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D&D General Background Vs. Backstory

Cobalt Meridian

Explorer
Supporter
I usually ask that my players supply either a short backstory (no more than 200 words) or complete a short character quiz that answers some key details (where do they come from, why are they their primary class, are they a leader or a follower, etc.). This is to be supplied by the end of the third session their character is in, to give them time to find their character through play. If they are having trouble with it I'll help them come up with something suitable.

So far it's worked quite well - enough information to give me some hooks for them but not so much that I have to agonise over how to fit their character into the ongoing campaign.
 

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TwoSix

"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
Just start them in a small village and have them learn about the world organically.
The fundamental problem with that is that limits character concepts to "peasants from a small village." That can certainly be a fun game (and I'd recommend Beyond the Wall as a fantastic OSR-type game for that kind of play, but it shut downs a lot of options.

That being said, if you're playing in a setting where only you, as a DM, have any knowledge or interest in it, I generally think you should play in a homebrew game where your players can have more input. Otherwise, you're going to spend a lot of time DMing exposition that only you actually care about.
 

TwoSix

"Diegetics", by L. Ron Gygax
For some folks, their character's definition is "An warrior master with the glaive, which is why I'm a Human Battlemaster Fighter with Great Weapon Fighting Style, and the Sentinel and Polearm Master feats", rather than "A former cook on the Maiden's Smile naval vessel of the Sarvokian Empire who was accidentally thrown overboard and abandoned on a deserted island and have only recently returned to shore" (with then an additional four or five blocks of text talking about where they had gone and who them met before they grouped with the table right now.) One isn't better or worse than the other... but it's not surprising that people have opinions on what they feel is more important.
Personally, I can't imagine making a character without thinking both are important, because they inform the other. A unique and challenging mechanical hook adds enjoyment to the strategic and tactical layers of the game. A unique and demonstrative backstory, that ties together the mechanical abilities and links them to the campaign setting, helps the gameplay contribute to the narrative and make the character more recognizable and fun to interact with.
 

Warpiglet

Adventurer
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.

Hell yes and amen to this!

players don’t play just to have a few possible lines in someone else’s novel! As if the dm is the only one with ideas!

I am dm’ing more lately. In my world, religion has changed. You can buy into the faith with your character (all domains for clerics are options) or you can follow an old faith—-any religion or cult you want.

it would be hard to hold sway (like an atheist for US president) but it’s a fantasy. Maybe your Thor worshipper will be the first to become a duke this millennium. Maybe you’re a warlord in the outlander and have power that way.

point being you can make a world and have some detail while still being open to exceptions and player ideas. Collaborate.

If you say your elf established a leaf beer brewery and the DM says no! Elves only drink wine! It’s time to consider your participation.

maybe your elf is an outlier...as are all adventurers in general
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I don't mind backstory and I do use it for adventure hooks when players botheer to write it. I like that it allows the players to have some say in the fiction - done with some respect for the setting and starting level of the character it's a great tool. What I don't like about it is that it allows the players to have some say in the fiction. Very similarly to a character brought to session zero regardless of fit, the same sort of player will try to write all manner of advantages into his backstory with little regard for the setting and especially the level of the character, generally without having spoken to the DM and with the assumption that this is all now the 'truth'. I don't mind that some advantage might accrue out of backstory, but there's a line.

So I guess I'm saying it's cool until it's abused. Obvious points remain obvious. :D
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I think this is something that will depend on the DM and group in every game. And I’d expect it to vary from game to game even in the same group.

Doing it the same way every time would seem limiting, especially if that way was particularly restrictive.

I don’t think a lot of work is necessary on the part of the player. Just a bit to give us a sense of who this person is and what they’ve been through prior to the start of the game. I personally love this because I’ll then mine these backstories for setting elements (NPCs, organizations, locations, etc.). Obviously, such a backstory should be fitting for the level at which we’re starting the game. So if that’s level 1, having a backstory of a world weary veteran whose seen it all is probably not a great idea.

But if the players and DM work together a bit, then I think dome really great stuff can come from that. The PCs will be hooked into the setting a bit more and the DM can include elements tailored specifically to them.

But I also don’t think it’s a requirement. Sometimes a player may not have a specific backstory in mind at the start of play. Or, maybe it makes sense to limit the PCs to being a specific background or what have you. That’s fine, too.

It’s even fine if some players have ideas for backstory and others don’t. This way you have some elements established, bit also room for more to be revealed as you play.

I think that this is something that the DM and players need to consider every time they’re about to start a new game.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Requiring it would suck. It's not everyone's cup of tea, and some characters are better off with a quick sketch than a portrait in oils. I tend to lean toward sketches anyway for the most part, backstory is cool and all, but my primary goal is for the characters to emerge during play.
 

Richards

Legend
As a DM, I like to get character backstories from my players but if they don't want to spend the time to do so I don't push them. And I don't feel required to necessarily do anything with their backstories, either - if it's just a story about how their parents met it might never see any actual use in the campaign, but it's still there for the player to have a better feel for their PC. If, however, there's a way to roll some of the backstory into a plot point for the campaign then by all means I'll do so. One PC's backstory was that her parents had been killed when she was eight years old and she'd subsequently been raised by her grandmother, a village wisewoman/witch. I was able to turn that into a vampire tale (turns out it was a vampire who had killed her parents) and gave the adult PC the means by which to slay the vampire responsible for her parents' death all those years ago. It gave a generic "kill a vampire in his lair" adventure a bit of personal motivation.

Johnathan
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
As a DM I ask for (but do not require) a short backstory (which I'm about to define further, to less than 2000 words). If players want to include their traits and bonds and flaws and suchlike, that's fine, but I think of those as more for the player than for the DM (and I don't use Inspiration because it's kinda garbage). I will use elements from those backstories to tie characters to the world and to the campaign, and many of those threads will be resolved over the course of play. I have added a suggestion in my standard new campaign packet that players remember their characters are closer to the beginning of their story than to the end.

I did have one player present me with a 10,000 page novella as his character's backstory, and that is ... a bit much, and seems to be demanding of the DM. That player rolled in the tables in Xanathar's, which I'm also thinking of at least asking players not to use, because it can generate a lot of backstory.

As a player, I write exactly what I ask for as a DM, if the campaign is pitched as something open-ish, not a set adventure path or just door-kicking our way through an endless dungeon or somesuch thing where backstory would be a waste. I have come to realize in the past couple of years running that I DM the sort of campaigns I'd love to play in.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I agree with the OP: overly detailed backstories are a burden to the GM.
This is a totally alien concept to me, as a GM.
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.
This. A thousand times this.

I don’t need a novel, but I’m not gonna be mad at it.

I do want that backstory to be a conversation with me, though, and I want players to be open to us collectively tying their backstory to other character’s when appropriate.

Even when running a published world, I’m happy to add cultures and other elements to the world based on their backstory.

I just expect the players to also be open to modifying their concept to fit the world, like when I had a player in an Eberron game want to play a fairly classic wood elf Druid.

Cool, yes, however, we are gonna tie that into the actual lore of the world. You’re probably from the Eldeen Reaches, you were affected by the last war somehow, and as an Eberron elf your culture has hang ups about death. We can work from there.
 

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