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Crafting a Good Back Story

“So, tell me about your character,” the GM says to Bob. 


Bob stares back blankly.  “Well, he’s an elven wizard.”


Politely, the GM smiles and says, “No, tell me about him.  Give me his background.”


“Background?” mutters Bob.  “I didn’t know anything about a background.”


Have you ever been in this position?  I have, a long time ago, and frankly I’m glad I do this well before the game now.  It gives me more time to answer the questions I tend to ask myself when forming a character of any type, for any purpose.  The question some may be asking is, why bother?


Well, for one thing, I personally like to have a typewritten back story in the GM’s hands so they know the plan for the character.  It lets them figure out hooks for my character’s story, and if enough others submit their backgrounds similarly, the GM can find connections between the stories that make forming a group so much simpler.


Some GMs seem to prefer the background info come up in a group session, while others want the character to do it on their own and pass it along.  There’s no wrong way for the GM to do this, so don’t sweat it either way.  However, here are the questions I tend to ask myself when starting a new character.


What were his birth circumstances?  For example, was there something that can be used by the GM to use the old “Chosen One” trope on your character?  Perhaps you’re playing a 4e warlock and a wolf howls just as the character is born, foreshadowing his few pact later in life.  In contrast, there doesn’t have to be anything.  Not every character has some unusual circumstance at birth.  Birth circumstance could be something pretty mundane, but tragic like mother’s death at birth, etc.


What was his childhood like?  Was he a popular kid, talented musician, a bit of a bully, what?  Our adult personalities are formed in childhood, so why would your character be any different?  Just remember how you want to play the character and make the childhood fit.


Why is he adventuring?  Since most RPGs assume some level of adventuring of some sort, there has to be a reason.  It could be anything from poverty leading someone to seek fame and fortune to revenge.  The important thing is to have a reason that makes sense.  A cleric seeking to spread the word of their God makes sense.  A cleric seeking fame, fortune, and a kingdom to rule doesn’t.


What I like to do is try and type up the answers to these in a story format, usually running from 4-5 pages double spaced to make it an easier read.  Of course, it can easily be shorter, especially if you don’t try to flesh out the character more with details like hobbies, love life, enemies, or anything else.  A finely crafted back story contains a great deal more information that those three questions can possibly answer, so go ahead and ask your own questions.


Once you’ve written up the back story, let your GM read it.  Make sure they understand that you’re willing to revise to fit into their story/world better.  Flexibility is the key here, because you’re asking the GM to read your writings and plug them into their story.  That’s not easy at all, so be prepared to revise the heck out of your back story so that it will fit!


Obviously, there are other questions to be asked out there, and other approaches to a well crafted back story.  I look forward to hearing some of those!  Just write it up and let’s see what happens!


September 9, 2008 Posted by | RPG | , | 7 Comments

We’ve Got Staff!

With the coming of the new site, we’ve got tons of new stuff I’m hoping to do.  It’s a big deal for me, and I want to give you the very best I can.  In many cases, to do that means letting someone else do it something.  There’s avenues I either know nothing about, or I just plain suck at (like video games).  I could write about them, but it wouldn’t be a fair appraisal of the game.

Well, I’d like for everyone to welcome Liambic and his wife Lilyth (screen names obviously).  Many of you have read Liambic’s comments on many of my posts.  He and I go way, way back and I’m trilled to have him as part of the “staff” that will be part of the new Geek Emporium experience (I feel like Jimi Hendrix when I say that)! 

Liambic and Lilyth will be writing mostly on role playing, video games, and anime.  However, there will be articles from them on anything I can get them to write.  So welcome aboard guys!  I’m glad to have ya!

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The Future of Role Playing

I’m going to take a moment and ponder the future.  Where will role play go, and what form will it take when it gets there?  What will influence the future generation of gamers?  Let’s face it, even if you play your first session ever this week…of any game…in a few years you’ll start to experience some of what I have in the last 15 years.  You’ll experience the hobby change.

Change is inevitable.  It’s just going to happen.  However, I’m not talking about a switch from D&D 3.5 to 4e.  That change is inevitable as well, but D&D doesn’t shape the entire hobby by any stretch.  While it is probably the largest and most played role playing game in the world, there are tons of others that owe little homage to Wizards of the Coasts offering.  So what all will be happening.

