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Worlds of Design: Which Came First, the Character or Their Backstory?

Should you create an elaborate backstory for a character or should the character’s adventures tell their own story?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

I was reading part of the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons the other day, specifically the tables intended to help players flesh out the backstory of their characters. They’re an aid to imagination for those who want a detailed background. You could easily take an hour or more making one up.

Detailed backgrounds can include lists of family, friends, where the character has lived, and possibly many important/formative experiences. While reading, I had a minor epiphany about the target markets for role-playing games.

RPGs Aren’t New Anymore​

After more than 45 years, virtually all the tabletop game players (board games or otherwise) in the world have been exposed to RPGs. They may have decided they don’t want fantasy, or that RPGs are too unstructured for them, or don’t play for many other reasons, or can't find a campaign to play in, but they know what is available.

Consequently, if a publisher wants to expand its reach, increase its sales beyond the known group, then they have to attract people who are not gamers, or who’ve been gamers only a short time. That means not relying on standard gaming tropes and branching out in ways that tell different stories.

I’d include many of these video gamers in the gamer group that is familiar with tabletop RPGs even if they don’t play them. AAA list video games are often “experiences” with a pure avatar representing the character. This derives in large part from D&D. Or to put it another way, even if there are gamers who don’t play tabletop role-playing games, they’re already familiar with the basics of D&D-style play.

A New Audience​

The biggest RPGs, such as D&D, have every incentive to broaden their interest for non-gamers, for people who have not yet come to RPGs or have come to RPGs recently. This is in large part reflective of the increasingly diverse voices who are now playing. Additional rulebooks such as Xanathar's are filling in the gaps of traditional game rules with more storytelling options that aren’t limited to “whether or not you know D&D.”

Just before reading the Xanathar book, I checked out the Cortex Prime site on the web. From reading the initial rules and description it’s clear the game supports storytelling in more detail than traditional D&D. Yes, there is some dice rolling, but it’s arranged to be “ready to collaborate on a shared story” (quoting from the site). And it’s free.

For players looking to share epic stories of their characters’ adventures, creating a story beforehand helps players engage with the game before it’s even started. This is different from how I was introduced to tabletop games.

Developing a Story​

This is not to say that traditional tabletop games can’t evolve their own stories. The difference is that when I played, we started with blank slates as characters and then the adventures told the story. Background generators weren’t necessary because your character may not have lasted very long, and the assumption was that the story would come later as the character evolved.

As an example, my original characters didn’t even have names to begin with, let alone backgrounds. It was “Wiz the elf”, “Muscles the fighter”, and “that go##amn dwarf,” who later became Orion, Eradan, and Yilderim. The characters evolved through their actions and experiences during adventures as part of the game, not from a story invented beforehand.

Developing a story beforehand matters significantly because of how D&D is structured. Character differentiation of powers comes later; the higher the character, the more unique they become. But to start, they’re somewhat generically similar, unless you develop a story for them.

This can certainly affect a group’s enjoyment of the game; there’s nothing more frustrating than creating an elaborate backstory for a character only to have them die an ignominious death early on. Story games like Cortex support character development right from the start; D&D evolves character stories through progression. Thanks to Xanathar’s, now players can flesh them out without advancement … but the game’s may still be deadly enough that any character can die if they’re unlucky.

Your Turn: Does your game support elaborate backstories?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
I personally always put effort into having a backstory for my characters, and I encouraged my players to do the same. I wanted them to have connections to the world, but still be fresh-faced; people who have lived lived before they became Heroes, but who had only just started out on that journey.

Much of who they are now is based on what they have chosen and how they have responded to the world I've revealed. But in many ways, I have tried to ensure that the characters' origins remain relevant, like the roots of a great tree. Our tiefling bard who has now broken genealogy math (he's half human, half demon, and half devil, Because Magic) has had the mystery of his devilish heritage to explore; our half-orc ranger has learned that though he may hate his human grandfather, he owes more than he would like to the man and his bloodline; our half-elf is uncovering the lost history of his even people and the land they once ruled long ago; our druid has crossed boundaries between magical traditions and dug into the very heart of the divide between the old ways and the new, dominant religion, both of which mattered to him.

