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.