a group. Those would be different approaches. You may not have time before the game begins, but many groups do. And it doesn't have to happen at the game session, phone calls or chat programs work perfectly fine. Usually I won't show up to a session and be surprised by what we're playing. That could happen of course, but if we're rolling up characters right then and there I'm going to want some time with the GM to go over this stuff. Otherwise it'll just feel like I'm playing a cardboard cutout on a stage with an obviously fake background.
Sure, and these days I am available via chat, it IS more feasible to have some collaborative background before play starts. I still don't want it to produce more than a page or so at the absolute most.

Expanding stuff in play should always be possible, sure, but nothing major. Not for me at least. I don't want to suddenly run into that sister my character is always writing to and it turns out she's been a part of a demon worshipping cult, and my PC knew.
Sure, whatever details have been established should be honored. So if you had a background that you were writing letters to your sister, no fair suddenly making her a demon worshiper without the player's buy in, because otherwise we are changing something already established.

But if you're going to a background that has much detail at all, we need to talk about it and get on the same page.

We might be compatible players. The folks who sprung background on me in the past were not.
 

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Sure, and these days I am available via chat, it IS more feasible to have some collaborative background before play starts. I still don't want it to produce more than a page or so at the absolute most.


Sure, whatever details have been established should be honored. So if you had a background that you were writing letters to your sister, no fair suddenly making her a demon worshiper without the player's buy in, because otherwise we are changing something already established.

But if you're going to a background that has much detail at all, we need to talk about it and get on the same page.

We might be compatible players. The folks who sprung background on me in the past were not.
The thing about background for me is that it's mostly just that. Background. It can explain why my character is where they are, and give me a framework to hang their personality on, but that's about it, for me at least. By way of example, the last two characters I made where I put in work on their background. The first one was Kadmos, a Fighter in D&D who came from a pseudo Greco-Roman society. I gave him a background of being from a noble family, being a trained hoplite, a devoted athlete (he would run, do push-ups and sit-ups and so on every morning) and a would be hero. I gave his family names from Greek mythology as well. All of this helped me portray him. The second character was more elaborate. I put in about a page and a half of stuff about a Lovecraft mythos game investigator (not CoC) in the 20s named Lester. I put in some stuff about his experiences in the trenches of WWI, his autobiographical novel of that time and how the success of it bought him access to upper society, where he became interested in mysticism. Adding in some stuff about his expensive habits, how he finances these by writing pulp fiction under a pseudonym and his enthusiasm for reading and winter sports plus knowing at least 12 languages gave me more things to connect his game values to something real. It helped me portray him, and gave me stuff to talk about in conversations, but apart from the slight fame of being an author known mostly for one book that came out a decade ago (which I cleared with the GM and which was also reflected in the game statistics), nothing there would have any direct impact on the adventures he went on. Sure, his high skill with firearms came from being an ex-soldier and an avid sportsman, but in game the relevant thing was that he was the best shot in the group.
 

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The thing about background for me is that it's mostly just that. Background. It can explain why my character is where they are, and give me a framework to hang their personality on, but that's about it, for me at least. By way of example, the last two characters I made where I put in work on their background. The first one was Kadmos, a Fighter in D&D who came from a pseudo Greco-Roman society. I gave him a background of being from a noble family, being a trained hoplite, a devoted athlete (he would run, do push-ups and sit-ups and so on every morning) and a would be hero. I gave his family names from Greek mythology as well. All of this helped me portray him. The second character was more elaborate. I put in about a page and a half of stuff about a Lovecraft mythos game investigator (not CoC) in the 20s named Lester. I put in some stuff about his experiences in the trenches of WWI, his autobiographical novel of that time and how the success of it bought him access to upper society, where he became interested in mysticism. Adding in some stuff about his expensive habits, how he finances these by writing pulp fiction under a pseudonym and his enthusiasm for reading and winter sports plus knowing at least 12 languages gave me more things to connect his game values to something real. It helped me portray him, and gave me stuff to talk about in conversations, but apart from the slight fame of being an author known mostly for one book that came out a decade ago (which I cleared with the GM and which was also reflected in the game statistics), nothing there would have any direct impact on the adventures he went on. Sure, his high skill with firearms came from being an ex-soldier and an avid sportsman, but in game the relevant thing was that he was the best shot in the group.
So if your background is mostly notes on how you are going to role play the character, and a story that explains how you got your abilities then I guess I don't care if you have a big write-up. It sounds like I don't have to read it or remember it for you to play in my game. That kind of background I can't complain much about.

What I don't like is background that puts expectations on me as a GM, whether it is game effects written into the background (and not costing points...) or creating setting, especially if it doesn't match my setting... The Greco-Roman fighter is going to fit fine in my RQ campaign or my Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign, but maybe not other campaigns. But you've already indicated you want enough collaboration with the GM to avoid that. Cool! I wish more folks who wanted to write up backgrounds were more like you...
 

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So if your background is mostly notes on how you are going to role play the character, and a story that explains how you got your abilities then I guess I don't care if you have a big write-up. It sounds like I don't have to read it or remember it for you to play in my game. That kind of background I can't complain much about.

