The Push and Pull of Backstories

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.

As is often the case, the answer to a backstory conflict is communication. Once everyone understands each other, though, you still need to bridge the gap between how much a player wants to write, how much the GM wants to read, and how much all players expect character histories to be employed at the table. For a GM who wants more, there are ways to get your questions answered and your prep enriched without assigning homework. For GMs who regularly get sent thousands of words, there are ways to satisfy your players’ engagement and desire for narrative control without feeling that the homework has been given to you.

History Books

Even if it may not seem like it at the time, players who want to write you thousands of words about their character are a gift. More player engagement is pretty much always better, and in the cases it isn’t, the intent is still positive. With the amount of prep a GM typically does in a traditional game, reading a character’s backstory shouldn’t be all that onerous; you will be reading your fair share anyway, after all. That said, if you’re being handed a long backstory, it’s reasonable to ask for a summary. It is a good exercise for players to identify what parts of their character’s story are most unique to that character (compared to other characters of the same class, background, or trope), and what parts of the backstory will be important in session 1. This also helps define the two different exercises inherent in writing a backstory: Establishing who your character is in a broad narrative sense, and establishing how your character fits into the game. The GM is allowed to only care about the second, though punishing the first is both counterproductive and a real jerk move.

One of the actual problems with a long backstory is that players often write material that ends up coming into direct conflict with the established reality of the campaign. In D&D, the most common example of this is the level 1 problem. Level 1 characters in pretty much every edition of D&D are just starting out; they may be special in some way but they have neither much history nor much experience. If a player writes a backstory about their level 1 character already zipping around the world as an adventurer, then that backstory is violating the established truth of the campaign, and an established truth codified in the rules at that. In this case, though also in most cases, it can help to remind a player that the most interesting parts of a character’s story should happen at the table, not in the backstory. For something like the level 1 problem specifically, the end solution is always communication. Making sure everyone understands what the implicit expectations for characters are in the game you’re playing is important, and if a player is new to D&D they may not understand exactly where the character’s coming in on the ladder (this is true for all games, but if someone is playing their first RPG ever it’s probably D&D). 

There is a flipside to this. If you’re running something like Twilight:2000, where a character’s average age is quite a bit higher than D&D, or if you’re running a game with advanced characters, like Burning Wheel with six lifepaths or a Knight-level game of Force and Destiny, the characters have been around the block a few times. The number of adventures that everyone’s taken part in, together or separately, is much much higher than in a D&D game starting at level 1. This doesn’t change the need for alignment, per se, but it does mean that players have the opportunity to write a lot more and the GM may actually have to read it. The good thing is that by virtue of how these games expand character creation to incorporate the starting power level, there’s a lot more that players can write while maintaining compatibility with the character’s mechanical definition as well as the story.

An expectation around that may be important to establish is how you’re going to use a player’s backstory, if at all. If you want to muck with any of the NPCs presented in there, dangle plot hooks off of them, kidnap them, even kill them, the key word is consent. Some players will dangle plot hooks quite deliberately, and want the GM to grab them. Others just want their character to have a sibling, not for that sibling to be kidnapped. You don’t have to spoil anything, but at the very least ask if a player-written NPC is ‘open season’, or not. If you’re going to do something like kill the NPC offscreen, you may want to ask specifically…if your group typically produces long backstories with many NPCs, this may be a good place for a safety tool like Lines and Veils, so your players establish what they are and aren’t OK with without the GM having to ask specifically and spoil a plot. On the complete other hand, it is a good idea for you to establish expectations about how much of the backstory, if any, will come up during the game at all. I would call it the norm that half or more of plot hooks, player-written or not, are never hooked during a campaign. It can be important to remind everyone of this, though, lest a player get upset that you never gave them an opportunity to exact revenge on their Uncle.

Sad to say, GMs, but you aren’t going to get out of reading things, especially in higher power level games. The higher power level games, though, can also be the ones where it’s the most frustrating to have a player build out a character and then write out absolutely nothing about them.

Zero History

I have a confession to make: I hate writing backstories. I don’t feel like I ever come up with anything interesting, and I rarely have a good enough feel for the character to even want to try writing about them before play. I am not alone, and players like me can be the bane of the existence of GMs who want to give us more power to influence the story and the world. That all said, there are ways to get sticks in the mud like me to become invested in the game beforehand and give the person running the game something to work with.

