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In another question, it was suggested that the game "Dread" has a number of questions to make players really consider their character's backstory and personality. However, I'm planning to run a non-horror game (my group has decided we don't like horror). What other systems have similar thought-provoking questions I can crib?

I'm looking for modern-day setting, and the idea is to add a bit more depth to our usual character creation without making the players feel like they have to write a whole novel (which usually results in them just ignoring the request and bringing a sheet). It shouldn't be specific to any mechanics, as we've already decided on a system to play, just pure personality. I was planning to use one of the questionnaires aimed at free-form roleplay or writers, but the idea that some formalized games might have taken this into account already intrigues me.

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closed as too broad by doppelgreener, Oblivious Sage, mxyzplk Nov 10 '13 at 16:45

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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It's important to understand that in Dread, the questions themselves (not just the answers) define the characters, and each player gets a different questionnaire. You might ask someone "why did you kill your father?" -- they supply the motivation and exact circumstances, but they don't get to change this fact about their character. (The game is intended for one-shots, rather than extended campaigns.) –  starwed Feb 27 '13 at 14:32
    
As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 27 '13 at 23:31
    
Closing as this isn't really a good game-rec question. You're looking for techniques not games, and we frown on lists and like things people have actually used. I suggest refactoring this question into the form "What is the thing X you have used/seen used most successfully for detailed purpose Y?" Where X is character background creation, and Y you could flesh out more. –  mxyzplk Nov 10 '13 at 16:46

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Questions

There are no mechanics as such, but every White Wolf game has a section in character creation about breathing life into the character. This is just a list of questions that help players think about their relationship to the setting.

They also encourage you to play a short freeform session with each character individually. This prelude usually includes the time that the character changes from being a normal everyday person into someone special - the Embrace, the Change, the Awakening, the Second Breath and so on.

In your situation, starting with a few questions from a free-form roleplay questionnaire is a wise starting point. Edit it so that it has interesting questions (how is eye color interesting for every character for instance?) as well as questions that directly relate to the themes and mood of the games you like to play.

For instance, if you're playing cops with integrity, you'll want to ask something like "When have you ever been tempted to ignore Miranda rights and what happened?". For a game about financial moguls on Wall Street, "What was your first deal and how did it make you feel?" is more appropriate.

Focus on getting qualitative answers about why they made the decisions they did and what they felt about it. These help provide more insight into the characters as they go along.

It's also OK if they don't answer all the questions. Answering one or two will give enough juice to get started - and they can always fill in others later.

System Specific Mechanics

There are many recent systems which do create backstory in characters. Two examples are FATE and Apocalypse World and their descendant games.

FATE powers Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files as well as a CORE version. As part of character creation, each player names and details a story they have already completed and another player is chosen to guest star in it. The rules from Spirit of the Century might help you create a process you can use in your game.

Apocalypse World (used in Dungeon World and Monsterhearts) provides a history round to help build a world between the group. Each archetype has a number of items that can be used to tie you to another character.

These approaches help build an existing group cohesion by defining characters in terms of each other.

As the simplest thing you could do, go around the table and ask each player for a statement of a positive relationship with another character and a statement of a negative relationship with another character. Each statement should give some idea of how it came about and why, helping add details to the game. "X saved my life in an ambush in Iraq." and "Y snores like a woodchipping plant, I hate sharing a room with him but won't tell him why."

Be careful with the negative relationship though. This should be on the level of things you don't like about friends, but accept anyway. If it gets to "Z stole my wife and I hate him for it" then the game is going to be about intra-party conflict. That might be ok, that might not... but steer clear unless you know your group can handle and enjoy it.

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+1, because that would be my answer. WW games was the first thing that popped in my head. Whenever we start a game, the StoryTeller does something like a mini interview with each player, based on the questions on the book and the result is exceptionally unique (usually) cliche-ridden characters :) –  Drunken_Guy Sep 9 '13 at 7:26
    
I ended up using a combination of FATE and World of Darkness, and it worked really well until the game fell apart three sessions in due to unrelated issues, so I've accepted this answer as it's the closest to what I did. –  Yamikuronue Sep 12 '13 at 13:49

The FATE system (I'm most familiar with the Dresden Files RPG which uses it) has this as a major part of character creation. In DFRPG we answer (in collaboration with the other players and the GM) the following questions are part of character creation:

  • Background: Where did you come from? (PC's youth, his life as a "normal person" before getting embroiled in Plot)
  • Rising Conflict: What shaped you? (PC's choices and troubles that made him who is he today)
  • The Story: What was your first adventure? (PC's first time in the spotlight and/or encounter with Plot; PC gains agency)
  • Guest Starring: Whose path have you crossed? (your PC aided another PC in their first adventure)
  • Guest Starring Redux: Who else's path have you crossed? (a different PC aided you in your first adventure)

Each question has a set of subquestions to spark ideas, and is to be answered with anywhere from a sentence to a couple paragraphs, and the last two questions involve passing our sheets around (FATE expects the entire character creation process to happen collaboratively at the table, not individually at home). These are then used to create pithy statements about our characters for mechanical use with the FATE system, but that can easily be ignored for your game.