First, where will future gamers come from?  After all, publishing role playing games is a business, so they want to get new players as they’re able to.  The thoughts seem to be to get MMORPG players to convert over to tabletop RPGs, thereby bringing new blood into the role playing fold.  4th Edition seems to be well suited to ease this transition over for this group, but in time that field will dry up as well.

For my money, I see the future gamers of the world all the time.  Every time I go see a Narnia, or Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, or any other fantasy-type movie in the theater.  Our future players are cutting their teeth on some of the same works of fiction we did, only in a film format.  People who don’t necessarily enjoy reading still make these movies hits, and the numbers that flocked to Lord of the Rings is indicative of the fact that no matter what, the hobby is still going strong.

The biggest phenomenon in literature in the last 50 years or so has to be Harry Potter, and so I figure it’s just a matter of time before someone convinces J.K. Rowling to license her beloved wizards to some game company and we’ll have Harry Potter: Role Playing Game.  I can hear some of you cringing right now, but I really think that it’s inevitable.  In fact, without having even done a Google search at this point, I still can’t help think there’s probably a couple of home brews floating around out there right now.

Technology is another new area that I see changing the shape of things to come.  Despites Wizards of the Coasts lackluster performance, computer technology will take on a more active role in even table top games, and here’s the example I envision.

A group sits around the table, all with laptops open and running.  They’re not connected to the net, just each other.  The DM has access to all character sheets, so no more asking “what’s your AC?”  Instead, he just looks at your sheet.  Firewalls prevent anyone else from seeing your sheet though…that’s only between you and the DM after all.  He can also deduct gold after dealing with a merchant automatically, making it one less thing a player can forget about.  Dice are still rolled as usual, but the computer can calculate all the buffs and such a player might have (who knows what future editions will have as far as buffs go), so all a player has to do is roll and enter their roll (or an alternate setting as the DM do is to prevent cheating).  When the DM has a note to pass along, it takes the form of an instant message to the player instead of physically passing a note, creating suspense among the players.

I don’t know if any of this will happen, but it’s just one thought I’ve had.  Since I wasn’t sleeping well anyways, why not dream a bit while I’m awake?

September 9, 2008 Posted by | RPG | , | 15 Comments

Review: The Sarah Conner Chronicles

After missing the first couple of minutes of the show due to circumstances beyond my control (read as my son’s cub scout meeting), I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to give a good review of the season premire of the Fox TV series.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid that I actually can.

First, let me tell you that I’m a big fan of the Terminator series of films.  The upcoming one with Christian Bale as John Conner has gotten me excited in a way that few movies can.  So, when Fox announced the show’s premire last season, I was happy.  When I found out that Summer Glau was staring as the terminator sent to protect John Conner, I was stoked!  Come on!  River Tam with an endoskeleton!  What’s not to like.  I watched a few episodes last season, and liked what I saw, but things came up and I stopped watching.

After tonight’s episode, I’ll stop watching again.  The only scene with any quality acting was Glau’s character begging for her life, while Sarah and John’s performers were less than stellar.  One surprise was the quality of Brian Austin Green’s performance.  Generally, I tend to frown whenever a former star from Beverly Hills, 90210 comes on the screen, but Green’s hardass portrayal of Kyle Reese’s (played by Michael Biehn in the original film) brother Derek has been a real bright spot on this less than stellar show.  In truth, I found him far more interesting than Dekker’s John Conner or Headey’s Sarah Conner.  Unfortunately, Fox hasn’t expressed any interest in giving him his own show.

While the episode may not be indicitive of the season as a whole, I wouldn’t devote time on a Monday night to watch it if you have something better today.  Luckily, Fox has full episodes available for viewing on it’s website instead.

September 8, 2008 Posted by | Television | | 2 Comments

The Burned Lands Part 4 – The God Wars

The God Wars were the worst event in the history of The Burned Lands.  As the Gods decended into madness, their followers followed suit, creating a world where great knowledge, art, and magic were lost for all times.  For a thousand years, the war killed and maimed generations of people.  Thankfully, that madness has been over for a century.  No one knows what started it, but they all know what ended it.

By the time the war was over, only three gods were left.  Today, I’ll introduce you to each of them.

