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.
- 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?