D&D General Background Vs. Backstory

For those of you who expect players to provide a backstory, how deadly is your game?

In my experience, half my player's character fail to surpass 1st level, and even fewer make it to 3rd. Only a true master of the game manages to reach 5th and a 9th-level character is almost unheard of.

As such, writing a 2000 word backstory in one of my games will probably be waste of time. But if characters in your games are expected to survive for the entire campaign (arch?), I can see why you might be more demanding.
 

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bedir than

Full Moon Storyteller
For those of you who expect players to provide a backstory, how deadly is your game?

In my experience, half my player's character fail to surpass 1st level, and even fewer make it to 3rd. Only a true master of the game manages to reach 5th and a 9th-level character is almost unheard of.

As such, writing a 2000 word backstory in one of my games will probably be waste of time. But if characters in your games are expected to survive for the entire campaign (arch?), I can see why you might be more demanding.
In my AD&D 1/2 playing days we gave out something like 250 xp per page of backstory, at least for a couple years (then I presented enough writing that I was fifth level to everyone else's 1-2 and it stopped).
Many of my characters died. And then I created a new one. Character creation is part of the thrill of the game. Plus, extensive backstories that weave in the lore of the world as the DM spins it expand all players' knowledge of the world.

Those stories, whether off-table or on-table, are part of the game. I lost nothing by playing D&D.
 

prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
For those of you who expect players to provide a backstory, how deadly is your game?

In my experience, half my player's character fail to surpass 1st level, and even fewer make it to 3rd. Only a true master of the game manages to reach 5th and a 9th-level character is almost unheard of.

As such, writing a 2000 word backstory in one of my games will probably be waste of time. But if characters in your games are expected to survive for the entire campaign (arch?), I can see why you might be more demanding.

First of all, I'm running 5E, which ... people say isn't as lethal as older editions.

I've killed one character, in nearly sixty sessions between the two campaigns I'm running. People drop, from time to time, but only the one has stayed dead.

That isn't to say they've succeeded at everything they've set out to do, of course.

I don't like meatgrinder campaigns, so I don't run one. Horses for courses; if you and your players are digging what y'all are doing, keep doing it.
 


First of all, I'm running 5E, which ... people say isn't as lethal as older editions.

I've killed one character, in nearly sixty sessions between the two campaigns I'm running. People drop, from time to time, but only the one has stayed dead.

That isn't to say they've succeeded at everything they've set out to do, of course.

I don't like meatgrinder campaigns, so I don't run one. Horses for courses; if you and your players are digging what y'all are doing, keep doing it.

I’ve never understood the bolded bit. Lethality level is whatever the DM sets it at, regardless of edition.

Lethality is in the eye of the beholder. Especially the disintegrate ray eye.
 


prabe

Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
Supporter
I’ve never understood the bolded bit. Lethality level is whatever the DM sets it at, regardless of edition.

Lethality is in the eye of the beholder. Especially the disintegrate ray eye.

It was intended as reportage. There is enough chatter online about how hard it is to kill 5E PCs that I thought it might be a useful thing to include as part of my answer. I agree that as DM I can make the game as lethal as I want.
 

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.
I'm of the persuasion that long and winding backstories are better, and sometimes actually necessary, when you're running published settings with minimal deviation, as the DM and the players have a shared understanding to work with, and not taking the world's history into account might not make sense. Like, the Last War ended only 2 years ago and you're telling me you were on your farm in Thrane the whole time and weren't affected by it at all? Get out of here.

When using homebrew settings, they're much harder to work with, especially if the DM doesn't already have an expansive setting history at the ready. Doubly so if the characters are being premade before Session 0...
 
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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I'm of the persuasion that long and winding backstories are better, and sometimes actually necessary, when you're running published settings with minimal deviation, as the DM and the players have a shared understanding to work with, and not taking the world's history into account might not make sense. Like, the Last War ended only 2 years ago and you're telling me you were on your farm in Thrane the whole time and weren't affected by it at all? Get out of here.

When using homebrew settings, they're much harder to work with, especially if the DM doesn't already have an expansive setting history at the ready. Doubly so if the characters are being oremade before Session 0...
It definitely changes how fleshed out backgrounds are made. In my buddy’s current game, we have each had a hand in building the little corner of the world where we are from, as part of making our characters. But, this requires players who actually want to do that.

for our player who wasn’t as into that idea, we quickly described some regions, kingdoms, etc, and he loved the idea of the Prussian inspired Eladrin nation with airships, so he is the captain of a small scout/messenger ship, as part of Puressik’s military intelligence service.
 

Chaosmancer

Legend
I've got a few different thoughts, and I think I will find the most use framing them around some of these posts, which amusingly, all come from the same poster.

My first thoughts though, come from the reasoning. I write backstories (usually quite lengthy) because it helps me. I need to figure out who a character is, why they are adventuring, what hang ups they have.

