Carrot on a stick

Carrot on a stick! Rewarding players for creating character background.


Motivating characters to create a background for their characters has always been a goal for me as a Game Master. I typically reward extra experience before the adventure begins for creating different details of a character’s background. So much so that I mentioned it as my favorite house rule in Day 24 of #RPGaDay2015.

As I prepare for our upcoming D&D 5t edition campaign I began to look at possible ways to reward players’ efforts. However, the experience points needed to go from 1st to 2nd level are so low, that I could very well have players start at level 2. This wouldn’t usually be a problem, but I want to test the system at all levels, including 1st, even if for just one session. So I began to look for other rewards and came up with the following ideas. I’m reproducing the text just as I would had in out to the players.

This will be something I include in a larger player handout including notes on classes and races for the campaign, list of NPCS, maps and the history and details of the region where the campaign will take place.

I’d love some feedback… Do you think it’s too little or too much? Are the ideas presented game breaking? Would this motivate you as a player? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!


Character Background Rewards

A well rounded character with an interesting background is not only easier and more engaging to play for a player, but far more interesting to his or her fellow players. A background helps the Dungeon Master (DM) create plots and stories that integrate your characters’ history, desires and hopes. But you don’t need me to tell you this; you are all seasoned players that create wonderful characters for many games. What you really want to know is what rewards I’ll be handing out for creating your background and adding other details about your characters to the game.

Rewards will be unlocked and become available for your characters according to how many of the following background categories you unlock. To unlock them you must fulfill the requirements of each category to the satisfaction of the DM. The categories are:

  • Image – Provide an image of your character in a digital file to the DM
  • Story – Write down your character’s story, it doesn’t have to be a short story, a series of bullet points would suffice.
  • NPC – Create an NPC related to your character. This cannot be an existing NPC from the campaign that you tie to your character’s story, but a brand new original NPC. Describe the character separate from your story; it should either have a stat block, an image to represent it, a list of motivations and flaws, or some other detail that can be useful during the game. It can certainly have more than one of the previous details, but for the purpose of unlocking this reward you need just one. The DM will be the final arbiter of the usefulness of the NPC to the plot and how it is integrated into the story, and while the idea is to incorporate your concept into the game, the DM reserves the right to make some changes to the NPC.
  • Miniature – Find a miniature, metal, plastic or a paper, for your character. I have plenty of miniatures you can pick from including pre-painted D&D minis and the Reaper Bones Kickstarter miniatures; we can coordinate for you to check them out. Also it could be a paper mini, or a Pathfinder Pawn.
  • The List of 12! – This is a simple exercise, make a list 3 plots you’d like to encounter, 3 enemies you’d like to face, 3 items (mundane or magical) you’d like your character to have, and 3 goals for your character to achieve, during the camping. Be as specific or general as you want. The DM will interpret your list with the details you provide.

You can unlock some categories and not others, or go for all five, that’s up you. For each background category you unlock you receive one of the following rewards in order, from the 1st reward if you complete only one category, to the 5th reward if you complete all five.

  • 1st Reward – Earn 75 Experience Points1
  • 2nd Reward – Earn 1 Inspiration Token2
  • 3rd Reward – Earn 75 Experience Points1
  • 4th Reward – Earn 2 Inspiration Tokens2
  • 5th Reward – Earn 2 extra point for customizing ability scores3

Rewards notes:

Note 1- The experience point total needed for gaining level 2 is 300 XP, so if you unlock the 1st and 3rd reward you’ll be half-way to 2nd level before the adventure begins.

Note 2- Inspiration Tokens function just like regular inspiration (PHB p. 125), you can use it yourself or give it to another player, except that unlike regular inspiration, you can have Inspiration Tokens and earn regular inspiration, thus breaking the rule of only having one inspiration at a time. You cannot use inspiration and the Inspiration Token on the same roll. Once you use an Inspiration Token it is permanently spent.

Note 3- You receive 2 extra points for customizing ability scores, your new point total to spend on your ability scores is 29. All the other rules for customizing ability (PHB p. 12) scores apply, ability score point cost, 15 being the highest ability score before applying racial increases, etc.

All the background categories you wish to unlock must be completed BEFORE the first game session. Once the campaign has begun no rewards will be awarded for completing any remaining background category.

4 thoughts on “Carrot on a stick! Rewarding players for creating character background.”

  1. This is a superb house rule right here.

    I do not think it’s too much at all and for freeform games such as D&D the idea is spot on – plus it applies only at the start of the new game, it’s optional and modular. Granted some of these ideas may be implied in rulebooks already but presenting an easy to follow “Character flesh out form” to players is a very nice touch.

    I like your “character boons for players’ pre-game effort” approach and the implementation is quite elegant with exp and in-game benefit tokens distribution.

    I will try to hack it for my new Numenera group.

    Key benefits I see:

    • Players get to exercise their creativity – either by crating the background from scratch or researching visual aids – and they have a clear incentive to do that.

    This is in my opinion the coolest thing about that idea. I had on very few occasions players in my group who enjoyed developing their characters and I remember one who introduced her character by way of a short story – I was absolutely taken by that and build the whole arch around her character as a kind of a reward. I’d love a more structured way to encourage players to contribute more at the pre-game stage – and while experienced gamers may take this for granted, others may need a bit more of “convincing” – this “carrot” offering may just do that

    • Players get to consider their characters’ motivations and state their expectations upfront

    The list of 12 is a nice data farming interface Sir! 😉 I like it – I like it a lot. It will work fine for classic games that players are familiar with but could easily be tweaked as a multiple choice list with some descriptions if the setting is to remain mysterious (Numenera again). Goals and items are nice options – other categories can be swapped in to fit the game of choice. I like that the list has this aspect of empowering the players to influence the subsequent campaign (genuine or otherwise 😉 ) . Still this is genuinely useful information – a set of parameters that the GM can take advantage of.

