13th Sage: How to Use Backgrounds in a Modern Setting

A 13th Age GM recently asked for advice on using Backgrounds in a modern setting. At first I didn’t see the problem—”Former circus performer” should work the same in the modern world as it does in the Dragon Empire, right?

But when I really gave it some thought, I saw the difficulty. “Former circus performer” in the Dragon Empire lets the player do loads of world-building, unconstrained by real-world facts and enhanced by the magic of the setting. Likewise, the GM has complete freedom to use that Background to create adventure and campaign hooks relevant to that character.

However, if your game is set in the modern wold it becomes more difficult, especially if you care about some degree of accuracy, and real-world believability. It’s can be even harder if that Background is connected to a region or a culture you aren’t very familiar with. What, realistically, could a modern-day character with the Background “subsistence farmer” do with it? What if they were a subsistence farmer in New England? Rural Japan? A tiny island near Madagascar? What compelling and believable adventure and campaign hooks could the GM create?

Here’s how I’d handle this.

First, remember that a GM needs to know just enough about a thing to make it believable and entertaining at the table, and no more.

Also, remember that Backgrounds, like other character creation mechanics, exist to generate fun.

Third, recall that 13th Age players and GMs work together to build out the world, and create adventures that are relevant to the characters.

Let’s say I’m running a modern-day campaign set in the United States, where the player characters are a ragtag band of wandering misfits who roam the country, get involved in some local troubles, resolve them, and then head off into the sunset. One player decides that her character, who is Chinese-American, has the Background, “Former circus performer in China”.

For the purposes of gaming at our table we could leave it at that, in which case the player occasionally says something like, “I squeeze through the bars of this jail cell using a trick I learned from the contortionist at the circus.” That’s fine!

However, if that player made the circus Background a +5, that player is telling me she wants this part of her character’s life to be an important element of the game. If it’s connected to a One Unique Thing and/or icon relationships, she might want it to be one of the things that defines the campaign.

In order to find ways to incorporate this Background into the campaign story arc. I’d ask questions like:

  • How did you come to join the circus?
  • What made that circus different from others?
  • Was it successful? Struggling?
  • How long were you in it?
  • What was your role—your job, but also your place in the society within the circus?
  • What was your relationship with the owners? The performers? Other employees?
  • When did you leave, and how?
  • Why did you leave? Was it on good terms, or bad terms? Were you able to leave freely, or did you escape?

Guided by these answers, I would do some research on circuses, especially ones in China—just enough to create compelling story hooks relevant to that character, ones that would feel believable in play.

Hmm. Wikipedia* has very little on circuses in China. Here’s what I found just now:

  • In the 1800s, a Frenchman named Louis Soullier was one of three early circus owners who introduced the circus to China. He was the first circus owner to introduce Chinese acrobatics to the European circus.
  • “Chinese variety art” is the English translation of a Chinese term which covers a wide range of acrobatic acts and other demonstrations of physical skill traditionally performed by a troupe in China. These include plate-spinning, Shaolin monks who resist projectiles thrown or fired at them, kung fu demonstrations, unicycling, balancing on balls, and contorting.
  • “Circus” refers to a Western-style circus, which may include Chinese variety art. The Chinese State Circus is a touring circus presenting these arts to European audiences.
  • Both Eastern and Western circuses have undergone a revival and transformation since the 1970s, with elaborate themed productions, often telling a story through characters which reappear throughout the show. In the Chinese State Circus, this is the figure of the legendary Monkey King.

Whoa. Wait a second. As described in the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, the Monkey King rebelled against the divine Jade Emperor and was imprisoned by the Buddha in a mountain. He was released 500 years later, and atoned for his crimes by protecting the monk Tang Sanzang. The Monkey King does all kinds of amazing feats—the kind you’d see in…a circus featuring Chinese variety art.

Not only do I now have some background information to work with in handling skill checks, I’ve made an important thematic connection in my head. I’m reminded that “circus performer” is more than a set of skills: it’s an archetype, an iconic outsider figure who uses skill, cleverness, unpredictability, and humor to overcome obstacles and enemies (often the forces of law and order).

Here’s what I might challenge this player character with:

  • Physical obstacles that put these skills and qualities to the test, and which resemble the sorts of challenges overcome in Chinese variety arts and circuses.
  • Enemies who are their opposite number: solid, straightforward, and serious.
  • Enemies who are their distorted mirror image: skillful, clever, and unpredictable outsiders. Maybe this includes a recurring villain, someone who’s very much like the PC but with an important difference that puts them at odds.

Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s fine for circuses, which are fun and interesting. What about the boring Background, ‘I am a former page in the United States Congress’? How do I give that depth, and find story hooks for it?”

Just as we did in the example above, you learn a bit about how it works, ask questions, and find the fun. You might find out he got the highly-coveted job of page because his late father blackmailed a senator who had ties to a powerful Mob boss. If that’s the case, you could run an adventure where the group arrives in a town to discover that the character’s father, who vanished recently, now lives there as part of a witness protection program. And guess who else just figured this out, and sent a car full of hit men?

This works for auto salvage yard owners, tax preparers, homemakers, and every sort of life path.

If a character’s Backgrounds are really just bundles of skills, summarized in a sentence, that’s okay. But if inspiration strikes, your players might be incredibly entertained when a shadowy conspiracy comes after the former tax preparer because the client he helped five years ago was a time traveler from the future, changing history one tax return at a time.

*Wikipedia is sufficient if all I’m doing is running a game for my friends. If I’m turning this into a published adventure or campaign, I’m going to do a lot of thorough research, and take steps to ensure I’m representing real-world cultures accurately and respectfully.


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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