One of the most difficult – but also most rewarding – parts of larp is coming up with a good character backstory. A sense of a character’s history often gives great insights into how to play them in the present, for one thing, not to mention shines some light on what you’re For some people this comes easily, but for many others it’s a bit more of a chore, especially if you’re new to a particular game or to gaming in general. Fortunately, coming up with a fun, interesting backstory (and accompanying character depth) doesn’t have to mean nights of staring at a blank Word document, waiting for inspiration.
I’ve spent a lot of time driving to and from larps over the years, often with 2-3 other people along for the ride, and when I realized that some of my best character ideas sprang from the discussions we had in the car, I figured it might be fun to present a few games you can play with those lovable lunatics in your carpool. Games designed not only to be entertaining and help make the drive a little easier, but that also offered up a host of sneaky ways to develop all of your characters’ backstories in the process.
So whether character histories are your best friends or your worst enemies, I think you’l find this an interesting collection of ways to build character and write history without facing down that blank white screen!+
1 – The Hell of A Hat Game
My number one favorite trick for a reason, this one relies on nothing more than what you’ve packed (or put on) for game to make it work. Going around in a circle, have each player pick one of their costume and prop pieces – not necessarily the flashy ones they might already have stories for, like signature weapons or prominent jewelry, but preferably just some little, ordinary things – and explain where it came from and/or why they still have it. One of my favorites? Boots. I play in a post-apocalyptic survival horror larp, Dystopia Rising, and I love asking folks where they got their boots. (I mean, this is a world where new Timberlands aren’t exactly rolling off the assembly line, after all.) Did they trade for them? Find an unopened box on a scrounging run? Take them off a body? (A body they created?) Did they make them? Where did any of these things happen? You’d be amazed at how creative ordinary things can make you, and how much they can tell you about your character in the moments they’re not out fighting monsters and saving the world (or damning it).
Even in a modern setting, it can be surprisingly interesting to figure out where your werewolf gets her blue jeans (and if the clerk wonders why she keeps ripping the ones she gets), or whether your occult researcher takes time to shop or if they’ve been wearing the same clothes for months (years?) on end. I once knew a vampire character who wore purple all the time, and when I asked her why, she stopped and thought about it for moment, then said it was because centuries ago when she was a mortal, sumptuary laws prohibited her from wearing that color, so this was her thumbing her nose at the past. Awesome, right? Proof that you can get great character moments out of little things like that, even if you never considered it before that moment – the devil may be in the details, but so is a lot of useful information … and motivation.
If you want to have a different but equally interesting kind of fun, start picking pieces of each other’s costuming and props, and try to imagine where they came from, what that character did to get them, etc. In either case, I recommend playing to about five or so at the most, time permitting – you don’t want to use up all their costume at once, after all, especially because this game tends to get better and better the longer you’ve played a character and the more you’ve added to and tweaked their costume.
Sample Questions: Where did you get those boots? Where do you shop for your clothes? How did you come by that ring? What’s the piece with the most sentimental value (that has no in-game worth or power)? Who made that necklace for you? If you lost X, what would you do to get it back? Do you carry anything your parents gave you anymore?
2 – The Polaroid Game
You can do this in character, or out of character, or a mix of both if you prefer. Ask one of the other players to give a snapshot image of your character, something they imagine might have happened at some point before your character entered play. 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 in back of the Northpoint Tavern while Jodie cries out, ‘What have you done?’”
Once the basic shot is sketched, each other player adds another detail to the picture – “You’re bloody but not wearing your armor or holding a weapon” – until it comes back around to you. (Hence the name Polaroid, as the details of the picture slowly come into focus during play.) The details added don’t have to be strictly visual either, despite the name of the game – someone might add “They had just pushed you too far and you snapped” as a detail if they like, though it’s fun to try to find a way to express those visually if you can (“You can tell by the look on your face that you had just been pushed too far and snapped”).
If people have trouble coming up with these details, you can have them do it in response to questions you ask about the picture that’s developing – for example, if a player is stumped, you might ask, “Did I kill the person lying on the ground, or was that someone else?” in order to help guide them. If you’re doing it with just one other person, I’d recommend that they add up to 3-4 supplemental details, perhaps in response to your questions about the image as described previously.
Once one picture is finished, play rotates to the next player, and everyone describes a new snapshot for them. If you want to play a more guided version of this game, try having the player being depicted name a particular moment or topic they want to see- “My first kill”, “My happiest moment before the Fall”, “The moment my character realized the Truth” etc. – and see what other people come up with in response.
Now, when it comes to actually using the material the other players come up with, you can discount some of it, or all of it, or otherwise alter and experiment with it as you see fit, but hearing how other people see your character – how they imagine they’ve lived, what they might have done – can be an interesting way to shake up your own notions of who your character is and where they might have gone in the past, not to mention where they might have go in the future.
Even if it seems to be very against what you might initially think applies to your character, try to keep an open mind and you might find that sometimes the material that is most unlike them is fodder for some of the best stories. After all, maybe your character is usually so calm and collected precisely because the last time she lost her temper she wound up standing over a body, bloody and incoherent.