The characters of my world are heroes, their allies (both faithful and dubious), and their villainous opponents. There are reasons why each foe seeks what they do, and ultimate truths to be found. Had these few never stepped up to the plate, they could easily have lived mundane lives, never finding the secrets, never opening the doors buried in sand or blood or secrets. But now they have, and the road beckons ever on, until the tale is done. (Which at this point will take like another two years at LEAST.)
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Sorry, I misspoke. I don't mean that the character should be the focal point of the campaign. I mean that the character should be tied to the campaign setting. If your character is so generic that I could pull him out of the campaign, plunk him down in a completely different campaign, without making any changes, then that's a character I don't want to see at the table.
Yep, different strokes; because it makes no real difference to me whether the character is that generic or not - at least to start with. If it stays generic throughout and never develops any personality or quirks or anything to make it memorable and-or entertaining, or if it doesn't build a backstory through play, then I can do without it.
If we're playing in Dragonlance, then your character should come from somewhere on Ansalon (or, depending on the campaign, possibly one of the other continents), and doesn't contradict the established elements of that setting.
That's different. I kind of assume unless either the dice or DM tell me otherwise that my PC is native to the game world it's on, though it may or may not be local to the adventuring area. If I-as-player am encountering a setting for the first time I actually prefer my character not be local to the adventuring area, thus it and I can discover the new setting at the same time.

Then again, most people probably wouldn't want me as a Dragonlance player. Kender, here I come! :)
Fair enough. I am not. I've been burned by this too many times. To me, it tells me that I have a player who has zero interest in the role playing aspects of the game and is just here for the tactical wargame.
Which is interesting, in that while I much prefer my backstory to emerge through play I also have considerably-greater-than-zero interest in the RP side. Again, different strokes I suppose.
Yes, well, again, fair enough. Although, as a player, I have no problems with DM's doing this - that's why I'm giving the background to the DM. So he can make adventures that my character will actually care about.
Thing is, sure something from my background might interest my character (and by extension, me) but will it interest anyone else?

Example: in the game I play in, there was a complete world upheaval - a cataclysm - recently, caused by one party fixing damage done to the game world by another party 30 years ago real-time. As a result of this cataclysm* various PCs from various other parties lost families etc., which meant it was fairly easy to put a whole party together to go and find them. Had it been just one PC, depending on the PC there might not have been much enthusiasm. Never mind that one well-liked hench lost her entire home continent!

* - we'll be dealing with the fallout from this for ages.
I've mentioned before the idea of Backgrounding. It comes from Chronical Feudalis - a fun little indie RPG. Backgrounding is exactly what it says. The player tells the DM, "This is part of my background, but, I want it to stay in the background and not become a focus of the game". There is an implication there that the player will not be a dick and abuse the notion and the DM will respect it. So, if you want to have a family, but, you don't want it getting kidnapped, you put Family in a Background and everyone's happy.
I've heard of this idea before. Haven't seen it in play yet.
 

Azzy

KMF DM
I always ask my players to come up with some sort of backstory. It doesn't have to be super long and detailed, but enough to ground the character into the setting and provide some potential hooks and motivations. I like to tailor my campaigns and adventures to take the characters and their backstories into consideration.

I attribute the Dragon magazine article, "Characterization Made Easy" by Scott Bennie in issue 156, as the start of wanting to create deeper characters and stories as a player and DM. Later, playing games like Vampire: The Masquerade, Cyberpunk 2020, Mekton, and such just cemented it for me.
 

Hussar

Legend
Example: in the game I play in, there was a complete world upheaval - a cataclysm - recently, caused by one party fixing damage done to the game world by another party 30 years ago real-time. As a result of this cataclysm* various PCs from various other parties lost families etc., which meant it was fairly easy to put a whole party together to go and find them. Had it been just one PC, depending on the PC there might not have been much enthusiasm. Never mind that one well-liked hench lost her entire home continent!
And that's fair. It is somewhat incumbent of a player to make those background goals explicit to the party and try to get the party on board. For example, one player is playing an exiled kobold rogue in my current game. The chief exiled the character to search for a celestial dragon egg - basically a lie just to get the kobold to go away and never come back. But, the player kept at it for some time, expending character resources and whatnot, in the search for this egg and the entire party is on board with the current hunt for the egg.

