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What’s My Motivation?

Triumph and shame in character background

Inventing a character background seems to be a take-it-or-leave-it sort of thing. Some groups lavish much attention on their characters' past, others skip it. For groups in the former category, it's all part of the role-playing. For those in the second category, it may be a symptom of a combat-oriented campaign, where short character lifespan precludes the value of back-story. Or maybe it's just not part of the group's style--for some players (especially new ones), character background isn't necessary if you're all about high adventure, loot, and levels. (N.B. I call dibs on "Loot & Levels" as a rules-lite pick-up RPG.)

All that said, I think there's room for middle ground here: random background details that provide just enough to keep your PC interesting, but not so much work that it's a waste of time for those who roll-play more than roleplay. I realise others have gone in this direction before, but I'm aiming for a set of results a bit more foundational, a bit more subtle. Things that don't manifest constantly, but that might still influence a character's decisions at critical points during a session or along his career path.

Three tables are presented: Social Station, Past Glory, and Deep-seated Issues. When you're creating your character, I recommend rolling on each after you select class or occupation, because it's more fun to invent your character's past given his present than the other way round. It doesn't sound intuitive, but for RPG purposes, it promotes creativity. And it's not entirely unrealistic: There's rarely a straight line connecting one's past and current vocation. Our past can influence what we want to be when we grow up, but it doesn't always work out that way--for better or worse, we are where we are through a combination of personal choice, available opportunity, and practical need. Consider: are you working at the job you prepped for in high school or college? My undergrad is in English Literature, but I'm a Web ops director for an insurance company...as David Byrne asks, "How did I get here?" After rolling on the tables below, have your character pose the same question.

Last note: You'll see that the results aren't mechanically enforced. In other words, they don't have an effect on die rolls, modifiers, advancement, or level. Instead, the player needs to bring the details out through the character's personality, goals, and interactions. While that makes this exercise less useful for certain playing groups, it's what makes the approach flexible. Again, this is more about roleplaying than roll-playing. But even if you're in the latter camp, it won't hurt to have a few background details to make things interesting now and again...

Social Station

This suggests which side of the tracks your character came from: were you a rich kid raised in the hills, a guttersnipe, or somewhere in between? Social station should have an impact on a character's starting cash and will probably colour his interactions with people who put stock in appearance, come from old money, distrust outsiders, or wear a monocle. Those of low station will have had fewer opportunities to excel--perhaps as a result of poor education, lack of adequate health care, difficult living conditions, or societal prejudice--but will have strong survival instincts, iron will, and (as adventurers) plenty of drive. A by-product might be chips on shoulders, as these folks may feel it necessary to prove their worth to others.

Those occupying the upper social tiers will have had better opportunities--through money, connections, and authority--but no guarantee of actually having exploited them to maximum benefit (e.g., an ivy league student who relies more on connections than grades to get into law school). Not that all upper class kids are jerks, but the convenience of wealth can create a sense of entitlement that dulls one's self-reliance and sense of gratitude, especially if success can be "bought" instead of earned.

Roll 1d8 to determine Social Station:

  1. Fringe: not only poor, but a social outlier, pariah, or other untouchable (5% normal starting cash)
  2. Low: destitute and relies on alms, welfare, or other benefits for income (10% normal starting cash)
  3. Low: destitute and struggling to make ends meet through unstable sources of income (25% normal starting cash)
  4. Middle: barely comfortable, but with stable work (50% normal starting cash)
  5. Middle: moderately comfortable with stable work (100% normal starting cash)
  6. Middle: comfortable with stable work and middling influence (150% normal starting cash)
  7. Upper: well-off with lucrative work and notable influence (200% normal starting cash)
  8. Upper: lavish lifestyle with independent wealth and significant influence (400% normal starting cash)

Past Glory

Everyone has a high point in their past--a significant accomplishment, a surprising victory over the odds, or a moment when they felt ready to take on the world. This isn't false bravado or posturing. It's a source of pride that defines character, a milestone that sticks in the memory of those who witnessed or were a part of it. Often, it helps forge (but does not define) one's future direction, either as a career foundation or, in a less positive sense, the expectations others have for the character's future.

Roll 1d8 to determine Past Glory:

  1. Saved the life of a childhood friend who's now (d6: 1-2 influential; 3-4 in need of help; 5-6 an enemy)
  2. Considered a prodigy in (d6: 1 music/art; 2 animal handling; 3 a livable trade; 4 judging character; 5 academic field; 6 esoteric field)
  3. Helped prevent a local (d6: 1-2 construction accident; 3 flood; 4 fire; 5-6 crime)
  4. Helped apprehend a (d6: 1-2 dangerous criminal; 3 itinerant charlatan; 4 dangerous/diseased animal; 5 prolific vandal; 6 cat burglar)
  5. Helped save a (d6: 1-2 local resource; 3 child; 4 beloved pet/animal herd; 5 married couple of many years; 6 local politician)
  6. Provided invaluable aid during a (d6: 1-2 local disaster; 3-4 rampaging sickness; 5 drought; 6 famine)
  7. Rewarded for (d6: 1-2 returning lost valuables to rightful owner; 3-4 defending a stranger; 5 identifying a criminal; 6 aiding a local)
  8. Roll twice on this table, ignoring results of 8

Deep-seated Issues

No one grows up without some baggage, which may be the source of personal hang-ups, phobias, or a sense of deep remorse or regret. While the issues themselves are overcome--life has moved on--they've not been forgotten, and the residual feelings manifest variously in everyday life.

