I love Backgrounds. Of all the “mechanical” parts of Vampire and the Storyteller system, Backgrounds are the “fiddly bit” I enjoy the most. When I first discovered Vampire, these were the parts that most enthralled me, even more so than the cool powers or anything else. The idea that characters weren't just “blank slates” with only their weapons and gear was a revelatory concept, particularly since these connections to the wider world were something every character had, not something you have to spend extra for, ala GURPS.
See, the reason why I love them so much is because they are probably the best method to draw players into a Story. Having some NPC show up with an offer for a job is something that can happen in any game, and is generally not terribly interesting. But the Background system allows for numerous openings to Stories as players seek either to expand their possessions, or to protect what they already have.
|Succubus Club--great background, or greatest background?|
Of course, these require a subtle hand on behalf of the Storyteller. It is extraordinarily tempting to destroy or critically threaten these backgrounds in the name of hollow drama. Pulling off these threats is tricky--they need to be just serious enough to rouse the characters to action, but no more. The cost of having Backgrounds (in terms of how often and how strongly the Storyteller turns your character into a punching bag) should only rarely outweigh their benefit.
Given that, my “favorite” background is probably any one that is well defined, yet broad enough to drive numerous plots. Having a high Resources locked away in a Trust is boring. Having a high Resources derived from your influence over a street gang is awesome. This is probably why I generally dislike the Generation background. It’s presence really only inherently drives one plot, which is “NPC’s are trying to kill and eat you” which can be fun for a short Story, but that’s about it. Certain Storytellers consider it a “powergamer” background, since it’s benefits are so significant and mechanical. While I think this is true, I would say it’s also the Background of choice for those who have little creativity or imagination, and also for those who do NOT want the Storyteller to exploit their Backgrounds to “force” them into Stories. Many players, most notably veterans, tend to be ultra-conservative and don’t want their characters to ever be placed at risk.
Due to that, and a general feeling that Generation doesn't really do what it’s intended to do, I’ve stolen from Requiem the “Blood Potency” background instead, and just rule by Storyteller fiat that all players begin at “1” in that background.
I try to sit down with the players outside of the game and work out what the Background ratings actually mean, and how they can best be expressed in game. For example, if a player decides that their Resources rating refers to their hip and popular club, then we will discuss the club, it’s name, theme, clientele, neighborhood, and staff. I’ll also try to think in terms of “mechanical” benefit that the player may derive from their Backgrounds. In the club example, they might get bonuses to hunting rolls, or even free herd if it makes sense, while hunting within their club. Likewise, they might get a bonus to social rolls or resisting said rolls (and affiliated Disciplines) while on the premises.
In this, I was inspired a bit by the video game Bloodlines. In order to prevent players from accidentally (or psychotically) murdering EVERYONE, they enforced a rule of “Elysium” which prevents them from using their weapons and Disciplines in a club or other “haven” of an Elder. The way I view it in game, is that the longer a Vampire has recognized residence in a given area, and the more they customize that area to fit themselves, the more power they gain there. It’s not as potent as going up in age or more Discipline dots, but it is difficult to “push” a vampire around in his “center of power.” It makes these inherently vulnerable connections a bit more valuable to have, as well as explains why it is so important to have meetings on “neutral ground.”
The more I think about Backgrounds, the more I’m beginning to understand where the “conservative veterans” come from in their preference for such “safe” traits as Generations. Backgrounds are numbers on a sheet that are generally only used by a Storyteller to “punish” the player by “forcing” them into action in a Story, and they only ever go down. As such, there is little motivation for a player to invest much (either practically or emotionally) into these dots.
I think this is a shame. Just as backgrounds can be threatened or reduced by actions in play, so too should they be able to be increased or secured. And this falls on the Storyteller. See, the tripartite system of rewards established in a game like D&D (XP, Treasure, Magic), has it’s place in Vampire as well. Experience is experience, naturally. Treasure equates to Boons, while Magic Items are Backgrounds. Much as Magic Item allow players to “cheat” their way out of encounters in a dungeon, so too do Backgrounds allow a player to cheat in the social sandbox of Vampire. Contacts provide critical information, Allies step in to assist in ways players never could, Herd allows them to avoid the potentially disastrous consequence of open hunting, Fame grants access where it should be denied, etc.
So, just as a Dungeon Master will place Magic Items throughout their Dungeon for players to find and utilize, so too should a Storyteller place Backgrounds in their Stories. When going after a mad cult of vampires that have been kidnapping mortals, perhaps one of the victims is the child of a competent, cagey, and feared lawyer. With the rescue of their kid, the lawyer now feels a debt they can never repay to the character, and will use their lawyerly skill and knowledge to get them out of various scrapes with the law..a useful Ally of 1. Or maybe they meet a young reporter after the story of a lifetime in chasing down the cult--the players can ply her for information, while offering an ‘exclusive’ on the case, giving them a Contact in the future.
A few things result from this. First, the world feels more “alive” as more NPC’s who are not explicitly part of the story are created and come to populate the world. Secondly, the players have additional rewards, which is always nice. We all like to see more dots on our sheets, after all. Thirdly, they have a reason to not be assholes--the person who is polite and shows basic human courtesy is more likely to reap such social rewards, while the selfish prick will find their potential backgrounds turning their back on them (or even turning ON them). Finally, it gives the Storyteller more leeway in utilizing and threatening Backgrounds in game--it’s one thing for a player to lose a valuable point spent during Character Creation (particularly if that point came through Freebie Points), another to lose one gained “for free”--particularly if other such Backgrounds are available to be gained as the Chronicle progresses.
Finally, I’ll admit that sometimes I have no idea what to do with my Characters backgrounds. I know I want to make them “living” things, but when I’m stumped, I rely on randomness. The 1st Edition Storytellers Handbook had a wonderful list of charts for backgrounds. You roll to see what background is affected in the current story, and how. Maybe the players are at risk of permanently losing a Retainer (arrested by cops, gone insane, etc.), or they are just not available right now (away visiting family?), or maybe there’s a chance they can gain a new one during the course of the story. The charts aren't perfect, and you would definitely want to customize them for your setting/Chronicle, but sometimes randomness is the best way to spark creativity.