None of this came from me. Basically, I took the football she handed me and ran with it, much to the player's surprise who never expected to actually find the dragon egg. Too much of a Chekov's Gun not to have some fun with it. It has made for a fantastic bit of glue welding the group together.
 

Well. I see the whole as the same. Without a character you can have no back story, really, because all roads lead back to attaching back story for "What?" Back story assumes there's something that it attaches to and thus without that specific "something" contriving a generalized back story is not of itself definitive. The way you develop back story "is" relevant, and that, as noted in many instances up thread, involves in situ development (through play defining in-roads and byways for that) or incremental, starting with base facts and then adding or refining as one sees fit as furthered through play and/or by emerging proclivities (player insight).
 

Arilyn

Hero
As a GM, whatever the players want. Forcing backstories may feel like homework and I don't need some boring generic thing that the player felt compelled to write up. In practice, at our table, players usually enjoy writing quickie interesting backgrounds.

As a player, it varies. Some characters I make demand elaborate backgrounds and others don't. No guarantee which ones will gel at the table, though. 😊
 

Arilyn

Hero
There's nothing about Cortex Prime that requires an elaborate backstory, unless you consider an "elaborate backstory" to be anything more than writing down class and race on your character sheet. All you need to know is what your character's Traits are.

Similarly, consider Fate. All you have to do is come up with a High Concept, a Trouble, and a couple other Aspects, although you can leave the extra Aspects blank and fill them in during play. In practice, that just means coming up with a few phrases to describe the character. I can make a character whose High Concept is Hotshot Fighter Pilot, and that's fine by itself -- I do not have to write several paragraphs about how the character was always fascinated by planes when he was a child, joined the Air Force but got dishonorably discharged when he crashed his plane, etc., etc.

Hell, I used to write more elaborate backgrounds for my D&D characters twenty years ago than I do in more modern games today.
Yes, exactly. Sitting down writing out your family, and who hated you as a child is not a new thing, it's actually a very old technique from early in RPG history. Fate, Cortex prime, PbtA, etc. don't encourage writing up backgrounds. The character's backstory comes up in aspects, relationships with other characters, flashbacks, and so on. In Worlds In Peril, you can start playing without your powers known yet, and as the first adventure unfolds, so does your character's super powers.

These techniques in games like Fate, are more dynamic, and make it less likely you will forget that piece of lore about your insanely jealous cousin.
 

Thing is, sure something from my background might interest my character (and by extension, me) but will it interest anyone else?
This seems a tad pessimistic, implying that the only stories that can possibly interest the group must always originate during play itself, that players are incapable of contributing original storytelling that can excite anyone except themselves.

It is incumbent on the players to make stories that are interesting enough for the group to look into. Sometimes, that can take the form of "this is important to you, Durim, and that means it's important to me"; others, an NPC ally brought in by one character is beloved by the whole party, thus making common cause despite growing from only one person's story; others still, the party is simply curious or travelling without a specific target or otherwise open for an adventure.

I don't see why the DM has exclusive claim to being able to introduce story elements that can excite, intrigue, or motivate the group as a whole.

I've heard of this idea before. Haven't seen it in play yet.
I have players with serious anxiety, so while I didn't do this precise thing, I did something similar. I promised my players that I would never just randomly or purposelessly rip away the things they care about, and would never treat "this person matters to you" as automatic justification for "this person has a target on their heads." I have endeavored as much as possible to explain why this is the case; for our tiefling bard, as an example, his direct family has never been targeted despite the party going up against assassins. At first, this was because the assassins intended to simply kill him directly and be done with it, but they miscalculated (naturally, since he's a Hero!) Now, however, it's because his actions have precipitated a full-scale internecine war between the faction that holds him as the prophesied Lord of the Ravens (the term itself is gender-neutral, "Lord" is just the closest English equivalent), come to break them and reforge them, come to destroy their purpose and fulfill it and give them new purpose.....and the faction that sees him as an existential threat the likes of which they have never seen before. His family is now protected 24/7 by assassins absolutely willing to lay down their lives to protect the "holy bloodline," keeping them safe and helping make the Bard DEEPLY uncomfortable with being a religious icon while being pretty solidly irreligious himself. (Not anti-religious, just not super active about his nominal religion.)

