Rules Index | GM Screen

Character Background

How to Create a Background

Source Ultimate Campaign pg. 8
There are several ways you can approach character background using Ultimate Campaign. One approach is an organic method—brainstorming character details, guided by the questions in the following sections of this chapter. Alternatively, you might use the background generator, to compile your history randomly. You can also use the charts and tables in the background generator as a springboard for your imagination, deliberately selecting background elements that inspire you or fit the direction you wish to explore.

For published Pathfinder Adventure Paths, you often have the option of selecting campaign traits that tie your character thematically into a specific storyline relevant to that Adventure Path. Check with your GM to see if she can point you to official campaign traits or other traits that may help link your character to the campaign or adventure she’s running. Such traits provide a good foundation upon which you can add details from this book, either by rolling randomly or by manually selecting background details that mesh well with your campaign’s themes.

No matter how you go about developing your character’s background, the next step is to quantify that background in terms of game mechanics. Select two traits (or three traits and a drawback) that capture the background you imagined. Traits and drawbacks are listed here. These traits provide small bonuses that reflect skills and knowledge gained from your life experiences. The drawback, if you choose to take one, represents an emotional vulnerability or character flaw that should not only provide a slight mechanical disadvantage, but also (more importantly) serve as a roleplaying tool for making interesting choices. After all, nobody’s perfect!

Brainstorming Your Background

Source Ultimate Campaign pg. 8
Before you start working on your background, roll your ability scores and select your race and class. With this basic information determined, you can focus on creating a backstory consistent with those key elements, brainstorming the details of your background in a way that makes sense with your race, class, and attributes.

The following sections of this chapter examine your life leading up to the beginning of the campaign, starting from your birth, proceeding through the formative experiences of childhood and adolescence, and ending with the development of your worldview in early adulthood. Each section poses a number of questions to consider. You don’t need to know the answers to all of these questions, and some things you might prefer to discover as the game proceeds. However, you may find it easier to step into your character’s head if you spend some time contemplating these questions, simply because you’ll have more information to draw from. These questions are prompts to focus your imagination toward certain points in your life in order to create strong roleplaying and story hooks for you, your group, and your GM.

Creating a Unique Character Concept

Source Ultimate Campaign pg. 8
Sometimes, creating a character that feels original and stands out from others of the same class and race can seem like a challenge. It’s easy to fall into playing the stereotype of a race or class—the ale-swilling dwarven fighter with the battleaxe, the quick and wise elven ranger roaming the woodlands with a longbow, the sneaky and childlike halfling rogue, and so on. While there’s nothing wrong with these, and they can be a lot of fun—after all, there’s a reason they became cultural archetypes in the first place— sometimes you want to try something new. Presented here are some techniques you can use to help you break away from stereotypes.

Originality: If you strive too hard to be original, you’ll likely be disappointed when you discover that someone else has already implemented your idea in a book, film, game, or other kind of media. Yet, while original ideas are hard to come by, every person you meet is unique, shaped by his or her individual experiences. Rather than strive for an original concept, try focusing on the experiences that define your character’s life and give him his personality and point of view. Specific experiences will help move you away from the stereotypical and cliche.

The Third Idea: When you’re brainstorming ideas, it sometimes helps to reject the first and second ideas that leap to mind, and instead consider the third, fourth, and fifth ideas you come up with. This way, you’re challenging yourself to explore wider, more interesting possibilities full of unexplored story potential. The easy ideas that spring to mind first probably do so because you’ve seen them before.

Opposites: When you’re stuck on an characteristic that strikes you as boring, plain, or stereotypical, decide that the opposite is instead true of yourself. For instance, if you’re playing the aforementioned dwarven fighter, perhaps one of the following holds:
  • You have taken a vow against drinking, can’t hold your liquor, or act in a peculiar, eccentric way when drunk.
  • You can’t grow a beard.
  • You favor a weapon that is not a hammer, axe, crossbow, or other typical dwarven weapon.
  • You live in a forest or on an island rather than in the hills and mountains favored by most dwarves.
  • You are a pacifist who loathes violence.
  • You deeply pity or love orcs and goblins.
Any one of these character quirks can prove ripe for character development and story hooks in the campaign.

Steal Shamelessly: Sometimes when starting a new character, you just need a good template or foundation from which to build. Characters from literature, comics, history, real life, or television and film can provide that foundation in an instant. The key is to alter various aspects of the model character until you have changed enough to have an altogether different concept.

How would Count Dracula be different as an elven wizard? What about as a halfling cleric? Are you obsessed with feasting on blood, or are you simply ancient, creepy, solitary, and mysterious?

What about reinterpreting Julius Caesar as a human rogue or a gnome illusionist? Is this human rogue one of three mobsters scheming to eliminate the competition and rule a city the way Caesar eliminated his competitors to rule Rome? Has your gnome illusionist received a prophetic message predicting his own death, as Caesar did from the soothsayer?

Building on the foundations of established characters or people gives you a framework, at which point you just need to give yourself different circumstances in order to inspire a new idea, one that will grow on its own as you continue to play. The initial inspiration or model you choose helps you come to grips with your character quickly without feeling like you have to reinvent the wheel.

Another way to accomplish this is to combine notable traits of two disparate characters from media or history. For instance, how would you play a character with Sherlock Holmes’ skill at deduction and Hamlet’s indecision? Achilles’ battle prowess paired with Nikola Tesla’s inventive mind? Merlin’s magic with Marie Curie’s search for scientific truth? Joan of Arc’s faithful conviction and Napoleon’s overwhelming ambition?