Heyup, I've cross-posted this from the New Player and Player Support facebook so we can find it again easily. Enjoy.
So. I've been prodded with sharp sticks by some of the Backgrounds team to put up a short post about character backgrounds for Empire. Short post! Ha! It's like they never met me. It might ramble a bit, so bear with me.
Before we go any further, the useful wiki pages are this one, this one, and the Core Reading for the various Imperial nations. In fact if you just read them you can skip this whole post!
WHAT ARE BACKGROUNDS FOR?
First of all, they're for you. They're there to help you nail down who this person is you are playing at Empire. The first bit of advice Liam (one of the background team) gives to people is KISS - keep it simple. There's no point telling us you murdered your parents for their money to finance your crime-fighting career if two years down the line you've forgotten it
They're also for us. We have a team that read backgrounds (and use our robust tagging system to tag them with topics we think are important like "crime" or "amnesia" or "Wendigo"), and we have a team of plot writers who regularly dip into backgrounds to support their plots. If a writer is working on a plot about crime-lords in Bastion, they may delve into the backgrounds of Highborn players and root around looking for people with criminal pasts to aim parts of the plot at ... or to drop into trouble by threatening to expose as ex-criminals.
What we categorically don't use them for is to tailor individual plots to every character. We just don't have the resources or the inclination. You might play the entire game and the fact you are an amnesiac may never come up. We may never do anything with your obscure birth-mark shaped like a crown. In fact the odds are that we never will - you lot outnumber us hundreds to one.
GOOD BACKGROUND PRACTICES
- Keep it Simple - see above. You need to remember it. Worse - and I am a monster bear in mind - when I see a background where someone is the story equivalent of your character being a magicuser-cleric-thief-bard-fighter I'm less inclined to do anything with that than I am when I read a background with one or two key, straightforward elements.
- Keep it Short - there's a word limit but that's not a challenge. On the occasions where we've wanted extra details (say, your father turns out to be a Grendel spy) we will just ask you what their name was.
- Keep it Specific - "I killed my best friend over a pile of coins" is more useful to use than "I am a murderer". "I want to become Meraud's magical champion in the Empire" is way more useful than "I am interested in Eternals." In some ways, it can help to imagine you are writing an NPC brief for yourself - what key elements about my own history would I need to know if I was playing myself as an NPC?
FIVE COMMON ERRORS
This is not a dig, but there are five common errors that everyone makes when writing an Empire background:
ITS A TOLERANT SOCIETY - The Empire does not discriminate on matters of gender or sexuality. Despite some of the historical periods the game draws on women are not second class citizens who have to struggle to be allowed to learn to read, or become soldiers, or start a world-famous gossip-and-fashion magazine. Likewise, nobody gets shunned or murdered for pursuing same-sex romance. Anything that is covered by our Equality and Diversity statement is covered in-character in the game world, as well as out of character, and is a Universal Truth in the game. The Asaveans are slavers, but they treat their slaves equally badly. The Grendel are smug, rapacious pirates but they see a romance between two men as just as ripe for exploitation as any other weakness.
SOCIAL MOBILITY IS FUNDAMENTAL: There are poor people in Empire, and there are rich people, but there are no Imperial slaves, and no hereditary class of serfs. The yeomen of the Marches and Dawn are hardworking landowners as often as they are farm labourers. Indeed, anyone with a bit of get-up-and-go can get themselves a farm (which provides them with a rich income) by doing two years of military service.
As the Boss has said recently. playing a beggar at Empire is hard ... because everyone has a personal resource. Begging for spare coins is tricky given everyone knows everyone else has a regular income of money or materials.
WE TAKE LAW AND ORDER SERIOUSLY: The Empire has a strong Law and Order theme. The Magistrates are NPCs who treat all crimes seriously. There is no "thieves' guild" or "assassin's guild" at Empire because whenever anyone tries to create one (historically) the Magistrates, the militia, and the people of the Empire arrest them. The closest you get are the Vyig (https://www.profounddecisions.co.uk/empire-wiki/Vyig) who are near universally despised - and last time they stuck their head above the parapet, the Empire rooted them out and executed them.
This goes for NPCs too - if your aunt kills your parents and steals your dog, the Magistrates will arrest her and execute her and help you get your dog back. Assuming there is evidence.
NO PRISONS: A follow on from Law and Order but we see it all the time. The Empire doesn't boother with prisons, chain gangs, indentured servitude, or any other "forced to do something by dour prison guards" scenario. The closest you get is penal servitude, which is a rare punishment and is basically just a slightly more complicated death sentence. If you are found guilty of a crime, you are generally fined or executed. We don't want players to waste time in a stockade in uptime, we don't let them do it in their backgrounds.
INHERITANCE IS NOT REALLY A THING: The Empire is a meritocracy. It doesn't have hereditary nobles - a Dawnish earl gets their title by being declared earl by their house. Stewards are picked by their yeomen. A dhomiro is the poor sap forced by their family to waste their weekends arguing with other dhomiro instead of drinking alcoholic fruit drinks in the sun. And so on. People pass heirlooms on to their kids (or anyone else they fancy), but the idea that someone would inherit a title, or even a business, is a strange one. The Imperial Throne is elected by the Senate, not decided by the order in which someone is born into a privileged group of nobles. The idea that someone is better than someone else because of who their parents were is probably blasphemy, as it happens. "Heirs to thrones" is something foreign weirdos do - and not even many of them.
AVOID HISTORICAL FIGURES - We saw this a lot early on but its less and less common but worth mentioning. If you tell someone on the field "Empress Britta was my mother!" they will in all likelihood say dome variation of "So? So what?" We're also likely to reject any background in which your character has special knowledge about events that we define as mysteries ... or special knowledge period. Saying "I have explored the Vore" will get rejected. Saying "I spent six years among the Druj so I know all sorts of things about their culture that are not on the main wiki" is a recipe for disappointment as we won't support that.
(BONUS) LONE WOLVES HAVE LESS FUN - Helena reminded me of this one. Empire is a social game - and a lot of the fun (and indeed the game) comes from interacting with other players. A character who is a lone wolf who hates people will consequently have less fun.
FINALLY ... ITS GOOD TO BE IMPERIAL
Empire is a closed world - that means it is a setting all of its own. You can't bring in a new nation, or a new virtue, or a new eternal. You can't play a character from your favourite novel or TV series without putting at least a bit of effort into re-imagining it as an Imperial version of Littlefinger (or whatever).
The entire game is built on the foundation that the players are the citizens of this powerful, rich, slightly crazy, four-hundred-year-old Empire, with these ten nations, six lineages, and one religion. Riff on these facts by all means - but the more you put yourself outside the brief, the more ways you differ from that expectation of "Imperial citizen of Nation X", the worse a time you are going to have. Yes, it reduces your creative options a little - but at the end of the day it helps everyone on the field and off it to create a coherent, consistent, immersive game world. Which improves the fun for everyone!
And you can start improving the fun by putting together a good, solid, straightforward, background with one or two interesting hooks written in to shape how you interact with it.