The rest of the party gets to learn about the assassin-cult, must equally wrestle with the idea of having some former bitter enemies as dubious allies with an extreme agenda, and tries to help the Bard either change the assassins' ways or learn that they're unsalvagable. It's still "the Bard's story," but it links into the other factions, the stories of the Bard's friends and allies, and the important hidden truths of the world, while providing real and serious adventure hooks for the whole group.

And all because I wanted my players to not feel like "tell me who your family is" meant "tell me who to paint a target upon." By feeding care for and enjoyment of their allies, rather than leaving a Sword of Damocles overhead at all times, I've helped build a world my players truly care about, one they know CAN absolutely be truly threatened, but which can more importantly always be saved if they strive for it. Of course, "being saved" and "never experiencing loss, harm, or hardship" are two very different things! I exploit that difference ruthlessly to create the drama for our game.

What you love can always be saved. What price will be paid to get there? Who will you be when you've paid it, or chosen not to? Ay, there's the rub. And, in my experience, much more interesting than simple "kill the fam"/"kidnap the love interest" type stuff.
 

hopeless

Adventurer
Okay I'll try.
First character is based on Buffy or rather Bridget d'Summerville a Paladin who was eventually turned to mush by a black dragon I don't recall any of her back story.
Second character Heron Darkwintre the son of a Scornubel merchant who chose to recognise the child of his mistress and have his then wife basically committed where she gave birth to the son he never knew about.
He was raised by her family left thinking his mother now in a covent was responsible eventually discovering the truth for himself and the intent was he would visit her and help her leave that covent so she could spend the rest of her life free of their idiocy.
He was killed whilst visiting a Church to Helm at the hands of an assassin posing as a cleric of Helm and was subsequently raised and afterwards I still feel I should have declined as it was clear then I was playing second fiddle to another new divine character just introduced but his player was more popular.
I discarded quite a bit of his back story in an effort to improve, but my next character Vall a Herbalist was intended to be an exiled malformed wood elf banished to another world following her son's death.
Well actually my DM decided to change his game's setting so my Knowledge domain Cleric was briefly a Cleric of Ioun instead of a variation of Sehanine Moonbow.
He then had my then character's reason for adventuring answering a call for aid from her son by apparently killing said npc off and after we finished his opening adventure revealed none of it was important to his campaign so why involve my character's backstory in your fiery mess then?
Sorry I added her being banished from another world to give the character a reason to continue running but that involved me running a game in Exandria to pull off and apparently he liked it so much he decided his campaign was now on Exandria which is when I quit the group.
Backstories can be fine, DM's however are a different matter.
 
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Backgrounds and backstory for characters are good. And the way to make them have meaning is to not play in games with the asshat DMs who think it is their job to try and kill the characters, rather than have a shared experience and tell a good story. 40 years of playing various systems and the only permanent PC deaths I can remember were only of pregens in one-shot sessions at conventions.
 

A proper backstory should contain where you came from and why you are where you are when the campaign begins. Additional stuff to extrapolate on Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws are always good. Potential plot hooks for the DM to use are always appreciated. An elaborate backstory needn't have a lot of excitement to it, but it really shouldn't have anything more interesting that can happen to a level 1 or 2 character.
 

hopeless

Adventurer
Oddly I find combining backgrounds works better for example with the Herbalist character I went with a modified Outlander basically replacing some equipment swapping the tool proficiency with the Herbalist Kit and the flaws, personality quirks of the Far Traveller I think its called that works far better.
 

Hussar

Legend
I've never quite understood why it seems to be a point of pride for some players and DM's that they never kill PC's. PC death is part of the game and often can result in major story elements. Especially if the character is tied into the setting and the campaign. I don't think that having pages of backstory is protection from being killed. It's just an opportunity to do some more creating. Cool.
 

