I have a new player joining my game soon, who has taken the place of another player. Unfortunately, this character's backstory is lacking. It doesn't tell me a lot about the character. Because I draw my games from my players and their back stories, I'd like to work with this player on creating a quality backstory with some meaty plot hooks, but I'd like to know the right questions to ask. What questions can I as this player to create a backstory that engages my new player, and one that gives me the plot hooks I need to mesh them into the plot and world?
When I have time to make a quality character with a player (rather than hashing out what will work for their first session because they just showed up ten minutes before start), I try to ask qualitative questions that players quite often forget.
On a completely radical scale you can tell everyone to take a Personality Test as though they are their character but typically Pathfinder/D&D characters don't have this level of depth. However the answer can be a nice quick reference for both you and the player when a situation comes up.
You don't need to know all kinds of backstory detail. Where are James Bond's parents? How was James treated as a child? Who knows... that never matters to the story. The only things we know are the things that matter. So you have to ask yourself, "What matters?"
What you want to know is the characters motivations as pertains to the campaign.
What are the character's hooks that let you, the GM, grab ahold and pull him into the story?
How does the character know the other PCs?
Meeting for the first time in the opening adventure is a difficult setup, unless you want to create an entire adventure around their meeting. I did this once, and it worked fairly well, but the hardest part is working around the, "I'm suspicious of him, but he has PC stamped on his forehead, so I have to trust him in the end."
Having the group establish some kind of relationship among the characters as part of character creation creates a lot of room for creating both shared backstory and motivations. Not every character needs to know every other character, but there needs to be ties that bind them together before the adventure ever starts. If the player can create just one established relationship with another PC, that creates a good starting tie.
Fate does this by literally writing each others characters into summaries of previous adventures.
What does the character want that he is prevented from having, and what is preventing him?
This is storytelling 101... the kernel from which plot grows.
There's this type of character that burgeoning roleplayers want to create, but often don't have the chops to pull off correctly: "I just want to settle down and be a farmer."
This is a great motivation, and can make for great stories... so long as something is preventing our hero from doing just that. I once dealt with a player with that exact motivation, who put it on me as GM to provide constant opposition without giving me any hooks. I had a really hard time keeping him from walking away from adventures, because he hadn't provided me with any reasons not to. He cared about nothing else but becoming a farmer.
It's not the GM's job to keep the character in the story, it's the player's. The would-be farmer needs a motivation that overrides his desire to buy the farm and settle down... he's hunted by the King's men for a crime he didn't commit, and he can never have peace until he clears his name.
This set of motivations have to be negotiated... they have to point toward the group story and not away from it, which means discussion amongst the group and some consensus about what direction the stories will take. If clearing his name interferes with the overall expected campaign (hanging out with these ruffians, looting tombs and the like, doesn't get him any closer to his goals), it's probably not a good motivation, because it will pull him away from the group story instead of toward.
On one level, "I want to go on an adventure and see the world," is an acceptable motivation, if it is sincere and not just an excuse for "I want to roll some dice and smash some heads." But then, if that's what the player wants, pushing him into more than that may ruin his fun. If you're a GM that uses PC motivations to craft the story, this guy may be a poor fit... that's something you'll have to navigate on your own.
Who or what shaped who the character is today?
This isn't the "who are your parents" question. Where the previous question is about "where are you trying to go?" this question is "how did you get where you are?"
The key thing is just that... the key people and events that reach through time and affect how the character interacts with the story now. This could be his parents (who beat him and made him sleep in a closet), but probably not. Maybe it's his teacher, the swordmaster who hit him, belittled him, and beat him within an inch of his life in his coming of age contest... whom the character hates with a passion, yet respects and even loves more than anyone because, like the sword he carries, the character is a weapon forged in fire and pain and would not be who he is without this "tough love".
We get here by asking two questions: Who do you want your character to be, and how did he become who he is?
Most players have a vision of their character in mind when they start play... that's usually pretty easy to get out of a player. Ask the player who the character is, how they react to situations... are they generous and kind, gruff but lovable, cold as steel and as likely to cut your throat as give you the time of day? Respond to these answers with the second question... "How did character get that way?" Who made him that way, what hard (or soft) situations or decisions in his life shaped who he became?