First there is Antarus, God of the Sun.  Antarus was a philosopher and artist prior to the war, but he turned into a fierce combatant after his wife, Lura (Goddess of Magic) was killed when her temple at Ka-Saroth fell.  He was responsible for killing the last of the Dark Gods to fall.

Next is Vania (pronounced van-EYE-uh), Goddess of Elves.  Originally the elven goddess of war only, she was the last of the elven gods early in the war.  It was then that she created her chosen people, the Vandrosin Elves, fierce warriors who are devoted solely to her.  As such, she was able to secure the safety of her people and ensure thier survival.

Last is Darketh, God of Hell.  Darketh is the last of the Dark Gods.  Originally, he was a God of Torment, but took over the realm of Hell after the rest of the Dark Gods fell.  He too is a fierce warrior, but he is also practical.  It became clear that Antarus was working to get Vania to rejoin the fight against him, so offering a peace was the only choice.

Now, the gods rest in an uneasy peace.  Only their numbers keep them in check today.  Instead, they wage any wars by proxy, through their followers, creating an uneasy world power struggle.  In time, perhaps this too will end.  But only time will tell.

September 8, 2008 Posted by | RPG | | Leave a comment

Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk

The brilliant Ravyn has gotten my wheels turning yet again. Over on her blog, Exchange of Realities, she has an interesting article called How They Say It about how characters recount a deed.  Like many of Ravyn’s posts, it got me thinking.  I’ve been pretty fortunate to have met some real bad asses in my lifetime, ones that help me shape how I play those same types of character.  Having been raised by a cop, served in the military, shooting pistol and rifle competitions, backpacking, and a whole host of activities have shown me plenty of real life bad asses to use as examples.

Unfortunately, I’ve met far to many blowhards in my life as well.  You know them too, though you may not realize you know them.  They portray themselves as bad asses.  They tell you how good they are at something, and often see no reason to back up all their talk.  They talk like they’re a computer hacker, but in reality they’re not sure how to attach something in an email.  If you think about it, you’ve encountered at least one in your life.

We portray heroes within the context of the game, but what are heroic characters like in real life.  Well, take a look at combat veterans.  Many will quietly hide medals, choosing not to talk about what they did to get them.  They are humble about their actions.  After all, they just did a job, nothing more.  The heroes are the ones who died.  They, they’ll argue, aren’t heroes.

The real bad asses I know are all like this.  They don’t talk about how bad ass they are, but they don’t take on false humility either.  They’re good and they know it, but why talk smack about how bad they are.  They don’t need to prove it here and now, they’ll prove it later if necessary.  However, they’ll help you become more of a bad ass if you want.  In my experience, they’re the first to share information and make you better.  The thinking seems to be, the badder you are, the better for everyone.  Again, they’re confident without a hint of false humility.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind.  The blowhard often has so much crap going on that they can’t possibly be good at everything (well…unless you’re playing a 3.5 rogue who has a billion skill points, but I digress) but they’ll tell you they are.  I had a boss who I mentioned in a comment on Ravyn’s blog.  To go into more detail about him, there was nothing any of us tried that he wasn’t more skilled and more proficient in.  I was planning a canoe trip down the local river, from end to end?  Oh, he even had a story to relate to that one (luckily, that story was tame…just tubing down a river for the afternoon).

Allegedly, he had been an MP in the Air Force, worked with SAC (Strategic Air Command), had shot pistol competition in the Air Force, had been a private detective (with a whole host of stories that made him sound like Mike Hammer or Thomas Magnum), owned a forestry company, worked air conditioner and refrigeration, and been a cattle rancher.  The thing was, none of the dates worked out.  Blow hards tend to fall into this trap.  Things don’t seem to quite fit.

Meanwhile, the guys who’ve done all that won’t feel the need to flaunt it.  I’ve known Navy SEALs who don’t talk smack, but instead they give off an air that they can handle themselves.  One of the biggest bad asses I know in real life is about my height (I’ve 5’8″), maybe a little taller.  He’s heavier than I am (I’m 230 lbs) and just seeing him walk up, you wouldn’t think a thing.  However, he’s lightning quick and a damn good shot.  He’s spent a lifetime acquring skills that could keep him alive.  He’s a small town cop but trains more than most NYPD officers from what I understand.  He does it by choice because it may keep him alive.

