The other day on twitter there was a discussion on how much background info a DM needs from his characters to start a campaign with. There were some DM’s who seem to enjoy a lot of background stuff, while others were more than happy with a few lines. Me? I don’t need a lot.
Just like in world-building, I believe in starting out at the micro level, then expanding as you go along. In every DM’s advice column or book I’ve read, the word-building advice is to start small… detail the village where the PC’s live, and the cave where the kobolds are. As the game moves on, you can expand from there. I think that’s good advice, but it can also apply to the PC’s background as well.
I wrote the three questions I need to get the PC’s going:
- Who are you?
- What’s your goal in life?
- What past event pains you the most?
I think this pretty much covers my needs in setting up the PC’s for the rest of their careers. Let’s look at each question.
“Who are you?” Well, that’s a simple one. The PC should be able to give you enough material here to get a good idea of, well, who he is.
“I am Barundar Drunkbeard, from a citadel in the Erberek Mountains. I come from a small clan of dwarfs, miners mostly, who both mine and guard their territory from fierce orc invaders looking to pillage and take our prized gems.”
Well now, that’s a nice piece of background in a few short sentences. We know he mines, we know he must have plenty of knowledge about gems, and we know he must have a huge dislike for orcs. He must have a soft spot for miners and the mining lifestyle, so you’d be wise in pulling his heartstrings with adventures dealing with this stuff.
Second question is “What’s your goal in life”. This is fairly simple to answer, and can put you as a DM on the path to building up this hero’s journey. “My goal is to one day settle in unclaimed lands, recruit miners, hit a huge mineral vein, and become rich.” Pretty greedy, but fun for a miner I guess. Keep that one in your back pocket. Money and riches are always a great way to encourage an adventurer to go out and do his thing, plus you can build towards a PC’s ultimate destiny knowing where he’d like to go. Make it happen for him! Use that goal as a carrot on string to keep him going, and reward him in the end.
The third question, and a very important one is “What past event pains you the most?”, and you can use this to create adventures that create an emotional reaction from the PC (or at least should with good role players). Lets say his most painful moment in life came when he lost his father due to a betrayal by as rival dwarven clan, and it was set up to look like a mining accident. He was forced to grow up without a father, and with hatred for this rival clan, but he’d never act on his impulses due to a strong religious upbringing.
There are tons of potential character hooks there. You can introduce the rival clan, you can introduce situations that deal with fathers and sons, death, rescues, all these things that theoretically should appeal to a PC that experienced what young Barundar experienced.
With these three questions, I as a Dm should learn enough from a PC to be able to generate sufficient hooks and situations for him without necessarily needing a novel’s worth of writing about him. Sometimes less is more, and I can build as I go.