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I'm a beginning a new campaign in pathfinder this fall as a player with a few friends. One of the players is brand new to roleplaying. I know that the group we're playing with puts a heavy emphasis on story and roleplaying elements in the game (as opposed to combat centric campaigns). As such, it's generally important that our characters are well fleshed out before the campaign starts. The campaign setting is a Gothic fantasy world.

I'm looking for some good tools to help develop the backstory and history of a character before we sit down at the table with the GM. I can help the new player through class selection and the statistics, but I need help building a rounded character.

I'm looking for literary character creation tools, so the random character backstory generation tools are very useful. Lists of questions or information to write and think about when creating the personalities of player characters would also be helpful and appreciated. I'm aware of the Jane/John Doe tests to make sure characters aren't flat, but that's not what I'm looking for.

I'm looking for tools (question lists, backstory generators, etc) that will help take a vague idea of a personality and turn it into a detailed character that doesn't flounder when talking about his/her past or have obvious personality discrepancies.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The characters will be in a different setting, but employing Pathfinder rules \$\endgroup\$ – VSH Jul 15 '14 at 17:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you edit your question to include details about the custom setting? There's a big difference between, for example, semi-historical ancient Egypt and the video game Thief. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 15 '14 at 17:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ In Ultimate Campaign there is a section on building back story that may be helpful, including a 'random' generator that's fairly easy to use. \$\endgroup\$ – Guest Jul 15 '14 at 17:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Guest - I just posted an example based on that. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jul 15 '14 at 18:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question would be massively improved with some indication of the sorts of features that you'd find useful. It will allow us to narrow our suggestions and allow others to try to vote according to how well the suggestion actually helps you. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 15 '14 at 20:21
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I highly recommend the random background generator from Ultimate Campaign. There's several automated tools around to roll it up for you if you don't want to do it yourself. Here is one.

For an example, I just gave it "Non-evil Dwarf Fighter" and got back:

  • Dwarf Homeland Hills or Mountains
  • Dwarf Parents Both of your parents are alive.
  • Siblings
    • Male Dwarf [younger than you]
    • Male Dwarf [younger than you]
    • Male Dwarf [older than you]
    • Female Dwarf [younger than you]
  • Circumstances of Birth Born of Violence
    • Your birth was caused by violent, unwilling means. You have one parent, and the other likely remains unknown. You gain access to the Axe to Grind combat trait and the Bastard social trait.
  • Parents Profession Sailors
  • Major Childhood Events Bullied
    • In your early life, you were a victim—easy prey for those stronger or cleverer than yourself. They beat you when they could, using you for their sport. This abuse nursed a powerful flame of vengeance. You gain access to the Bullied combat trait.
  • Fighter Duty
    • You took up the sword because no one else would. When a great danger threatened your home, you stepped forth to meet the challenge, though you were only a youth with just the strength of your arm and steadfastness of your courage to see you through. You gain access to the Courageous combat trait.
  • Influential Associates The Mentor
    • You had a mentor who taught you everything worth knowing about life. This could have been the person who taught you the heroic abilities you possess, or simply a kindred spirit who helped form your worldview. You gain access to the Mentored social trait.
  • Conflict Major Theft / Subject: Leader / Motivation: Love
    • You stole expensive items.

Already you can see a possible backstory from this: 2nd of 5 siblings, born to dwarves who (unusually) took to the sea. Your father was killed in a pirate raid while your mother was close to term with you, and the stress sent her into labor. You were bullied as a child for not having a father, although your mother later remarried (hence other siblings and having both parents). When no one else would step up to protect your ship (from more pirates?) you knew bullies for what they were and stepped forward to protect others in your true father's memory. But at some point, you stole a fancy, expensive necklace from your captain to give to the woman you loved...

Based on how guilty you feel about that theft, you'd determine your alignment, and so on (I didn't cite everything here).

It's by no means a complete story, but it's a skeleton that's very easy to flesh out to a paragraph or two at the least.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie - I can see your point. I decided to specifically keep the result but edited it to a different interpretation of that circumstance. After all, they're deliberately vague and there can be several interpretations. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jul 15 '14 at 19:58
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Constrained Choices

The first issue for new players is just getting them oriented to really basic things. A lot of roleplayers really get caught up on having lots and lots of choices, but this isn't actually useful for new roleplayers and often ends up confusing or making things harder to understand to start.

For this reason, I suggest limiting their character cultural backgrounds to whatever is most immediately relevant to where ever the adventure or action is taking place (usually only one or two cultures apply in many cases). It's hard enough to learn to roleplay a character from a culture you don't know, but it's even harder if you have to try to also play that person in a culture alien to the character on top of that.

For the player, they only need to read the short bit on that one culture, instead of reading a massive chunk of the book trying to get a feel between them all and figure out which one to choose, etc.

For the GM, you can also give their character hooks into many of the NPCs since they're locals, or give them local knowledge about the world. "The bazaar and market is always bustling, except the 25th of the month. That's the unlucky day and everyone takes the day off. Except the black marketeers and the fortune tellers. They cash in on that day."

Guidance Tools

I've put together a madlib-style character concept tool to help folks get their character ideas together.

The relevant part that might be useful to use with another experienced person helping would be this:

A (personality trait) (profession/role) trying to (goal) despite her (flaw).

She wants to become (profession/positive trait), achieve (social status), overcome/move beyond (past trouble, mistake, tragedy). She believes in (ideal or personal credo) and can’t stand people who (believe other credo/behave in a certain way). People know her as (reputation) and expect that she will (achieve/fail/become something).

Obviously, modify, shorten, etc. to what best suits your game.

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There is a Kickstarter in progress currently for Backstory Cards by Tim Rodriguez.

To quote from the campaign blurb:

Backstory Cards help you and your friends create vibrant backstories for roleplaying games, no matter the system or genre.

About Backstory Cards

Backstory Cards blend your characters and setting concept into an intriguing set of relationships and history. It’s tailor-made for games where the player-characters already know each other—from fantasy adventurers to star marines, from supernatural beings who share the same city to global-hopping troubleshooters.

This deck of cards works well with most roleplaying games, including GM-less ones. It also includes how to directly integrate Backstory Cards into Fate Core and Fate Accelerated's character creation.

There are a couple of videos there on how it works, and from trying it out based on the preview, this is exactly what you're looking for. The only problem is that it's not planned for delivery until October 2014. But there is a backer preview that is functional.

As far as how it operates, it's almost a game in and of itself, as you go around the table, fleshing out your background on each turn with cards chosen and almost a writing prompt. It also weaves a web of relationships with not only the game, but the other PCs as they are substituted in the prompts to create a rich background.

There are a couple of illustrative examples on the kickstarter page, which I suggest for further viewing.

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