This is a good place for suggestions... if the player doesn't know why he's a bad-a** swordsman with nerves of steel, offer some ideas. I like to do this in the form of questions: "Did someone hurt him badly in his past? Did he learn the sword on his own or did he have a teacher? Was the teacher an important influence?" His swordmaster is only important because learning swordplay and fighting was a key part of this character's makeup. Not all fighters are going to see the sword as the key part of their life... another fighter might actually be motivated by his parents, who were killed by bandits when he was young, and this character vowed that he would never be powerless to defend those he loved again. The guy who taught him the sword was just some guy and not really a mentor.
This information is helpful on two counts: It helps inform the character's motivations so that you and the player better understand the character, (and if the stated motivations don't jibe with this background, work with the player to reconcile them) and it fleshes out the important bits of background that can serve as hooks. These characters can appear in the future story, and even if they're dead, someone who reminds the character of his tough-love teacher is going to affect him.
First, maybe the player is not much into creating an entire back story beforehand. You don't need to know every details about the character before you start playing it. You can start by small elements and dig deeper but leave some space for the character to grow.
I think you need only one generic question and then you build on the answer and ask more questions. I'll assume the player answer straight without too much details to show you how even an apparently empty answer can show potentials.
For instance: So you're a warrior. Where did you learn to fight? In the streets. What specific group did you fight all the time? I was always beaten up by thugs and one day I got my revenge. That doesn't explain how you are now proficient with advanced military weapons and armors. You have a bastard sword in your equipment, where did you get it? I forged it. So you learned how to forge weapons. Interesting. How? Who taught you? Etc. etc.
Make this an interview for a biography. Eventually you'll get juicy details you can use. I'd never turn an answer saying "Don't say you're an orphan". Work on that. Why being an orphan is bad? It's actually great. Who raised you, are you curious to know who the parents are? Oh they died, how? You want revenge? Even if the answers are classics, that's not the point. Ask for more details or expand on an answer. Oh you learned how to forge weapons with a blind master who wanted to teach one young lad his science. Cool. Did you ever forged a weapon that someone used to kill an innocent and how do you feel about that?
Rule number 1, there are no bad answers. Build on them and if you think they are bad and they obviously are troll answers or cheesy (my father is obviously the BBEG) use it and ask details. Eventually they can either realize it's a bad idea, or you'll get to show them yourself.
When you are satisfied with a reasonable amount of info, you can leave it there and ask more questions later. Maybe when they meet a new important NPC you can ask the players if they ever heard of him and what's their opinion.
Humans are storytellers, so why not let the player tell the story of his PC (on a piece of paper, that is)? Instead of the usual "let's answer some questions and boom, we have a character background", encourage the player to note down his story backwardly:
He has to end up with the other PCs at some point, so the best starting point is the where and how he wants to meet them (as a GM, you could just discuss this with him). Then let him think about his past, going backwards in time. From where did he come to the new place, why and how did he do it, who did he meet on the way?
Essentially this would end him up at his birth, having filled pages upon pages with information. Of course it is understandable if he just jots down some key turning points in his personal history, but that would also make for some hooks.
In the end, you could even explore the PC's past and flesh it out with the whole group, via one such small plot hook. The other PCs would then have to ask the new PC about his past, thus making it for an interactive experience and minimizing work load on your behalf. But this isn't made for all groups (you'd need to find some sort of motivation for the other characters to dive into the history of the new guy) so it might also be appropriate to discuss this with the group (if it's something new, otherwise they'll just roll with it).
There are a lot of good general answers up there. Just to add one more possibility, don't forget the mechanical side of things, especially if the player isn't just 1st level (assuming you're playing a level-bound system, of course). Why does your character have the feats and skills that he does? Are there interesting stories behind the magic items that they have? The last time I started a character in a high-level campaign, I went through and picked a few of the odder skills and feats and related them to what level I was, and what I might have been capable of at the time. It gave me hooks to create my backstory, which in turn created hooks for the GM. If you gained your feat to communicate with nature spirits through rescuing a dryad, hey NPC! If you won your favorite +3 Shotgun of Bleedening in a high-stakes poker game in which you lost your ability to feel fear (thus explaining a piece of equipment and a feat), you have the people involved in that card game, and the legends thereof. Take note of the people, places, and events in their life.
Also, I highly recommend discussing with the player the possibility of "creating" the less well-defined parts of their life. Find out what they're willing to give up control of (does it matter who their teacher was? Does it matter who the first person they slept with was?), and sell them on the fact that good and bad things can happen with such transfer of control. It gives you a way to quickly bring in allies or enemies, or just interesting stories.
