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Proposition: character background is one half of something that is completed by game reward structure. The reward structure dictates what the game is about and what the characters are doing (e.g., recovering treasure, slaying monsters, etc). The background should be appropriate to (if not explain) why they are doing these things.
Background is often either ignored or hand-waved (“yes, yes, you’re the fifth duke of so-and-so, we’re going to kill orcs, get with the program”). That works well for some games, but if you want to include background at all it seems to make sense to have it work in service to the proposed future course of the campaign. Further, I think it would be interesting to make this more systematic, and have character background and reward structure all feed into the setting design procedure.
The traditional game is mostly silent about character background. Some editions have a “secondary skill” table which is basically a way to determine what kind of peasant or tradesman a character was before becoming an adventurer. That’s okay for determining what mundane skills a character might have, but it doesn’t really connect to the rest of what goes on in a game. I’m also not thinking of background here as a method to blend archetypes (as I think that is handled adequately by the path, prototype, trait features), though it can be used to justify such blending if desired.
In addition to setting the reward structure of the game (which is the primary system purpose), background has the secondary use of giving players a bit of information that can be useful for role-playing and have some diegetic consequences within the campaign world (the fifth duchess of so-and-so should have some knowledge about noble houses if she grew up with her family). Background can still provide minor mechanical resolution bonuses (+2 bonus to relevant tasks) and thus serve the same purpose as past profession or secondary skills. I was influenced by Jack Shear’s “leading question” background structure (see here and here), but have tailored potential options more closely toward particular campaign foci.
Here’s the default background table, suitable for treasure hunting and picaresque adventures.
- Bankrupt. Your business failed (due to incompetence or something else?) and you must now take up adventuring, perhaps fleeing creditors.
- Murderer. You killed someone in anger or passion, and ran rather than face justice.
- Antiquary. You are fascinated by the remnants of the past and obsessed with unearthing them. This obsession has overridden all past attempts at a normal career.
- Bandit. You survived as a parasite on society by waylaying others in the wilderness. Treasure hunting is a slightly more ethical (and potentially much more lucrative) alternative.
- Transgressor. You broke the laws of custom or purity. Was it forbidden love? Whatever the reason, you are no longer welcome in what was once your home.
- Deposed tyrant. You once had great power, but were overthrown (by the common people? or another lord?) and now have nothing but the equipment on your back.
- Burglar. You survived by stealing from those with more than you, generally by breaking into their abodes. The underworld is perhaps more deadly, but the payback is better and there are no guardsmen trying to throw you in jail.
- Instigator. You tried to change some aspect of your home or your society, but failed (for now). Did you fight against inequality, or perhaps for the honor of your caste, family, or tribe? In any case, you were exiled as a threat to the status quo.
- Survivor. You are the last of your town or family, the only one to escape some terrible disaster or disease. What caused the others of you kind to be no more? Was it due to the conscious actions of some other group or entity, or a natural disaster?
- Outlaw. You have been blamed for a crime (true or false?) and fled.
- Mercenary. You fought for those that paid you (perhaps as an adventurer’s retainer) and slowly accumulated enough money and equipment to be more self-sufficient. Who was your past employer? How do they feel about you no longer working for them?
- Slave. You were born into bondage (or perhaps kidnapped at a young age?). You escaped (or were freed). Does your past master still live? Are you hunted?
- Diabolist. You unleashed (or were blamed for releasing) a great demon. Did you do this on purpose or by accident? Was it a ritual you participated in directly, or was the demon released in some other way? Did you think you could control the demon?
- Farmer. You once tilled the land, but your crops turned to dust, either due to exhaustion of the land, corruption from some fearsome beast, or vile sorcery. Your family, if you had one, did not survive.
- Soldier. You were a professional soldier, but your unit is now disbanded. Was it destroyed in battle, or were you victorious? Why doesn’t your past lord require your services anymore? Were you good at soldiering?
