The Breath of Life: The Importance of a Well Developed Character Background

Jason Heavy Gear Universe, RPG 7 Comments

In every game I have ran in the past, the players were required to flesh out their character backgrounds. For both the gamemaster and the player, character backgrounds are crucial components that turn a sheet of stats and skills into a vibrant and memorable participant in the setting. Gamemasters can utilize richly written backgrounds to bring in past lovers, friends, family members, or enemies into the path of the players either as allies, antagonists, or the impetus for a new story. Player goals developed during background creation can lead to excellent story arc material for the gamemaster, and players feel a sense of accomplishment as they pursue those goals.

In the wishlist of items brought up by the community, a background generator had strong support and it shot up to the top of my list to be included in the new edition. The character background generator will be comprehensive, adding roughly ten to fifteen pages to the final book, and include the following:


  • Point of origin (league, region, environment)
  • Family members and how players relate to them
  • Social status of the family
  • Past relationships and rivals
  • Driving goals
  • Major events (childhood, teens, early adult)
  • Education
  • Religion


Each of these categories will have additional tables based on point of origin, social status, and any interesting results generated by the player. As an optional rule, the gamemaster may allow the player to apply their Psyche rating as a positive or negative modifier in order to shift the table results up or down.


In additional news, I have started looking at a few ideas on martial arts systems for the book, but more on that on my next blog entry.


JasonThe Breath of Life: The Importance of a Well Developed Character Background

Comments 7

  1. Jeremy

    There are interesting threads on right now generating characters using such systems for HarnMaster and Maelstrom Domesday. Generating such details can be a lot of fun if done before group play starts.

    Quantitative tables will require controversial takes on family structure. The fluff suggests that there are more unusual family structures in the South, but is this a thing for 5% of the population or is the majority of the South living an alternative family life?

    Are randomly generated social status measures going to be for exceptional characters such as PCs or the population as a whole? Are 90% of the randomly generated characters from the ESE going to be from the lower class? This creates the HarnMaster outcome that most PCs are serf farmers, which can be boring if the players prefer to portray exceptional characters.

    HG games often focus on the military. In all leagues, military personnel probably come from different backgrounds than the population as a whole. This is true in the US, where military personnel come disproportionately from rural areas. In the SR, there will be fewer military personnel from Saragossa or Innsmouth, for example.

    Languages would be a good thing to include as well. Earlier I posted that the language situation in the Southern hemisphere is all over the place in the source material. The initial conception seemed to be that French was spoken only in the SR and that English (Anglic) was the common language for all leagues. But even in the first edition Life on Terra Nova some sections had French spoken in other Southern leagues, which would make French the dominant language of the entire planet because the southern hemisphere has twice the population of the northern hemisphere. The ESE and MD leaguebooks added languages that were said to be the dominant languages in those leagues, contradicting LoTN1E. Intralingua was a language in the HA from first edition Life on Terra Nova. There was a language called Mandanese (presumably Chinese) in the ESE and MD that got dropped in popularity after first edition Life on Terra Nova.

    I don’t now if off world characters will be included in the core rulebook. The language situation for the NEC/CEF is also unclear. Are military personnel speaking Russian or English? I suppose other planets (Caprice, Utopia, Atlantis, Eden) speak mainly English.

  2. A.0

    I agree with Jeremy. Maybe the mongoose traveller could be a “benchmark” on this issue. I’m not sure about the generator or maybe a dual generator/guide. If the players want to test their luck: generator. If they have a character idea: use the guide. One the most valuable (and difficult) assets of HG is the possibility of make a very unique character. Again, thanks for keeping us posted!

  3. Albertorius

    I’m generally fond of lifepaths, if done well. One I’ve liked a lot lately has been the one from the Transhuman sourcebook for Eclipse Phase: You ended up with interesting characters (and usually one you wouldn’t have thought on your own, given the span of the setting) and workable ones, too, from the rules angle (which is just as important in my mind).

  4. Kannik

    I am reminded of the Traveler game where my character died during character creation due to a bad roll on a background table… 😛

    Looking forward to your martial arts ideas! I never did get my own MA rules complete…

  5. Mark Skarr

    First off: character background is terribly important.

    I, for one, dislike the “lifepath” systems and roll-a-life tables. They’re an interesting distraction, but not terribly useful. As was pointed out by Jeremy, most people don’t want to play serfs, they want to play exciting characters. That, first and foremost, is important. I want to play a character I want to play . . . not one I got stuck with because today was my day for the law of averages to dump on me.

    I’m a GURPS player, and have been for decades. So, the first thing I do is to come up with a concept for what I’m wanting to play, then build it. I liked the original Heavy Gear because it gave me a lot of that freedom. Rolling a random character ceased being interesting, for me, many decades ago, as anything other than a thought-experiment. Even when the events on those characters were coherent enough to be used, they usually underwent a massive redesign before I would approach character building. Luke Skywalker worked as a farmer because everyone else around him was interesting, he banked a lot of his points so he could spend them later and become awesome.

    My issues with chosen lifepath systems is that you tend to see groups of characters clump together with the same “events” in their history, because they give the most useful bonuses or the least detrimental penalties.

    I would rather see pages and pages of detailed background information where I can make my own decisions about my character’s upbringing and pre-game history. Lifepaths/roll-a-life tables are fine as addenda, but they shouldn’t be part-and-parcel to making a character. That’s only a slight improvement from a class-/level-based system.

  6. Ordo

    I also dislike random background generation. I can see where it might be useful for less experienced roleplayers or for people who prefer random character generation, but part of the fun for me is coming up with a character background on my own. I agree that characters should have fleshed backgrounds and personalities as it makes the roleplaying experience much more rewarding. If a player wants his character for example to come from a high-status/wealthy family he should be allowed to play that character. If a player wants some in game advantage from that background they should buy the appropriate perks and/or skills.

    For example in the HG campaign I currently play in where the PCs are mercenary gear pilots out of Khayr-ad-Din my character was born into a wealthy and powerful family in Southern Republic. Because my character had to flee the SR (part of the background I wrote up) his family status doesn’t confer any advantages, he isn’t wealthy or powerful, he just has the etiquette skill because it makes sense for him to have learned it before things went to hell in his life.

    Mostly I dislike the concept of giving advantages through random die rolls in what is a point-buy character creation system. I understand that not every player wants to spend a lot of time developing their character’s background, and far be it from me to tell other people how to have fun. I have no problem with random background tables (in fact I believe it can be a useful tool to get players to think about who their characters are beyond their stats) as long as they don’t confer benefits that aren’t purchased with character points.

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