I Don’t Want to Hear Your Backstory…

What I’d rather hear is your character concept.  Give me a few key relationships, positive or negative.  I might have a few questions, depending on the game, system, and/or depending on the setting.  I might want to know if your hometown is nearby or what have you, but ultimately let’s leave some space for these things to be discovered in play.

I often see the question online about how long a backstory should be, with people giving a wide variety of answers.  Often, these answers are framed around the premise of anything too short means the player didn’t put enough effort in, while anything too long comes down effectively for not wanting to read that much amateur prose.  But honestly I think that question misses the larger one of “do I need a backstory in the first place?”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you should have characters that seem like they’ve sprung from the earth fully formed, with no history, no home, and no attachments to anything.  It’s just, I don’t think a backstory is the necessary way to go about that.  A strong character concept gives the character enough of those things, and if the GM cares a bit of probing can get the other information they need.

Richard became an adventurer to gather the funds needed to take care of his sick sister.  Aside from maybe being a bit cliched for your table, I think it is probably all you really need as long as you are willing to elaborate a bit more as the GM needs you to.

“What about your parents?” “They died of plague.”
“Why did it have to be adventuring, why not do your parents job?” “They were blacksmiths, I didn’t have the talent for it, all I am good at is fighting”
“Who’s watching your sister now?  Where is she?” “Maybe some distant family? My cousin, I guess… And she’s probably nearby, I don’t think I would travel far at first.” “How about Clearlake, that’s near where we’re gonna start?” “Oh, yeah I bet the lake water there is supposed to be really clean and good for her!”

None of that stuff needed to be written in a story in advance, but just a short conversation gets the details that the GM actually cares about, and so likely will use (or at least keep in mind) with their future planning.

This also doesn’t preclude including additional elements beyond your base concept.  If Richard’s player thought it would be neat if Richard had a rival or enemy on top of all that, he’s free to bring it up with the GM and then they can have a similar conversation about that.  There’s also a point where the GM can say “You know you’re throwing a lot at me, I’m worried I won’t be able to incorporate it meaningfully.  Can we just pick the important bits to focus on?” if they keep piling those details on. Exactly where that point is depends on the GM, but with traditional written backstories that can also happen when someone submits a 10+ page monster.

As a bit of an aside, I do enjoy lifepath character gen, like in Traveller or Burning Wheel.  Again, I don’t believe characters should have no history, and I think lifepath gen gives you a decent amount of history, but also does so in a way that matters for play, .which, often is not the case when you are writing a backstory for a system that has some other form of character gen.

There’s a common mistake that people bring up when people talk about writing backstories for PCs.  That is, playing before the game starts.  There’s this strong urge to make your PC seem cool and awesome, and so you have this cool story about how your brother murdered your whole village except you and so you decide you had to train really hard and track him down and kill him.  And then you do, and in fact, you go on a bunch of other cool, personal adventures, in your backstory.  Adventures you could have played out and experienced at the table with everyone else.  Now the closest they get to is reading your prose about it and you are this cool badass in play who doesn’t care about anything because you’ve already did everything that mattered to you.

While no where near as big a problem, I would argue that there is a similar issue in having a highly detailed written backstory at all.  The more you fill in, the less gaps there are to discover during play.  While you’ll (hopefully) never get to the point where you detailed every single day, if you get to the point where you describe all your army buddies and what they are all up to now, it become much trickier for the GM to incorporate that type of character in on the fly and have it make sense.  Where as, if you are just playing an Afghanistan vet, and left that up in the air, it’s much much easier to say “The man slaps James on the back, saying ‘Sargent Mason, you son of a bitch, never thought I’d see you again!’ and then laughs, James you recognize this as Specialist Rick Tailor, you served with him back in Afghan.”.  Sure, it’s possible that someone like that is on your list already, and meets the criteria, but it is much less likely if it is spelled out in detail, and lots of that work can get passed over if there is no way to fit them in.

What’s ultimately important, and what the GM and other players need to know, is not every event in your life leading up to the day you became a PC, but rather, what character is going to show up at the table, who (or what) matters to them, and what kind of person they’re going to be (at least at the start).  From there, we all can discover more about the character during our time together.


Current PaDC score: 26/31

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