Fortunately, coming up with a fun, interesting backstory (and accompanying character depth) doesn’t ha ve to mean nights of staring at a blank sheet of paper, waiting for inspiration to strike. Which is exactly where these games come in. Most of them require little or no preparation, and can be played equally well with friends or strangers.
In fact, they also make excellent “ice breaker” exercises to help players warm up, get in character, and become comfortable with each other before play begins. These games generally presuppose the presence of other players; while most can be reconfigured to be played solitary, I believe all of them are enhanced by group participation.
As far as game runners are concerned, these backstory games also make good pre-game workshop tools. They do not normally require any form of staff supervision; though if you want to cultivate particular elements, or avoid certain topics, you can offer guidelines, or even sit in and moderate play. This can be useful if you’re using these as quick exercises before a single-shot game, as you can guide players to creating fairly detailed and well-realized personas very quickly with these games.
1 –The Hell of a Hat Game
What You Need: Costumes and props.
How You Play: Going around in a circle, have each player pick one of their costume or prop pieces. It doesn’t have to be a flashy one they might already have stories for, like signature weapons or prominent jewellery – in fact, it’s usually better if it’s not. Ordinary objects like coats and boots tend to work best, because they’re the pieces you might not think about otherwise, but can say very interesting things about a character’s day-to-day life.
Once they pick an item, that player must talk about it. The player can say anything she likes, but here are some questions to provoke thought if they get stuck: Where did it come from? How did they get it – buy it, make it, steal it, receive it as a gift? What does it mean to them? What do they like about it? If they don’t like it, why do they still keep it? If it was lost or stolen, what would they do to get it back?
If you don’t have any particular costume or props – say, because you just came into a game as a walk-on at a convention and didn’t prepare anything – you can still play! Simply describe what your character would be wearing, or is wearing in your imagination, as opposed to what you have on in reality. It might be a little tougher to remember all of it, but the point of the game remains the same.
Variation – Eye for Style: If you want to have a different but equally interesting kind of fun, on each player’s turn have that player pick a piece from someone else’s costuming and props. Tell a story about where the item came from, what that character did to get it, etc. Naturally this doesn’t mean the story is automatically “true” – that’s for the player in question to decide – but it can certainly reveal a lot about how the other players feel about your character!
Variation – Solo Play: If you want to play the game solitary, take a picture of the costume piece and write a short paragraph or two about it. Post the results to game forums or social media if you want feedback!
2 – The Polaroid Game
What You Need: Nothing except 2+ players.
How to Play: Going around in a circle, each player asks the others to describe a snapshot image of his character, something they imagine might have happened at some point before the character entered play or that happened during downtime. It can be a funny image, a serious image, a mysterious image; any kind of moment at all.
It doesn’t have to start off being terribly specific – “I picture your character, bloody, standing over a body while a woman cries out, ‘What have you done?’” is in many ways just as useful for this game as something like “I see your character, bloody, standing over Mary’s body behind the Northpoint Tavern.”
Once the basic image is established, go around to all other player in the group, with each player adding another detail to the picture – “You’re bloody, but not wearing your armor or holding a weapon” – until it comes back around to the original player. Hence the name The Polaroid Game, because the details slowly come into focus as the picture develops. The details added don’t have to be strictly visual, though, despite the name of the game.
When everyone has had a turn adding to the picture, the player being described makes a final comment and play passes to the next person. Naturally what is described isn’t necessarily “true” unless the original player approves it, but it can serve as a good inspiration.
Variation – Topic: Have the person whose turn it is to be described provide a topic or moment she wants the others to imagine. “Tell me about my character’s first kill,” for instance, or “What did it look like when my heart got broken for the first time?” This is good for helping players who have difficulty coming up with appropriate moments for other people’s characters, or for soliciting help with a particular background element with which the player is having trouble.
3 –The Card Game (Larper’s Poker)
What You Need: A regular deck of playing cards.
How to Play: Deal one card at random to each player, before moving around to each player in turn. When it is their turn, players must tell a vignette from their character’s past.
The kind of story being told depends on the suit of the card selected. Hearts centers on mental health or an emotional relationship of some kind (not necessarily a loving one); Diamonds refers to stories focused on wealth, equipment and other material goods (or lack thereof); Clubs requires a story about a physical challenge, battle, illness or ordeal of some kind; and Spades refers to encounters focused around interaction with setting-specific supernatural or science-fiction elements such as zombies, magic, cyberware, superpowers, monsters, etc.