- Orphan. You have survived on your wits alone for your entire life, living hand to mouth, but your ambition is boundless. It’s time to pull yourself up by uncovering the treasures of the past.
- Hunter. You survived on the edges of civilization by catching wild game and selling meat and furs. Your previous hunting grounds no longer provide the same bounty (why?) and you were forced to move on.
- Amnesiac. Your memory was lost (or stolen?) and you don’t know why. Your past is a blank slate. Is this a unique loss of memory, or part of some common pattern affecting many?
- Protector. You once were tasked with the guardianship of another. Were you a lord’s honor guard, a magician’s retainer, or something else? Your previous ward is, however, no more. Was it your fault?
- Apprentice. You once studied under a sorcerer, but now are on your own. Were you a failure at studying the dark arts, or are you now a journeyman, seeking the secrets of the ancients? Is your past master still alive, and are you on good terms? If so, the master may be able to help you from time to time, but may also want something in return.
- Surgeon. You once treated the sick, infirm, and wounded. That is, until a rich and powerful patient died and you were blamed, either for incompetence or intent. Who could you not save?
- Conscript. You once fought as a conscript in a war not of your choosing, and when you returned (if you returned), nothing was the same. Or perhaps you were originally from another land, but demobilization left you where you are presently?
- Ex-cultist. You once were part of a strange sect, but have since become disillusioned. Your previous home distrusts you because of your associations, but the cult itself is no longer your place either. What was the basis of the cult, and does it still remain? If so, how do they feel about ex-cult members?
- Exhumer. You released something that was once imprisoned. Was this a sealed crypt? Or maybe an ancient machine? Was the release accidental, or on purpose and perhaps due to greed?
- Daredevil. You do it for the excitement and the adrenaline rush. The treasure is incidental, an excuse and a method to fund future delves. Civilization does not provide outlets for your compulsions.
- Gambler. You lost it all. Maybe you still owe someone (or something) a great debt?
- Smuggler. You used to transport things (stolen goods? forbidden writings? slaves? intoxicants?) that people in power didn’t want transported. Your previous route is no longer open or profitable, for whatever reason, and the common trades are not for you.
- Compelled. Something that you don’t understand calls you to adventure. Perhaps it is just voices in your head, perhaps it is something deep below which has managed to find a way into your consciousness, or maybe it was the curse of a dying sorcerer.
- Con artist. You have pulled one too many schemes and need to skip town (again). Maybe you are tired of making your living off the gullibility of others, or maybe you just think the dark places will be more lucrative.
- Stranger. You are from another time or place. Perhaps you were locked in stasis and recently awoke. Perhaps you stumbled through a one-way cosmic door (was it a mirror? a portal? a machine that was meant to go both ways but failed?). No matter the cause, you are stuck in your present circumstances, a fish out of water.
The advantage to doing things this way is that it succinctly communicates the nature of the game while not closing off other potential game structures that may come into play later.
Short digression on Hexagram philosophy. I want to provide sensible defaults which fit the expectations of adventure fantasy gaming while making the different parts of the game (what the players do, what the referee does) fit together in the most efficient and effective way possible. You should be able to follow a checklist of things to do and end up with all the necessary things in place, even if you are unfamiliar with the traditional game structure. The system should also communicate the expectations to everybody involved. For example, the suggested procedure for referee prep will not include guidelines for heraldry if the campaign is about making the land safe for the living by killing as many zombies as possible (oh, and campaign focus can change partway through, and the game system will respond; more on that in a future post).
Okay, back to reward structures. Other possible backgrounds with associated reward structures include:
- Curiosity: exploration, discovering new monsters, antiquities, mysteries
- Slayers: destruction of a implacable threat (undead, demons, aliens)
- Agents: missions, case files
- Remnants: something was scattered that must be found (could be people)
- Heros: rendering aid
- Prophecy: the what is determined, but not the how or the who
Each one of those could have a table of backgrounds and guidelines for XP rewards, and may be mixed and matched.