Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What’s Your Story?

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.


Pere Ubu said...

All I know is, I'd kind of resent being required to write an extensive backstory for my 1st Level Wizard who's going to have a lifespan in the dungeon roughly equivalent to that of an unattended cheeseburger in a room full of hungry puppies.

Will Douglas said...

I totally agree.

I used to come up with backstories for characters, but nothing ever came of them. If the DM isn't going to even use it, why bother? It won't help me roleplay any better; I'm going to do what I do anyway.

Good post.

E.G.Palmer said...

Some times I create a character backstory, sometimes not. If I do, it's a concise single paragraph, and more about character traits than history. I like making up a world view for a character, but then, they become more of a person than a game piece and I get less willing to risk them at first. Also, making up a lot of history for the DM is like talking to the cops. whatever you say can and will be used against you. Just smile and nod.

jdebetolaza said...

I agree. As a player, I've been known to design long background for my characters, with lots of hooks for my DM to exploit (murders, stolen magic items, sworn enemies, you name it). Now I take a different approach, much like Mike's: let's see how the character develops in game.

On the other hand, I never requested more than a single line when I DMed (even for PCs starting above 1st level). I realize very few people enjoy it. Everybody should have fun, after all.

Chris Kutalik said...

Ironically, I've found giving the players a small optional carrot ("style points" ala Dave Bowman's house rules) for developing a short back story has helped me as a DM avoid the new school pitfall of being over-deterministic with heavy-handed plot devices.

By putting the players back into the center from the get go, Ive found that it gives them some control over the shaping of my overall stripped-down sandbox setting--and gives me lots of little angles to improvise around as the game unfolds.

That all said I hear y'all loud and clear about the "unique snowflake" notion (thank you Fight Club). I have found some balances to this notion in actual play. I roll my dice in front of them and have refused to tailor down danger areas in our sandbox to fit their levels. They know that they can die at any moment and the relative uniqueness of their characters can pass as readily with a bad call.

And you know, I've found out that the tension between the two has added an enjoyable play tension in the game.

Keith Sloan said...

I prefer the other end of the spectrum, especially as I use a homebrew campaign world and some backstory just adds yet more depth to the setting. However, like with everything else, I never require players to come up with more backstory than they want to, and I only occasionally use it to craft adventure ideas. Thus, my uber-geek players can craft long histories of great depth, while otehrs less inclined can go with the basic "left home for personal reasons" or whatever and leave it at that. I do find that the big roleplayers like the backstory to find the motivation for their character, to steal an acting phrase.

Stefan Poag said...

I've never been particularly good at remembering to use all of the elaborate backstories that players might come up with.
Like Pere Ubu, above, writing an essay about my halfling's childhood and ambitions only to see him get splattered by the first goblin in room 1 seems like a waste. Rather, if the hobbit should survive room 1, then go around boasting of how he killed a dozen orcs (rather than one dyspeptic goblin with rickets and a pointed stick) is more fun than a few pages of fanfic... especially if everyone knows that the hobbit is a liar...

word verification: ilimp
definition: a coin of small worth.

PTR said...

Next time, why not note that your PC lacks an odd-shaped birthmark? That could really throw the GM's plans for a loop.

Adam Dickstein said...

I'm in agreement with you, though I do like my players to come up with a little something.

Write a 10 page background detailing every element of you're prior history and there is really very little for me to do as your GM.

I prefer an origin, where are you from and why did you leave? What are you looking for? Wealth? A cure for the Illness plaguing your village? The guy who killed your mentor? Cool. That gets me working on ideas for adventures.

Barking Alien

RipperX said...

I always offer 100-500 bonus XP if you feel like writing one up for me, the number of XP isn't based on writing skills or plothooks fed to me, but the campaign itself can require a bit of an edge taken off.

As far as playing goes, I typically write up a brief outline, I've got 3 weeks between games, thus I have much time to get excited about a character. My outline typically has stuff that nobody needs to know, such as parents names and siblings, his/her favorite food, and what he/she hates. Then I sum it all up, leaving much of the boring details out, and try to keep it under a page long, as a DM I've gotten these multi-chaptered novellas, then angry PC's ticked because I didn't include this mystical gang of ruffians who kidnapped his sister in the next game. All of it should be short and to the point.

Maybe 1 open-ended plot-hook (sister kidnapped, a rivals name, etc.) My families profession which I had to help them with when I was young, and a very fast explanation of what I did to get from 0th level, to 1st. (Am Light Infantry for local Militia, Got drunk one night and POOF I'm a priest!, Folks dumped me off on this old wizard at the age of 6)And what my dream is, or any plans that it might have (Being a respected knight, buying a tavern, freeing the slaves, reducing the entire planet to ash cause mom didn't buy me a puppy when I was five)

The DM doesn't need to know every minute detail of my characters life, that is my job! I just give him a couple of highlights and the rest can be learned through actually playing the game.

Anonymous said...

My players hardly ever come up with detailed backstories unless I specifically ask for them – which is fine by me, as they always seem to create all sorts of intra-party conflicts. Let the characters grow from their experiences in play, that makes their quirks and personalities all the more memorable.

On the other hand, a general idea of a character's background can sometimes help stave off the nasty skill issue in Basic D&D. "The son of a fisherman, you say? Sure, you can swim."

As a GM, I avoid character predestination. "Crops have failed for two years in a row; You are forced to seek your fortunes outside your home village" gets them going, and I'd rather watch them explore the setting and pick their sides than assign them roles from the start.

Justin Alexander said...

There's a whole tangle of issues here.

First, there's the difference between crafting a character and discovering a character. Both approaches have their benefits and their disadvantages.

Second, the expected longevity of the character: For my Ptolus campaign my players and I collaborated on character histories that were intimately connected to the setting in various ways. These ranged anywhere from 1-3 pages, depending on the player and the character.

In my OD&D campaign using the Caverns of Thracia, OTOH, we expected character mortality to be high (it was) and the entire group only got about 3 sentences of background before the fur started to fly.

Third, there's the issue of how character backgrounds can be developed and used (by both the player and the GM). The short version is: There are lots and lots and lots of ways to use them. There are also lots and lots of way to abuse them.

Which is why you'll get plenty of horror stories talking about the guy who showed up with nothing but a stat block (and played nothing but a stat block). And you'll also end up with plenty of horror stories about the guy with a 15 page character background.

And, on the flip-side, you'll also hear all the great stories about the guy who had no pre-worked history but became the Most Memorable Character Ever(TM). And you'll hear the great stories about the guy who developed a 15 page character background giving the GM all kinds of useful hooks and providing the dramatic foster for some of the most moving roleplaying you've ever seen.

There really isn't any right-and-wrong here.