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...

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
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.
 

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Shiroiken

Legend
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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