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Boons and Baggage

Now with less drama

Last week, I offered some options for character background that randomly determined social station as well as triumphant events and terrible tragedies from the character's past. The idea is to use these rather vague descriptors as idea starters for more detailed background (and "detailed" is a highly relative term: in the absence of any thought of the PC's past, a couple of defining moments--plus social station and the player's choice of class--is plenty to work with).

But a few interesting trends came through in the post's Comments. First, the Past Glory and Deep-seated Issues tables have some (perhaps too) dramatic results. It occurs to me that surviving one's parents or struggling through abuse may not be the most appropriate background detail upon which to base your character's motivations in a game.

Second, if these tables are to be used, let Player Characters choose. For the record, I'm staunchly opposed to this approach for determining Social Station. This aspect of background--the social and economic circumstances in which a character was raised--is arguably the most foundational, and it can be a broad motivator. Allowing players to pick defeats the purpose of using a random result as an idea starter (since making a choice will invariably start the wheels turning).  That said, and given the potential for dramatic and undesirable results, I think deliberate choices are fine for the Past Glory and Deep-seated Issues tables.

Third, a few people mentioned that applying random results to Non-player Characters was a good idea. Oddly enough, I hadn't considered these tables for NPC use, but of course, it makes perfect sense. I hereby accept the gold-plated "Duh!" with great thanks to those who proffered this sage recommendation.

The Less Drama Part

Given the above, but acknowledging my desire for some random background bits, I'll suggest a different tack. Below is a table of random conditions--Boons & Baggage[1]--arranged on a 2d10 curve. Entries represent extra bits of a character at the start of play. As with last week's tables, these are idea starters only, and fleshing them out is an exercise for the player and the GM. Unlike last week's tables, they don't point to specific events in the character's past--instead, they produce specific conditions of the character's present. It's up to the player to figure out how things came to be.

With all that in mind, roll 2d10 and see what your character gets:

  1. Extorted by underworld figure; could be for protection or to keep someone quiet about something the PC did (or is said to have done)
  2. Ex-member of a shadowy, violent, or otherwise criminal organisation
  3. Harassed by a rival who opposes the PC at every opportunity
  4. Blackmailed by the authorities to spy on another PC
  5. Wanted by the authorities in connection with a crime the PC may or may not have committed
  6. Exiled from local community for putting citizens or its leader(s) in danger
  7. Criminal record for past crime; debt to society has been paid, but the stigma limits opportunities
  8. Shunned within local community for a real or perceived failing
  9. Saddled with a random Flaw (player needs to explain how he got it)
  10. Begins play with a random object (player needs to explain the circumstances of its acquisition)
  11. Background justifies a free Perk (player needs to explain what he did to get it)
  12. Recipient of wealth in addition to normal starting cash; either reward money, gambling winnings, or accumulated savings (1d4 x $50)
  13. Possesses a valuable family heirloom; probably a piece of gear, and others may covet it
  14. Beginner's luck allows a re-do of any one roll that does your character in (must be used before attaining 2nd-level)
  15. Popular; begins adventuring career with 1d4 loyal (and moderately equipped) retainers
  16. Recipient of mysterious inheritance; could be lands, a title, or a piece of tangible property (like a ship, prize livestock, or a small house guard)
  17. Owed a favour from a powerful local figure; could be a rich businessman, an authority figure, or a politician
  18. Has connections to an influential organisation
  19. Has the favourable attentions of a powerful (but unidentified) patron

Table Notes

The entries above are generic, so you can adapt them to any setting or genre. For example, "authorities," "patron," or "rival" could indicate a local lord, the Royal Navy, the Vichy French, or the Star Law Rangers. Where noted, "gear," "retainers," and "inheritance" are appropriate to the campaign's tech level. "Local" indicates the community where the character was raised--a village, frontier fortress, desert oasis, or Deck 1026 of the Generation Ship Abel's Next Round. And so on.

Note also that results are arranged on a curve, with "11" being average. Results of "12" and up are increasingly favourable, while results of "10" or less are increasingly crappy. The intent behind this arrangement is to make the table "modifier-friendly," though I confess to not having devised any. But, if you wanted to nudge characters in one direction or another--based on social station, class, or racial type, or other campaign-specific things--it would be easy to do.

Final Words

This approach to character background is completely opposite to last week's post. The tables last week were about cause, which one would use as the basis for current motivations. This week's table is about effect, so one needs to work in reverse and determine the background that led up to it. I'm thinking the two advantages to this approach are that: (1) it produces more immediately useful results, and (2) it promotes more creativity in fleshing out the character's past.

But I'm eager to hear your thoughts. Is this a better way? If so, what additions would you make to the table above?

1. Dibs on another TM. Right there.

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  1. Greg MacKenzie
    September 23rd, 2010 at 15:28 | #1

    Interestingly, this tabular approach reminds me of the many tables the Judges Guild used to have in their newspaper. A lot depends on player attitude. Some regard any intervention on the part of the the GM in the “creation” of the character as an intrusion. They enjoyed picking what they wanted to be. I had a “mysterious background” setup for my players once where, if they were killed they mysteriously disappeared and re-appeared under a full moon, on an alter at the center of a temple of standing stones. In one hand a mysterious black stone. The players immediately balked at this notion and threw the stone away, making short work of what would have been an interesting theme and story. I found my players wanted their character’s to be blank slates. -Greg

  2. September 23rd, 2010 at 16:27 | #2

    @Greg MacKenzie : In my experience, it really depends on the group. None of the 4 folks in my college group had played before, so figuring out how to roll up characters and what die to roll was enough of a curve without throwing background in the mix. But after a few sessions, each was making up little tidbits about their past pretty much on the fly. Contrast with my post-college group, about 6-strong and all but 2 experienced gamers. This group spent more time on background before our first adventure, and since everyone helped the newbies along, it worked out for everyone.

    The only time I’ve ever seen anyone regret inventing background was when that guy’s PC buys the farm in the first adventure. In all fairness, in that instance, the exercise does seems like wasted time.

    I think the trick is to just help the player plant a seed. They can nurture it as the character advances or they can ignore it, depending on how they want their PC to develop. One spends as much time as one wants, and as long as it’s fast and easy, it’s hard to refuse.

  3. deimos3428
    September 25th, 2010 at 21:58 | #3

    I just got back from vacation in sunny Florida, so I’ll keep my comments uncharacteristically brief.

    1. I like this approach!
    2. Character backgrounds from early deaths can serve the devious GM well. (It’s always nice when the players write your future adventure hooks for you.)

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