Guidance – Storytelling 101: Guide to the Background Generator

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about Ultimate Campaign’s Background Generator.

Have I ever mentioned that Ultimate Campaign is an awesome book?

In addition to having kingdom building, mass combat, retraining, and downtime, Ultimate Campaign has the background generator. This useful tool is AWESOME when you’re trying to come up with a backstory and personality for a character who may not have been envisioned with one. For instance, if you’re nabbing one of my iconic designs because it looks fun without much thought for who your character is. Furthermore, the background generator can be an awesome tool for helping new and experienced players alike figure out what details are important in a character’s lifetime as well as which details shaped them into the individual he or she is today.

For today’s article, I’m going to do a quick walk-through of how to actually use the Pathfinder RPG Background Generator, as well as provide some tips for players and GMs to use when designing their background.

Tip #1 — GMs … Lay Off! It is tempting to force players to stick with whatever they roll on the Background Generator, but if we’re being honest this is for them, not for you. As such, keeping rules like, “You HAVE to use what you roll,” isn’t helping your player. Players, if something makes sense for the character you’re going for, use it. After all if the PC was building her background without the background generator, you probably wouldn’t censor her choices. Why would you choose to do so just because she’s using a tool to help focus her collective thoughts? Remember that word, tool. The Background Generator is a TOOL, not a CONTRACT.

Step 1 — Homeland, Family, and Childhood

The first step in the background generator is determining your character’s homeland and the composition of his or her family, as well as any childhood-defining moments that he or she had. This section is split into several sections: race, circumstance of birth, parents’ profession, and major childhood event. There are also several “sub-tables” that are littered throughout this section. These sub-tables reflect specific sub-circumstances that could have happened during your childhood and are used when a specific result on one of the tables occurs. They include unusual homeland (homeland, 5% chance), siblings (roll for each sibling you possess; if your family adopted one or more siblings, also roll to determine that sibling’s race), adopted outside your race (circumstance of birth, 2% chance), and nobility (circumstance of birth, 5% chance).

Typically, the overall progression looks like this:

  • Race Background (Roll once for homeland, parents, and siblings. Roll for unusual homeland if that result occurs. Roll for sibling’s relative age if that result occurs. Roll for each sibling’s gender; 01-50 is female, 51-100 is male. Roll for adopted sibling’s race if that result occurs.)
  • Circumstance of Birth (Roll to determine any circumstances surrounding your birth. Roll for what race adopted you if that result occurs. Roll for your parent’s position in the noble hierarchy if that result occurs.)
  • Parent’s Professions (Roll to determine the principal profession of each of your parents. You roll for both your parents and your adopted parents if that result occurs.)
  • Major Childhood Event (Roll to determine the defining moment or experience of your childhood. Roll to determine the sort of crime you committed if you rolled an outcome that granted you the Criminal social trait. Roll to determine the punishment you received for that crime.)

Step 2 — Adolescence and Training

Next, you determine any major events that occurred to you during your adolescence as well as what prompted you to begin training in your first PC class level. This section is dividing into two major parts: class and adolescence. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Campaign book doesn’t have a method for randomly determining which class you took your first level into, but it does provide backgrounds for all of the core and base classes that were released prior to Ultimate Campaign (the Antipaladin, Ninja, Samurai, and all Advanced Class Guide and Occult Adventure classes aren’t represented here as a result). Unlike the previous step, Step 2 doesn’t have any sub-steps and is relatively quick.

Typically, the overall progression looks like this:

  • Class / Adolescent Event (Roll to determine the major event that lead to your acquiring of your first class level.)
  • Influential Associates (Roll to determine the qualities of one individual who greatly influenced your outlook during your formative years.)

Tip #2 — Be Flexible! All of the outcomes of this section are limited. After all, there’s a 10% chance for each outcome, so there’s only 10 possible backstories out of an infinite number of character concepts. Don’t let Paizo’s table determine what you can and can’t select. If possible, look at the trade that the class table outcome granted you and build your background around it rather than Paizo’s suggestion. For instance the bladed magic trait for magi gives you a +1 trait bonus on Craft checks and increases the duration of your arcane pool’s enhancements by 1 minute. The background that grants it refers to your love of magic weapons and your desire to craft them. But you could just as easily warp that trait around and claim that you once had a weapon break when you needed it most, and from then onward you trained in the creation and protection of your weapons so they wouldn’t fail you when you needed them most.

Step 3 — Moral Conflicts, Relationships, and Drawbacks

This final step is often the one that is skipped most often because it gives you a random way to choose your starting alignment. You roll to determine a major conflict that occurred either as an adult or an adolescent, the subject of that conflict, your motivation, and its ultimate outcome. Each possible conflict represents an action that your character took that most epitomizes their alignment. All conflicts have a morality value and those values are tallied and totaled to determine your alignment on each axis. Low numbers indicate a Lawful or Good alignment while high numbers indicate a Chaotic or Evil alignment, because higher numbers indicate a more extreme reaction or subject. After determining your alignment, you roll to determine your romantic history and then your relationship with your fellow adventurers.