Rick Neal provides an excellent discussion of the process here: Tell Me A Story: Character Creation Phases in DFRPG

DFRPG is a modern setting, but FATE is setting-neutral and as you can see the basic questions are very general.

This process (the character creation process in DFRPG also includes defining the setting, but that's overkill for your purposes) produces characters with strong backstory elements that give a sense of shape to their personalities. It also --and I think this is really cool-- provides a way to justify our characters knowing each other and being willing to work together when the campaign opens, and gives a sense of how we might interact with each other.

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Vampire the masquerade and all other WoD games had these questions as the first step of character creation. This is simply a number of question about your character's past and motivations.

Dresden Files has a curious system about determining the characters background story, and their previous adventures. In FATE system, characters have aspects, which describes your character and can be used in favour or against him (ie: bad temper, perpetually broke, Perry's steady girlfriend,...). So the system is done to "discover" these aspects, in five phases:

  • Phase one: Background, Where did you come from? Here comes a series of questions about your origin. You have to write a short story, and then choose an appropriate aspect.
  • Phase two: Rising conflict, What shaped you? A series of questions relating to how your character becomes how it is now. How does he become and adventurer. Again, write a short story and choose and aspect.
  • Phase three: The story, What was your first adventure? Make up a first adventure for your character, like it was a regular RPG adventure. Write it and chose an aspect.
  • Phase four: Guest star, Whose path has you crossed? Here comes the interesting thing. Now you give your character sheet to your right player (or left, I don't remember). You take the one from your left, read his first story, and imagine which role does your character plays in your comrade adventure (had he helped him? had he opposed him? had he rescued or been rescued by him?). Note it (to later add in your sheet) and choose a related aspect.
  • Phase five: Guest star redux, Who else's path has you crossed? Same as before but with the other player sitting next to you.

What I find cool about this system is two things. One, when you end the character creation you have your group already connected, and the GM don't have to come up with a story that connects them. The second thing is that the GM later pick the aspects of the characters, and the aspects of the city, pick a few, mix them and use them as themes of the adventures. This way, the adventures should be connected to the characters.

I don't know if these games would qualify as horror to your group, but no one forbids you to get these systems and apply them to any game.

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We've always been fond of the Central Casting line of books for character backgrounds. They're game-system agnostic, so you'll need to translate some things into game mechanics for those games that have background traits or feats built into the rules. They have both good and bad events and tables for family, status, social class, etc. They're decades out of print, so somewhat hard to find, legally. The one you're most likely to want is Central Casting: Heroes Now!

I have one player that uses these for every game we play, and others that use them periodically. Personally, when I use them, I tend to take a mixture of random and choice—choosing options where I care and letting the dice fall where they may where I don't.

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It looks like those books have a series of tables to roll on? I'm looking for more of a Q&A type thing. –  Yamikuronue Feb 27 '13 at 17:19
    
Yes, they are tables of events that are interrelated. –  Jacob Proffitt Feb 27 '13 at 22:44

The Legend of the Five Rings RPG has a set of twenty character background questions.

What these questions intend to establish is the character background and motivation. You could just ask your players to consider who their characters are, and what motivates them to do what they do.

Asking your players to set short term, medium term and long term goals for their characters also helps clarify their motivation.

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As stated amply above: WoD, DFRPG, and L5R have a nice menagerie of questions. I might also recommend thumbing through life paths from Mechwarrior or to a lesser extent Victoriana. With Mechwarrior they create at least a skeleton of your history and still allow you most of the freedom to fill in the blanks.

Something I always have trouble with is how to get the players to fill them out. A lot of players I know are more concerned about what they need to mechanically put the character together and then sort of retroactively fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, when pressed we get a lot of amnesiac bad@$$#$ with no family. Granted, I give them an incredulous look and tell them to try harder but often the finer details are overlooked about history. Primarily, the issue with backstory is that players don't want to turn the game into a homework assignment. Granted, when they find a character they're passionate about they will do everything they can but at the start I can't seem to get an answer to the question "what happened to your parents?"

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The Mistborn Adventure Game has an excellent character-creation survey. In ten questions you figure out the basics of the character's backstory, a couple of notable quirks, their relationship to and role in the group (which is not the same as a class: you're not allowed to name game mechanics when answering the survey), basic philosophical outlook, and a couple of DM hooks for later.

In MAG, filling out this survey pretty much is the character-creation process. The system relies heavily on freeform character traits, and the survey answers provide most of these for a character just starting out. But most of the questions are trivial to decouple from the MAG ruleset, so you can use it with pretty much anything. The big thing is that it should generally be done before rolling stats, choosing race or class in systems that deal with them, or anything like that.

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