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The Past We are Doomed to Repeat

Written by Expy - Published on March 4, 2010

By Guest Blogger Brendan Stone

“I’m a level 14 Dwarven Fighter.  I’m tough as nails and drink like a fish.  I wear plate mail the color of rust and dirt to hide the blood that flows freely from my enemies.  My axe is a gruesome weapon to behold! “  Wait, what do you mean make an Intelligence check?  I’m a Fighter!  Ok… I rolled a 17!  Oh, I remember that guy at the bar?  From what?  Before?  You mean I existed before there was a party?

Every game we play is a story written and shared by the players and the dungeon master.  True, the dungeon master is the cosmic author and every player is a character, but not all stories are exclusively by the author.  Every character has an origination and a story to go with it.  Take our dwarven friend from before.  He’s a gruff character no one would want to meet in a dark ally.  Not that we want to have couch time with a dwarf, but what is the reason for the aggression and violence?  Is it simple stereotyping or does the player have a good reason?  Characters should have backgrounds, and this is as good a time as any to be thinking about them.

Once upon a time I had a questionnaire that covered the one hundred most important questions you should ask about the character you are playing.  It is time consuming, painful, and sometimes repetitive.  However, taking this much time to develop the parts of a character not found on a character sheet is rewarding for the player, the gm, and the game.  If your character is staying in a tavern in some small city far from civilization, what size room are you going to pay for?  What kind of drink and meal do you order?  Are you a good tipper?  I have yet to find a stat modifier that answers these questions, which means you have to play your character in these situations.  Drawing upon a set of characteristics you develop in a character background makes this role-play easy.

Let’s go back to the dwarf from before.  This character was raised outside of dwarf society in a human city.  His idea of being a dwarf was shaped by two things; first, human songs and writing portray dwarves as fierce and tempered creatures of the mountains and, second, he was antagonized constantly for being different.  A player who wants to have a dwarf with the swagger of violence will role-play that personality with greater success when they can draw on a good foundation for that personality.  As the dm, nothing makes a game flow smoother than when your players willingly play the story for you.

Ok, you might be thinking, and my seven NPC’s will need how much time put into them, now?  Do not answer the full one hundred questions for any NPC.  I could say that you probably don’t have enough time or that you hate NPC’s or something else, but there is a good reason to leave some of the NPC open.  Players want to help create the world and will tell you how they think an NPC might react.  If the players think the bartender is an agent for the evil wizard or a zealot for the fanatical religion, play it that way.  What I want you to focus on can only be found by knowing the backgrounds of your PCs.

You have a grand story to tell but you need to have small, more personalized, stories to fill the gaps.  It’s game night, someone didn’t show and you hate to advance too much plot without him or her.  No problem.  One of your players has a history of troubles with certain elves.  Turns out tonight the caravan the elves have been driving as a cover story has pulled into town.  The party, sans one member, will have to deal with the situations as they unfold.  Another example, maybe you have a character playing Lawful boring and you need them to dig deeper.  An older child bullied the paladin when they were young which led to the justice-avenger mentality.  Now, the paladin is watching a group of thugs beat up a merchant.  Upon arriving to assist the hapless merchant, the paladin realizes the merchant is the same bully from years ago.  Does justice demand protecting the weak or does it allow for vengeance?  Spending a whole night gaming without having to forward your master plot enriches the experience for your players.  Also, it gives you more command of the story when you do end up in the thick of things.

Letting a player, or players, direct some of the plot while you sit back and relax gives you a feeling of accomplishment.  Everyone comes to game expecting to be a part of the story.  Further, when it’s time for a player to role-play their part it can be difficult, scary, and stressful.  Help make their experience enjoyable by giving them reasons to detail their history.  Don’t get me wrong, I want the players to fight those epic battles I have been spending my time planning as much as you do.  But wouldn’t you rather let the players think it was their idea?

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Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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5 Responses to “The Past We are Doomed to Repeat”
  1. Jason says:

    So do you have that questionnaire? Or do you know of other examples online that would work as well? I’m sure I could come up with some questions my players should answer, but I doubt that many.

