We don’t use backgrounds as strictly written in the books (we do very little exactly as written in the books, and the books say we’re allowed to do exactly that). But backgrounds are very important when creating characters—whether that character is a spur-of-the-moment NPC, a carefully detailed adversary, or a player character.
We just don’t worry about the dot values as much.
That being said, the most important and vital background (which has multiple equivalents in the rules, depending on which approach you take) is: Connections. This really encompasses all the various official Backgrounds on the character sheet, but it may be a different way of looking at them. Because what matters isn’t the dots one has in Mentor, Ally, Status, Domain, Retainer, etc. What matters are the connections that trait represents, and how they can be used to draw the character into a story where those connections are relevant and mean something.
It’s very rare that a character has no connection to anyone or anything else in the chronicle setting. Everyone has something—and player characters in particular need them, to give them a reason to interact and get involved with whatever the story is going to be, and with the other player characters and NPCs already resident and involved.
Players (well, not my players, but sometimes other players) often see connections as vulnerabilities, things that can be used against them, and so they resist having them. They’re right, of course—but that’s also where stories come from. Connections motivate a character to take risks, to get involved. Connections are hooks to drag a player character into a storyline or ongoing plot, either willingly or kicking and screaming. And connections are guides to the Storyteller on what kind of STORY you want your character to be involved in.
Connections can represent a wide variety of relationships and resources the character has to draw upon (or for the storyteller to use in order to get the character into trouble):
Blood ties: The player has blood ties (sire, brood-siblings, childer) to other Kindred in the area, individuals with whom he shares some degree of “family” relationship. It may be a dysfunctional relationship—no one says he has to get along with that sire or blood-siblings. But the connection, and the relationship it provides, gives a kind of grounding to the character, and figures into his past, and possibly into how he perceives himself as a vampire. This can also include blood bonds—voluntary or otherwise.
Mortal Roots: The player character grew up in this city, and has mortal family here, old school friends, and likely other social or professional connections to the mortal world she lived in before her Embrace. It also means she knows the city—the bus routes, the shopping, the local history, the neighborhoods—better than someone who grew up somewhere else. Whether her “death” is known, and what her relationships are with extended family and old friends can vary—but those are details that need to be worked out. Either way carries story potential.
Vendetta: The player character has a serious (the more serious the better) score to settle with a particular (elder) Kindred in town. It may (or may not) be justified, but the character certainly believes it is. (Further information may indicate otherwise; further information that indicates otherwise may come too late. There are a lot of places you can go with this kind of story lead). It could also be reversed, and have the player character be the TARGET of some other character’s vendetta—due to a past incident that should be worked out (if not already played through) in detail, preferably without the player knowing there’s someone fixated on revenge as a result).
Red Ledger: The player character owes someone (an elder, possibly, or at least some other Kindred in the city, could even be another player character) a serious prestation debt. Don’t allow them to make it vague. Work out the specifics of how that debt was incurred, and why and how, and to whom. The nature of the past debt, and the character to whom it is owed will give you as Storyteller some idea of how to go about using a story to call it in. (and again, it can always go the other way).
Turf/Domain: A haven (that he owns, not just squats in), a business (from 24-hour Laundromat to sports bar or restaurant, an old apartment building he collects rents/income from), turf that he feels a connection and territorial right to (neighborhood he grew up in, a university campus, a stretch of parkland or beach, an abandoned asylum, dragon-infested mountain kingdom). Something he feels ownership of and undisputed RIGHTS to, that he will fight to defend, or reclaim. This also includes people—vampires do see ghouls and herd as property, and any other vampires hunting on his turf are in fact trespassing and poaching. The question is, what is he gonna DO about it? Go whining to the prince? (come to think of it, does the Prince acknowledge his right to that turf? Maybe need to deal with this on his own….)
In general what I suggest is to have at least two distinct Connections for each and every character (both player characters and NPCs—though NPCs may have more). These connections can work in with the official Background traits if you’re using points – but their real purpose is to help connect the player’s character into the story, so keep that in mind when coming up with specifics for “Mentor” or “Ally” etc.
One connection is a POSITIVE one: A mentor, a sire, a family member who can still be a valuable contact in some way, an Ally among local Kindred, etc. Someone with whom the character has a good relationship, who may aid him with advice, shelter, support, or help him get his ass out of trouble—once. The quality of that connection may change in course of play, but for starting out, it’s there to help him out if he needs it. The connection could even be to one of the other player characters – in fact, there should be at least SOME connection between the player characters set up in advance, even if it’s just with one of them.
The other connection is NEGATIVE. A debt owed to someone who’s likely to call it in at the least convenient time. Someone who has reason (or at least thinks he does) to dislike or even want to harm or disgrace the character. Possibly even want him killed (but for whatever reason, is taking his own sweet time seeking revenge). Someone he’s pissed off in the past, or cheated, or annoyed (even without intending it). This isn’t a secret; the character and this other NPC are well aware of the cause of friction between them. (Work the details out in pre-game, and make them specific.) This too can change during the course of play… one way or the other. This should definitely be with an NPC—if the player character is going to piss off his fellows, let him do that in game.
And if you’re starting up a new character, or a new chronicle—the first few storylines should focus on creating some of those connections, however possible. They don’t have to be all good ones (because for story purposes, enemies are just as useful as friends), but whatever the storyline is, the ultimate goal should be to start letting the characters build and define what the dots on their character sheet represent in terms of real connections with other characters in the city (which can include fellow player characters, of course).
You don’t have to come up with ALL of those connections at once—start with one or two, and let the others fill themselves in as the chronicle progresses and the need for a such a connection comes up. Even better, make it part of the current story. If they actually PLAY it, the connection will mean a great deal more to them, and be more valuable for you as Storyteller, too.
Best example I’ve seen recently of building up a network of connections: the Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher. In the first novel, Harry is pretty much acting on his own. But over the course of a dozen-plus books, as a result of actions he’s taken in the stories themselves, he’s gotten himself in and out of a lot of serious trouble—but he’s also built up a supporting cast of Contacts, Allies and Retainers (to use the game terms), even a powerful Mentor, whom he can call upon for information, aid, and alliances, even when they don’t necessarily like him. Not all those connections go well for him (or the people he forms them with), but overall, the threads they form keep on growing as Harry himself grows as a person, and as a wizard.
That’s the value of connections. They’re not just dots on the character sheet, each one of them represents a person or group of people (even if not human), and are the result of past actions, situations, storylines, etc. that can be drawn upon for future storylines as well. They’re what make the character what he is; and reveal a great deal about his personality, humanity, and where future storylines can take him.