Get into the action quicker: use interconnected character histories

A recent post on this Web log involved social responsibility between players; as jatori over at tenletter suggested, some of the subtopics briefly described in that post should be better developed. One of those subtopics involved having players develop interconnected character backgrounds as part of character generation, as a way of avoiding poorly-conceived or intentionally disruptive player character concepts creating problems in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Having interconnecting character backgrounds also opens new options for the dungeon master, who must often default to beginning a campaign with the hackneyed phrase, “you begin in a smoke-filled tavern,” because the player characters haven’t yet met. Playing through the subsequent “forced introductions” is time-consuming and, for people not directly involved in current interaction, boring. In one campaign, I jokingly explained that, in the town where the game was to begin,  all inns and taverns were round and magically lit to noontime brightness, since all of the players wanted to sit at shadowy corner tables and not be the first to interact with another character.

One way of getting the players into the action sooner involves having the players create highly detailed, intersecting backstories for their characters, so that each player knows at least one or more other characters at the start of the first session, depending on the size of the party.

After generating stats and choosing skills, feats and powers – which are not considered to be final at this point – the players work through the floowing steps:

  1. The basics. This involves determining characteristics secondary to game mechanics, but are often omitted in the rush to start playing, such as height, weight, hair and eye color and physical build. Spending some time on these details can provide creative players an opportunity to make their characters unique; although there is no mechanical difference between a human with brown eyes and a human with pale, gray eyes, there is certainly an image difference.
  2. Personal History. A category devoted to the character’s childhood, including parents, siblings, friends, how he or she learned present skills, and any pivotal realizations the character had early in life.
  3. Connections. Each character has one mid-level ally, the name and concept of which is loosely determined by the player and dungeon master. This ally must be in a position to offer aid or information, and a specific location for this ally is determined before play begins. Similarly, each player has a mid-level enemy, someone who seeks to harm the character. It is permissible for heroes to share allies and enemies. Lastly, each character must have had a positive interaction or friendship with at least one other character in the party, or two if there are more than four heroes in the group.
  4. Goals and interview. Each player creates goals for their character, which can be used by the dungeon master as campaign quests. The final step involves the player “interviewing” the character, to flesh out any other fears, motivations and personality quirks.

As the players work through these steps together, many of the initial choices of skills, feats, powers and equipment may seem out of place, in light of new information the players create. If this happens, players are encouraged to alter their intial character stats to match the story the players are developing.

To better facilitate this process, I adapted the “10-Minute Character Background” sheet available at neceros into this Character background sheet.

While this process requires a time investment before the first session – my current players took nearly three hours to create their characters and backgrounds – the fruits of that labor can extend well into the highest levels of Dungeons & Dragons play.

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4 comments on “Get into the action quicker: use interconnected character histories

  1. jatori says:

    I find for quite a number of players, character creation is one of the more fun aspects of the game. So, taking 3 hours isn’t a bad thing. (Just watch out for those players that don’t like it :P) I’ve never considered having players interview their characters. I find that an interesting idea, which I my try out in the near future.

  2. [...] concept is very similar to the “character connection” idea discussed at length in yesterday’s post, that of requiring that each hero have some sort of positive relationship to at least two other [...]

  3. [...] this overview, your role shifts to one of support, as the players must now begin creating interconnected character backgrounds for their characters. These backgrounds can be unusually detailed, as your notes are filled with [...]

  4. [...] campaign setting, having a the battle play a role in a player character’s (PC’s) personal background, or having the heroes hear bards and minstrels sing of legends or prophecies related to the site. [...]

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