Level One Wonk: Backstories

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we look at how to get into character before the game. Let’s write a backstory!

Ah, the backstory. Few player contributions can inspire such a large range of emotions, from beaming joy to seething resentment. In case it isn’t obvious, there are good backstories and there are bad ones. While the phrase “aspiring novelist” makes GMs the world over shudder, a good backstory will provide not only good structure to a new character’s personality but also plot hooks to get them invested in the game. Whether part of the game’s rules or a freeform exercise, there are some key concepts that can help you get the most out of writing a character history or backstory.

Baked-In Backstories

Plenty of systems have rules that get you started on a character history, with varying levels of structure. Though there are lots of games that give you flavor and roleplay elements (think perks and quirks in GURPS, or backgrounds in D&D), a smaller subset will have you trace out your character’s history using the available game rules. Fate’s default character creation works like this. Your High Concept and Trouble Aspects give the high-level overview of who your character is and what drives them, but it’s the next three Aspects, the “crossing paths” set, that gives you an opportunity to dive into your character history a little bit. You choose an important event in your life, and then write an aspect that is reflective of your character’s actions in the event. Then, you play a part in two other character’s big events. Not only does this give you a nice sampling of the trouble your character has gotten into, but it also connects you to at least two other party members.

Backstory rules can get much more serious in the form of lifepaths. A lifepath defines part or all of your character’s life, as well as any benefits or drawbacks which that time period created. Some games have you define your entire character through this mechanic. The ur-Lifepath was a mechanic in Traveller, where famously your character could die in character creation. While that statement is wonderfully shocking for the uninitiated, it made a lot more sense in context. As you create a Traveller character, you are progressing through a career out in space, with each stage in the lifepath representing a different tour of duty. You can put on as many life stages as you want, but each one increases the risk of the character dying or being crippled. In some ways it made character creation a game into and of itself, gambling with your in-game life for more skill points. Burning Wheel also defines the vast majority of your character through a  lifepath with stages; instead of a risk element, though, the number of life stages sets the power level for the game. Characters with three life stages are novices, four are adventurers, and five are veterans.

The key to using any baked-in backstory mechanic is to be aware that the rules aren’t going to do all the work for you. In most cases, the lifepath you roll or choose should spark as many questions as answers. Think about what led from one event or life stage to the next, as well as how that particular life stage fits into the vision of your character. In Burning Wheel it may be possible to be a squire who then becomes an outcast; think about what that transition would look like, and how many dramatic stories it could create!

Freeform Characterization

Sometimes, the system isn’t really going to help you. Having a charisma of 16 or 4 ranks in computer hacking doesn’t give you much to work with, so you’re going to have to write something yourself. Being a writer is great (I am doing this of my own free will every week), but you should consider some things to make sure that your backstory is both an effective exercise for your game, as well as something your GM actually wants to read.

First, make sure you actually should write a backstory off on your own. If you’re playing a PbtA game, for example, you may find that most of the establishment happens on-stage. Just like the GM of Apocalypse World shouldn’t write a story, a player shouldn’t write a backstory. In a game where you do need some character history, make sure you have clarity on the themes of the game as well as the mechanical positioning. The biggest mistake I’ve seen when it comes to backstories is the player who writes about their character’s adventures prior to the campaign, only to find that what they claim to have done is completely incongruous with, say, a level 1 D&D character. The other issue with this sort of backstory is that it, from a GM’s perspective, is often completely useless. It may be tempting to write up pages of your character kicking ass, but if you’re the GM, what good is that? What makes a good backstory is a combination of some good establishing moments with some juicy plot hooks. Being left for dead and swearing vengeance makes for a much more interesting on-stage story than killing the bad guys before the game even happens.

The other significant way to write for your GM (and your GM should be your main audience when writing backstories) is to keep length in mind. A good backstory tells a bit about who your character is, and gives some opportunities to link them into the plot. In most cases, background material or events that do neither of these things should be excised. To speak from experience, when GMing I have never read a player backstory longer than two pages (note that I didn’t say I’ve never received one). That is to say, a backstory probably shouldn’t be longer than this article!

After the Game Starts

Backstories are the primary way players establish truths about their character away from the table. They are not the only way. In the supplement Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, a GM’s guide for Cyberpunk 2020, Mike Pondsmith describes blue-booking, the act of either writing or role-playing events that happened in your character’s past. You establish with the GM the end result of the event, and then you’re free to either write or play out the event as you wish. While this may seem old hat for someone who’s played, say, Fiasco, it was pretty heady stuff in the early 90s and remains a good way to explore your character. As a campaign continues, especially a dramatic one, it’s likely you’ll discover moments in your character’s history that you want to explore more. This is a great impulse, especially if it can lead to further revelations at the table.

Backstory is a beautiful thing for RPGs, especially more narrative ones. Having a character with a history gives you some basis from which your character’s future actions can spring, especially if it’s early in the campaign and you don’t know the character well yet. The important thing to remember is that this narrative is still part of the game, and should exist in service of the game. While the temptation to be a novelist is great (ask me how I know), your character’s greatest moments should happen at the table. If your backstory sets up the context for one of those moments, then you know it’s made your character better.

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