D&D General Background Vs. Backstory

JeffB

Legend
So in another thread- the issue of players and large amounts of PC backstory came up. I'm not a fan- for a few reasons.

1) I find most of it "dead weight" (as another poster put it). The player gets very involved in this backstory, but it involves all sorts of fictional elements that don't/won't fit in the game/campaign as a whole.

2) For things that may actually tie in- Trying to work these elements into the game, for 4-6 PCs is a PITA unless the game is very scripted/some sort of railroad.

3) It's usually just "Hey look at me, my PC is so awesome"

In certain specific circumstances and a very specific plot-I'm OK with it. For example- Several years ago, my Son (a young teen) wanted me to run a single PC game in Middle Earth for him (Summer time- his friends all had stuff going on for a multiplayer game). He's not a Tolkien Scholar, but loves the movies and the Lore presented (and my blabbering on about things that are in the books but not the movies). He wasn't comfortable writing up a story about his PC-he's never been much of a roleplayer or writer, so he asked me to. ughh, I knew roughly the idea of what I wanted to present- but asked him a few questions- what kind of character, any story elements he wanted to touch upon, bits of lore he wanted to explore. etc. So I came up with this for him- which was a short backstory to get him to the present
JeffB said:
20 years ago….

It seems like an eternity, and yet, it seems like just yesterday. You were a young man, barely out of your teens.

20 years ago your homeland, Arthedain, the last battered remnant of the North Kingdom of Arnor, breathed it’s last.

Long had your kin, the Dunedain of the Realms in Exile, held against the dread Witch King of Angmar. But patiently over the course of nearly a thousand years, the Witch King and his Army of Wicked Men, Orcs, Trolls, and fouler things warred and finally had their victory. Those few Dunedain who survived scattered across the wilds of Eriador (Elvish for “Empty Land”).

Too late to stave off Arthedain’s defeat, A large force of your distant kin-folk from the Southern Kingdom of Gondor and a host of Elves from Rivendell arrived, smashing through the Witch King’s forces and destroying their ability to wage such a war for what you hope to be forever, though tis but a hope.

Angmar still sends skirmishers and patrols out now and again, or seek out the ruins of old, looking for great weapons or magics from the ages past that were kept in the great cities like Annuminas or Fornost so they may destroy or use them against Free Folk. The Rangers of the North, you few Dunedain who survived, and your children, and your children’s children for all time will stand against them. It is destined that one day the heirs of Elendil and Isildur will restore Arnor to it’s former glory and bring peace, prosperity, and a golden Age of Man.

But today, and all days of your recent memory, you know little of peace or prosperity and Mankind is weak, scattered, and divided. You have wandered The Realm with your Father’s brother by marriage, Eldreth, for nearly all your time in the Wilderness. Eldreth fought alongside your Father at The Battle of Fornost, the former capitol of Arthedain, which is now nothing but a haunted ruin. He stood with your Father against the Witch King himself. But no man can kill the Witch King, and your father fell while trying to hold off the Black Sorcerer and dozens of Uruk Hai so that others could escape and live.

After the battle, Eldreth brought you your Father’s Sword- It is said that the sword was made by the elves in the Second Age and given to him by the great Elvish Champion, Glorfindel, himself. The Sword’s name is Galad’ring, which translates rougly as “Hammer of Radiance”. It is like no sword you have ever seen made by a Man, and is a cherished heirloom. It is all you have left from your former life. And it has saved your life on many a day in the present.

Despite the great suffering his wounds gave him until the end of his days, Eldreth taught you the ways of a Noble and Proud Dunedain. He showed you how to survive in The Wild. To Hunt. To Track. To Heal. Though he did not ever say it, you knew he always felt guilty that your Father sacrificed himself to save his men, and obeyed your Father to retreat.

However Eldreth died bravely and with honor defending your Mother, Sisters, and Brother whom were hunted down and killed by an agent of the remnants of Angmar and his Orc filth, looking to destroy any of the remaining Nobility. You are a Hunter, who is also Hunted.

In the past 2 years you have made a few friends in the various villages and hamlets such as Bree. But mostly you wander from place to place, ensuring the Lost Realm and its people are protected from the evils that threaten the land. On occasion meeting up with other Rangers when a larger threat looms, or a Council meeting is held.