Depending on how improv-friendly the player is, you can even bring in plain sources of amusement by introducing a character with a bizarre story hook and then letting the player fill in how it happened, e.g. "A hook-handed maiden with slit-eyed pupils and a large floppy hat walks up to your table and sits down. 'Hello, Karl,' she says, 'did you think you could break my heart and get away with it?' You recognize her as your ex-girlfriend who used to a priestess of Deneir until that incident with the noodles. You remember that there was something that you never got to tell her about your relationship and you feel compelled to tell her here and now."
The easiest immediate solution, is to take some aspect of what you already have in play, and ask the player a loaded question to build their character on.
Maybe the player goes with it, maybe it sparks a different idea, but equally loaded, be flexible and figure out what you both find exciting.
The core question to any character is "Why are they involved and why is this interesting?" I call this momentum - it's a direction, it has energy to it. When all you get is random bio and no goals, drive, personality or conflict, the character is dead in the water. It becomes work to get them to do interesting things or to know what kind of situations the player will do interesting things in.
Sometimes it helps to have a simple idea to build on, or to do a scattershot approach and see which parts seem the most interesting. You and the player might do well with looking at How to Make Good Flags (and one of the reasons I recommend everyone try playing a game with good Flag mechanics is that you can then export that skill to other games where it's not as strongly tied in, otherwise, people sometimes have a hard time seeing it.)
If the player has previous experience roleplaying, they may give the bland, neutral background either because they're used to the GM ignoring it all the time, so they don't bother anymore, or the "gotcha!" GM who uses it to railroad their characters. If you're not going to do either of those things, it's important to explain to the player that their background becomes a source of conflict - conflict which they can resolve - which is where the meat of play comes from, but it's going to be a place where they will have input as well.
I ask why they're here (on this adventure) and then ask questions about that reason to flesh it out into a backstory. You'll want to ask the usual journalist questions to flesh it out:
The problem with doing it in the other order is that you may well end up with a full fledged character with no reason to be here and participate in your adventure.
One thing that worked very well for me is to asks the player to describe a few ( as in three or four) events of their character's life that have impacted them deeply. It could be the ending of a love affair, the first kill, or the discovery that shades of grey exist.
If the player is intimidated by this, look at this character and asks yourself (or better yet, the player) where they got their training, how they got the house they live in, why they (do not) believe in God(s).
Lastly, have a few situation planned in your mind for how the background of the character could interact with the current plot: Present them with a situation and ask them to role play what their character would do. It might take a fair amount of time but it's well worth it.
Often experienced players seem to be expected to just go away and come up with a page of interesting written backstory. That doesn't work for everyone, and can be daunting or too much like a chore if given as "homework", even with some guidelines or written questions.
To make things more accessible, it may be better to work on it together, face-to-face, and in smaller interactive pieces, as a joint exercise.
So this isn't a list of "questions to ask", but a suggestion to use a more fluid improvised approach, similar to how the game works during play. It works well for me and my players, other than the DM, we do not have time between games available - everything has to be done during the game evening.
Show the player a map of the local area, ask them whether the character is from the town, the village. Give them a little nugget of knowledge from the area (from your source material, or just improvise something). Base it off the character's class, skills or stats, or anything you know about. Something like "The most important building in that village is the Temple to Xarg. Does your cleric work for the head priest perhaps, or does he have other allegiances?"
This is easy to answer, and immediately gives you two paths on how the character might relate to the game world. Add a few small details, rinse and repeat until you both feel you have enough material to work with.
A few pointers that I find helpful to bear in mind:
1) The player gets choices, the more you are willing to let them control the nature of NPCs, places etc, the more invested they are likely to be in how you then treat them (but you'll have a limit where you don't want to trample the style of your campaign, so guide the questions to things that fit the game world).
2) Each choice should say something concrete about the character. Where they are from, how they ended up in the adventure area, what the things are that matter to them.
3) Just present the obvious choices, add a bit of colour to match the game world, but nothing fancy. It's up to the player if they want something more complicated, but it really isn't necessary. One or two simple but well-described relationships to a person, group or place are all a character needs to have believable roots in the world.
4) Let the conversation ramble, e.g. if you have identified a person, ask about their personality, social standing or details of relationship to PC. Jump to how they met the PC. Etc etc. This is how the approach is almost the opposite of a list of questions to ask. It should work because both you and the player will tend towards information that's important to you, so even though it isn't thorough as an A4 sheet of backstory, it will include things that you both care about, and can use as common ground for the campaign.