  2. Brian says:

    Just a heads up that if a few of the links on the site seem to be missing or comments made on blog posts in the last 24 hours are missing, its because DungeonMastering.com just found its new home at HostGator.com, and the transfered databases were a few hours old. So give us some time and everything will be back up!

  3. Ssveter says:

    Yea I’d like to see your questionaire and bump it against my own

  4. Brendan says:

    Here is the file directly copied over. I could not find a better way to do so at 1 in the morning, which is when I had a chance to sit down this week.

    The 100 Most Important Things To Know About Your Character (revised) by Beth Kinderman and Nikki Walker

    This list came about when, one day while struggling to develop a character for an upcoming Hunter game, my lovely roommate Nikki looked at me and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a list of questions you could go through and answer while you were making characters, so you’d make sure to consider all sorts of different elements in their personality?” I agreed, and that very evening we sat down over hot chocolate and ramen noodles to whip up a list of 100 appearance-, history-, and personality-related questions (which seemed like a nice even number) to answer as a relatively easy yet still in-depth character building exercise. Later on, we went through the list again, took out the questions that sucked (because there were a lot of them) and replaced them with better ones. What you see before you is the result of that second revision.
    In the more recent past, we’ve also found that answering those annoying online personality quizzes in-character can sometimes lead to interesting revelations. When you find yourself sitting in front of your computer screen wondering, “Hmm, if my character was a pair of shoes, would she be stiletto heels, Nikes, Doc Martens, or Birkenstocks?” you know you’re really getting to know her (or that you’ve become an even bigger geek than you were to begin with). Emode.com and TheSpark.com are good places to start.
    And, because I’ve gotten flames about it: No, we do not mean to imply that slavishly following this list is the only way you will ever truly develop your character. If you think we’re boring, obnoxious, or presumptuous, just think about the questions you like, and you don’t even have to consider the rest (yeah, we know it’s kind of a long list). Or better yet, ignore us entirely and find your own ways to develop characters. Just don’t email us specifically to tell us how much we suck. That only results in cranky gamerchicks.
    Some of these questions were stolen from the Character Questionnaire at http://www.roleplayingtips.com. Check it out, it’s a really great website.
    – Beth
    Part 1: The Basics
    1. What is your full name?
    2. Where and when were you born?
    3. Who are/were your parents? (Know their names, occupations, personalities, etc.)
    4. Do you have any siblings? What are/were they like?
    5. Where do you live now, and with whom? Describe the place and the person/people.
    6. What is your occupation?
    7. Write a full physical description of yourself. You might want to consider factors such as: height, weight, race, hair and eye color, style of dress, and any tattoos, scars, or distinguishing marks.
    8. To which social class do you belong?
    9. Do you have any allergies, diseases, or other physical weaknesses?
    10. Are you right- or left-handed?
    11. What does your voice sound like?
    12. What words and/or phrases do you use very frequently?
    13. What do you have in your pockets?
    14. Do you have any quirks, strange mannerisms, annoying habits, or other defining characteristics?
    Part 2: Growing Up
    15. How would you describe your childhood in general?
    16. What is your earliest memory?
    17. How much schooling have you had?
    18. Did you enjoy school?
    19. Where did you learn most of your skills and other abilities?
    20. While growing up, did you have any role models? If so, describe them.
    21. While growing up, how did you get along with the other members of your family?
    22. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
    23. As a child, what were your favorite activities?
    24. As a child, what kinds of personality traits did you display?
    25. As a child, were you popular? Who were your friends, and what were they like?
    26. When and with whom was your first kiss?
    27. Are you a virgin? If not, when and with whom did you lose your virginity?
    28. If you are a supernatural being (i.e. mage, werewolf, vampire), tell the story of how you became what you are or first learned of your own abilities. If you are just a normal human, describe any influences in your past that led you to do the things you do today.
    Part 3: Past Influences
    29. What do you consider the most important event of your life so far?
    30. Who has had the most influence on you?
    31. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
