Character histories have been part and parcel of role-playing games ever since Dave Arneson’s players had to figure out why their characters were crawling the dungeons under Castle Blackmoor. Between now and then there have been some games which took character origins and centered them; Traveller famously integrated a detailed character history into its character generation rules and many games emulated Traveller in one form or another. While many games offer a range of mechanical backstory generation, though, the most popular role-playing game and therefore the majority of players are given very little. While the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons has added a little above its predecessors (in the form of Backgrounds), first level D&D characters are largely a blank slate, leaving their history and origin up to the player.
When backstories are left up to the player, they become a battleground of narrative control. Some game masters, hungry for player input, get frustrated when a player expects race, class, and background to be enough and writes nothing. On the other hand, game masters much more concerned with their world (and perhaps not wanting to give players an opportunity to modify it) may resent even having to read the backstory a player writes; if they’re particularly vindictive or conceited they may even punish a player (we all saw the Tweet where a noxious GM joked that the character with the longest backstory would be the first to die). With such a range, it’s not hard to see that a mismatch of expectations is much more likely to cause trouble than what those expectations are.Continue reading The Push and Pull of Backstories