5) Ask for clarifications and repeat back what you think the player is saying before noting it down.
6) Avoid asking for lists, or for many details all at once.
Of course if the player starts to roll with it, and adds rich details, that's great.
In my opinion this works very well for experienced players and DMs too. I found it very helpful to run the "how you all met" campaign setup in the same manner.
To add to some already great answers, I usually ask my players to jolt down the answers to 7 little questions. From there, they usually improvise their backstory in game, but with these 7 I can hook them quite easily.
The questions are:
The four questions are aimed at creating emotional hooks to draw the character, and thus the player, into the story. If I know, for example, that the sight of orcs makes Robert mad, I'll know that when I implement orcs I'll surely have him sign to the adventure. Knowing that Lisa, on the other hand, is obsessed with longswords will give me the tools to draw her into this adventure also (because there are surely longswords there, right?).
The other three questions give me a connection to the world and a summary of the character. Starting the game with an NPC at hand that is really connected to the character (and to the player as s/he created this NPC) gives me all the tools I need to connect this PC to the group, to the adventure and/or to anything else that I'll want. The description of the characters gives me the characteristics of the character while the "wrong" part will give me the main conflict of the character.
To conclude that, I'm bringing the answers given by one of my players in a D&D campaign that I'm running. He's playing a Druid:
If they really are at a loss, leading questions with "why" are amazing for getting the ball rolling.
Why did you kill your brother when you were 19?
Why are you the only survivor of the docepac plague?
Why do you know the shifty alchemist in town and why does he know you intimately?
Why do dogs follow you as soon as they see you with never so much as a bark?
And then follow up with the other W words (When who what where) for further questions. Think "random but with guided purpose" when in doubt as a GM. Sometimes its the catching a player off balance that leads to the most interesting stories.
The Mistborn Adventure Game starts character creation off with a short questionnaire, the answers to which determine certain mechanics. I won't reproduce the full thing here -this isn't even half of it, in fact- but a few of them are very good for fleshing out a backstory with some good hooks:
These are very general questions, obviously, and probably not enough for a complete questionnaire. But they make a good start, but the answers a player gives to these four will usually bring others to mind.
Ask the player if he's okay with you taking some liberties with the character's backstory. If he is, you can play a little game of "fill in the blanks."
First, let's establish a little bit about who the character is. Parents and siblings have been mentioned by better answerers than me. Let's get a little psychological, then.
This will let the player think about what the character wants and what he fears -- both of which can easily be turned into hooks.
Alright. Let's set up his social environment.
Good. This social environment (a friend, an employer) isn't much yet, but it gives us something to build upon. Let's throw in something a little dark, for a chance of pace.
If this answer won't lead to at least a few interesting hooks, I don't know what will...
Of course, you'll want a handful of things that tie in with the in-game universe. Don't be afraid to use the stuff from his answers.
In that last example, there are so many different things he could do. Check inside the carriage to see whom that groaning is coming from? Let's say it's the baron, badly injured.
Does he help him? (Yay, hook! The baron will owe his life to your player's character!)
Does he kill him? (Yay, hook! Maybe a guard was hidden behind a bush and saw it. He could've told the baron's brother, who will send a small squad of assassins after your player some day!)
Or does he ignore the groaning altogether and just snatch a few of those gold pieces? (Yay, hook! Maybe the person inside the carriage was the baron's sister, who saw him do that, and now mistrusts him the next time he's assigned to escort her, and she'll be very silent around him, leaving him wondering what's wrong).
Just think of a few situations that could naturally (or magically, of course) occur in your game world. Keep it simple, though. Just a few sentences. Then ask a question about that situation.
Note that all my examples above, the questions are all questions asking about the who, the where, the what, the why, the when, and the how. It is by design that you can't answer my questions with a simple yes or no.
Keep a nice balance between the mundane (best friend's job) and the extremely dramatical (dead lady in the alley).
Toss in some stuff to get an idea about what goes on inside the character's head (dreams, nightmares, his opinion on the gods, the baron, and the baron's sister).
Use the answers as a foundation for new questions. Remember? You asked who send him on an errand, he came up with the baron and his sister. These are already hooks. Why not use them to generate more?
Since you are already running your campaign, I suggest that you start with the PC goal.
And then, keep asking why (something)? about it:
Keep asking why?, why? why? until you are satisfied. You can also take one of those answers and shoot a lot of whys to it too.