Some of the best examples of ‘minimum viable plotting’ in the RPG world are in the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) ecosystem, which uses a mix of mechanical and narrative choices in its character creation rules. Take a look at the ur-PbtA, Apocalypse World. When creating your character for Apocalypse World, there isn’t a whole lot extra given to you; there definitely isn’t a lifepath-based generation system or anything of that sort. What there are, though, are two segments: Look and Hx (History). Look sets down the basics of what your character looks like, what the other characters see. Hx sets down how your character relates to the others, and when taken in total all of the Hx choices do assemble what passes for ‘the party’ in Apocalypse World. Admittedly, Apocalypse World gives players more opportunities to flesh out their character in session zero and session one, but there’s nothing unique about Apocalypse World that would make that more difficult in other games. Figuring out details about a character as you play is my preferred way of doing things, and as long as the first session gets off the ground there will be plenty of opportunities to develop a character throughout a campaign.

Apocalypse World provides one set of answers to a question that every GM should ask, regardless of what game they’re running. ‘How much information do I need from my players before we start?” In Apocalypse World, you need the mechanical attributes of a character (like in most games), what they look like, and how they know the other characters. That’s it, really. You may note that these elements don’t add up to a backstory, and that’s true; generally campaigns don’t need character backstories to get started. If you the GM want backstories from your players, especially if they aren’t writing them, you need to ask yourself what you’re really looking for. When I prepped the introduction to the CabbageCorp campaign, I needed a contrivance that got all of the players in the same place. What I did was ask them outright: ‘why is your character fleeing the city in the back of a cabbage truck?’ For most places where you feel you ‘need’ a backstory, what you more likely have is a specific question you want answered. ‘Why are you in the city?’ ‘Why did you take this job?’ ‘How do you know the quest-giver?’ These aren’t questions that lead to a full backstory, but they are useful ones for a GM to know, and players will generally be able to answer them. Once everything is established, more details may fall into place. If there are blanks you’re trying to fill in where player input would really help, you can still stick to specific questions, either before game start or during an early session, PbtA-style. Maybe you need to know if the Rogue is aware of the Thieves Guild so you can prep the first encounter with them. While a backstory would give you some flavor around that to be sure, you can still just ask.

A final note of warning: You cannot measure player engagement by their willingness to write a backstory. In addition to people like me who just don’t have a feel for starting characters, there are those who don’t enjoy writing, either feeling it too much like homework for the game or just frustrated by it in general. There are also those, especially if you’re closer to my age and have a full-time job, or kids, or both, who will have a lot of difficulty committing time outside the session to even write a few paragraphs. Those who enjoy running games are often those willing to write a lot of material as part of their prep, and it’s natural to see your players through the lens of what you want to do and have time to do. Don’t make the mistakes of either judging your players or judging yourself and how your game is going by anyone else’s willingness to do outside prep. When everyone’s at the table, then they show you the sort of players they are. And who knows, maybe the guy who never writes anything will decide to start a gaming blog some day.

Backstories are tools for expression and enthusiasm, but they aren’t the only ones. Your players may write thousands of words or they may write nothing at all, and that’s just based on what gets them excited and engaged about gaming. You can’t expect extra work out of your players, but it also isn’t fair for them to send you twenty pages of fiction without you at least reading it. The best way to handle it, though, is optional on both sides. The GM doesn’t get to assign homework, but the players don’t get to steer plot through fanfic either.

If you want strongly fleshed out characters from the beginning, the best thing to do is seek out systems which give you solid foundations in character creation. Lifepath systems like those in Traveller and Cyberpunk are great, but you’ll find that it doesn’t take that much to really make a character pop. Star Trek Adventures’ Values, Forbidden Lands’ Pride and Dark Secret, or even background-driven character creation like that in Electric Bastionland all provide different avenues to help newly generated characters make a strong first impression. These systems all help create diverse and fun characters, and they don’t necessarily require a lot of writing. The thing about writing is, like virtually anything you were taught in school, some people love it and some people hate it. That means for some, a backstory is a great way to express themselves and get more into character. For others, it’s never going to happen, either because they don’t like writing or that’s not how their character thought process works. In short, the most important thing you can do with backstories is let them happen at the level everyone wants. Don’t force people to write them, but don’t feel forced to use them (even though you should still read them). Let backstories be part of the fun for those who find them fun.

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