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D&D General Background Vs. Backstory

To everyone who thinks that backstories are a burden: Have your players come up with their backstories together at the table, during a session zero. That way, they tie in together, the players already work on why they know each other (or why not) and are automatically working on the key question for session 1: Why the hell would these adventurers work together?

Once all players have matching backstories, and hopefully also some goals in their adventuring-life that match, your life as a DM actually becomes easier. Your players have now declared what is important to them and it becomes easy to create plot hooks that interest the players.

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Lizard folk in disguise
There is a wide spectrum here. The recent campaigns that I have run, the backstories have been critical. But to make them relevant does require ground rules; It has to match the setting, it has to be level appropriate (since I never start games at level 1 as a general rule, and I can nix portions that don't make sense.

I try to also take it to the next step as well, collaborating and assisting. An example is a player wanted to do a vigilante in a city, but didn't know Eberron at all. Gave him a recommendation for Sharn (and why) and gave him references to the gangs there. Separately another player wanted to be a criminal...so I tied it to Sharn, and part of the game plot became a discovery that one was the hunter and the other the hunted. And both players loved this direction, as did the others as it help create dynamics.

On the flip side as a player, coming up with a back story allows me to explore dimensions of a character during play. I set out some general ideas, and as the campaign grows I fill in gaps. Thinking about how a character reacts happens during the game. The rationalization of why might need an addition in the backstory, especially if it seemed out of nowhere. You can see a bit of this in my PoV character in my Story Hour.

So, I never have seen it as a burden as a DM in my games. I have seen it gone too far in other DM's games. I remember in one group in high school where one player was always the "Prince of X," and the DM of the group kept letting it happen. It was disruptive, and I found it to be unfun as the peer player (because I was never a peer, I was a subject of the prince). I have also seen the blank slate and the story coming up on the fly; some good some bad. Mostly bad. Players with a general plan seemed to work better than random improv.

Bottom line is that DM does need to set the rules, and be willing to say no. As a player, you might need to accept no and make changes.


Biological Disaster
How can you have a "veteran of the ogre wars" who is a Fighter 1, or a Gandalf-aged mage who is a Wizard 1, only to see them quickly jump to level 3 or 4 after a few skirmishes with kobolds and giant spiders?
One character I played was a middle-aged war hero in his backstory. I justified it by saying that he had been retired for a decade or two, and his skills and body had atrophied during his years spent living in the quiet village the game started in. Leveling up wasn't him learning new abilities, just him getting back into practice.
Granted, that obviously doesn't work for every class or character, but the "level 1 character who's done extraordinary things pre-game" can work, if you ignore the oddity of RPG mechanics never acknowledging skill atrophy.


The answer is suspension of disbelief: just forget about trying to match your character's age and backstory with your level. Think that level only serves a playability purpose, to match the game with players' skills and with the adventure available. This will then make a long character backstory acceptable even at level 1.
Yup. Using a out-of-game game mechanic like Character Level (and the abilities acquired within) as an in-game indicator of a person's skill, knowledge and reputation in the world is folly. It never lines up.

"Hey look! I killed a half-dozen goblins and now I can absorb twice as much injury and loss of luck/stamina, plus refresh some of it by taking a few seconds! Let me kill another half-dozen goblins!"

thirty seconds later

"Hmm... that didn't work. Let me kill another half-dozen."

"Ah! There we go! And now I can even take a second action once during the fight! Let me kill another half-goblins and I'll get even better!"

several hours later

"Why the hell is this not working?!? I'm killing more and more goblins! I'm an expert at killing goblins! I've been killing them for three hours! Why aren't I getting better?!? I kill six in thirty seconds and double the amount of my skill, but kill 60 more just three hours later and this does nothing?!? This makes no sense!"

kills a single gnoll chieftain

"What, THAT did it?!? One stupid gnoll killed in twenty seconds and THAT made my abilities get even stronger that three hours of intense hand-to-hand combat with waves of goblins didn't? I don't understand any of this!!!"


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

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.

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

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.

The system your propose is cool, but your problems with "backstory" aren't actually problems with backstory at all, they're problems with players, or problems with communication between you and the players.

Personally I've seen D&D in every edition work well with either detailed backstory or pretty much nothing but that which emerges at the table, and I've also seen it fail or have problems with both, and with many settings in-between.

Your 1st and 3rd points are particularly communication and player issues respectively. 1st point doesn't happen with reasonable players if the DM clearly communicates what type and amount of backstory they want. I know this because I've DM and played for thirty years and been on both ends of it.

3rd point is either down to your players being a very specific type, or you, as DM, interpreting reasonable backstories in a negative light. I've seen both happen. I'm sure you're quite certain that you're sure it's the players being egotists, not you being a git, but so is every DM who claims this. The fact that you are apparently saying close to 100% of backstories are like this suggests there is a strong possibility that you are the common element, not the backstories. It's the old "if everyone you meet seems to be a jerk, maybe consider if you are the jerk".

And I've seen systems like yours produce some pretty hilariously indulgent backgrounds too. But it is a decent system, and worth bringing up.