    All in all this is a very useful idea – will take some work to adapt to individual games /groups but this is very solid yet simple and elegant solution (for more… civilized games 😉 )

    Thank you Sunglar!

    1. Voidman, thank you for the kind words, I am thrilled you like the ideas presented.I am lucky to have had very creative players at my table and many through the years have worked on their background to one degree or another.

      The list of 12 is perhaps the newest tool, it was the list of 9 for the sci-fi campaign I’m currently running, but follows the same principle. Since about 2005 I had been handing out a questionnaire of campaign expectations peppered whit character interest, but since I do the survey some months before the campaign, to help me create the setting and initial adventures, oftentimes the character motivation questions changed by the time we get to the game. So separated the two.

      The survey is about campaign expectations,style of play,types of adventures, general expectations NOT tied to the character, it helps me plan the big picture. And then the list of 12 allows me to drill in to specific adventures ans plot lines.

      For example, for the sci-fi game and the list of 9 I made a matrix on Excel and wrote down the interest of all players, goals, enemies, etc. And I consult it regularly when preparing adventures. We’ve been playing the sci-fi game now for close to 60 session and it’s still being useful.

      This iteration of the rules for background creation I’ve made the list more open and players can go for as few or as many as they want. In recent campaigns it used to be, so many XP for a picture of the character, so many for a story. I tired to keep it open and allow them to go as far as they want. In the past they’ve all tried to go for the full bonus…

      I’ve had these incentives in one for or another for a long time, but I first codified it for a Star Wards game back in…2005 or 2006 I think, and have used them ever since.

      Wow this as been a long reply, almost a post onto itself!

      One last thing, for a particularly long Pathfinder campaign where we took some time off between the campaign start (about 60 sessions long) and the end (about another 60 sessions) and where some significant time had passed campaign wise, I had them complete a new list of… so and so, what now is the list of 12 but I called it something else back them. Having them revisit the list periodically is also an option.

  2. I like what Fate does:

    1) you write a sentence that is sort of “if you were a character in a adventure / sci-fi / fantasy pulp novel, what would the title of your first novel be?” .. and if necessary, they flesh it out with a few more sentences. But very brief. (by default in Fate, this “novel” also determines one of your character’s Aspects)

    2) now you look at the novels of the other characters, and explain how you were one of their “guest stars” / cohorts / partners in their novel. And, again, that determines another one of your aspects.

    3) repeat #1 again, for a 2nd or later “novel” that would feature your character. And your third Aspect.

    One of the things that’s great about this is that it gives your own character some background story… but it also gives your characters some investment in each other. They’re not just a bunch of disjoint characters that all happened to show up at the same tavern on the same day.

    For me, I divorce the Aspects from the “background cycles”, so I’m really just focused on the background stories and linking the characters. That also means you can really apply this to any game regardless of system or genre. I’ve been toying with doing this (each of these should be 1 or 2, MAYBE 3, paragraphs):

    1) Tell me a story from your character’s adolescence that relates to their race/family/tribe/culture/environment. Something that describes their role in those things, whether they’re an outcast, the water-boy, or a star, or whatever.

    2) Tell me a story from your character’s apprenticeship that relates to how/why they got into their (primary) class/profession/etc., and what specific role within the broad archetype really describes them. Or tell me about a brief event during your apprenticeship or early career that is like a minor adventure/encounter, that similarly tells me about who you are within your broad class/profession/archetype.

    3) Tell me how you were involved in one of the other character’s stories for #1 and #2, in a non-starring role. (no one can pick the same “other character”, nor should two characters pick each other — though, you probably should allow characters that are added later to pick “other characters” that are already linked to existing characters, just try to avoid having 2 or more separate groups within the party, and avoid having one or two characters who are like “hubs” of everyone else’s stories)

    At the end of step 3, the links between characters should be like one long chain that eventually leads back to where it started.

    4) optional: repeat step 3, with a different “other” character.

    Same result: you’ve developed some background story about the character. They’re not just “a wood elf”, they’re a wood elf who has a place within their tribe/kingdom. And they’re not just a ranger, they’re a particular type of ranger within the broad archetype, and more importantly we know _why_. Last, we have connected everyone together: they all know each other, directly or indirectly, in some way.

    Reward? none (other than “being allowed to play your character”). It’s compulsory. They have to participate in this process in order to be allowed to play their character. Why? Because just like there’s “character creation”, there is “party creation”, and that’s what this basically is. If you aren’t in this process, you aren’t part of the party. You’re adding to a well conceived party background, instead of a dysfunctional one. In some regard, that’s a reward of its own. (and your players will hopefully find this to be a fun exercise of its own, and that it’s a valuable way to build a coherent party).

    1. I am familiar with Fate, but using those ideas for any game sounds fun! Thanks Johnkzin… I like the idea of party creation, however, my one caveat is forcing people to go through the process. I realize some games require it to work, but for a game like D&D, even with all the backgrounds and motivations they’ve added for 5e, you could have someone that doesn’t really enjoy that aspect of the game, that prefers to play the vanilla human fighter, and maybe develop a semblance of a background during the game. I’m lucky that that’s not currently the case with my group of players, but I’ve had players like that whose motivation to come to come to come to the game is to let loose a little, bash a few goblin heads and laugh with his friends, only involved int he plot int he most basic sense. And at those times those were my friends I wanted the,m to come to the game so I allowed for their style of play and included them. Is it idea for my desire to tell a story? Well no, but all fun for all sorts of players, I Try to go with that…

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