This is yet another riff on group background generation, intended for a modern, single-city-based setting (but potentially useful in others). It’s a little lighter weight than my normal Smallville pathways riffs. The main intention is to get players to give you significant background details, motivations, and ties to places and NPCs in as concise a manner as possible. The details are probably most useful to a Fringe or Butterfly Effect style of game, where alternate presents are in the offing, but is useful just for its prelude-generating effect.

One: Reflect on a Choice

Pick a choice, explicit or implicit, you made in the past that resulted in your current circumstances. This can be something:

  • As thought out as which college you attended or which career you pursued
  • As spur of the moment as picking a fight that led to a catastrophe or jail time
  • That you could have had no inkling of the ramifications of when you made the choice like a call you didn’t make that might have delayed a loved one long enough to not get in an accident

The important thing about it is that you often reflect on how your life would be different if you had made a different decision. Maybe it’s something you’d change if you could, or maybe you’re happy that you dodged a metaphorical or literal bullet.

Two: Pick a Location

What location was central to the results of the choice? This is your chance to add significant places to the setting; either inventing them wholesale or ascribing plot significance to a location in the real city where your game is set. Expect to see this location come up in game and remind you of your choices. Err on the side of places you’d want to have as scene backdrops in game.

Is it the school you attended, the bar where you got in a fight, or the intersection downtown where the crash happened?

Three: Put a Face on It

Invent a (still living and active) NPC that was involved in or that you met as a direct result of the choice. This is a character you should have strong feelings about and expect to see come up regularly in the game.

Is it one of your family members or a favorite teacher at college, the opponent you maimed in the bar fight or the lawyer that got you through the trial, the cop who delivered the bad news or the friend who you were with when you forgot to call?

You can only pick the same face once, but the other players can choose that NPC as the face of one of their own choices (as long as he or she makes sense based on the inventing player’s description). Total up the number of players who picked each NPC at the end of the cycle, and that NPC becomes a free background/merit of that level for each player. For example, if three players picked the same NPC, she might be a Mentor 3 for her college student, a Contact 3 for her friend, and an Ally 3 for her sibling. (Obviously adjust these options for the traits available in your game system.)

Four: Choose a Symbolic Item

For each choice, invent an item that you can touch to remind yourself of your choice and sense of self. This should usually be something you own and can carry, because it may take on mystical significance in any kind of occult game. You can describe holding it or using it when you want to bring the background it represents to the forefront of the game.

Is it your class ring, your sobriety chip, or a keepsake from your dead loved one?

Repeat

Have each player go through this cycle for his or her character multiple times until you feel the background is rich enough and the players have enough “free” NPC relationship stats. All these steps are meant to be discussed with the group at the table, even if they aren’t necessarily common knowledge in game.

Further cycles don’t have to come from different time periods (e.g., teenagers make a lot of choices that will define their futures) or be in any kind of sequential order, but they do have to define the play space (e.g., if you didn’t go to school anywhere near the setting city, it’s probably not a relevant choice for the game).

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