If your game does not have elements of this kind, Spades becomes a “wild card” category where the player can tell any kind of story they like. You may want to at least roughly define what Spades involves before playing, if it could be unclear in your setting.
Stories should be no longer than five minutes or so, and can be much shorter – a snapshot or moment is fine, as long as it says something interesting about the character. Players are encouraged to stick close to the subject matter of their card’s suit, but the categories are pretty broad, so it’s OK if there’s a little bit of crossover. It’s about telling an interesting story, after all.
Variation – Five Card Draw: Each player draws a hand of five cards, and picks a card each round, returning it to the deck when it’s played. This gives players more control over the kind of story they feel like telling each round (and time to think about what they’ll be telling next), making it easier for new or nervous players.
Variation – Face Value: As normal, except that the stories reflect the values on the cards – lower numbers mean it was more of a minor incident, while higher numbers mean it was more important, and a face card means a player must talk about a particular person who came into their life (or left it) as a result of the story.
Variation – Pass Left: Players draw fivecards,butoneachplayer’sturn,the person to their left passes them a card to determine what kind of story should be told. After one full round, pass right instead, shuffle seats, or otherwise change the order so that people have new partners for their cards.
Variation – Take Me to the River: Deal each player five cards and go around in a circle, with each player taking a turn. Each round, players play cards from their own hand, but the player must somehow continue the story they’ve been telling in the previous rounds, even if it is a different suit. So by the end of the game, they will have told one story in five installments, with elements dictated by the cards in hand.
4 – The Mixtape Game
What You Need: A mix CD or music playlist and some way to play it.
How to Play: This game requires a little more preparation than most of the others, but the end result is worth it. Each player contributes several musical tracks to the collective mix or playlist, which is then placed on shuffle (if possible, disable repeated playing of the same track). This game is a good one for long trips to a game or breaks during play, so simply adjust the number of tracks that fits the time.
Play itself is simple – start playing the music, and as each song plays, everyone listens to it and declares either “Play,” “Theme,” or “Pass.” “Play” means that you enjoy the song, but don’t necessarily feel it would be a song for your character in particular. “Theme” means that you could see that song as a theme for your character, something you’d put on a personal playlist dedicated to your character. (You can have more than one Theme, and more than one character can call Theme on the same song. It’s non-competitive that way.)
“Pass” means that you’re just not connecting to the song in relation to the game; it doesn’t necessarily mean you think the song is bad, but you’re just not feeling it in this context.
If you say “Play” or “Theme,” try to add what about it that got your attention – connect it to your backstory, to your impression of your character. Does the beat remind you of the thrill of a battle in your past? Does a line in the lyrics jump out as totally true to your character? Is the tone of the song putting you in the mood for game? Did the music capture a moment in your character’s history so perfectly it makes you jump up and down in your seat?
If two players pick Theme, maybe it’s because they shared that moment in their past? You don’t need to have to be a long, detailed anecdote, just a quick image or moment or impression that it brings up as you think of your character.
Play continues until all tracks have been played. It is perfectly acceptable to ask that a track be repeated, or to return to a track after all tracks have been heard, if players are responding to it strongly and have more stories to tell.
Variation – No Preparations: If you don’t have time to put together a playlist or make a CD, or you want to put together a spontaneous session, you can still play! All you need is access to the internet on a device capable of playing music. Simply have each player look up a song online, and when it comes to their turn, they simply play it for the group on their phone or other device. Giving players a few minutes to find the song they want, making sure their device can play it and otherwise prepare is recommended before starting a round; otherwise, players may be distracted looking up songs instead of really listening on other players’ turns.
Variation – The Score: Another variation is to treat the music like the score of a film or a television program, the music that is playing in the background to provide atmosphere and emotion. When each song comes on, have each player describe what their character would be doing “onscreen” while that song played, as if they were watching a movie and that was the music for the scene.
5 – Post Game
As players, you are encouraged to take some time after a game is complete to think about the material that was generated during play, perhaps even talk about it with the other players. It’s important to remember that while these games are intended to stimulate backstory creation and help flesh out characters, that doesn’t mean you must use it, or that you can’t alter, edit, or otherwise use what’s created as you see fit.
Do not feel bound to keep something as “canon” for your character just because it came up in game, even if the other players really liked it and thought it fit. Even if you wind up using none of it, and take your inspiration in a totally different direction from what came up during play, then great! As long as you have fun making stories, that’s what it’s all about.