Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Frakking Unusual Backgrounds, how do they work?!

No. Seriously. How do they work? There have been numerous threads about the subject, and it came up again recently. So I’m going to give my take on it.

Unusual Background is a highly customizable, variable trait. It’s highly customizable because it’s not meant for players, it’s meant for GMs. When a GM designs his campaign setting he decides ahead of time what he is and isn’t going to allow. These design decisions shape what traits are going to be permitted in his game. Sometimes though, a player wants to do something that isn’t necessarily against the design the GM was going for, but rather something the GM didn’t think of or consider. Alternatively, maybe it’s something he did consider, but dismissed as not being relevant. In such a case a GM could, and should, charge an Unusual Background to the player wanting to do whatever odd thing the GM did not consider

Another thing to consider Unusual Background as, is a scale of “power.” If certain traits (Innate Attack dice, Damage Resistance, Attributes over a limit, etc.) are “impossible,” then the GM ought to allow an Unusual Background at least one “level” up.

But this isn’t the only time when an Unusual Background should be considered. Sometimes, the best examples of an Unusual Background, are when they are not even seen. Consider a supers campaign where all the player characters are supers, but superpowers themselves are actually rare throughout the game world. The GM is effectively giving his player’s Unusual Background (Super) for free. He’s including it in the starting point budge for his players, but isn’t even mentioning it. It’s just a fact of the campaign. All player characters are super-powered.  But what if a player doesn’t want super powers? What if he wants to be more like The Punisher than Spider-Man? In such situations, you can go on and say, “Sure, buy really high skill and attribute levels and ignore the exotic traits.” And that’s an okay approach! There is nothing wrong with that, but what I like to do is to figure out what Unusual Background would need to be paid in such a campaign and then retro the points back to the player who wants to play the normal guy. He gets extra points to spend on things like Luck and Daredevil (the advantage, not the blind guy with the whoop’um sticks) to keep him alive while tussling with super powered foes. He should also get to break some of the rules. If Luck or Extraordinary Luck are the only levels of that trait allowed, normal-guy should be able to buy Ridiculous Luck. He’s not especially lucky. He’s just really skilled.

More radically, Unusual Background can serve as a sort of meta “blind ante” trait. If you’re running a game where you’re not willing to have but so many of a specific type of character around, then the player who puts the most points in his Unusual Background trait is the one that gets to play that character. For example, if a GM is running a Middle-Earth campaign, everyone is probably going to want to play an Elf or Wizard or Lost King or something. In such a game, the GM may decide that no one is playing the Lost King, and one player can play an Elf and a Wizard. All the players who want to play either archetype “ante up” by writing the most points they are willing to spend to play either archetype on a sheet of paper and handing it over to the GM. Whoever wins gets to create the character they want, but keep in mind that doing so does remove character points that could be spent on making a really cool character of a less covetous archetype – say, a mere hobbit. Who’d want to play a hobbit? 😉

Keep in mind that the GM can just say “No” or “Yes” or even “Yes, but…” and ignore every bit of this, but if the GM is not willing to work with his player’s reasonable requests he probably won’t have many players very soon. Offering the players Unusual Backgrounds for Unusual Characters isn’t just about GM Fiat, it’s about cooperation on both ends. You can’t have a GM without players, and you can’t have players without a GM – well; you can, but those guys are a pretty sad and lonely lot*. I feel for them

So the next time you’re setting at your GMs table, and he says, “No. No ninja’s in my pirate campaign!” ask him “If I pay an Unusual Background to come from Singapore and had some Far East training can I have some ninja powers?” Most GMs will work with you. They want you to have as much fun as they do.

* I’m not talking about gamers without steady groups, I’m talking about those odd ducks who don’t want to game with a GM because they don’t trust GMs. this is something I’ve seen popping up more and more lately and I have to wonder why this trend is on the rise. Are abusive GMs really that prevalent? But that’s the topic of another post.

Posted in Gamemaster's Guidepost and tagged , .


  1. Great article!  I have a comment that ought to be posted elsewhere because I don't want to derail from this topic.  But let me do so and get it out of the way and maybe you can devote another guidepost to it.  

    Paragraph two, sentence two "When a GM designs his campaign setting he decides a head of time what he is and isn't going to allow."

    This has been my biggest hurdle when considering campaign creation in GURPS as someone who cut his teeth using 'those other guy's' system.  To design everything upfront is counter intuitive to what has soaked into my bones since day one.  I can appreciate this in theory, but I found it to be quite the slog as I was/am being introduced to the system. 

    I'm not knocking it.  I'm very intent on tackling that learning curve, but thus far the curve looks more like an American Gladiators confidence course – I may not get past the second obstacle.  

    Contributing to all this I firmly believe is
    A) having not even really played in this system is a detriment and
    B) not having a GURPS mentor to be a soundboard when it comes to asking very basic and rudimentary questions.  I know I can turn to the forums, but that can be a very long process for a simple yes/no find the reference here answer.  Sometimes I don't even know how to frame the question.

    We now return you to your scheduled Guidepost

  2. This is definitely topical first of all. Second, when I say "Design ahead of time," what I mean is: figure out the overall impetus of the campaign and then pick whatever traits you are or are not going to allow. I'd used the Traitor Sorter ( before and I really suggest that new GMs use it. You don't have to write a book before you play, just sketch out what you want to do and go from there. Start small, and go big. It's usually the only thing that makes sense when
    you're running a GURPS game.

    That said, feel free to email me any time you have GURPS questions and I will answer them to the best of my ability.

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