Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Warning! Extensive Character Background

For the past few days, has been discussing "I just wrote an eight page character history."

For many, a massive exercise in character backstory is seen as the hallmark of an invested player, something to be admired and encouraged. While I won't claim that all such backstories are dysfunctional, I do suspect that a great many of them are.

In a nutshell, I think that many instances of multipage character background are symptomatic of what I tend to call "damaged player syndrome." These are players, often quite creative ones, who have repeatedly had their creative contributions stomped on by GMs, or occasionally fellow players. More explicitly, I mean that their attempts to put their own creative stamp on a game have either been ignored (e.g., "No one cares about the brother who left you for dead!") or their contributions are deliberately sabotaged (e.g., "your lothario attempts to look suave as he flirts with the queen. You failed the seduction roll? Ok, you spill wine down the front of her dress.")

So let's say that a guy comes up with a character. And part of getting really into that character is imagining how cool he is. He might imagine the scene where all his wizard's careful plotting comes to fruition, and he's able to set up his former master before the Council of Wizards, finally gaining his revenge. Or he might imagine his sailor lashing himself to the helm as he attempts to ride out a massive storm as a kraken rises out of the depths. Often a player will imagine a number of these scenes. This is the stuff that makes a player care about his character! That's incredibly important! GMs and other players should fuck with it at their peril.

So what if the wizard's player never even gets the opportunity to exercise his political muscle because the GM or other players aren't willing to go in that direction (or just ignore the implict request to go in that direction), or the GM doesn't provide any opportunities for the sailor's player to take the story onto the high seas? The players start to feel frustrated. Even worse, what if the GM makes your wizard look like a political hack, and has the former master see right through your machinations before you even approach getting to the cool stuff. Now, not only are you not ever going to get the cool scene you imagined, but the GM is literally making your character look like a schmuck, which is totally against that awesome concept you were imagining when you created the character.

As I mentioned above, this is the stuff that makes you care about your character. It's why you were excited to play him or her in the first place.

A natural reaction, then, is to attempt to codify the coolness you've been imagining by turning it into backstory, and thereby hardcoding it into the game's setting. That way, even if your the character's coolness never comes out in play, at least that coolness is "protected." Everyone that writes lengthy back story assumes that the GM (and possibly fellow players) will be eager to read the backstory and care about it as much as the writer. Hopefully, this time things will be different. This time they'll be really into your awesome character and let him be totally awesome in the game.

Naturally, to make everyone truly appreciate the coolness of your character, you've got to paint the coolest picture you can. And that means taking those scenes you've been imagining and making them part of the story. That way, they've already happened and no one can fuck with it.

The problem is that when all the cool stuff has already happened, it can't happen in play. All your character's issues are resolved and you'll never get that cathartic moment in play. Sure, you might develop some in play, but it's going to take a lot of fumbling around between you and the GM.

Players that have sunk into a protective shell this way are often difficult to draw out, even when they join a group that embraces everyone's creative input. But it can be done. And recognizing the signs, like the eight page character background, is often the first step.


Iskander said...

Word, Urd.

I just asked a player to tear up the 4-page back history he was up half the night writing, and let me know what scenes he wants to see happen in play, where he will get some pushback and maybe some resolution.

I think it is a hell of a step for him to take if he does - he will in some sense be entrusting me with the inner life of his character, and I'ma gonna fuck with it... but I am damn sure it will be more satisfying that way.

Also, he gets to change the back history if he tears it up, and that can only be a good thing.

Thor Olavsrud said...

I'm interested to hear how he received it. The trust issue can be tough.

One thing that I like to point out if they question it: In a novel or movie (excluding never-ending genre series), you don't know a character before you engage with his story.

You don't have to read a dossier on d'Artagnan before you start reading The Three Musketeers. Who d'Artagnan is and what he's all about come out in the course of the story.

In my experience, RPG characters work best the same way.

However, it is necessary to replace all that background with something that lets the players and GM know what important story stuff they need to focus on when it comes to this character.

Burning Wheel has Beliefs, Instincts and Traits; With Great Power has Aspects; The Shadow of Yesterday has Keys; Prime Time Adventures has Issues; etc.

Chris Chinn calls mechanics that provide this sort of focus "flags."

Once the eight-pager sees the power of Flags (assuming he has a good experience!), he'll never want to go back!

Bankuei said...

Hi Thor,

Yes! Generally I've found that the same folks who write the 8 page story also tend to talk about their characters a lot outside of play- as if they're trying to "steal" protagonism outside of play because they're not getting it IN play.

This gets ugly when they come to games where they're expected to actually put that in play- I've seen folks literally freeze up.

Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Good stuff.

However, one point to consider is that length of background does not inherently mean anything. I've seen very short Heroquest style 100 word backgrounds in which the character is already done before play starts, and I've seen 8 page backgrounds that really are backgrounds to set up the character to start.

Now, I fully admit that the former is far rarer than the latter -- but it does happen.

So while I think we have to watch with eagle-eyes for the "my character is already finished before play starts" background we shouldn't confuse the symptom with the disease.

Also, as a side note: Ron Edwards has often said that it is hard to compare RPGs and other stories in terms of "where you start" because of the different ways they acheive cohesion. So the whole "you don't know a fictional character before engaging in their story" may not hold up across mediums. Certainly we don't know Frodo before the start of Lord of the Rings -- but does the Lord of the Rings RPG start with the first scene, or with Frodo leaving the Shire with all the stuff about the ring, the party, and Bilbo leaving being the background?

Thor Olavsrud said...


You're absolutely, 100% correct. I see the long backstory as a neon warning sign, but that's all it is, a sign that something might be wrong. It might not be. And certainly a very short background can be just as problematic.

Perhaps putting everything in terms of what I think is healthy and functional is a better way to go:

"A functional character is one that establishes grabby conflict through flags or backstory, but does not resolve it. It leaves the resolution of the conflict for play."

I'm sure we could probably do better, but consider it a start.

Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


Actually I can't see doing much better than that. I think you've got it nailed.

xenopulse said...

Yep, Thor, those two sentences are spot on. Good stuff.

Now, we also need to teach GMs to recognize flags. I wrote several into my AD&D 2e character's background (e.g., "I keep my magical training secret from my family because my uncle is a reviled necromancer, hint hint"), but then the actual play is focused on fighting some bandits that are bothering some other people elsewhere. Now, part of the issue is my lack of clearly communicating my flag to the GM, but I started that game before I was enlightened about all this flagging stuff.

Anyway, yes. All of this stuff continues to be relevant to my actual play today.

Thor Olavsrud said...

Hey Christian,

If you haven't already, make sure to check out Chris' Flag Framing post.


Frank said...

Xenopulse highlights another aspect of this issue. Does the campaign's creative agenda even support the style of play desired. Gamist D&D play is not going to address the thematic question raised by his background (though as noted on Deep in the Game, I'm interested in exploring how to use flags better in gamist play - but still, theme will not be addressed, but perhaps we could set up a cool combat scene with the necromancer uncle).

Thinking about all of this, I can see why I've never considered the multi-page background of any real use. I admit that I have ignored player's flags in their backgrounds, but then I've mostly been running gamist play (and my successefull simulationist play I think did address players flags, but still, they weren't based on a multi-page background).


Chris said...

Well, as far as mixing flags into a gamist perspective, I've tied my flags ("keys" in my game) into level progression, so there is a tangible benefit to the "gamist" for using them. Basically, the character has to make some progress on one of his/her three keys in order to qualify for advancement. It gives both the player and the GM an extra objective and keeps it relevant to those who might not care for it as much.

Unquietsoul said...

Depending on the mechanics of the system being used, having an extensive pre-game player character write up can be extremely useful to a gm, or useless, or somewhere in-between.

It is important to remember that alithough a roleplaying game is an ensemble cast situation, each player while playing in character has to be able to immerse themselves into their part and assumes that their own character is important to the procedings. So the background can help them achieve this desired end.

The internal 'flags' of possible plot and depth within the background can be used by an effective GM to help the players overall have a more interesting and flavorful experience.

The deep backgrounding process works well when the GM doesn't follow 'mission style' plots or 'GM controlled narrative paths' but instead allows the players write ups to steer the direction of plots in a 'world web' or 'world stage' simulationist design.

In some systems this is done with picking from a pre-selected list of 'plot hook' info that the system has available (simple example: the 'Hunteds' and 'rivals' of the Hero system) and expanding on them. If the system has enough possible hooks that can be worked into a character then this can in some cases subsitute for the extensive background.

What's important is that the GM and players end up on the same page as to what they are looking for in regards to style, setting, plot and direction that the game will go. Failure to match is often the cause of many a campaign failure, in my experience.

Shane said...

"One thing that I like to point out if they question it: In a novel or movie (excluding never-ending genre series), you don't know a character before you engage with his story."

Sorry for dropping in so late. I just noticed: Yes, it's trivially true that in a novel you don't know a character before page one, yet many (bad) novels/movies sneak the dossier on d'Artagnan in as flashback or infodump somewhere in the first half. This is not much better than "required readings". Properly, you don't know a character before you engage with his story and you only get to know a character *by* engaging with his story, in the present.

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