Character Backgrounds

Source Material for Rolemaster Standard System

Copyright Tim Dugger 1998

    Gone are the days of a GM telling his players that they met in a tavern, or grew up in the same village and decided to go adventuring together. The current trend of most role-playing gamers leans towards the role playing aspects rather than the hack-and-slash of when they were first introduced.
   In support of this ideal, character personality, motivation, and background history become more important. No longer do players wish to have the same old gruff Dwarf, Elven Ranger, beefy fighter, or even the archetypal wizard searching for lost magic. They want characters that are unique and interesting.
   First, we will take a look at backgrounds, then motivations, and finally personality. These three items are linked closely together, so a discussion of one is not complete without including the others.

Backgrounds

    A GM has always had several options available to help with this area, but seldom were they ever used properly. Many times a GM would give his players only the sketchiest of information about their background, since the majority of the adventures took place in an underground dungeon inhabited by a collection of monsters with no real rhyme or reason.
   As the industry has advanced, so have the expectations of players. They want more out of the games than previously. They now desire the kind of depth that could be found in a good novel. This means developing their characters more than ever. The question now is how to do that in a manner that does not stress the poor GM to death, or give nervous fits to the players. Trying to do this alone would be enough for either person, but a little cooperation can greatly ease this burden for GM and player alike. Furthermore, working closely with the GM provides a wealth of detail for his campaign setting and gobs of plot hooks upon which he can base his story.
    The introduction of the Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS) has greatly expanded the options for creating a character and the possibilities for the GM to help craft the background needed for the character to come to life.
    One principal rule that can be found in most types of writing courses is the "5 W's". Who? What? Where? When? Why? And the often added How? Actually six questions, that once answered properly can enhance any game by providing more detail to the character.
    Let's start off by looking at the skills a character learns. The player, with a little help from the GM, should be able to answer questions based on the 5 W's about each skill. These questions are:

    There are several more questions, or variations of these same questions that can be asked about every skill the character has learned. As the player learns to ask these questions, he will begin to get a good picture of the background for his character.
    Training Packages (TPs) work in the same manner as individual skills. The only difference being that items, and other perks or bonuses can also be gained by the purchase.
    Instead of just saying that the local thieves' guild taught the character the Cutpurse TP, a more detailed explanation could be given. For example, your character could have gained the TP in the following manner.

    You saved old Hamuk, the beggar, from a couple of street bullies, by throwing rocks to get their attention. When they chased, you ran away, losing them in the crowded market square. To show his gratitude, Hamuk taught you skills that he had learned as a child on the streets, many years ago.

    This is a lot more interesting and has the added benefit of giving the character a contact within the city. It gives a name to the NPC, a relationship to the character, which helps to bring the campaign to life.
    Use such explanations for both individual skills and Training Packages to spice up the character. Your reward will be a more in-depth character persona with a vibrant connection to the campaign world, complete with friends and contacts.

    Another great source of background material is talents and flaws from both the Rolemaster Standard Rules (RMSR), and Talent Law (TL). With just a little bit of work, these can fill out a great deal of the character background.
    For both talents and flaws you will want to ask questions such as "Where did this ability come from?" or "What happened to cause this flaw?". You should develop an imaginative way for your talents and flaws to occur. One good method is to use a catalyst event, allowing several to develop at the same time without having to resort to saying that the character was born with them.

    Your name is Zaldor, and as a child, you accompanied your father on a visit to an Alchemist, named Sítranok. While they were talking business, you discovered the Alchemist's lab. While playing, you mixed some exotic ingredients, causing a small explosion.
   While unhurt, you were very sick for several weeks. As you recovered, you noticed a rash develop whenever you wore metal of any type. You also discovered an amazing ability, to make your body denser than normal, when you concentrate. This provides you with a very tough hide, making armor unnecessary. Unfortunately, a side effect of this ability is that you also shrink to half your normal size. Due to this experience, you find yourself very nervous around those who cast magic of any type.
   Recently, since the death of your father, there have been several unsuccessful attempts upon your life. Though you believe Sítranok, the Alchemist, whose shop you destroyed while you were young, to be behind this, you have no proof. The poor Alchemist had to enter enforced servitude to pay off his debts to his suppliers, and his customers. He had sworn vengeance against you, but until recently, had never thought about it.

   Now let's take a closer look at the example above to see what talents and flaws we have used in creating this portion of Zaldor's background.

