There’s been some back and forth going on in the blogosphere as of late concerning the need (or lack thereof) for characters to enter the game with a detailed history prior to their first steps down the path of adventure. It was only a matter of time before I opened my yap and chimed in on the subject, as late as I am in doing so. What follows is strictly my own opinion based on the way I like to do things and should not be taken as an attempt to tell anyone the correct way of playing.
I’m a man who prefers to be cold rather than hot. The reason for this preference is that, when I’m cold, I can always put on another layer of clothes to make myself more comfortable. When it gets too hot, I’m limited by how much I can remove to cool down. You can’t get past naked without making yourself a bloody wreck.
When it comes to my characters and their backstory, I have the same preference. I like to start with as little as possible and add more layers until I get comfortable. My foremost preference is to begin with nothing more than my character’s ability scores and class. Maybe a name if I’m feeling daring. If I’m forced to, I can accept having a come up with a paragraph of information describing what I’ve been up to prior to the first adventure session, but anything more than this is really too much in my eyes. It’s like being asked how your new car handles before you even get it out of the showroom.
A fresh first level character to me is too rich a canvas to apply the limits of backstory to. I’d much rather let things develop through the organic process of playing him on a regular basis rather than sitting down and working out the previous two decades of his life in order to see what makes him tick. By entering the game with absolutely nothing predetermined, I’m free to try out different takes on him, see what I like and don’t like, and give him a chance to be influenced by the events that occurred in game rather than theoretical ones that occurred off-camera.
I’ve been known to say that I don’t really know anything about my character until he’s hit third level. By then, I’ve played him long enough to make him seem real, not only to myself but to others around the table. I also suspect that this philosophy has something to do with the fact that many old gamers don’t want to get too attached to any character unless he’s made it out of the “high casualty twos” of first and second level.
Despite this preference, I am aware of the needs of the referee to have convenient plot hooks to hang things on the characters in their games. In acquiesce to their needs, I’ve been known to throw referees a bone or three during the initial character creation process and early adventures. Sometimes it’s something simple like noting that my character has an odd-shaped birthmark. If the ref decides that this is the mark that the local evil cult believes prophesizes the return of the Old Gods, then so be it. I can run with that. Other times, I might have my character develop a crush on a insignificant NPC. If the referee needs to use a damsel in distress or some overprotective big brothers to funnel adventure my way, I’ve just given him a way to do so. By giving the referee something to work with, I’m making his job easier without me having to work up some grandiose backstory that I may or may not like to spend the next two years of my recreation time stuck with. It’s a fair compromise.
When I’m on the other side of the GM screen, I try to encourage the same tabula rasa approach in my players but I’m willing to work with them. Experience has taught me a lot, however. I’ve lost track of how many times players have approached me with a backstory to their character that includes being a lost heir to the throne, heir to a sizable fortune, chosen of the gods, or destined for greatness. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not a referee who likes to tell my players they can’t do something. Instead, why not give them a chance? Here’s a social class table. Roll the bones and let’s see what you get. Maybe you are an heir apparent but there’s also a chance you’re a newly freed slave. Still want to chance it? You’ve got to go with what you get if we go down this route.
Players who come up with a perfectly normal backstory are free to play it that way with no strings attached. I will take the time to let them know that a well-formed character history isn’t going to save them any sort of plot immunity but if it they get more enjoyment out of the game, I’m not going to stop them. I’ve even worked out a method that will allow them the chance to have a little bit of “backstory flash” to work into their meticulously constructed biography. That method serves a purpose in regards to my hunt for a skill-less system of resolving challenges under the B/X and Labyrinth Lord rules set. I’ll get into the method in more depth in the final post in this series, wherein I reveal the simple yet consistent way of handling conflict resolutions not covered in those rules.