I've never quite understood why it seems to be a point of pride for some players and DM's that they never kill PC's. PC death is part of the game and often can result in major story elements. Especially if the character is tied into the setting and the campaign. I don't think that having pages of backstory is protection from being killed. It's just an opportunity to do some more creating. Cool.
Well, this goes all the way back to the beginning with Arneson's BM group. Arneson used the Chainmail Combat matrix for his first two sessions into BM Castle in 1971. As we know, the matrix is a one-hit-and-you're-dead result. The players balked at this as they had done backgrounding for their characters and were RPing that way and then saw them wiped in one hit! So, Dave jettisoned the CM matrix for a Base amount of HP per class and it whittled you down to zero, then death.

It's all about investment; the more players (and DMs) invest in their products/ideas the more they wish to sustain them and thus sustain the story that was -a-building. Players need, IMO, to operate under the "everything is equal premise" that DMs have to adhere to in order to remain fair--i.e., when one of their beloved creations is destroyed, fairly, they have to shrug their shoulders and turn the page.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, this goes all the way back to the beginning with Arneson's BM group. Arneson used the Chainmail Combat matrix for his first two sessions into BM Castle in 1971. As we know, the matrix is a one-hit-and-you're-dead result. The players balked at this as they had done backgrounding for their characters and were RPing that way and then saw them wiped in one hit! So, Dave jettisoned the CM matrix for a Base amount of HP per class and it whittled you down to zero, then death.

It's all about investment; the more players (and DMs) invest in their products/ideas the more they wish to sustain them and thus sustain the story that was -a-building. Players need, IMO, to operate under the "everything is equal premise" that DMs have to adhere to in order to remain fair--i.e., when one of their beloved creations is destroyed, fairly, they have to shrug their shoulders and turn the page.
Fair enough. I'll agree with that. One hit and you're dead is a bit extreme. :D Pretty hard to make any investment in a character under those conditions.

But, yeah, there is a spectrum of behavior here from One Hit You Die to Nothing Will Ever, Ever Kill My PC.
 

Fair enough. I'll agree with that. One hit and you're dead is a bit extreme. :D Pretty hard to make any investment in a character under those conditions.

But, yeah, there is a spectrum of behavior here from One Hit You Die to Nothing Will Ever, Ever Kill My PC.
Yes, it's a recurring subject with extreme POVs. Part of it, not all, has to do with the real empowerment of PCs via the rules that allow them to conquer all and survive everything; and this appears to be P&P's adaptation of what CRPGs extol. In game history contexts this extreme POV (player agency only) defies hundreds of years of fore-matter based on the zero-sum model and the idea of informed and fair play. The VAST majority of games of all spectrums have the idea of win or lose built into them of course. Therein lies the challenge to improve even if the luck factor (dice rolls) equal such matters out in less definite ways. How many games of Monopoly have I lost? Many more than I've won.

Then there is the fictive-form of RPG characters. Stories that inspired this form were scripted affairs, all of them. However, the RPG character is not a scripted participant (unless one considers the A-B-C mode of scripted outcomes via adventures that these characters often participate in). In any case they are building their histories to full fledge heroes or noted characters of presence. But if we assume that they are already heroic and that their paths will always be such without the same proofs as, let's say, in Conan having to progress from slave to King, finally, then perhaps we are not so much in the realm of Fantasy any longer but have strayed into fantasizing? It is a subject of great interest for me and that I've studied from several converging viewpoints.
 

jedijon

Explorer
A backstory is an interesting time to think about the different stories told about a group of heroes vs one character.

If your game can only generate “we beat those guys”, then congrats, you’re fulfilling the game’s roots in Chainmail. What kind of game makes it as likely that ‘my marriage ended when she decided she loved the dragon more than me’ would happen IN the game as it would BEFORE it?
 

hopeless

Adventurer
Wasn't there a book about a dragon assuming a human form to marry the fallen hero's former wife?
Pendragon no I think i got the name wrong Penhaligon?
 

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