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Role Play 101: Character Building Part 2 – Background

By: Qai

These were originally written while role playing in WoW, but all of the general concepts and advice still very much apply. Even if you've been role playing for years, there are some things in here will likely help you develop even further.

While I take no credit for writing this guide, I cannot actually name the person who wrote it. It is a handbook that has been passed around for a little over 9 years now, the authors have changed (or at least user names) many times over. Though I thought it would be good to share for those who do actively or are interested in role playing.

Role Play 101: Character Building Part 2 – Background

Every character has a history of some sort buried away somewhere. This history filled with experiences shape the character’s personality, reactions, quirks, hobbies, style – everything about them. Sometimes finding that background is the most difficult task in character creation, don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

Often times you have to play the character before you can fully flesh out the background. Many role players and writers refer to this as “giving the character time to tell you about it” or waiting for the character to start “talking”. No, they aren’t suffering from delusions or multiple personality disorder. This is simply giving their subconscious imagination time to brew up what it needs to fit the character and manifesting it in a way that is easier to translate into written or role played form.

Taking time with the character, seeing how a few things play out, is usually the best way to build a background. If you have it all written out before you ever set foot in the world with the character, can sometimes be very limiting. The last thing you want to do is restrict yourself and the character you play beyond your ability to have fun with them.

That being said, you should have a general idea about where they come from before you let them speak. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

Know the Lore

You don’t have to be an absolute fiend about knowing the lore of the game to create a feasible background, however you should have a general idea of the history of the race you’re going to play and some idea of timeline. If you’re going to have a 3000 year old night elf you should be aware that it is impossible for them to have been raised in Darnassus.

One of the best resources I use for lore is WoW Wiki. There is a HUGE amount of information there and you should be able to find whatever you are looking for lore wise. It is easy to get caught up in trying to read everything on that site. I’ve done it. But you should pace yourself. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to learn everything in one day!

Know the Land

This may seem like a minor point but it is an issue I have run across. Please do not try to tell me you are a night elf pirate from Coldridge Valley. That particular location is a landlocked valley in southwestern Dun Morogh only accessible by a mountainous tunnel. Know something about the area you plan to use. Know if the area you intend to use is forested, is a jungle, is a desert, is mountainous. Again, you don’t have to bog yourself down with every tiny detail about the area, but some general ideas are helpful.

If you plan to use an area that has large amounts of history, be sure you brush up on the history of that location. Make sure the age and race of the character are appropriate, or at least feasible, for the location you want to use.

However, don’t let yourself be limited by area size as presented in game. The areas in game are considerably condensed to make traveling to and from different spots in them faster and easier to facilitate game play. One could safely assume that Elwynn Forest is considerably larger than what we can run to in a few minutes of in-game travel. Surely, as the last human kingdom, Stormwind has to have access to more than three small farms to provide enough food for the population of the city.

Know the Race

This ties heavily into Know the Lore, and most information can be found the same way, but have some general idea of what the race, primarily their culture, is like. This will help give you some idea of what their upbringing might have been like.

If you’re going to play a Tauren, understand that it wasn’t all that long ago that they were a nomadic culture. They have deeply rooted traditions tied to the Earthmother which would influence their world view, their upbringing, and their reactions to others. This would tie very heavily into their background, which would in turn influence their personality.

Avoid the Eye Roll

There are some common backgrounds that I see from many new role players that leave me rolling my eyes. I’ve heard the same comment from other long time role players as well. While this is Role Play and you are more than welcome to play what you like, if you want to interact with others and avoid the eye roll response, try to avoid some of these common background traps.

The Vampire

While you may think it’s cool and spooky to play a vampire, when you announce to other players that you’re a vampire, you leave many of them rolling their eyes and putting your character name on a mental – if not actual – ignore list. Vampires do not exist in WoW Lore. If you want to play a vampire, check out Vampire: The Gathering and its subsequent additions. It’s a very good table top game for vampires.

The Daughter/Son of (Insert Major Lore Character Here)

Everyone wants their character to feel important in some way. Some who are new to RP try to grab that importance from the beginning by saying they are the daughter/son/mother/brother/lover/former best friend’s cat of a major character from Lore. Build your own importance. Don’t try to force it by falling into this background trap. How many illegitimate sons can Jaina Proudmoore have and not be aware of?

The Half-Troll/Half-Elf/Half-Orc/Half-Gnome

While hybrids are certainly a possibility between some races and are supported by lore, they are a rarity. If you’re going to try to pull off a hybrid, be sure it is feasible and that you can justify it with a good story and some reference material, otherwise you’ll have people rolling their eyes and going “*sigh* Not another half-(insert race).” The first question you really should ask is “Is this combination genetically feasible?” If you are thinking Tauren/Gnome, not likely. Sure you can use the “Well they used magic!” rationale, but truly, that is a cop-out. Belief can only be suspended so far.

The Dragon In Disguise

While in lore there have been instances of dragons in disguise milling among the mortal races, they, too, are a rarity. Dragon in disguise is once again someone reaching for importance or uniqueness in a way that is no longer unique. It is overdone so much that it gets the /eye roll reaction. Dragons are the realm of Blizzard to decide what they do, when they do it, and why they do it. They are basically demi-gods in their own right. The Aspects were put in place to watch over the worlds and their respective flights are their armies to do the tasks that have been set before them. There are much more creative, and believable backgrounds. Leave the dragons to Blizzard.

The Catgirl

Whether it is born to a druid in cat form or the product of a mating between a druid in cat form and a wild tiger, it’s overdone, and simply put – ridiculous. You may think you’re being so creative with your cat-tail hanging down and your furry ears and you’re pointed teeth peeking out of your mouth, but if you go around claiming you’re a Catgirl (or boy) don’t be surprised if you’re assumed to be part of the Goldshire crowd.

The Trauma Llama

Everything bad that could ever happen to a character has all happened to this character at least twice. Now while bad things are a part of everyone’s history, nobody enjoys a trauma llama that wallows in it, spouts it to every person they meet on the street, and tries to one-up everyone else’s traumatic events. If the trauma of the character’s life is the be-all, end-all of their background you’re going to have a difficult time getting anyone to take an interest. This is a game meant for fun. Trauma can, and does, help shape a character, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of their life and history. Where is the fun in that?

Think Creative Without Being Outrageous

Warcraft has given us a fantastic history, amazing locations and a bevy of individual races to play with. It is possible to create a wonderful, interesting, and colorful background for your character without being a victim of the eye roll. Your character doesn’t have to be the king’s illegitimate half-orc Catgirl in disguise to be interesting or fun to interact with. Don’t try to force importance, validity, or take any aspect of the background to extremes. A good background is like a good personality; well-balanced and feasible.

Do not underestimate the power of the ordinary. The Background of your character does not have to be grand or outrageous or even noteworthy. It is merely a tool to help shape the personality of the character, to help guide their actions and reactions when you play them. It’s there to give you something to talk about on occasion.

What’s wrong with being a pumpkin farmer from Elwynn? Or a trapper from a clan of Tauren on the Plains of Mulgore? It isn’t the background that makes the character; it is how you play the character that makes them. It is how that character acts and reacts with others. It is their views, their loves, their dislikes, their mannerisms. Let the character make the character. If you’re creative and confident enough to do that, you’ll do just fine.

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