This was the first article that was written by Ryan for the Unpublished Dark Whispers Magazine. Thanks again for all the hard work that was put in.
Background Development 101
Some players have difficulty finding significant ways to relate the dots they’ve placed on a character sheet to the character concept they have created. In this article, I will attempt to pin down a method of approaching a character sheet from the top down, using the information on your sheet to fuel ideas about the person behind the numbers. As a case study, I will evaluate the character sheet of a non-supernatural character. I’m going to call him “Ben.”
At the top of your character sheet, along with the core pieces of information such as the character name, your name, the chronicle, and so on, you are provided with space to give a short description of your character in the form of a concept. This piece of information forms the core of your character. It works as a sort of archetype, the mold from which your character will be cast.
Ben’s player has thought about the sort of character he would like to play, and thus far he keeps coming back to “scruffy drifter.” So, not knowing more about his character, he pencils this into the Concept area at the top of his sheet. He also writes this a spare piece of paper he is using to develop his background.
The concept you write down is not set in stone. Remember that you can always revise that concept, or even violate it with your skill selection to a certain degree. Differ too much and the concept doesn’t really fit any more, so you need to be careful, but a two word description of your character doesn’t paint enough of a picture to say what is and what isn’t valid to put down on the sheet.
Virtue and Vice
Using the concept as a springboard, decide how your character tends to pursue his or her virtue and vice. A short paragraph each tends to be the most rewarding amount of information. You don’t want to overburden yourself with background at this stage.
Ben’s player looks at his chosen virtue: Charity. He writes “Ben has been roaming the highways and byways of the US for a few years now, and he’s come to believe that it’s best to share a little with the needy, because you never know when you’re going to find yourself out in the cold in need of a little help yourself.”
Ben’s player then moves on to his vice: Sloth. He writes “Life on the road is hard, and sometimes it can be easier to give up than get what you want. Ben has problems keeping himself motivated to move on with his goals. He also finds it easier to pick a new goal than to complete a difficult one.”
Sometimes the presentation of a virtue or vice in a character’s personality is not standard. Consider a character in whom Wrath manifests as a desire to spread nasty gossip about people who slight her, or a character that has Prudence, but takes it to the extreme of a crippling fear of taking risks (this concept may work better for an NPC than a PC, unless your game allows much more room for social interaction than combat and danger).
In allocating your attribute dots, you’ve probably decided to model them in a way that directly supports the concept of your character; your martial artist has primary physical attributes and a three in Strength and Stamina; your computer scientist has a four intelligence and a one composure; your flippant debutante has four dots in Presence, three in Manipulation, but only one in Composure.
At this point, you can take a moment to explain just how the character’s background molded their attributes. The debutante’s high Presence might be the result of being the captain of her speech and debate team as well as a member of the model UN. Her manipulation could come from snaring daddy into getting her way. Simply choose those defining attributes that are remarkable—either good or bad—and use them to help define who your character grew up to be.
Ben’s player gave him the scores you see to the <SIDE>. He explains “Ben never finished high school, and he isn’t too bright. But he’s been wandering for a long while, and he learned to be tough. He never gives in to the elements, and he’s really good at keeping his cool. Being a drifter, he’s also spent a lot of time learning to convince people to part with things that he needs more than they do.” As you can see, this tidily explains all of Ben’s attributes that aren’t just 2 dots.
Skills are the largest portion of a character’s background. They really tell you what he or she is good at, and all you need to do is decide why the character has the dot arrangement he or she does. Many one dot skills can stand without explanation, especially when they have a clear tie-in to the character’s concept. But for most skills of two dots or more, it’s a good idea to explain why the character has that skill, how he or she acquired it, and how he or she uses it most often.
After giving this section a lot of thought, Ben’s player writes “Working sporadically, Ben tends to get odd jobs fixing things like cars and other machinery. However, he never works too hard; just hard enough to get by.
“In his travels, Ben has had to fight off various vagrants and drug addicts. He’s learned to fist fight and to fight with improvised weapons such as pipes and loose bricks. As often as possible, he just avoids the parts of town where he might ruffle feathers, so he listens to the word on the street and thinks hard about how not to be there. He also knows when someone is about to get the drop on him.
“Inevitably, Ben has been in trouble with the law, and he can’t help but cause problems sometimes, even when he’s just trying to help someone. He blends in with the crowd easily, and knows how to keep his head down and stay out of sight. When necessary, he has broken into abandoned houses and once in a while he has stolen a car or two, but he still thinks of himself as a pretty good guy who just lives a hard life.
Notice that this fails to cover Ben’s skill in Animal Ken and specialty in dogs. This will be covered in a moment.
The final relevant segment of the character sheet to our purposes are the Merits. Merits are naturally a catch-all, so they deserve special explanation. Merits can often be thought of as the result of a character’s past experience. A high school track runner might gain Fleet of Foot and use it again later in life. A local musician might gain Barfly from playing a lot of shows in town and meeting all the staff.
This definition doesn’t always fit, and occasionally, a Merit just defies description—such as Unseen Sense. That’s okay. Not everything needs to have a greater explanation.
Ben’s player comes to the Merits section, and he knows exactly how to start it. “Ben’s best friend is his dog Howler. Ben found Howler a few years back as a puppy and couldn’t bear to see the little guy suffer. So he kept him, and the dog has been his constant companion ever since. Keeping himself and his dog fed is a challenge, but Ben manages.
“Ben’s diet has often been poor. He’s had to grit his teeth and suck down garbage from restaurant dumpsters to survive. But the upshot is that Ben can choke down almost anything with no ill effects. He’s got a cast iron stomach.”
Note that Ben’s player has chosen not to explain his Fleet of Foot Merit, and Danger Sense has already been mentioned briefly amongst his skills. This cross-pollination of descriptions makes more sense than trying to keep everything totally distinct. After all, a person’s life is rarely that easy to pigeon-hole.
Chances are if you’ve put a piece of equipment on your character sheet, it is of some significance to your character. Where did he get that gun or that sword? Why does she have a toolbox in her truck?
Describing equipment your character keeps can also help you fill in detail about who he or she is and what is important in his or her life. Anything that gives an equipment bonus is probably worthy of some mention here. And don’t be afraid of being verbose. At times, even if your Storyteller and the other players can’t remember everything you’ve said about your character, you can refer to your background information to help you stay in character and decide how to react to things.
In addition to giving general background, it can be fun to sprinkle anecdotes from your character’s point of view into your explanation of the background. A one paragraph story about how your character came to own a specific item, or her own words when complaining about how hard it was to write her research thesis. Anything goes in creating character background. A graphically-minded player might even create a set of vignette images showing the character’s life in stages, with a sketch of each significant event.
All in all, it is just important to remember that the dots you assign to your character are a skeleton, and the flesh you give him comes from the background you create. You can even start to discover that your character has interests that differ from your own, just by pondering what led to certain skills or merits.