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D&D 5E Players railroading dungeonmasters


I saw this video and didn't quite understand it. It claims that extensive player backstories railroad the DM and that backstories should be created in the game rather than beforehand. I watched it again and it still had me scratching my head as they gave no examples but had a link to a five page pdf you can download for a dollar...

Someone commented on the video that they only allow their players a two sentence backstory and the creators replied that it should be only three words. That would be like "Elf street urchin warlock" or something like that I guess.

So is there something to this idea or is it just a way to make a buck? Video below:


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Magic Wordsmith
The rule in my games is backstories can be no longer than a Tweet. The fewer words, the better. Just enough to get across the concept to other players and the DM. My games are not based on character backstories, though certain elements may be established during play.


Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I have veto power over backstories, the video is just a way to make a buck.

I can almost always find some way to fit a backstory in to my game, it's never been an issue other than working out specific details with the player. The only time I've seen it be an issue is when someone wants to have something like the noble background but then I just work out with them how their background is no more or less than other backgrounds.

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I mean, yes there is something to this idea, but neither way is inherently better.

A game can be great where the players have long backstories, and I don't think this really "railroads" DMs that much. They use Matt Mercer as the example in the thumbnail, I assume because the character in the "Mighty Nein" campaign all have detailed backstories. But do we really think Mercer feels that railroaded? I doubt it, especially since he has 6 different backstories (all wildly different) to explore. It limits his options I suppose, but limiting options is often an aide to creativity, not a hindrance. And he is absolutely inventing plenty of material wholecloth, so I don't think he would consider himself being "railroaded" by his players.

Contrast that to campaign 1, where the character of Critical Role didn't really have backstories (at least when they first made the characters). This game is also pretty great, and fun to watch!

Anyway, I think the thesis of this video is a little flawed. Not entirely incorrect, just flawed.


Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I've never gotten the sense that the people who prefer shorter backstories do so because they felt longer ones railroaded them as GMs. It's seemed more to me like a preference to have them be more emergent.

I prefer backstories with a little more substance than some people--because I consider that to be a way to connect the PCs to the setting and the campaign, and it's the only consistent way for players to add things to my world--and I've never felt railroaded by the players. I've grumbled from time to time about players burying the useful parts of their backstories in thousands of words of cruft, but that's nothing like the same thing.


Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Yes, it's just more drift on a definition that used to be fairly narrow in scope in my experience. Now like many RPG terms people use it to describe "that thing you're doing that I don't like." Useless.
It's nothing I'd be inclined to argue hard about, but I think it's at least a little more specific than that. It usually comes across as "I can't do this thing I want," without any particular regard for why.


Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Railroading the DM though? C'mon. They do suggest there's a problem with backstories, and that can be true, but it's not railroading.
I don't think I'm disagreeing, here. Yes, there are potential issues with backstories, but they can be avoided. No, having to work with your player to make their character's backstory fit your world and their ideas isn't railroading the DM.

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Yes, it's just more drift on a definition that used to be fairly narrow in scope in my experience. Now like many RPG terms people use it to describe "that thing you're doing that I don't like." Useless.

Pretty much. The problem the video seems to have is "People are detailing their backstories too much, that backstory should be made in the game." As opposed to "railroading the DM," which that isn't really.

And I'll add, plenty of DMs prefer to have characters with detailed backstories, as they find it easier to mine for stories that resonant with the PCs. So this is really just a case of preference as opposed to "what is actually better."

The video makers also seem to be more OSR-leaning, which obviously isn't that keen on backstory. The way they phrased "Everyone loves options, we aren't complaining about more options, BUT" especially felt like "Seems like your complaining about more options?"


They make a lot of assumptions that are not true in most games. In the games where their assumptions are true, the DM usually wants that input to create storylines. They're essentially saying, "We don't want to be bothered by player interests - we just want to run our game and have the players be our tools to play with rather than see them contribute."

I work with the players to gether hooks. I make it clear that they won't see every hook acted upon, but I'll make use of as much as I see fit. And, just because it is what their PC believes to be true, it does not mean that it is the actual truth. For example, one PC won a set of fighting gloves in their backstory as a prize. When they eventually had a greater restoration cast upon them, their memory was revised and they realized that a wizard gave it to him and changed his memory so he would not realize they were something more important.


Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
If a player of mine is going to write a hella long backstory, I'm okay with it. But I'm not bound to use it either. I've got enough going on without having to pore over character sheets and backstories. And most don't try to write giant essays.

The bonds and flaws with some fluff to explain them works best.


Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.
As a DM, I prefer shorter backstories as I am illiterate, which means I have to spend less time pretending that I am reading the player's backstory by scrunching up my face and looking kind of constipated.
Your secret shame is safe with us.


Victoria Rules
The only time I've seen it be an issue is when someone wants to have something like the noble background but then I just work out with them how their background is no more or less than other backgrounds.
And this is just it: some backgrounds or past-professions are simply better and-or come with more benefits than others, which is why in my game if you want a shot at being nobility or something else exotic you have to roll for it on a table of professions/backgrounds and accept whatever the dice give you (which mi-ight be nobility but far more likely will be something mundane and could even be something less-than-mundane e.g. beggar or slave).

Or, you can choose from about 30 relatively basic professions e.g. cook, sailor, farmer, miner, etc.


As for the 'railroading' issue: the problem isn't that the players are coming up with convoluted and extensive backstories. In and of itself, a player coming up with a long elaborate backstory shows me there's an appreciable degree of commitment to the game, and I'm cool with that.

The railroading issue only arises if-when players expect - or worse, demand - that those elaborate backstories become or be made central to play at the table, thus potentially putting the DM in a bind.


Moderator Emeritus
Always enjoy having it turn out that one of the player’s relatives or past acquaintances is now working for the BBEG.
Or is the BBEG!
no good satan GIF

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