Just to throw out some examples, I had a Sorcerer who was a Jeweler, but he started life as a street urchin. He saw the magic gem that gave him his powers and led to him being taken as an apprentice (he'd tried stealing it by the way) as a blessing from the Goddess of Wealth. Because it led to him leading a quite well-off life compared to where he was before. That made him very devout, and it also made him despise thieves. He was a thief, but since he was able to rise above it as a child, he saw any adult still stealing as not only harming society and committing sins against his Goddess, but simply being too lazy to work for what they needed. But even this brief litle paragraph isn't fully accurate, because that makes it sound like he hated the poor, but he didn't and in fact he gave to charities and donated heavily to the poor, because as a person blessed with wealth, that was his religious duty. Some of this came out in play, but the seed that led to his personality and his most iconic moments in the game, started with me writing his backstory and figuring out these details.

A more recent character of mine is a rogue. The DM is running a Sarlona campaign and wanted us to be part of the Summit Road, an covert organization working to wage guerilla war on our neighbor, a despotic, psionically controlled state. I decided to run with a character who'd been on my back burner, who was raised by a "patriotic" but heavily abusive father. He'd been trained (violently) since a very young age to join the Road and fight for the country, despite how "worthless" and "pathetic" he was. I've got a signifigant amount of backstory. Who taught him medicine, his childhood crush, what his father did, where they came from. And all of it informs decisions my character makes. Because of his father, he does not question authority, almost ever. The only times he has even thought to defy the group have been to sacrifice himself for their safety, or when we came across an enemy child, who was destined to be possessed by a spirit and turned into a tyrant. This was emotionally scarring for my character, because abandoning this child who needed help, turning his back on him, made him reflect on the people who might have saved him from his Father. It was a massive impact, but I wouldn't have been able to accurately portray that if I didn't lay the groundwork. If I didn't figure out who this character was beforehand.

Just start them in a small village and have them learn about the world organically.

So, to begin with, this wouldn't do anything to change the backstory writing I would do. It also doesn't help if you as the player already know about the world, but that is a separate point.

The first point is that people do not just spring up out of the ground, fully formed, even a farm boy has had defining life experiences, people who taught him values. Is there a church in town, does he believe in that deity, how about his friends, who are they. And so on and so forth.

The second point is equipment. You are the son of a farmer, who might make a few silver per day. As a level 1 fighter you start out with 122 gold worth of equipment (Chainmail, Longsword, Shield, 2 Handaxes, Dungeoneer's Pack) That is over a years worth of labor from your farmer parents. How did you get all of that, and all the training to use it? Whatever answer you come up with starts a story. Found it? How, where, why did you keep it, why didn't you sell it? Mentor figure? Who are they, why teach you, where are they now? Self Taught and earned? Why, how, did anyone notice, approve, disapprove? This all creates a story, and as the player, I feel the need to know these answers. The person who robs the dead and decides to go on to be a glorious knight is different from the man who scrimped and saved and forged his own gear to set out and earn a place in the world by his own strength and will.

Now, I suppose you could argue that the DM doesn't need to know all of this. I could write a one sentence or two sentence blip and that might be all the DM needs to see. But, if I am going to write it anyways, I want the DM to have access to it. Because it helps them understand who the character is, so they can figure out what is going to come from that character.

Knowing I have a character who will never question authority, leads to different hooks than a character who is fully self-deterministic.

For those of you who expect players to provide a backstory, how deadly is your game?

In my experience, half my player's character fail to surpass 1st level, and even fewer make it to 3rd. Only a true master of the game manages to reach 5th and a 9th-level character is almost unheard of.

As such, writing a 2000 word backstory in one of my games will probably be waste of time. But if characters in your games are expected to survive for the entire campaign (arch?), I can see why you might be more demanding.

And this brings me to this.

None of the games I play or DM are this deadly. That is not to say I don't put my players through the wringer. I've had a few groups really struggling, but I'm very careful to avoid that level of lethality. Because it just creates issues I prefer not to deal with. My players try and react like their characters would, so a new person suddenly showing up to join the group is always a challenge.

Also, people want to build a concept, and generally their concept isn't realized until 5th level. So killing them again and again and again and again (because none of them are "true masters" of the game so none of them would ever reach 5th level) would just be boring for everyone, and prevent them from getting that concept they want.

I don't want to imply it doesn't work for your table, but... I'm reminding of a con game that was happening in the same room as our games. The DM would take each persons character sheet, write in huge red marker how they died, and pin it to the wall. Like, it was some sort of wall of shame. And they covered a massive portion of the wall, because they were running an old, deadly module.

And a lot of people who came in after they left would always ask us what was going on, and why they were doing it. And a lot of people seemed really confused, because they didn't see the point in celebrating the deaths of characters like that. Anybody can kill a character, any character can die through negligence, bad luck, or poor planning, it doesn't really matter as much as the characters who succeed and actually change the story going forward.

Maybe I'm explaining it poorly, I'm distracted by a lot of things today, but trying to picture a game where most of the characters die before level 3 makes me wonder what the point even is. I'd stop running the game, my players would leave, because we couldn't advance a story beyond the opening act. Who cares why the goblins kidnapped the merchant and stole her jeweled necklace, half the party died in the fighting and the other half died when we headed out to try and get to the next town. Only one person made it through both fights and as the most senior party member they decided to get us all killed going somewhere else.
 

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