 For talents, we have used the following:

For the flaws, I have included the following:

   One thing to point out about Zaldor, while he can activate his Dense ability, which causes him to shrink, this does not cause his clothing to shrink as well. An interesting situation as he suddenly finds his clothing all too big for him. Furthermore, this is a conscious act for him. If he should be knocked unconscious, he would revert to normal size, destroying any clothing that fits his smaller size. It would rip and tear as he grew to normal size.
   His illness could have caused a negative bonus to a stat, such as Constitution, but I did not list it, as it was unnecessary for the example. You could have also included several other talents or flaws in the same background story. The catalyst I used could have produced any number of effects. Use your imagination and you will come up with an endless variety of ways to incorporate talents and flaws into your background.
   By combining talents and flaws into one episode, you will not only make your character, but you will also provide interesting material for your GM to use later on in the course of the game.
   Unusual explanations for a flaw or talent can also enhance the game and provide good opportunities for role-playing. The talent, Natural Ranged Attack, is a good example of this.

   Talvec, a Warrior Monk, studied ancient texts in his temple. During his studies, he learned a technique for focusing his Chi into a blast of energy (Lightning Bolt), that had been forgotten over the centuries. Not believed by the other Monks, he practiced in secret until he was able to perform this feat with every attempt (almost). Upon discovery by the temple elders, he was cast out for delving in what turned out to be forbidden tomes, but first, the elders made Talvec take a vow, neither to teach others this technique, nor to reveal where he learned it.

   In this example, we turn a special ability talent into something that was learned through training, and combined it with a flaw. The Vow prevents the character from explaining where he learned how to perform this amazing feat, or from teaching it to others.
    A resourceful GM can obviously have a great deal of fun with this type of character. As he forces the character into situations where he needs his talent and then having witnesses hound the character to discover his secret. A major bad guy could pursue this lone Monk seeking to wrest this secret from him.
    In the first of the two examples about Talents, I introduced something the concept of Conditional Talents. Conditional Talents are normal Talents that require the use of other specific talents to activate. By using this method, a GM can reduce the costs of a particular Talent to allow a more complete set of talents to be acquired by the character. The most basic idea for this is that a certain talent is not usable unless another talent has been activated. I will present an article, in the near future to expand on this concept as well as a few others revolving around Talents.

Personality

   Once you decide upon the background of your character, you need to consider his personality as well as the motivations that determine how he acts and reacts to situations.
    Every single event of his background will shape him and alter his perceptions of the world around him. This also affects his reasons for adventuring in the first place.
    Since the personality of your character is highly subjective and will change along with his situations, the best thing to do is to decide upon a basic personality structure. You may use either the traits listed in the RMSR, or else adopt the personality of a real or fictional character.
    By using the traits in RMSR, your can assign or pick a few that apply to your character, and then the strength of those traits will depend upon the situation the character is in, or upon his mood at any given time.
    If you adopt a personality from another source, this works just as well. I enjoy adopting a personality from television, and placing it on a character quite different from the one portrayed originally.
    If you are a "Doctor Who" fan, then you might use the personality of the third Doctor. His personality is normally associated with a wizard-type character, but you can easily adapt it for your rogue, or thief. He would, always be putting things in his pockets, in case he might need it later. Highly intrigued by puzzles and absent-minded about many things, this character will never lack for role playing opportunities. Not always the best type of personality for this type of character, but it does make your character more of an individual.
   The same can be done by adapting any fantasy or science fiction character, or even by combining the personalities of several of them into an amalgam that in itself becomes a unique individual.
    Never forget that each event in the background of your character will impact his personality. Once you decide upon the basic personality features for your character, go through his background and check this against each major event. As you do this, decide if the event would cause any type of personality shift in your character.

   Belaras was always very tolerant of Elves, until one day, he is attacked, while travelling through the forest. His attacker is an Elf, driven insane by some evil item, all unknown to Belaras. While he escapes with his life, and maybe some other effect or item, his personality has taken a big shift. Belaras now fears, and distrusts all Elves, believing them prone to insanity.

   For good or for bad, each event in a characters background can have some effect upon his personality. The example given above is an extreme case, but it does illustrate the point.