What I don't like is background that puts expectations on me as a GM, whether it is game effects written into the background (and not costing points...) or creating setting, especially if it doesn't match my setting... The Greco-Roman fighter is going to fit fine in my RQ campaign or my Wilderlands of High Fantasy campaign, but maybe not other campaigns. But you've already indicated you want enough collaboration with the GM to avoid that. Cool! I wish more folks who wanted to write up backgrounds were more like you...
Yeah, I collabed with the GMs on both of these. Kadmos actually existed in an environment where the GM let us all define one country in his campaign world. I'm not really into that kind of loose worldbuilding in general, but it did ensure that I couldn't really conflict too much with existing lore. And if Greco-Roman wouldn't work, I could have gone with the same concept and created for instance a medieval knight from the same concept. He was also really obvious, and I think he became everyone's favorite character after a while. Well, him and the drunk ranger.

For Lester Chilton, the GM would have to know that he was, or had been, a semi-famous author (but saying that I wanted to create a Hemingway type, that much was obvious from the start I think). Other than that, nothing that anyone else would need to know unless it came up (the whole knowing over a dozen languages thing might be good for the GM to know too of course, but that's visible on the character sheet). Other than that there was no way I was going to conflict with the GM when it came to knowledge about the 1920s (I had to remind the whole table that no one would be just straight up ordering alcohol from a menu at a normal restaurant in 1920s America at one point).

But yeah, I'm not a big fan of "I'm writing in this super-awesome shit in my backstory, focus all the game plot on MEEE!" or the like, but I don't think that gets solved by not doing backgrounds, I think it gets solved by conversations, or just finding different people to play with. Because even if you ban elaborate backgrounds, they're still going to find a way to work their self-centeredness into the game.
 

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Yeah, I collabed with the GMs on both of these. Kadmos actually existed in an environment where the GM let us all define one country in his campaign world. I'm not really into that kind of loose worldbuilding in general, but it did ensure that I couldn't really conflict too much with existing lore. And if Greco-Roman wouldn't work, I could have gone with the same concept and created for instance a medieval knight from the same concept. He was also really obvious, and I think he became everyone's favorite character after a while. Well, him and the drunk ranger.

For Lester Chilton, the GM would have to know that he was, or had been, a semi-famous author (but saying that I wanted to create a Hemingway type, that much was obvious from the start I think). Other than that, nothing that anyone else would need to know unless it came up (the whole knowing over a dozen languages thing might be good for the GM to know too of course, but that's visible on the character sheet). Other than that there was no way I was going to conflict with the GM when it came to knowledge about the 1920s (I had to remind the whole table that no one would be just straight up ordering alcohol from a menu at a normal restaurant in 1920s America at one point).
Cool!
But yeah, I'm not a big fan of "I'm writing in this super-awesome shit in my backstory, focus all the game plot on MEEE!" or the like, but I don't think that gets solved by not doing backgrounds, I think it gets solved by conversations, or just finding different people to play with. Because even if you ban elaborate backgrounds, they're still going to find a way to work their self-centeredness into the game.
Oh, so true... But at least I don't have to fight a multi-page background that isn't going to fit...
 

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But yeah, I'm not a big fan of "I'm writing in this super-awesome shit in my backstory, focus all the game plot on MEEE!" or the like, but I don't think that gets solved by not doing backgrounds, I think it gets solved by conversations, or just finding different people to play with. Because even if you ban elaborate backgrounds, they're still going to find a way to work their self-centeredness into the game.
I really like this format, and ideally, it is a preferred format for me. If more players would do it, I'd be delighted. The questionnaire I shared above rarely deals with the awesome elements of a character, at least with the people I've played with who use it, but that is an admittedly small group. However, I want all players involved in the shared shaping of the character and setting. I really hate people squashing the toes of someone else because they simply have to have their character exactly their way, and it must be important, even when the other person had an idea first for a similar character (notably more common in supers games.)

If more players worked together to build the group and their connections. (Example: How Beyond the Wall is set up to do just that) the happier I'd be for the game because it makes the characters a piece of the same village in a fantasy setting..
 

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Evocative and concise and in the present moment.

"I obviously appear like so... I publically behave like so... I am here with these people [PCs & hires] because of my interest stated so... [immediate adventure goal]."

Internal, hidden, & unrelated states are verboten -- if you're not sharing such info openly and repeatedly you can keep it to yourself for later for when we as GM or table asks or cares.

Otherwise you may end up 'simming' (collaborative story creation, like improv) the past (prologue), or daydreaming the future (epilogue, future arc), more so than playing in the present. Dealt with too many frustrated authors and fan fictioners/shippers that I try to nip that in the bud ASAP. Not being mean, just trying to start the game fast and tamp down on drama friction ripping the table apart in their fight for the game's limelight. We gathered to game in the campaign's present moment.
 

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I like the baked in to system Numenera thing of an adjective noun who verbs.

Nice shortcut for a character, and an NPC for that matter.
 

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...
I also will use this if I want the game to have anything like important details (Note: Not my original sheet, it needs some cleaning up, but I've not had the time, a friend uses it for her games.) But most games I prefer a short bit and then build outward.
That looks more like a psychology assessment for school kids than a character back ground questionnaire...questions such as "Do you like school", "What do you do on Saturday night?" do they even have much meaning in most RPGs (Except Paper & Paychecks)
 

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....

What I don't like is background that puts expectations on me as a GM, whether it is game effects written into the background (and not costing points...) ...
Amen to that, in my view if you want those game effects they need to be reflected in your character creation under the rules. Now I do love when the attributes, skills etc. that came up under character creation under the rules are woven into a coherent whole by a back story.
 
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