Typically, the progression looks like this:

  • Alignment (First, roll to determine your conflict. Second, roll to determine the subject of your conflict. Third, roll to determine your motivation when the conflict happened. Finally, choose how you deal with the conflict, known as your resolution. Each of these results have a number of conflict points assigned to them. Add all conflict points together, and then allocate them to either the Good/Evil axis or the Lawful/Chaotic axis. 1-3 points is Good/Lawful, 4-6 points is Neutral, and 7-9 points is Chaotic/Evil. You can’t spend more than 9 points on any one alignment axis.)
  • Romantic Relationships (Roll to determine your current relationship status. Roll 1d12 instead of 1d20 if a previous table modifies your potential for love. Rolling a d12 means that you can’t receive a result of ‘inconsequential,’ so such a restriction means that you’ve got a major romance somewhere in your past.)
  • Relationships with Fellow Adventurers (Roll for each party member in your group to determine your relationship with that individual. Ultimate Campaign recommends that a group of PCs does this together, with all players rolling for their relationship with one character at a time.)

Tip #3 — Toss the PC Relationships. In my experience, its better to allow the players to choose how they react to one another, so most groups that I see skip this step. Many players come to the table with awesome backgrounds already placed together, and the PC Relationships table has a pretty good chance of contradicting everything you’ve previously established with the Background Generator. That said, if you can get every PC to agree to alter their background in a way that everyone can use this table, then it could end up being a lot of fun and create some very interesting character connections from Level 1, which is pretty cool considering that most groups don’t form real bonds for several levels afterwards. In short, this section is great for a group of dedicated, willing RPers.

Step 4 — Drawbacks

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Ultimate Campaign lists these as being part of Step 3, but I separated them because I think they deserve special mention on their own. A drawback is basically a nega-trait. When you take a drawback, you gain a penalty that’s worth about as much as half a feat. Usually these drawbacks favor crippling the character under very specific, sometimes easy-to-avoid circumstances. If you choose to take a drawback, you get a third character trait as compensation. Personally, the drawback system isn’t for me (I find GMs don’t often cater to my drawback, so its often not much of a flaw) but if its your sort of thing Ultimate Campaign allows you to randomly roll for your drawback.

Alex’s Method — The Fill-In

Now, if you’re like me you might be pretty good at crafting PC backgrounds already. But personally, I find that I ALWAYS leave out some small detail or bit of information, so what I like to do is write my backstory, then go to Ultimate Campaign and see if there’s any “filling in” that I can do.

For instance, prior to writing this article my PFS character, Hirokyu Yoishi, had his parents in his background (his mother was a courtesan and died in labor, his father is a Taldane noble who psychologically abused him ), but I never decided on whether or not Hirokyu had any brothers or sisters. I know for a fact that Hirokyu’s mother had no other children with his father other than him, so any siblings Hirokyu has would be half-siblings. Personally, I think its more likely that Hirokyu’s well-off father has other children, so when I roll I’m going to treat all results of “biological sibling” that Hirokyu gets as being his half-siblings on his father’s side while results of “half-sibling” will be on his mother’s side. Hirokyu spent the first ten years of his life living with revolutionaries, so any results of “adopted” that he gets will represent kids his own age while he was living with them. Finally, Hirokyu is a kitsune and kitsune have the same general life expectancy as humans, so I’m going to roll on the human tables for his siblings. Lots of flip-flopping, but it works!

… so I rolled for Hirokyu’s siblings and I got an 18. That’s 1d2 biological siblings. I rolled and got a 2, so Hirokyu has two half-siblings on his father’s side and no biological siblings on his mother’s side. Next, I roll twice: first to determine their genders, then to determine if they’re older or younger than Hirokyu. For the first sibling, I got 32 (female) and 67 (younger). For the second sibling, I got 92 (male) and 28 (older). So Hirokyu has an older human half-brother and a younger human half-sister.

Final Thoughts

I really like the Background Generator for its ability to help players brainstorm new character concepts, as well as its ability to help fill in the gaps in an existing character background. Like any random system, you are going to get outcomes that don’t work for your character or the world that they live in. (For instance, one of the circumstances of birth is that you are from the future/past and have been misplaced in the current day and age. That isn’t going to work in every campaign or with every GM.) But ultimately, this is a fun, interesting system that I could literally sit down and tinker with for HOURS. In fact, I just might do that ….

And that’s all I have to say on the Background Generator for now! What do you think? Is this a system you use? Do you have any experience using the Background Generator or a similar system? How do you come up with your character backgrounds? Leave your questions and comments below, and I’ll see you next week for another casting of guidance! Take care.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune noble scion, because nobles.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

2 Comments

  1. While aware of the background generator, I hadn’t used it before reading this. Just did it. Really fun actually, kind of build the story in my head as I went. thanks for the post!

  2. REPn Knight Reply to REPn

    This was a good read! I just recently started DM’ing for a group of my friends/family and just tried using the character generator for myself. The main reason this post caught my eye was because I was trying to figure out which tables I would use to determine how many siblings a kitsune would have. It definitely makes sense to use the human table, but I made it so that instead of human siblings/ half siblings, I made all my siblings Kitsune.

    Anyways, thanks for the post! I enjoy the generator just for the fact that it sparks my imagination to make the general ideas provided turn into a full fledged back story.
    -REPn Knight

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