GM Tips: Utilizing Backgrounds
One of the most important aspects of a character in any TTRPG - their background - is usually overlooked amid the sea of bonus stats stemming from racial traits, cool new equipment, and the details of the outward physical appearance of the characters. However, a background is not merely a mechanical device, awarding equipment or abilities to the characters based on certain criteria. Backgrounds can, and should, be so much more in your games both as a GM/DM and a player. Let's jump in.
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When creating a character, one of the most important things you should be thinking about is their background. Where did the character come from? What formed their opinion of the world and everything in it? Who were and are important people in their lives? A character's background can provide important details about their history, motivations, and skills, and can even influence the way in which they interact with the world around them.
When choosing a background, it's important to consider your character's personality, goals, and backstory, especially in a game like D&D. For example, a character who grew up on the streets may benefit from the Urchin background, which provides proficiencies in Sleight of Hand and Stealth, as well as the ability to forage for food and find shelter in urban environments. Meanwhile, a character who was once a soldier may choose the Soldier background, which provides proficiencies in Athletics and Intimidation, as well as access to military equipment and the ability to rally allies in combat. In other games, such as Flames of Freedom, the background doesn't have its own special game mechanic but is still a huge part of creating every character in the form of which job they've been making a living on, or what their culture is. But even in games where background has no conceivable game mechanic attached to it, the background is still essential to build the entire concept of your character around. I mean, who would you be as a person without your entire backstory? The same goes doubly for a TTRPG character, because they're fictional and need to feel real to the other players or GMs/DMs.
Once you've chosen a background, consider how it can inform your character's behavior and decision-making and even appearance in some cases. For example, a character with the Sage background in D&D may be particularly interested in uncovering ancient knowledge or studying arcane texts, while a character with the Criminal background may be more likely to resort to deception or intimidation when dealing with others. Really try to lean into your character's motivations and try to create decisions based around how they grew up. It doesn't have to define every single action or decision your character takes or makes, but their background should give those around them some sort of context for the way in which they act.
Your background can also provide opportunities for roleplay and character development. For example, a character with the Noble background in D&D may struggle with reconciling their privileged upbringing with the harsh realities of the world, while a character with the Hermit background may have difficulty adjusting to life around other people after spending so much time in solitude. If you're playing another game like the aforementioned Flames of Freedom, then maybe your character is a rebel but has family who are Tories and so will have more tolerance for a British soldier than a regular colonial citizen would. Or, maybe in Pathfinder your character grew up a street urchin. This background might affect the way your character eats, dresses, and your overall health.
Utilizing backgrounds effectively in TTRPGs involves choosing a background that fits your character's personality and backstory, considering how your background can inform your character's behavior and decision-making, and using it as a tool for roleplay and character development. With these tips in mind, you can create a well-rounded and interesting character that is sure to make a lasting impression on your campaign. Let us know your thoughts on backgrounds in the comments below! - Joe