It is on the outskirts of Bree you find yourself today, along with your 2 companions. The Rangers have summoned you, though you know not why. It is rarely good news….

So if someone came to me as a DM with this type of story in anormal multiplayer game, I'd roll my eyes and ask them- what is it that are looking to accomplish? That's just fluff. Do you have any goals? And If I got that type of thing from every player...::gags:

Now- Instead I ask Players to bring that creativity to the table with BACKGROUNDS and explore that together through play.

Backgrounds are a very simple mechanic that takes the place of skills in 13th Age. essentialy its a one to several word description of your PC's background. You can take up to 3 backgrounds and you have 8 points (max 5 points in any one background) to assign to them.

examples
Pirate Reaver of the Black Coast
Keeper of the Library at the ends of the Earth
Street Thief
Cobbler
Cook

As elaborate or simple as you like.

DURING GAME PLAY- you use these backgrounds to mechanical benefit by being creative with them in the fiction. For example- "Well, My PC was a Pirate Reaver of the Black Coast..he's an ace with knots and rope, he should be able to make a quick fix on the rope ladder bridge so we can get across..." Then the DM might say, OK- Make a DC20 Wisdom check, you can add your background points (+your Wisdom Mod). Or maybe it's some kind of conversation where you are trying to convince a NPC of something. The backgrounds are not tied to any one ability score. I might use that Pirate Reaver background to convince that NPC Pirate Captain to take me to the Lich King's Island using CHA .

Now if the explanation you give makes everyone at the table roll their eyes and groan- yeah not gonna work.

IMO the experience of creating the PC's background with everyone around the table- discovering these things through play is way more satisfying for me as a DM AND for the players- I also find it opens up easier and appropriate ways to tie the PCs backgrounds into the story/plot going forward. I take notes on the way the backgrounds get used for future sessions.

I use this background system now in pretty much every session I run for any game.
 

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Azzy

ᚳᚣᚾᛖᚹᚢᛚᚠ
I dunno, every group I've been in for the last 25 or so years has always asked for character backstories. It also seems that this is what the hobby has been moving towards since at least mid-2e and the popularity of the Storytelling games (Vampire, et al.)—though some games had mechanics for generating character backstories even before that.

As a player, it's fun to develope a character and rewarding to have something from your background come up in the game. As a DM, I like to tailor the adventures to the characters instead of being Generic Adventure(TM) ##, and I find that players tend to be more engaged in the story that way.

It's kind of alien to me to see it played otherwise.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The problem with abstract skill systems is you will always run into situations where there is a disagreement between the player and the GM over whether the abstract skill applies to the situation. Since the player is motivated to get the GM to interpret the abstract skill as broadly as possible, game play quickly devolves to a meta-game where the process of play is about wheedling the GM into conceding your abstract skill applies. There is also no inherent balance between abstract skills, as one phrase may be narrow and another imply nigh universal skill.

Taking your examples:

"Keeper of the Library at the ends of the Earth" - As a GM I have no idea what this means and would be reliant most likely on the player to tell me through back story. It's also a very improbable background suited more likely to a greater spirit than a mortal being who presumably has most of his story before him.
"Street Thief" - This could in one swoop imply all the skills available on a rogue class skill list. I'm rather unsure what wouldn't apply to this term, and I can see at least one conversation around pinning down that this actually covers so that I'm not defacto dealing with a master gutter rat, con-artist, face man, fence, and cat burgler rolled into one.
"Cobbler" - On the opposite extreme, he's probably pretty good at making, appraising, and selling shoes. This is unlikely to be nearly as useful as either of the above concepts unless I really work at it.

The idea here is rather old, and was explored in the concept of "secondary skills" way back in at least 1e AD&D. It didn't work very well then, and I'm not sure giving it mechanical crunch would fix it.

Further, none of the above tell me anything that a good backstory will tell me such as what makes the character tick, how to hook them, how they might relate to other PCs, and what they might be hinting at for a story arc.

As for your example backstory, that's not really a backstory. That's setting exposition intended to catch a player up on the current state of the setting. As a setting exposition dump it is fine, but as backstory it wastes a ton of words telling me very little about the character.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I’m with you that an overly detailed backstory is something I as a DM don’t really like. Though, I recognize that it is a lot of fun for many players to come up with. So, what I say is, give me the details on the character sheet (personality traits, ideal, bond, flaw, and descriptive text like height, weight, hair and eye color, etc.) and up to a tweet worth of whatever additional detail you would like to include, such as backstory. If you want to come up with a more detailed backstory you are more than welcome to, but just give us the one-tweet teaser to start with, and let the rest come out during play.

