Friday, May 10, 2019

Character Backgrounds & Prior Vocations

Some recent discussion on Reddit got me blathering on about Backgrounds. One of the things that draws me to skill-less systems is the freedom they provide to the players. A set-in-stone Skill List informs play and can narrow the scope of player actions as they look in askance at the Character Sheet for options and tactics, and a tendency develops to view Skills as “this is everything you can do.” They also discourage attempts by telegraphing odds directly (a Player whose sheet constantly informs them that they are terrible at Sneaking About will probably never try).

I really enjoy systems like WHITEHACK that bundle these potential activities into Vocations (or Backgrounds). All of the “Skills/Competencies/Familiarities” that come attached to a single Vocation will usually encompass more individual abilities that can fit on a character's sheet anyway, and best of all: it encourages the player to think of creative ways that their character could potentially interact with a situation based on their imagined history. The only challenge with more free-form systems like this tends to be the occasionally creative paralysis when a player is lightly pressed with “You can be anything, tell me about your character” without any kind of concept in mind. Mind you, I’m not a big proponent of preconceived character concepts and would much rather let the oracular dice do this work for me, but every tablemate is different.

So here’s a table of 100 Character Backgrounds & Prior Vocations to help inspire players that might find themselves in this rut, or simply enjoy the challenge of trying something new and breaking out of the classic class stereotypes. I like “Roll or Choose” for tables like these because they provide some agency, but this list should by no means considered exhaustive. I always recommend trying to accommodate any character you can, most settings can cope surprisingly well (it’s fantasy after all, and stories shared are best):

Remember that long-lists of Backgrounds like this can perform double-duty. They can help significantly with the legwork to communicate and develop an Implied Setting (TROIKA!’s Backgrounds are phenomenal at this). Don't simply stop with selection however: Always try to ask a few Leading Questions to flesh things out. In the Backgrounds Above for instance, a glance may pique some curiosity and some questions about the world we're playing in may spring to mind: Why is Magic so apparently dangerous? What’s an Ooze Wrangler or an Ex-Wood-Spouse? It sure seems like some of the Cleric Backgrounds suggest that not all is on the up-and-up, etc. I try to leave these mostly as an exercise to the player (only putting on the DM hat when a drastic misalignment in vision/fiction can’t be resolved through compromise or might not be fun or fair for everyone).

As always, I’d love to hear about how this works out for your group if you give it a spin.

2 comments:

  1. That's a great table! I've looked at a lot of these sorts of table and yours has the best mix of quotidian and fantastic backgrounds for characters. The implied setting is great too and could be customized from campaign to campaign - though I guess you could also wait till something is rolled (or chosen) before you decide if it is incorporated in your setting.

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    1. Thanks lige! Glad you like the table!
      You hit the nail on the head with "wait to see what's rolled before worrying about it in the world." I like to gauge the player's interest in certain things, and that gives me a lot of direction to make the setting more enjoyable for everyone. I can still keep the things I "have to have," but it let's the players have a bigger say in what the game ends up being about for sure :)

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