In the last article we provided lots of hints for players on ways they might make their player characters useful–to themselves, to their game masters (GMs), and to the rest of the roleplaying game (RPG) group. Of course it helps, as GM, to have an idea of how to make use of player-created resources. It also helps to know how to get a handle on them if you feel a little overwhelmed. So without further ado, a few hints on how you can make your job as GM easier.
Why Should You Let Them Write Up Background?
Some GMs see the creation of player-character background as an imposition. They already feel a little overwhelmed trying to get a game running, and they have no idea where to find the time to work in everyone else’s ideas as well as their own. They’re also uncertain how to work other people’s material in while still keeping control of the game. So why should you let your players write up PC backgrounds anyway?
It happens to everyone: it’s a half-hour before your gaming run, and you never got a chance to plan this week’s run out. You have no idea what’s going to happen or what plot your party can get involved in. So pull out someone’s character. Read through the background in that half-hour. Pick a plot that sounds interesting and run with it! Not only will it rescue you, but it’ll make your players happy. This also works when you have plenty of time but are experiencing “writer’s block.”
Greater Intensity & Involvement
When you make use of plots, non-player characters (NPCs) and plot hooks from backgrounds, it personally involves the PCs. When their characters are personally involved in something, the players usually feel personally involved. This can make games very intense and absorbing.
Free Plot Hooks
Not sure how to get the party into your plot? Read through their backgrounds. Capitalize on past traumas. Threaten loved ones. Have one of their personal plots connect to your greater plot. Involve their personal enemy in the dastardly goings-on. And so on. Few things will make a character jump head-first into a plot faster
It can be tough to populate a world, and not everyone can improvise scores of interesting NPCs who stand apart from each other (in fact, I daresay most people have at least a little trouble with this). Coming up with interesting NPCs takes time. Let your players do some of the work for you! Have them hand you partial write-ups (and maybe even character sheets) for any NPCs mentioned in their backgrounds. Then you just need ten minutes to go over the NPC, make sure it’s reasonable, and change a few things so the PC won’t have unfair knowledge of what’s going on.
When players are allowed to come up with background material, it often helps them to come up with more varied characters. They start thinking about the little things, like hobbies and side-interests. You can work these interests and abilities into your plots; it gives you a wider variety of plots and plot solutions to play with.
Your players will come up with things you wouldn’t think of in a hundred years. This, when mixed with your own inspiration and your own material, can give you all sorts of unexpected things to play with.
Most of these benefits are primarily relevant to longer stories. One-night or several-run games usually make use of simpler characters unless they’re part of an ongoing series of games played with the same characters.
Feeling Overwhelmed By Background?
Having players who come up with gobs of character background can be a bit overwhelming, particularly for an inexperienced GM. It can also be frustrating for the GM who has a very specific adventure, story, or campaign in mind for his group. PCs with character background can be useful, though, in all the ways already pointed out.
But that said, yes, it can be overwhelming. If the thought of reading unlimited pages of background makes you hide under your bed, then feel free to put a limit on the amount of background information for PCs. It’s a better alternative than ignoring character backgrounds. Limit your players to two pages, typed, of background, or five, or ten, depending on just how overwhelmed you feel (or not).
Ask your players to organize their backgrounds well so you can find things at a glance. Ask them to make anything important obvious, by underlining or bolding it, for example.
Make sure you set aside a little time to meet with each player separately to talk about their character. They can tell you what’s going on, give you the big picture, so you feel like you have a handle on things. If you have players who like to use background to hide “questionable” material, then this is your opportunity to ask them to change it. If you have very specific ideas in mind for your campaign, then this is where you can work with the players to make their backgrounds mesh with your campaign. You don’t have to give all of your secrets away to do this. Just tell them how you want things changed, and work with them to make sure you’re both satisfied with the results.
If your players enjoy coming up with small, interesting details about their characters that end up being largely irrelevant to game-play, then ask them to put these in an “optional reading” section at the end of the write-up. That way they can decide what their PC’s first dog was named and how he died, but you don’t need to read it if you don’t have the time.
Take Your Time
Yes, backgrounds will give you extra material to work with when you’re in a hurry or experiencing writer’s block. They will give you ways to pull the characters into your plots. And they will make your players feel personally involved in the game. But this doesn’t mean that everything needs to revolve around the character backgrounds. You don’t have to work it in all at once! Just use a detail here and a plot hook there.
For that matter, if you limited the players to a short amount of background at the beginning of the game, you can always let them come up with more details later. If you let them fill in the details of their background over time then you aren’t faced with all of it at once. Caveat: not all players feel comfortable coming up with details of character background a bit at a time. But if it works for your group, then take advantage of that!
A Few Small Warnings
Killing Off NPCs
If someone devotes an entire page (or other significant portion of their background) to a lovingly crafted NPC, try not to kill him off gratuitously. That’s effectively punishing someone for coming up with background, and it tends to discourage players from creating background (it also tends to create hard feelings). This isn’t to say that you can’t kill off player-created NPCs. It just means that you should try to put a little thought and effort into making it interesting and dramatic and personal, and you should have a reason for doing it.
Ending Personal Plots
Likewise, if someone comes up with a personal plot that they’ve obviously put a lot of thought or care into, try not to randomly wrap it up in a few minutes just to get it out of the way. Put a little care and thought into it. It’ll make your players happy, so why not do it? Besides, if you dislike the plot that much then you should convince the player to change it pre-game rather than trying to sweep it under the rug. It’s less likely to cause hard feelings.
Revealing Dark Secrets
If someone works drastic dark secrets into their character’s background, think carefully about how and when they’ll be revealed. You don’t want the revelation to be off-handed and anticlimactic. You don’t want it to happen so early in game that the player never actually gets to roleplay the character-with-the-secret. You also don’t want it to be revealed in such a way that the party is torn apart, unless that’s a plot you specifically want to play with.
In Other Words…
All of these “warnings” can really be summed up thusly: put a little care and thought into how you use the material in PC backgrounds. Using it in such a way as use it up as quickly as possible is pretty obvious to your players, and might well lead to hard feelings, or at least frustration. You don’t have to lovingly craft a five-run story-arc around each personal plot or go out of your way to save the lives of NPCs. You just have to put a little thought into how you use them.
A Few Small Tips
Make sure you get copies of everyone’s character sheets and background information. Without this, all of that background is fairly useless to you. Also, if you have copies of character sheets then you can take the party’s skills and abilities into account when you plan the solutions to your plots.
Create A Coherent Party
Tell players to be sure that their characters have reason to work with other characters. Help them with this. Hold a one-hour or so session before the game starts where you all sit down and work out why this group of characters will work together. They might already know each other, or there might be subtler ties that bind them together.
Talk To Your Players
Tell your players in advance whether or not you’d like them to work odd plots, interesting NPCs and unexplained events into their character backgrounds. Otherwise you’ll end up with some people thinking they shouldn’t impose on you, and others working in things that you don’t want to use. Communication is, as always, a very important ingredient in the recipe that is roleplaying.