I really like Backgrounds from 13th Age, but I think if I were to convert that concept to 5e, I would do away with all the individual background with different point values and what not. That’s a bit more mechanical and granular than 5e’s design aesthetic. Instead, I’d dump the skill list and just say you can add your Proficiency Bonus to any ability check if something in your Background is relevant to the check.

Another technique I’ve seen used is the way @iserith handles knowledge checks. Instead of players asking to make a skill check or “does my character know anything about [whatever]?” and the DM telling them to make a skill check, he asks his players to state an action like “I think back to [relevant background detail] to try and remember [information they’re looking for]” (and he might or might not call for a check, depending on if the action has a chance to succeed, chance to fail, cost or consequence, all that jazz).

What all of these techniques do though is they encourage the players to look for opportunities to make their own backstories relevant in actual play, instead of just handing them to the DM and asking them to do it. And it also allows players to share their backstories with the rest of the group in play, in a relatively unobtrusive way, rather than info-dumping. I think its a great practice, whichever version of this you go with.
 
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I dunno, every group I've been in for the last 25 or so years has always asked for character backstories. It also seems that this is what the hobby has been moving towards since at least mid-2e and the popularity of the Storytelling games (Vampire, et al.)—though some games had mechanics for generating character backstories even before that.

As a player, it's fun to develope a character and rewarding to have something from your background come up in the game. As a DM, I like to tailor the adventures to the characters instead of being Generic Adventure(TM) ##, and I find that players tend to be more engaged in the story that way.

It's kind of alien to me to see it played otherwise.
I actually struggle to understand this. How does it work in a D&D game? What if players don't know the setting very well. How do they write a backstory that fits? How do they write a backstory that's relevant? Almost every game I've ever played in has had the players backgrounds created on the spot during character generation, and sometimes they get further detailed in play. We talk about what the setting is and about what type of characters we want and then we make them to fit.

I would be a little shocked if a player handed me a written backstory. What am I supposed to do with it?
 

I’m with you that an overly detailed backstory is something I as a DM don’t really like. Though, I recognize that it is a lot of fun for many players to come up with. So, what I say is, give me the details on the character sheet (personality traits, ideal, bond, flaw, and descriptive text like height, weight, hair and eye color, etc.) and up to a tweet worth of whatever additional detail you would like to include, such as backstory. If you want to come up with a more detailed backstory you are more than welcome to, but just give us the one-tweet teaser to start with, and let the rest come out during play.

I really like Backgrounds from 13th Age, but I think if I were to convert that concept to 5e, I would do away with all the individual background with different point values and what not. That’s a bit more mechanical and granular than 5e’s design aesthetic. Instead, I’d dump the skill list and just say you can add your Proficiency Bonus to any ability check if something in your Background is relevant to the check.

Another technique I’ve seen used is the way @Isereth handles knowledge checks. Instead of players asking to make a skill check or “does my character know anything about [whatever]?” and the DM telling them to make a skill check, he asks his players to state an action like “I think back to [relevant background detail] to try and remember [information they’re looking for]” (and he might or might not call for a check, depending on if the action has a chance to succeed, chance to fail, cost or consequence, all that jazz).

What all of these techniques do though is they encourage the players to look for opportunities to make their own backstories relevant in actual play, instead of just handing them to the DM and asking them to do it. And it also allows players to share their backstories with the rest of the group in play, in a relatively unobtrusive way, rather than info-dumping. I think its a great practice, whichever version of this you go with.
Easy implementation in 5E would be, choose two backgrounds (because one is not enough) - you could even choose the exiting ones as long as you add a bit more detail - so intead of Acolyte - it would be 'Disllusioned acolyte of the Great god Karn, trained at the high temple of Seraphia".

Humans and Half-Elves would perhaps get an extra one. For expertise you just drill down into a relevant background and pick something more specific. i.e you pick the background above and choose "and star pupil of the scholar of comparative religion" (basically expertise in religion - I'd keep expertise linked fairly closely to existing skills unless the player puts forward something that really stands out that's not too broad - but making it a background provides interesting hooks - it tells us this dropout character might have an interesting relationship with his former teacher should the game end up in the city Seraphia).

