No one cares that you are beautiful and unique snow flake except your mom

We Know.. Mama Said You Are Special

I love role-playing games and I love having players come up with awesome cool characters that make the game interesting, fun, and interactive.

What I don’t give a shit about is convoluted and complicated backstory.  In my gaming career I’ve had many a player who would write PAGES of background story.  I’d warn them not to, but they would persist and then get butt hurt when I A) didn’t read the whole damned thing; and B) Not incorporate much of it in to my game.

Which brings me to my point- “You are not a special and unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying matter as everything else” (Tyler Durden).

I consider (and I think rightfully so) that role-playing is a group activity and the stories that are important and matter are the ones that come from what HAPPENS at the table, not what is on a piece of paper.

For my current Old School Frankengame I have asked my players NOT to do a backstory because there is the possibility of death at any moment and I care what they do in game and I don’t care about their past.

To paraphrase a George Carlin bit to the subject at hand, “No one cares about your character… because it’s YOUR character.”  He actually said children, but the point is valid.

Zak S. did a post some time ago talking about the importance of emergent stories:

In OD&D characters carve out an emergent history action by action, roll by roll, with some awareness that they might be snuffed out at any time by the rules or a fickle DM…This creates a gameworld which is strange, does not conform to many bread&butter narrative tropes, and is often senseless in a cause/effect kind of way.

This is of key importance for me when I run or play in a game.

The other problem you have when players think that their characters are beautiful and unique is you get problems like this.

Role-playing is a group activity that has moments of “character” exploration where your character grows and develops, but it generally has nothing to do with what is on the paper that you scripted for yourself.

In my D&D game I generally handle backstory by asking the player to come up with 2-3 bulleted points and that’s it.

Example:

  • Raised in orphanage and was a street rat
  • Afraid of the dark
  • Angered local crime boss

That’s all I need to know, anything beyond that is superfluous info.  The player is more than welcome to create a few NPCs that go along with this, but again I want small detail, not a deluge of info.

I sometimes work in a mechanical bonus to help represent a backstory.  In my current game I told my players to give me two points- either one word or a quick phrase.  If applicable they receive +2 to a roll that can fall in with characters knowledge.  So a character that was a street rat would get +2 to local city or streetwise checks.

I handle it the same way in games like Savage Worlds, which have Hindrances that give way to the possibility of a rich background.  If a player takes Dependent, Secret, Debt, Wanted, or whatever I want a one or two phrases bulleted and not a paragraph.

Again I care how these hindrances affect the game and the situations they create and not what it says on paper.

What about you?  How do you handle or like backstory and character backgrounds? 

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About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

16 responses to “No one cares that you are beautiful and unique snow flake except your mom

  • Chuck

    Player: Why didn’t you read my 20 page character background?
    GM: Why didn’t you read my 3 page world background?
    It’s like that age old writing axiom. Show, Don’t Tell. If you give me this long character background then you’re telling me about your character. Show me your character through choices and actions during the game.

    • wrathofzombie

      Exactly. I get that quite often. I pretty much have stopped doing write-ups unless necessary. I’d rather just divulge that knowledge in game. If a player whines about it, then I tell em they need to be more attentive and read the email when I send em.

  • Justin

    C’mon man that’s a pretty presumptious title for a post; my mom totally knows i’m a dirtbag.

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  • anarkeith

    I often just write a couple of scenes from my character’s life, as opposed to a detailed write up. That way the GM can be entertained (hopefully) as well as pick up a few insights about my character.

    • wrathofzombie

      I’m fine with that. I don’t mind a little backstory or notes to go on, I just don’t need pages. I’d rather it unfold around us so we can all enjoy it and have a good time seeing it take shape.

  • Jez

    I’m of two minds about it. for most games, yeah, I reckon so. But I’ve played a cracking campaign where I asked my three players to write 6 key scenes from their lives prior to the start of the game; we co-authored them really, and from working with them I was able to find a way to make the arch villain a really personal nemesis. They were all special snowflake characters, but it was a special snowflake kinda game and it totally worked. But that was a while ago, where we had the time to indulge in that kinda game. theses days it’s all throw downs and 3 hour sessions max. no room for snowflakes there.

  • Lily

    I’m sorry, but I have to say that my daughter really is a unique snowflake. And so was my dwarf princess…RIP. ;)

  • Philo Pharynx

    Perhaps you and your players should sit down and talk about the style of game that people want. If you’re running a grim’n’gritty OSR game and they want a immersive heroic fantasy game, then there’s a disconnect.

    • wrathofzombie

      @Philo- Well thankfully for this game everyone is cool with how it is laid out and it’s working fine.

      I also am running a Firefly game and that one they all have a bit more of a backstory than my Swords and Sorcery game. But again it’s about 2-3 paragraphs (if they chose to write it up at all) rather than pages o’ shit.

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  • Silveressa

    Back stories can be fun but I see your point, trying to incorporate more then a half page worth of back-story for each player can prove taxing (especially if you have 4-6 players) and easily wind up taking over your campaign with all the potential sub plots.

    I’ve usually preferred a half to 3/4′s a page of background story on average, the more players I have, the less background story I need/want from each player.

    The key is finding the happy middle, and making sure to communicate your expectations to the players and give them ample motivation to meet those expectations but not exceed them.

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  • Elena

    I like detailed character bios, both reading and writing them. It helps understanding better the character, why he thinks how he thinks, why he acts how he acts, and also keep there everything I want to remember for the next plot. The siblings’ names, the birth city, even the first love if it is necessary. Yes, they will appear and be extended in the RPG threads, but in order to exist, they have to be noted somewhere first. And I see the character bio as a living tool, I update it with things I discover while writing the threads too.

    A detailed bio means that the player is invested into the setting, understands it and wants a coherent character.

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