Also the 2nd point can be a real problem in literally any RPG simply due to time and focus constraints.


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
My problems with long (and I mean like several-thousand-words long) backstories are pretty specific. First, there's what I guess I'll call an aesthetic problem--it's not that you have too much backstory for 1st level, it's that you have too much story before the story (the campaign) begins. Second, you're giving me a lot to remember, which isn't so bad if you don't namedrop your carefully-named NPCs and expect me to remember them--I'm pretty much at my limit remembering six player names and six PC names and correctly associating PC and player (I'm really not very good with names). Third (and really not anything like as important as the first two), if you write a long backstory and insist on inserting things into my world, I'll try to adapt, but the things I want in my world have priority over the things you want. Think of the world as my character and maybe you'll see where I'm coming from here.

Avoid those pitfalls, and things will be copacetic. You'll give me hooks to connect your character to the campaign, and I'll center your character for at least part of the campaign.


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
I don't like any expectations coming packaged with backstory. I'll use it if I can, but it's not fiction by fiat.

That makes sense. I figure that if I'm asking for backstory, though, there's at least an implicit promise that I'll make an effort to use it. Once enough things have happened, of course, it's possible to tie past events in the campaign to current/future events, but I still like to have things from the characters' pre=campaign pasts float to the surface now and then.


Small God of the Dozens
That makes sense. I figure that if I'm asking for backstory, though, there's at least an implicit promise that I'll make an effort to use it. Once enough things have happened, of course, it's possible to tie past events in the campaign to current/future events, but I still like to have things from the characters' pre=campaign pasts float to the surface now and then.
For sure, I'll try to use it. But if what I get is 2000 words of very specific stuff that doesn't really fit the campaign I'm going to struggle with it. Backstory needs plot hooks that work with the campaign.


So, OK, my theory of backstory...

a) Backstories need to be reviewed and worked on together between the player and the GM. This process improves a backstory's role in the game in several ways. First, it allows the GM to connect events in the backstory to the setting in ways that will naturally draw the player into the campaign. A GM can make a character's backstory vastly more important than a player can on their own. Likewise, backstories tend to imply certain things existing in the setting, and it's essential for the GM to approve of these additions to the game world both to avoid conflict between the GM and the player, and to ensure the GM is motivated to use the backstory. Players will want a GM to give validation to their backstory, and the best way to do this is get the GM involved in the process. Give the GM buy in.

b) Backstories need to harmonize with the backstories of other players in the group. It's a good idea for each PC to have a connection of some sort to at least two other PC's in the group. This makes it easier to explain why the group gets together, and why they stay together in the fiction. Without this, it's very common to see situations in the game where the party is obviously staying together solely because they are PCs, and not because there is a good in fiction reason for doing so. And further, if the tables enjoys low melodrama, then it works better to have some existing connections to spark RP. Finally, harmonizing backstories avoid problems where the motivations of the group are so radically different, that the most likely result of the group meeting is conflict. And speaking of which, the GM should absolutely reject backstories and character concepts that give the PC's mutually exclusive and contradictory goals.

c) Backstories are optional, but it's nice to have at least a few sentences verbal or orally regarding who the player thinks this character is, just so you have some idea how the player expects to play. Not having a backstory is in itself suggestive of a play style.

d) The more players you have in a group, the less important any backstory is and the more important the groups collective fore story is - however that fore story is determined (either by group agency or a GM plot). GMs should avoid making an entire campaign about any one player's backstory unless you have just one player, or you have buy in from all the players. Beware backstories that are actually about attempts to garner more than the player's fair share of spotlight. and make the game about the player. One thing I notice about most Indy games, is that they often implicitly involve the expectation of only 1-3 players in the group, because they explicitly involve the expectation that play will revolve around internal character growth and exploration of character. And that's swell if you only have one PC, but can be pretty darn boring and unreasonable if you have 8 players.

e) Beware a backstory that is an attempt to gain mechanical advantages not found on the player's character sheet. A backstory should explain the character sheet the player actually has, and not be the character sheet the player wants to have. A player should never be allowed to argue for mechanical advantages on the basis of backstory, and if a player wanted some advantage then they should have purchased it in chargen. If the player complains that they didn't have enough chargen resources to purchase everything in their backstory, then they don't have the backstory of the sort of character they are supposed to have - typically a novice and inexperienced character just beginning their real adventures. I find it is very helpful to design advantages that can be purchased (Traits or Feats in D&D terms) that provide solid mechanical advantages for characters that want to begin the game with some backstory related special feature such as noble rank, fame, wealth, civic office, heirlooms, contacts, mentors or other allies, and so forth. This tends to discourage power gamers from trying to game their backstory, since such features tend to become relatively unimportant in the long run (even a wealthy characters starting wealth will eventually be less important than the treasure that the party finds, for example), while at the same time giving more thespian minded players the opportunity to invent backstories that a GM might otherwise be inclined to reject. Further, if a player comes up with a backstory that implies advantages, but doesn't pay for the mechanical advantage, then you have a solid reason for telling the player why he can't leverage the backstory to get favors and why he should modify his backstory to explain that in the fiction.

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