Instant Backstory – Just Add Imagination

Good morning!  I am the newest member of the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom (aka the Roundtable formerly known as the Cypher System Bloggers), it’s our duty to take a look at role-playing game system mechanics an an inter-system, cross-dimensional kind of way (well, that’s what it says on the name badge).  Specifically the main man himself, +Lex Starwalker, posed the following question:

“What is a favorite mechanic or idea you’ve encountered in an RPG that you think would work well in other games?  Please explain the mechanic/idea, tell us a bit about the game it comes from, and give some ideas of how it could be used in other games.  You can discuss more than one mechanic or idea if you like.”

The trick is to do this without simply holding up a copy of 13th Age and saying: “This.  Use this.”


Far back in the dawn of my roleplaying time, I played Traveller.  At the time, it was the only option for science fiction roleplaying unless you wrote up your own system.  At the time it was one of the “Big Three” that dominated the gaming world – you had Advanced Dungeons and Dragons for fantasy gaming, Call of Cthulhu for horror and Traveller for SF.  There were one or two other games around, notably Runequest, but that was really about it.  But I digress.

I had a Scout character, Sam.  Things were going well.  His UPP (Universal Personality Profile, Traveller’s stat bar) was all letters, no numbers at all!  Now in Traveller you’ve got a series of tables you roll on during character creation to see what sort of stuff your character got up to before becoming an adventurer – and one of the rolls you’ve got to make is survival.  He’d successfully made his rolls to join the Scouts, get a ship, been on a number of successful missions…  And then, rolling to see if he’s survived a routine patrol, he died.  We hadn’t even started the first adventure!  The GM, being a fairly standard-issue Traveller GM, shrugged and we started again.  I think it took us 3 attempts before we got a character to survive all the way to the start of the first adventure!

(In later games, we house-ruled that if you died during character creation that was the point you retired.)

So dying during character creation in Traveller isn’t exactly the best thing that could happen to you but up to that point you knew an awful lot about your character, more than you normally do.  You knew how old your character was, what he’d done between signing up and starting their adventuring career, how many times they’d been promoted, what skills they’d picked up along the way.  In short, you had a decent CV and all from a few dice rolls.  It took no longer to make a Traveller character than an AD&D or Call of Cthulhu character but you knew far more about them and you had a good range of options for the GM to link your character to the rest of the group, far more than the usual “You’re all in the tavern/spaceport/University library when…”

And that’s the mechanic I’m looking at here:  Backstory.

Let’s take a look at the party in the 13th Age game I’m running at home:  We’ve a Dark Elf Sorcerer, a High Elf Wizard, a Halfling Rogue, and an Elven Cleric (that’s just a standard-issue Elf, not High, Dark, Wood…).  What ties them together? Well, beyond needing to find a way to get back to the future without being turned into skeletal servants by the Undying Pharaoh.  In 13th Age we’ve got the Backgrounds and Icon Relationships.  (See? I knew this would come back to 13th Age. So many good ideas, so many wonderful little mechanics.  Just buy the damn thing!)


This is where 13th Age wins over AD&D (disclaimer: The last edition of AD&D I played was 2nd).  Backgrounds replace skills in 13th Age, they’re broad-brush things that not only flesh out the character they also add detail to the world.  Here we’ve an inkling as to what the characters did before they became adventurers.  The wizard studied at the hands of the Archmage, the cleric was once a landscape gardener and rabbit warren keeper (you’d be amazed how often those skills can come in handy).  So they didn’t spring into the gameworld aged… well, alright, we don’t know how old these characters are but that’s not important right now.  They didn’t just appear fully-formed like amnesiacs – they know how to cast spells, pick locks, breath poisonous gas, they just don’t know how they know.

For those who don’t know about Icon Relationships, characters have 3 points to spend and 13 Icons – basically the movers and shakers of the world – to spend them on.  Relationships can be positive, negative, or conflicted.  A positive relationship indicates you’re on good terms with that Icon and her supporters, a negative relationship just the opposite.  Conflicted relationships are the equivalent of setting your Facebook status to “It’s Complicated”.   Looking across the 4 character sheets in front of me I can see that 2 characters share a relationship with the Archmage – one positive, one conflicted.  So we’ve a former pupil (who left under dubious circumstances – conflicted) and the star pupil from the same class (positive).  Instant backstory, very little work required.  One who hates the Orc Lord, one who has a dubious relationship – basically indicating the Thief will work for anyone prepared to pay him for his services.

What both Backgrounds and Icon Relationships do is provide hooks to tie the PC to the world and give the players a chance to add elements in that they want to explore.  They’re suggestions for the GM to build adventure elements on.  A good group can run an entire campaign based off the ideas that are sparked from these 2 elements.

My new favourite system, Cypher, the engine powering Numenera and The Strange, has connections to the starting adventure and the other characters baked right in to character creation as well – and they depend entirely on what descriptor and focus a player chooses.  A Charming character will have an entirely different set of options to connect to the starting adventure than a Forceful one, a character who Wears a Sheen of Ice will have different links to the other PCs than one who Works the Back Alleys.

I know there are other games out there that do this.  One of the versions of Cyberpunk, memory fails me as to which one, had the Lifepath (actually that was an R Talsorian speciality, IIRC).  Achtung! Cthulhu gets you to play out little vignettes from your character’s past, adding in interactions with other characters – picture these as flashbacks in your favourite TV show where you find out just how 2 characters know each other and why they’re acting all hostile.

Traveller’s tables are probably overkill, spawned from a game that needed a degree in mathematics or some serious calculator-fu to do planetary system generation or the more in-depth ship building from High Guard.  But the 13th Age Backgrounds approach can be brought to other games pretty easily…  Those high-level skills a character has.  Get them to write a 1 or 2 word note for how they picked them up.  That skill they’ve only got 5% in? Why. Why does the character have that?  What did they do that gave them “Guitar, 5%” – maybe their old music teacher is about to call them for help…

This is one of those mechanics you don’t really need to get a game going – and for a one-shot you probably wouldn’t use it (except for the 13th Age ones.  You should always use them).  But for longer games?  Essential.

Now. Time to send you off to read epistles from greater minds than mine.  Or at least different minds.  Other minds.  The rest of the Roundtable:


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