Sample Moments: The first time I held a weapon; the last time I ever got ripped off; the night I decided to leave home; the moment I figured out what I really was; the instant after I did what I regret the most; the first time I got paid for my work; what I do on my nights off; the time I was happiest, before all of this started; the moment I first came face to face with Them.
Sample Follow-Up Questions: Where am I? Is anyone else around? What kind of expression do I have? How long ago does this look?
3 – The House of Cards Game (aka Larper’s Poker)
This one takes a deck of regular playing cards, but in a car full of gamers, that usually isn’t too hard to come by. (There are also smartphone apps that can deal a random card or generate a random number you then assign to each suit.) Deal one card at random to each player, let them look it over and think about it for a moment, coming up with a short story from their character’s past as dictated by the suit of the card they received. Each suit requires a different kind of story: 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 special, setting specific elements such as zombies, magic, cyberware, superpowers, monsters, etc. You may want to at least roughly define what Spades involves before playing, if it might be unclear.
Starting with the lowest card and working up to the highest, each player tells a short story based on the suit they received – these should be no more than five minutes, tops, and can be a lot shorter, as suits a player’s comfort level. (It’s OK if stories start super short – that just means you can play more rounds!) Try to stay within the type of story you’ve been given – that’s part of the challenge – but don’t jump on players if it seems like their Diamond story about their old engagement ring seems more like a Hearts story about the lover to which it once belonged. These categories are broad and may often seem to overlap, and that’s OK. The stories are the goal, after all. When everyone has told their story, shuffle the cards back into the deck, deal another hand and start again. Simple, but effective.
If you want to try some variations, deal each person a hand of five cards – player riding shotgun holds for the driver, as is their ancient right and obligation – and allow each player to pick a card for each round, to give them a bit more control over the kind of story they feel like telling. Or have the stories be connected to 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 they have to talk about a particular person who came into their life (or left it) as a result of the story. Or let players hand each other the cards, so that they get to determine what kind of story their fellow players will tell (rotating so that each person gets a chance to assign a card to each other player and no one gets more than one card in a round). There are a ton of variations on this game, all of them fun, so have it.
Wait, that’s still not enough? You want the double black diamond version of this game, so to speak? OK, then! Deal each player five cards and go around in turn as before … but each round the player must somehow continue the story they’ve started telling. For example: A player is dealt a hand of two Clubs, a Heart, a Diamond, and a Spade. They start with a Clubs story about a battle they won, then on the next round they play their Diamond and talk about how they recovered a valuable weapon in the aftermath, which in turn leads to a bitter Hearts rivalry as they fight over possession of the weapon with their former best friend (who also claimed it), followed by a Spades story about how the local seer consulted the gods as to who was the rightful owner (the player’s character), but then with the final Club we learn that the friend attacked the character and stole the weapon anyway, beating them savagely in the process. A potentially dynamic story of friendship, hardship, loss and betrayal, and it all sprang from a random hand of cards.
4 - Play/Theme/Pass (aka The Mixtape Game)
This one’s near and dear to my heart, as anyone who’s ever seen the stacks of mix CDs in my car can attest to, especially if they joined me on a drive to game. It takes a little more prep than some of the others, but pays off nicely when you manage it (and digital devices do make it a bit easier than it used to be). Making a music mix for game is a time-honored tradition – hence the ancient term “mixtape” in the name – but there’s a fun way to put a backstory twist on it. Have everyone in the group contribute a few tracks to a collective mix/playlist of music inspired by the game and its characters, and as each song plays, everyone declares “Play/Theme/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.
You don’t need to explain a Pass further (and don’t insult anyone’s musical taste either), but if you say Play or Theme, try to say what about it 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, might it be because they shared that moment in their past? It doesn’t have to be a long, detailed anecdote or anything, just a quick image or moment or impression that it brings up as you think of your character.
The more people do this, the more amped up everyone tends to get, which is a lot of fun. Plus you tend to get a lot of awesome new music to add to your library, especially if you throw together new mixes every few events, and how cool is that?
Of course, if you’re the really competitive sort, you can actually score this game – simply tally up the points for each track and assign them to the player who contributed it. Each player who picked Theme for that track gives the contributor 2 points, each Play is worth 1 point, and each Pass is worth zero. Add up the totals at the end of the mix and declare a Mixmaster General if you like! That might be too technical for some folks, but then again, if you’ve got a 3-4 hour drive to game, you might just enjoy another way to help pass the time.
+Note: These games generally presuppose the presence of other players, and while most can be configured to be played solitary, I believe all of them are enhanced by group play. What’s more, despite the title of the post they don’t require an actual carpool to work. You can just as easily play these games right before or after a session, or at the diner one night, or even on a game’s message boards. Of course, if you prefer to work alone, all but one of these still work just fine – the point is having fun and coming up with backstory elements in different ways than simply sitting down and writing them out.
This post is an adaptation of a talk I was scheduled to give at the amazing Shoshana Kessock‘s equally amazing Living Games Conference. Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to illness – hence the material winding up here – but if you’re even casually interested in the many forms of larp and what people are doing to expand and innovate in the field, you owe it to yourself to head on over and check out the site. While the conference has ended, there’s still a ton of great larp material collected there, and if nothing else, the first academic conference on larp in the United States deserves attention and respect.
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!