I think it’s important to remember that the bad ass walks the walk, while the blowhard talks the talk.  Keep that in mind for your next game.  Both can be good role playing points, but really shouldn’t be mixed together.  In my experience, there just aren’t that many people who talk the talk but can actually walk the walk.  Those who can do the walk, tend to keep quiet about it.  Makes it harder for people to know they’re coming! 😉

September 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 4 Comments

The Latest News

Here’s the latest news on the transition over to the new Geek Emporium.   Starting this week, with the new fall television season, I’ll begin reviewing geek oriented TV premieres.  Currently, I’ve got Terminator and Fringe on Fox set to review, and that was just what was advertised during the Atlanta/Detroit NFL game this afternoon.  A quick check later will garner a more structured review schedule for the week.

The reason this is listed as news on the new site is that television reviews will be just one of the new features that The Geek Emporium will be having each week.  Granted, I suspect I’m going to become one of the Tivo crowd after this, but that’s OK.  It’s what I do for my readers 😉

Tentatively, the plan is to have reviews for Terminator and Fringe up by midnight the night of the premiere.  Unfortunately, we don’t garner advanced viewings just yet, so midnight is about as good as it gets.  For those who find us through the RPG Bloggers Network, these will not show up in that feed.  Simply put, these aren’t RPG blog posts, and don’t belong there.  However, by subscribing to my feed directly, or just checking out the site by clicking the main link on the RPG Bloggers Network, you’ll be able to find the reviews in all their glory!

So stop by tomorrow night by and check out what we’ve got to say, then share your own opinions as well!  That’s the great thing about blogs.  Everyone has a voice here!

September 7, 2008 Posted by | RPG, Television | , | Leave a comment

Busting Stereotypes Part 5 – The Vampire

They’re suave and sophisticated, able to woe any potential lover with just a look.  However, they don’t want love, they want blood.  And, frankly, by the time their done, their victim doesn’t even mind that much.  The vampire is probably more a part of role playing than even the dwarf or elf.  Not only does almost every fantasy system out there have them (usually as bad guys, but still), but White Wolf has a whole game of them!  However, the stereotype is prevelant in this character type just as much as any other.

When one becomes a vampire, certain supernatural powers are given that help to form that stereotype.  Speed, strength, the ability to charm people, all contribute to that mythology.  As such, breaking the stereotype sounds harder than it really has to be.  After all, breaking stereotypes doesn’t just have to be in the crunch, now does it?

Last season, CBS has a pretty cool show called Moonlight about the cliche vampire private detective.  Granted, it was pretty enjoyable as a show on it’s own, but one episode really showed me how they weren’t running with the typical vampire idea.  In this episode, call girls were being killed by a vampire.  The killer was a vampire who was turned as a teenager.  As such, he still had acne and was socially awkward, just like many teenagers.

That episode broke the Count Dracula stereotype in almost every way, except the need for blood of course.  So, let’s have some fun with vampires for a second.  (who said I don’t write about anything but D&D anymore? ;))

First, why not rip off Moonlight and play the socially awkward vampire turned in his late teen years?  Perhaps he was embraced because of his elite computer skills, desperately needed by his clan, or some other skill needed.  Obviously, if he doesn’t fit in with the clan on other levels, you’ll need to talk to your GM.  However, this can be fit in within the clan.  For example, the Toreador are known for art, so why not have a hacker who is also a talented graphic artist?

Second, how about the vampire physician.  You won’t treat humans…far to tasty.  Instead, you specialize in vampire physiology and pathology.  Sure, vampires are quick healers, which makes your choice the quirky one?

Obviously, there are far more ways to bust up the vampire stereotype than just these two, so play around with the system and see what you can do!

September 7, 2008 Posted by | RPG | , | 3 Comments

What Your Character Knows That You Don’t

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s found themselves in this position.  You tell the GM you want to use a skill, say you’re going to hack into a computer.  The GM says, “OK.  How are you going to go about it?”

“Huh?” you swiftly and intelligently respond.

“How are you going to hack into the computer?” he repeats.

Well…now what are you going to do?  Damned if I know, and you may not either.  Our characters aren’t extensions of ourselves.  Instead, they are unique individuals with expertise that we don’t have.  I’ve made a few pieces of armor back in my SCA days, and I know a bit about how to swing a sword.  As a backpacker, I’ve spent a good bit of time walking down the trail carrying everything I need in a pack on my back.  Does that make me the equivelent of a D&D adventurer?  Hell no!