Roll 1d8 to determine Deep-seated Issues:

  1. Caretaker(s) died during childhood, causing (d6: 1-2 fear of abandonment; 3-4 strong protective urges; 5-6 general detachment)
  2. Victim of abuse, causing (d6: 1-2 general bitterness; 3 attention-seeking behaviour; 4 fear of those like the abuser; 5 attraction to those like the abuser; 6 violent outbursts)
  3. Afflicted with a learning disability, now overcome, but causing (d6: 1-2 disdain for education; 3 resistance to any instruction; 4-5 hatred of teachers; 6 love of knowledge)
  4. Accidentally caused the death of a loved one, causing (d6: 1-2 reckless streak/death-wish; 3 unwillingness to care for others; 4-5 constant need to do penance; 6 unwillingness to take risks)
  5. Witnessed a heinous crime, causing (d6: 1-2 inability to keep secrets; 3 mistrust of others; 4 fear of authority; 5-6 desire to promote justice)
  6. Made to commit a crime, causing (d6: 1-2 desire to promote justice; 3-4 inability to get close to others; 5 dishonest behaviour; 6 desire to flaunt authority)
  7. Rolled with the wrong crowd, causing (d6: 1-2 criminal record; 3-4 guilt by association; 5 missed opportunity; 6 outstanding warrant for some crime)
  8. Roll twice on this table, ignoring results of 8

Final Words

These are short tables, easily expanded (and begging to be customised for your genre and setting). What I like about them is that they're completely non-mechanical. It's like when an actor is given a scene during an audition and he asks, "What's my motivation?" These tables can help answer that question by providing direction when direction is needed, and all without having to fiddle with the rules.

If you have tweaks or additions, please post them in the Comments section--I'd love to see how this gets used (especially for specific genres).

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  1. deimos3428
    September 15th, 2010 at 15:27 | #1

    More random table goodness! I’m not all that fond of random generation for PCs, but they look handy for rolling up an NPC in a hurry. For PCs, if the player were truly stuck for an idea I would let them peruse and select an option from each these table rather than rolling.

    Some players like to write novels, and some like to play skeletons. What I like to do is even that out by asking each of the players for a rough 1-2 paragraph outline of their character’s life up until the start of play. Then I look it over, make some changes/suggestions to suit the campaign and try to create a tie-in to at least two other characters in the party so that the group as a whole has a few good reasons for traveling together. Then I hand that version back for player buy-in, which usually goes quite smoothly.

  2. September 15th, 2010 at 17:18 | #2

    @deimos3428 I like the idea of taking everyone’s outline as input for a more encompassing “party background.” You’re right–players pay different levels of attention to background (to add to your list, some players like to write 2-sentence synopsis, one guy prefers to write only a question mark, and still another does nothing except doodle “images from the Past” all over his character sheet).

    This isn’t at all mandatory IMC, but it’s an option for those who don’t have other ideas (or are content to play whatever the dice dictate). Another option is to let players choose, but if they opt for a random roll, reward them with an extra Perk (or similar) during char gen.

  3. September 16th, 2010 at 12:10 | #3

    These are great, quick reference tables that get to the core of character. And, they would work well for any genre or system. Roll for NPCs, choose for PCs, sounds like a good idea.

    I would agree that party composition in regards to backgrounds and motivations is often overlooked in rpg groups, especially by those new to the game. If the party has motivations and goals that are wildly different, you’ll find the party can’t get on the same page and it will cause issues, not just among character, but among players.

    We talked about character backgrounds in our first Flagons & Dragons podcast. http://www.flagonsanddragons.com

    Stop by and say hello!


  4. deimos3428
    September 16th, 2010 at 13:42 | #4

    Hmm. I went back to the tables and ill-advisedly compared them to my own life. While I can peg my Social Station between 4 to 6 easily enough, none of the Past Glory or Deep-Seated Issues would seem to apply. Did I waste my childhood, or are these better suited to heroic campaigns than realistic ones?

    (“Realistic” campaigns might be completely myth. Does/would anyone want to play “Cubicles & Corporations” on the weekend? I don’t know.)

  5. September 16th, 2010 at 16:00 | #5

    @deimos3428 I thought about adding an entry for “No result” or somesuch, but figured it defeated the purpose. On the flip side, these tables could surely benefit from the addition of other juicy bits–they’re by no means exhaustive.

    Aside from all of that, given the larger-than-life stature of RPG heroes, there’s a tendency to suppose commensurate life-shaping events. In real life, the results above don’t need to be so grand or traumatic (e.g., I once got $20 for returning a lost wallet; on the downside, a close relative died in my youth, and while he wasn’t a primary caregiver, it was still significant). I’ll wager that, if scaled down to the non-heroic proportions of our own real lives, certain of the above results might become more applicable, if not familiar.

  6. September 16th, 2010 at 21:39 | #6

    @Carl Good points – party cohesion is arguably more important than character background, though I’ll submit that some consideration for the latter will help the former along.

    Good podcast, BTW–you’ve just made my commute *that* much better!

    Hope to see you on the Welsh Piper newsletter – I’d be interested in hearing how a Pathfinder group finds Chimera!

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