You could go the other way too. In 13th Age you could just say pick 2 backgrounds. If any background is relevant roll with advantage.
 

The problem with abstract skill systems is you will always run into situations where there is a disagreement between the player and the GM over whether the abstract skill applies to the situation. Since the player is motivated to get the GM to interpret the abstract skill as broadly as possible, game play quickly devolves to a meta-game where the process of play is about wheedling the GM into conceding your abstract skill applies. There is also no inherent balance between abstract skills, as one phrase may be narrow and another imply nigh universal skill.

Taking your examples:

"Keeper of the Library at the ends of the Earth" - As a GM I have no idea what this means and would be reliant most likely on the player to tell me through back story. It's also a very improbable background suited more likely to a greater spirit than a mortal being who presumably has most of his story before him.
"Street Thief" - This could in one swoop imply all the skills available on a rogue class skill list. I'm rather unsure what wouldn't apply to this term, and I can see at least one conversation around pinning down that this actually covers so that I'm not defacto dealing with a master gutter rat, con-artist, face man, fence, and cat burgler rolled into one.
"Cobbler" - On the opposite extreme, he's probably pretty good at making, appraising, and selling shoes. This is unlikely to be nearly as useful as either of the above concepts unless I really work at it.

The idea here is rather old, and was explored in the concept of "secondary skills" way back in at least 1e AD&D. It didn't work very well then, and I'm not sure giving it mechanical crunch would fix it.

Further, none of the above tell me anything that a good backstory will tell me such as what makes the character tick, how to hook them, how they might relate to other PCs, and what they might be hinting at for a story arc.

As for your example backstory, that's not really a backstory. That's setting exposition intended to catch a player up on the current state of the setting. As a setting exposition dump it is fine, but as backstory it wastes a ton of words telling me very little about the character.
The thing is, it actually doesn't matter all that much because like the variation in 13th Age, proficiency in 5E is very bounded (even more so for most of the game) - in general ability scores matter much more anyway. So if a player is getting away with something on a skill roll - does it really matter? - They're likely just getting a 10% or 15% boost to their roll and in the process they should be feeding the group something about their character. It does lead to characters being much more broadly competent, which is, I find, an improvement overall, as it makes them more proactive.

Some of the better things it does however are in the social pillar. It reduces the power of a party face - because now anyone can leverage an appropriate background - it doesn't matter if you're not trained in persuasion, the Fighter can leverage his "Former Mercenary of the red hand" to negotiate with the sellswords drinking at the inn. Of course he does have to leverage it, which makes the ensuing conversation more interesting and again helps flesh out the character.

The biggest issue is with shy players who are reluctant to improvise. It won't work for everyone, but it helps with these players if the GM is able to gently encourage them and to ask them a few leading questions. It's actually a good way to help players become more confident role-players.
 

I like players to create character that are inexperienced. They are locals from a small town or new to the region the game will primarily take place in. They know little about the world, and the game will provide them with their first glimpse of a larger universe. Thus, the players will experience the setting through the eyes of their characters.

Writing down "Fighter 1; STR 12. INT 13, WIS 8, CON 15, DEX 9, CHA 11; Armor: Plate + shield; Sword; Background: cobbler; Aspiration: not to be a cobbler," is enough to get started in my game. Character creation takes a matter of minutes, and we fill in the rest of the details during play.

Generally, I have only 3 standard classes: fighter, magic-user, and cleric. Any other type of character is a negotiation between the DM and the player. Non-humans are generally, monsters, mutants, travelers from another world, etc. We've had all sorts of unusual characters including an animated suit of armor, a house, a time traveler, a blink dog, and a fire elemental, though usually, I allow only one crazy non-standard character in a group at a time.
 

ccs

41st lv DM
Hmm. I'm going to be the dissenting voice here.

As the DM? I love detailed characters. So write it up, lay it on me. (even if you're not sharing it with the other players, remember I'm the DM & I'm playing any # of gods, the Fates, etc. I KNOW.:))
I WILL read it. And, since it was important enough for you to spend time thinking of & writing it up, I WILL make use of it. And no, not just to screw with you later on. You also have considerable leeway to invent details about the setting/world if need be (one of my players has had a really hard time wrapping his head around the concept that).
And I will ask you questions. Both during creation & randomly as we play about misc character details.
 

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