I’ve spent many years of my career expanding characters into prose-length works, establishing elaborate backgrounds for them and giving them extensive histories. Because those books are intended for commercial sale, those characters are designed to have broad appeal. Somewhere in those 2,500-4,000 words is a hook almost anyone can use in a chronicle. Whether your setting involves attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or a vampire coup in Chicago, you should be able to grab a character published for your game of choice, find an engaging hook, and fit it into your campaign. It might require a little fine-tuning, but that’s okay – fine-tuning is less cumbersome than whole-cloth world- and character-building, and that’s what published source material is all about. You trade a couple bucks and save several hours of campaign engineering. As well, hobby games draw on a variety of loquacious literary traditions, so it’s often appropriate to the genre to run off a bit at the pen in published material. (Dirty secret: Writers are paid by the word, so there’s some “enlightened self-interest” in effect.)
It’s different at the table, though. When you’re a player in a specific gamemaster’s campaign, you want gameplay and your GM wants a way to engage you. As fulfilling as it can be to write an 8,000-word biography of your character, that’s an endeavor entirely separate from playing the game. A lengthy character background doesn’t guarantee a playable character.
Instead, summarize your character for the GM in three sentences. They can be whatever you want, but a) seriously, keep it to three sentences and b) present them in terms of the game’s subject matter. You’ll find them most fruitful, too, if c) they’re related to a character’s goals or history. These can be ambitions or dreams, or they can be biographical elements that add color and resonance to an encounter. They can be tragic, comic, or dramatic – whatever you want. Just create them with the intent to be used in the game, and set them up so that there’s creative wiggle room for the GM to do something interesting with them.
When you do this, what you’re really doing is giving your GM a short list of things you’d like to see happen to or involve your character. These background sentence are like skills in that mechanical regard. You’re telling your gamemaster, “I’d like to do this.” Your three background sentences also convey the added benefit of shaping the character’s personality or history. Eventually, you’ll accomplish by starting with those three sentences and involving the other players what the 8,000-word bio attempts to do by itself, which is telling the story of the character. You’ll be doing it as the core activity of the game with others rather than the solitary metagame activity that lies on top of it, however.
Check out some examples:
“My character comes from a merchant family that traveled the three kingdoms and never settled.”
This speaks to a broad understanding of cultures and their artifacts. You recognize the brooch in the treasure hoard as valuable. Your family used to deal in jewelry like this occasionally. But this isn’t three kingdoms workmanship, it’s from the city-states past the Golden Peaks. How did this brooch make it all the way down here and end up among the refuse in this particular troll cave?
“My character belonged to a faith persecuted for heresy.”
That must have been harsh, but growing up, you learned the location of the secret tunnels beneath the Cathedral of St. Venetus. It also suggests a desire to be an underdog or perhaps antihero, lining up some antagonists – Inquisitors, for example, or secret police – who can show up and add drama to an encounter.
“My character has a dark secret.”
Very bold! You’re giving the GM carte blanche to summon that skeleton from your closet whenever she finds it most appropriate? Fantastic. Over in her campaign notes, she has a betrayer/ double agent/ chaos cultist who needs a compelling way to enter the story. Years ago, you heard a knock at your door and a scream in the darkness….
“My character occasionally doesn’t know that what she’s doing really matters, and she’s looking for a sign.”
This indicates a player wanting to make an impact on the world, which speaks to Relatedness. Since the town’s only temple to the Redeemer burned and the burghers have denied all new construction, the faithful have been seeking one who could hold a candle against the darkness encroaching from the Frozen Wastes. The handwritten journals your party found beneath the temple’s ruin spoke of just such a bleak time before the coming of the Redeemer, and how He brought solace to a wicked folk. You are a vessel for His Word.
“My character wants to join the Friends of the Night.”
Players very often want their characters to belong to established and significant organizations within the game world. In this case, you’ve actually come to the attention of the Amici Noctis, and they’d like to have someone of your caliber as well, but they want to test your mettle first. How committed are you? Committed enough to risk the favor of your sire, who it turns out betrayed the Amici Noctis long ago? Committed enough to trust the Friends of the Night over your sire’s sire and Mentor? Committed enough to endanger your coterie? Committed enough to risk your Humanity? All you have to do is deliver this mortal vessel — this bound, gagged, and blindfolded mortal vessel — into the cellars beneath your Mentor’s estate. If you’re capable enough, your Mentor never even has to know….
“My character is a lone badass. His family was killed and he’s practiced with his katana relentlessly for every waking hour since their death.”
Okay, fine. Tonight, though, the party is digging up dirt on the dragonborn sorcerer and — what’s that on the villain’s desk? It’s the title to the house your parents were living in the year you left home. What does it have to do with him, and why does it look like he’s doing something with it now?
Those are just single statements or sentences. Putting together a three-sentence character creates connections between those statements, and potentially those of other players (which is important, since you’re going to spend four-hour blocks of time working together with those other players). Those sentences also suggest details that can be discovered, described, or created during play. Thus, the three-sentence character becomes more than the simple sum of her three sentences.
Away from the game table, go ahead and indulge that 8,000-word character vignette. Just know that you may not be able to use it in the game as such. Manage your expectations and respect your GM’s time and that of the other players. If they want to read that bio because of its entertainment value alone, that’s great. Just remember that reading is separate from playing, and the game is that which is played.