    32. What is your greatest regret?
    33. What is the most evil thing you have ever done?
    34. Do you have a criminal record of any kind?
    35. When was the time you were the most frightened?
    36. What is the most embarrassing thing ever to happen to you?
    37. If you could change one thing from your past, what would it be, and why?
    38. What is your best memory?
    39. What is your worst memory?
    Part 4: Beliefs And Opinions
    40. Are you basically optimistic or pessimistic?
    41. What is your greatest fear?
    42. What are your religious views?
    43. What are your political views?
    44. What are your views on sex?
    45. Are you able to kill? Under what circumstances do you find killing to be acceptable or unacceptable?
    46. In your opinion, what is the most evil thing any human being could do?
    47. Do you believe in the existence of soul mates and/or true love?
    48. What do you believe makes a successful life?
    49. How honest are you about your thoughts and feelings (i.e. do you hide your true self from others, and in what way)?
    50. Do you have any biases or prejudices?
    51. Is there anything you absolutely refuse to do under any circumstances? Why do you refuse to do it?
    52. Who or what, if anything, would you die for (or otherwise go to extremes for)?
    Part 5: Relationships With Others
    53. In general, how do you treat others (politely, rudely, by keeping them at a distance, etc.)? Does your treatment of them change depending on how well you know them, and if so, how?
    54. Who is the most important person in your life, and why?
    55. Who is the person you respect the most, and why?
    56. Who are your friends? Do you have a best friend? Describe these people.
    57. Do you have a spouse or significant other? If so, describe this person.
    58. Have you ever been in love? If so, describe what happened.
    59. What do you look for in a potential lover?
    60. How close are you to your family?
    61. Have you started your own family? If so, describe them. If not, do you want to? Why or why not?
    62. Who would you turn to if you were in desperate need of help?
    63. Do you trust anyone to protect you? Who, and why?
    64. If you died or went missing, who would miss you?
    65. Who is the person you despise the most, and why?
    66. Do you tend to argue with people, or avoid conflict?
    67. Do you tend to take on leadership roles in social situations?
    68. Do you like interacting with large groups of people? Why or why not?
    69. Do you care what others think of you?
    Part 6: Likes And Dislikes
    70. What is/are your favorite hobbies and pastimes?
    71. What is your most treasured possession?
    72. What is your favorite color?
    73. What is your favorite food?
    74. What, if anything, do you like to read?
    75. What is your idea of good entertainment (consider music, movies, art, etc.)?
    76. Do you smoke, drink, or use drugs? If so, why? Do you want to quit?
    77. How do you spend a typical Saturday night?
    78. What makes you laugh?
    79. What, if anything, shocks or offends you?
    80. What would you do if you had insomnia and had to find something to do to amuse yourself?
    81. How do you deal with stress?
    82. Are you spontaneous, or do you always need to have a plan?
    83. What are your pet peeves?
    Part 7: Self Images And Etc.
    84. Describe the routine of a normal day for you. How do you feel when this routine is disrupted?
    85. What is your greatest strength as a person?
    86. What is your greatest weakness?
    87. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
    88. Are you generally introverted or extroverted?
    89. Are you generally organized or messy?
    90. Name three things you consider yourself to be very good at, and three things you consider yourself to be very bad at.
    91. Do you like yourself?
    92. What are your reasons for being an adventurer (or doing the strange and heroic things that RPG characters do)? Are your real reasons for doing this different than the ones you tell people in public? (If so, detail both sets of reasons…)
    93. What goal do you most want to accomplish in your lifetime?
    94. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
    95. If you could choose, how would you want to die?
    96. If you knew you were going to die in 24 hours, name three things you would do in the time you had left.
    97. What is the one thing for which you would most like to be remembered after your death?
    98. What three words best describe your personality?
    99. What three words would others probably use to describe you?
    100. If you could, what advice would you, the player, give to your character? (You might even want to speak as if he or she were sitting right here in front of you, and use proper tone so he or she might heed your advice

  5. Darren says:

    Oh now THAT’s nice :)

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