Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Character Backstories Done Better: Part 1

I hate asking my players for backstory stuff before our first sessions. It feels like assigning homework. And not the fun kind of homework, like pouring over game books to choose a race, class, feat-tree, spells, etc. The crappy kind, like a creative writing assignment for college. Ew.

Even I, an aspiring creative writer, would rather just be able to sit down and do only the stuff I enjoy about the game. It is a game, after all. How many potential RISK games have ended before they began because of the laborious setup? Even if it is a small investment, like one hour out of six hours spent on the game, it is at worst off-putting for many new players, and at best a chore for the pen & paper veterans out there.

The standard way of getting players to characterize backstory is by asking them for a write-up of some kind to be delivered to the GM before the game. The GM then (ideally) takes these backstories and tries to shoehorn them into his/her already pretty much established story line.

[Note: Sandbox games would seem to avoid this conundrum, but then you have the problem of no plot momentum. A player's backstory will only become relevant if the sandbox party decides to pursue it. Pick your poison.]

I don't like the standard way, because I have played games that do it better. Bully Pulpit Game's FIASCO, for example, is a storytelling game where all the players (there is no GM) decide their characters' backstories by a combination of randomly generated details and collective brainstorming. This all happens before the game technically begins, so the surprises in the story come from peoples' actions as opposed to their history and connection to the story. But that is the point of FIASCO, that is its narrative niche, and it works.

In other words, FIASCO has a backtory mechanic (or system, as it were) that produces backstories that fit the narrative scope of the game. The backstories all result in people with unstable relationships, bad habits, questionable morals, and dirty secrets. Put them in a contrived plot, and you get a FIASCO. Success.

So what kind of characters does the "standard" backstory system (never really written in rules, just accepted as the "best we can do" by GMs and players everywhere) create, and what does this tell us about the stories that pen & paper RPGs are going for? A few examples:

  • This character is a loner, whose family/wife/child/best friend/village/etc. were killed/wiped out. They walk the world alone now, like some non-drow Drizzt book, forever alone and maybe seeking revenge. *Queue sad music*.... Oh boy am I guilty of this one. Everyone is. We write out a backstory about how our character doesn't have/do well in relationships, in a game where the whole point is to work as a team. Terrible. Either your backstory will be ignored for the sake of the game, or the game will be run into the ground for the sake of your backstory. Or the GM will be running four separate mini-campaigns to fill in everyone's backstory quota. This is bad.
  • This character has an enormous organization or country unique to his/her backstory that will need to be entirely fleshed out in order to incorporate it into the GM's plot. He/she is a pirate king, the wealthiest merchant in the seven seas, a robber baron, the leader of a robin hood-type band of countrymen, a knight of some far-away land, a cousin to the king of the neighboring country, etc. But for some reason, they choose to explore dungeons and kill trolls instead of do the things those kinds of people would actually do. I'm guilty here too. 
I'm gonna stop at this second one, though I could do more, because I have a particularly salient example for it. Let me introduce you to one of my favorite characters.

Blood-back Jack.

A human merchant man named Jack, and his beautiful daughter of sixteen are stopping in at an island coastal town to trade and sell wares. As Jack and his daughter are about to take their small merchant boat elsewhere, pirates attack the town. They take Jack and his daughter captive. Jack they leave alive so they can appraise his wares and get an idea of what they might fence them for. The daughter they leave alive for other more obvious reasons.

First they torture Jack by tying him to a tree and whipping his back raw. He tells them everything they want to know. They let him go, leaving him naked, with no food or money. (Hey! That's bad backstory #1!)

Jack runs into the jungle of the island in search of help. Anyone that might save his daughter. He finds an old shaman woman, perhaps a native of the island, not like the (now dead) townsfolk. He beseeches her to save his daughter's soul. Save her innocence, he pleads, and give him the power to fight off the pirates. He will give the woman anything she wants in return. 

Anything? Anything.

The shaman woman spins dark spells and incantations, and produces a crystal ball. Jack peers into it, and sees the ghostly face of his daughter inside. She says, "Father?". 

Jack looks up to the shaman woman, to see his daughter looking back at him, with the shaman woman's dark and manipulative eyes staring out of her innocent looking face. The shaman woman has sent the soul of Jack's daughter into the crystal ball before the pirates could defile her. Her chastity is safe. In payment, she has taken his daughter's body and youth for herself. Oh, and one more thing.

The shaman woman touches her rattling wooden staff to Jacks head, and everything goes dark.

Jack wakes up in the same place, the crystal ball sitting next to him. His daughter's soul is still trapped inside. The shaman woman in his daughter's body is nowhere to be found. But now Jack can feel a dark power coursing through him. The wounds on his back have all closed over with a deep red scar tissue. 

He returns to the town, to find all the pirates searching for his daughter who disappeared hours before. Jack exacts his revenge on them with blasts of dark energy, leaving none alive. He takes the pirate ship for himself, builds a crew, and declares himself Captain Blood-back Jack. Some call him Jack Fiend, for his hellish powers. He roams the seven seas (this is all bullet #2) in search of a magic that can restore his daughter.

That was a backstory I made up for a human warlock I played a number of times. He is one of my favorite characters. But none of his backstory was ever resolved, or even mentioned in game.


Because in the first session I played with him, his pirate ship was blown to smithereens by a (WAY too overpowered) Gnome Sorcerer Merchant named Fives McGee. Jack declared Fives his arch-nemesis from that session on, and he never looked back. Jack's backstory was my story of Jack, but my friends' story of Jack was totally different, and when I played with them, I have to admit, I wanted to learn more about that Fives McGee story line.

Because it happened in game. Everyone at the table knew about it. The drama was real instead of forced.

I think that is where I'll leave off this first part. Tomorrow I'll give you my suggestions for how to make your backstory mechanics so that they create interesting, collective stories, as opposed to fantasy-writer-in-training-esque shameless ego-stroking.

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