So what do you do when your GM expects you to tell him/her what you’re going to be doing while using a skill…a skill that you personally don’t have a clue how to use?  Well, at that point, you’re pretty well hosed.  You’re only choice is to pull something out of your butt and hope it works.  In this example say you’re going to use the most common passwords or something.

For me, it was always annoying when the GM expected me to possess knowledge that my character would have but I wouldn’t, sort of like reverse metagame thinking.  However, some GMs will do that.  With all that build-up, here’s how Uncle Tomcat would solve this problem.

First, talk to your GM before the first session.  Find out how they handle skill usage.  Many will give bonuses if you describe your actions, others will require you to do so, and still others won’t care either way.  If you have a GM that wants bonuses, you may need to do a bit of research.  You don’t have to be proficent with the skills in question, but know the basics of what they do to use that skill.

Also, for world basic knowledge, be prepared to ask your GM if your character would know something.  After all, as I’ve already said, your character has knowledge that you don’t.  However, often the GM will know what your character will know but hasn’t thought about it yet.  A polite prompt may help them remember key information your character has that you need to deal with the situation properly.

The key thing is to talk to your GM about it, outside of the game if possible, and deal with it there.  Some GMs may not be flexible.  In those cases, my best advice is to find another game.  Inflexible GMs are among the worst thing you can have!

September 6, 2008 Posted by | RPG | | 13 Comments

Busting Stereotypes Part 3 – Roguish Looks

They’re sneaky little bastards.  They’ll rob you blind and still call you a friend.  You just can’t trust them, regardless of their alignment.  However, you need the little bastards because they can find and disarm any trap, pick any dungeon lock, and can be wicked in combat if used right.  That’s right…the rogue.  I was going to do this one next week, but a comment by Craig propted me to step up and do it now.  After all, the rogue is a common character, and they’re played to the hilt within stereotype confines.

In his comment, Craig made some great suggestions.  For example, he says he likes to play rogues who have never broken the law.  Within the 3.5 system, it’s fully possible to create a rogue who can do a great many things without ever breaking the law.  With the wide variety of skills available, you can create characters like Craig’s gnomish clockmaker, or his stage magician who uses slight of hand instead of actual magic.  I remember a buddy made a rogue character with a high INT score and because a jack-of-all-trades…and master of most of them 😉

Of course, 4e doesn’t really stop a player from going this route either.  Even without Craft and Profession skills, the Thievery skill doesn’t mean that it can be used only to steal.  A locksmith can pick locks after all, and a trap maker can also disarm them.  Creating the fluff to go with that skill is, and has always been, up to the player, so if he’s not a criminal then give a backstory that explains why he has those skills and it’s all good!

Another twist that’s been used, but not enough to be a stereotype, is the criminal gone good.  Perhaps something made him change his wicked ways and now seeks to use his talents doing good works rather than just fattening up his own purse.  This would create some great role play opportunities (perhaps he’s wanted in one town or another), while giving his companions the opportunity to trust him.

There are even more ways to play rogues other than as thieves.  For example, the spy.  The skill selection wouldn’t be unusual for a rogue, but the execution would be.  Sure, he could pick locks and pockets, find and remove traps, and everything else, but his points would be geared more towards bluff, diplomacy, disguise, etc.  Some cool equipment, and POOF!  You’ve got a D&D version of James Bond!

Another route to go is as the military scout.  In all honesty, the Scout class that I’m particularly enamoured with in 3.5 is really just a rogue with some modification.  A rogue can move quietly, take out enemy guards without anyone knowing, hide indefinitely to make note of troop movements, everything a military force needs in order to plan an attack!  Rogues, in games without the scout class, can do all of that better than anyone (scout’s advantage is really in more hit points should they find themselves in a fight).

In all honesty, rogues have so many ways to play them, that I couldn’t begin to go into them all.  Regardless of what edition you play, they can still do a lot of the same things and be played a lot of the same ways, so have some fun!  For versatility within the rules as written, it’s hard to beat a rogue!

September 6, 2008 Posted by | RPG | , | 5 Comments