This is the twenty-first part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.
While this is listed as being a part of my Earthdawn series, and there is some Earthdawn specific topics, the majority of this advice should be applicable to any game in any setting.
Over the years, it is a fairly common thing to see players struggling with coming up with character backgrounds. Concepts and the mechanics are rarely difficult, as the concept is often directed by an archetype of some kind and the system will lead you through mechanical decisions. It is the open-ended background that is the greatest source of headaches and uncertainty because there is rarely any framework - which, I think most people would agree, is a good thing. That doesn't make it easy, particularly in settings that have a wealth of information which may seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. Earthdawn definitely falls into this category. Some games offer "lifepaths" that can be fun to roll on and get some ideas. My strong preference is for those that do not have mechanics associated with them, particularly if every other part of the character creation system is not random. It can get... messy.
This article will be my attempt at offering some advice regarding developing a character background. It will cover some general questions to consider, questions to ask the GM, and things to incorporate into a character to help ensure you will have plenty of investment in the game and things to do. What this will not cover are Discipline specific details and mechanics. Both of those are addressed in my ongoing "Anatomy of a Discipline" series. Communication is going to be an important and recurring theme.
Questions to Answer
What are the other players looking at? Earthdawn is a group-centric game and there is only so much need for Illusionists in any group (at least initially). It is going to be useful to make certain that everyone feels like they have a niche to develop in and they won't be overshadowed. Now would also be a great time to ensure that what you considering is what you will be getting by chatting with the GM. Collaborate with the other players on each of the following steps, get them interested in your character and get interested in their characters. Ideally, you will be together for a long time so it is never too early to get invested in each other's fun.
Where are you from? This can have a significant impact on your character's experiences and outlook. Culture and customs to incorporate in your character can come from here, as well as potential help with names and style. It is almost always a good idea to ask the GM for suggestions on this; there may be a particularly appropriate location for the plot, or that fits your background. Equally, if you want to be an iconoclast, this can give you an idea of where you will stand out and make waves.
What do you value? This is about the concept that is most important to your character. The intangible (we'll treat money as something intangible for this) thing that is important to you. Perhaps honesty, justice, friendship, etc. On the whole, I would keep this list short and sweet (if one just will not due). Too many and they become meaningless platitudes. As well, I would stay away from specific goals or motivations - this is just to help communicate what you are about. If possible, write down some details of how that belief impacts you, what it means to you and how you show that. It can provide some growth to occasionally revisit that and see how your character has grown. It is unlikely you will remain the same character throughout your travels and you shouldn't - track how your character as changed and what person they have become. That is the stuff that I love.
What Passion do you favor? Most Namegivers will honor the various Passions at the appropriate time, but tend to have one the favor over the others. It might be obvious, such a Weaponsmith that favors Upandal, or slightly off, such as a Warrior that favors Jaspree. While not vital, this can provide a hook for the GM and give you some more character depth to play with. This can also help you to get invested more in the setting and create a particular aspect of the Passion you favor. For other games this can be any divine figure, or particular tenet for monotheistic settings.
What is your personal philosophy on your Discipline? This is going to be a big one and influence how you interact with the game on every level. Read the example provided in the relevant book, then reflect on how you interpret these things. Talk specifics out with the GM and other players - it is going to be important that any clashes in philosophy between the characters, or non-traditional views, are out in the open. Differences in opinion work best when they aren't encountered as landmines and they can give other people ideas, also create investment. This doesn't have to be set in stone, it is expected that your philosophy will evolve as you grow, but it still has to remain true to the core of what it is about. For other games, this would be about your profession.
Who initiated you into your Discipline? This person made an investment in you and should be important to your life. Details about who they are, what they saw in you, how is their philosophy different from yours, what things did they teach you (besides your Discipline) and what were their beliefs and values? These are all things that will help flesh that character out, also be certain to consider the things you do not know about them. This can give the GM room to work and also potentially some hooks. As always, this is good to talk over with your GM, maybe they have some specific ideas they were considering, or riff on yours. For other games, this would be about a mentor.
What is your motivation? This is something that gets you up every morning. It can be simple (e.g., money or adventure), or complicated (e.g.,finding whoever took my Adeline), but always make certain that this doesn't conflict with the game or what everyone else is doing.
What is distinctive about your appearance? I always try to pick one feature that defines my character and makes them notable in a crowd (perhaps they are even distinctly not notable). By limiting this to one, it keeps that feature at the forefront of everyone's imagination.
What habits do you have? These are just to build some character and give the other players and the GM some clear feel for what you are about. This will show everyone "I am in character" and let them know. They also serve to make characters feel more real and give everyone at the table something to share in - they know what you are going to do. Just don't make the habit(s) disruptive.
Things to List
Three aspects of your personality: These are cues to tell other players what to expect from you and give you a nice core to work from. I would suggest having two that are open and one hidden; e.g., everyone knows that you are honest and friendly, but you hide from everyone that you are also afraid. This will give you some more depth to your actions and help inform some of your decisions. Don't shy away from changing these if your character has grown out of that trait. Just make certain to be clear that you are changing it.
Three people that are important to you: This shouldn't include whoever initiated you, but could be friends, family, someone from home, someone you met along the way, old lovers, etc. Always include some information about these people and why they are important to you. It should be noted that these people exist for the GM to use, so if you want a sacrosanct relationship that is immutable, don't list them here.
Three enemies: This is a lot like the previous list, and should draw from the same pool, but they have it it for you, or you them, or both. Give some details about how this came to be and how aware each party is of the enmity. These people will obviously show up at the worst time.
Facts: These are things that are relevant to your background, and will likely include answers from many of the above questions, but that you do not want the GM using in the game. They are for you, and should not show up. To play fair, this means that you should not introduce them into play in a fashion that the GM will be responsible for them; i.e. if the love of your life is a fact, then they really shouldn't be playing a significant role in the campaign. To do otherwise isn't fair to anyone else at the table. The importance of having these is to clearly communicate and establish elements of your character that are not fair game. This can potentially save injured feelings down the road.
Three hooks: These are things that are relevant in your background, and may include answers to the above questions, but that you explicitly would like the GM to use in the game. If you keep it to three, you are sending a clear message about the aspects of your character that you would like to see put into play. You are explicitly giving up ownership of those and anything is fair game. If you don't like the idea of that, then don't list any hooks. A direct result of this will likely be less screen time, but that is the cost of maintaining complete control.
Three aspects: I would consider these entirely optional and they are just a way to include some elements that are important to your character that haven't come out in any other part. For example, "My father's sword, my destiny". This says something about you that may not have appeared anywhere else. Ideally, these will tie into hooks, but could just as easily be role-playing cues for everyone else to enjoy.
I don't really consider any of this mandatory, it is just trying to provide a map for players that are having difficulties fleshing out their character. Pick and choose what is important; use what you like, ignore what doesn't seem relevant. If there is something that I seem to have omitted, or that has worked for you, let me know! just don't be surprised if it ends up in the text. In the end, the importance of communication cannot be overstated. It isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination; I continually struggle with it. The goal is to have fun and any way that you can get everyone else to join in your fun is going to be a victory for you and them.