Motivation

   Another large portion of your character revolves around his motivations for what he is doing. Why did he leave home? What are his goals in life, both long term and short term? What caused him to follow the path that has led to his current position in life?
   These questions all fall under the classification of character motivation. Knowing the motivations of your character will help you decide what type of responses he will have to situations as they occur.
   There are many types of motivations that drive your character to do certain things. Below are some example motivations that you can give your character. You could even use several of them in combination to make your character more special.

   Amnesia - Does your character actually know where he comes from? Who his friends are? Who his enemies are? Others could know more about the character, than he does himself. His motivation here would be to learn more about himself and his past. With a little help from the GM this could become a major quest for the character, leading him in all sorts of unexpected directions.

   Curses - An old favorite of many. Even if you do not think so at first, curses can really motivate a character. You could be fleeing a curse that would affect you if you had not left your home. You could be on a quest to free yourself, a friend, or a relative from the effects of a curse by finding the rare substance or person that will remove it. If your GM agrees, one of the flaws that your character has could be from a curse, and you could be looking for a way to remove it without harming yourself permanently. Just remember that almost any bad effect could be used as a curse and therefore, can add excitement to your game.

   Emotions - Emotions have always been a strong motivator for many actions that a character is likely to make. Each of the various emotions can also be used in varying strengths, thus giving several motivations.

   Shame - Your character has done some deed that has shamed his honor, and must perform a quest as penance (this may be an official quest or a personal form of penance). Perhaps, he is ashamed of his social rank, and leaves in order to acquire money or power so that he can change that.

   Greed - Does your character crave money? The desire to have enough wealth to support oneself for the rest of his life is a good motivator, but it is not the only possibility for greed. Others may crave power, power over others, power to influence world events. Gaining the power to pull the strings on those who rule is in itself a strong motivator.

   Fear - Is your character afraid of something? Of some secret being discovered? Fear can make a person do many a thing that they would not normally do. It could cause them to leave everything they hold dear, in order to protect either themselves, or their loved ones. This is not the only possibility for using fear, but it is one of the most common.

   Knowledge - The allure of hidden knowledge can be a powerful motivator for those who desire to know things. Discovering lost magic, or a lost civilization can be more intriguing than the brightest gem. Your character may be in the possession of some cryptic riddle or question and searching through ancient ruins or lands may be the only way for him to obtain an answer.

   Pursuit - Are you running for your life? Are you trying to escape from some fate that you consider worse than death? Is your character running from assassins, or just a marriage that you did not want? There are many possibilities for why your character may be on the run. Not all of these have to be reasonable or even turn out to be what your characters think it is. You could have been framed for a crime, or caught in the act. Adventuring is a way to lose oneself from the eyes of those hunting you. Or are you the one doing the hunting? Are you chasing the one-armed man who framed you for murder? Whether you are being pursued or pursuing, the chase has led you away from home, and until you finally resolve this issue, you can never truly rest.

   Revenge - Revenge is the classic motivator. You could be chasing the bandit who killed your family, or the rogue who framed you for his crime. Are you searching for the legendary weapon that will destroy the beast, which ravaged your homeland? Your character may know where to find the object of his revenge, and is just looking for the means to enact it.

Final Notes To Players

   Character backgrounds, personality and motivations are all linked. Consider how they interact to create the character you wish to role-play.
   You must keep in mind that while having a diverse background is good, you will need to keep things in perspective. Having a naive, young wizard, who has been the victim of a tear jerking tragedy does not fit, as the tragedy will have caused the lost of some of that naivete.
    It is important to keep a strong sense of continuity throughout your character's life, even beyond the point where he begins his adventuring career.
   Every GM will have his own vision for his campaign world, and you must work with him in designing your character. Your background must match his world history as much as possible. This will bring your character to life, as well as help the GM to fit him into the scheme of things.

Final Notes To GMs

   You as the GM, have your own vision of your campaign world. You have either built it from scratch, or you have adapted some prepackaged world. Either way, your campaign world has become a unique entity all its own.
    While your player creates the background for his character, you should provide him with information about the world in which his character lives.
   A well-developed character provides you, as the GM with a wealth of campaign material adding spice and depth in many ways.
    The character's background and motivations are a rich source of material that can be used for sub-plots and side adventures. By combining portions of the background from several characters, you can provide each player with clues that will eventually allow them to resolve unfinished story lines.
    You can also throw in clues for new adventures while resolving these old sub-plots. This way you will give the characters a sense of continuity, and bring about a better campaign for everybody.