Further Musings on Backstories are Not Stories

So, here we go, Backstories are not Stories round two. Let me begin by saying I had have been thrilled with how the last week’s blog was received. It had many comments from all points of view on the topic. Additionally, I deeply enjoyed the exchange of thoughts and ideas that was had overall. Heck, my High School English teacher even threw his hat into the ring what an honor! So, with that out of the way, I want to take this time to address the topic a little further. Now, as I said before and many times while I was answering comments throughout the day. This is a hobby and a game. If you disagree that strongly you go do you and have fun! I am just a guy with a blog.

Why write about this more you ask?

To start with the first blog was more of an example of a technique. This blog will go into a bit more depth on some of the points that were brought up by comments. As well as one of the most concerning things that I encountered over and over as I read through the replies I wanted to address.

What was that?

Overwhelmingly a great number of the people who disagreed the idea of a resume or short form one page background version of a backstory felt I was just plain wrong. They also felt that this in some way was implying that I was attempting to stifle my player’s creativity. That somehow they would not be able to make rich quality backstory if they were restricted in any way in their writing. A few others also felt that the longer their backstory the better for both the Gamemaster and the Player.

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Any more thoughts on the last blog?

At its core, the post was solely intended as a helpful aid for both players and Game Masters.

It was inspired around Summarization much like the Evil Hat Dresden worksheet with the understanding that for a Game Master like it or not dealing with 4-8 Character Backgrounds can be daunting not to mention hard to remember all the details.

Oddly many people thought that I was trying to LIMIT their creativity and that “Less” would not mean more or somehow hurt the creative process for their background. That is, the furthest from the truth, summarization techniques are some of the effective memory retaining strategies in history. They teach you how to pick out the most important ideas in a text. As well as how to ignore the irrelevant info and how to integrate the core ideas in a meaningful way. My goal was to help your GM’s to more easily retain the info of your backstory.

Additionally, a long backstory puts the Game Master into the position of often having to say no. This can foster resentment and opinions that the GM is unwilling to let you be creative. Where does it hurt in the creative process to make a short sheet of your accomplishments for your Game Master and then approach him with your ideas? From there take this and bring it to the Storyteller, collaborate, create, and get on with the game.

After that, if you feel you want to write more go hog wild. But your GM has the relevant moments. The Sparks that add to that character that he can easily reference and bring to play in the game.

My close friend Mike had this to say and I agree-

The basis of roleplay is cooperative storytelling, When you write a lengthy story you remove that aspect of the game experience.

 

 

Player Characters Backstories are Not Stories.

Not long ago I got in a twitter conversation about character backstories. One of my followers @CrossingNewLeafe chimed in on a conversation that I had commented on with @theGodDamnDM about making an awesome backstory that will impress your DM. One commenter had stated that they felt that a short backstory was the best. Others had stated that there was nothing wrong with a long and amazing backstory.  My reply was this.

Hot backstory tip. Do not make your backstory better than the story about to be told or there is no character motivator in your future.

This sparked a shift in the topic to the idea of: is there such a thing as too much backstory and should the GM just embrace it and rise to the challenge of penning a better plot to keep up with the tone set in the backstory. Also, the conversation went on to find many GM’s of the opinion that be backstory can never be too long. My last bit of voice on the subject was this.

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A good backstory is like a resume. Short & Informative with interests and motivations & some NPC references added at the end. 1 page is plenty.

Now that the stage has been set I will elaborate a bit. In the context of writing a backstory, it can be long or a prolog. In some cases, it can even be a prequel. In this situation, we are talking about handing your Game Master a backstory. So we are not writing a novel thus, the above intents of a backstory are not what we’re looking for. In this case what we have left is the other uses for a backstory.  A flashback, dialogue narrative exposition or a summary. Flashbacks are interjected into a scene. Dialogue is spoken backstory in character or by a narrator. What we are left with the only one that fits. A player Character backstory is a summary of events.  By definition:

sum·ma·ry
noun
a brief statement or account of the main points of something.
“a summary of Chapter Three”
adjective
dispensing with needless details or formalities; brief
“summary financial statements”

So a player characters’ backstory is not a story nor should it be a story even though many want it to be one. I want players to understand that backstory in the case of an RPG is at its core. A brief accounting of the players past. It is also used to reveal motivations, influences, fears and obstacles that made the character who they are as they step on stage for the first game.

I know you want to flex your inner author and I am all for creativity as the next guy. Even so, there are several reasons why I am making this blog to help understand that you can have a compelling backstory and still keep it in the space of a page or less.

 Reasons why you should keep a Backstory Brief.

  • The longer your backstory that more info that will fall through the cracks.
  • You are adding unnecessary workload on your Gamemaster.
  • It is lacking in any Gamemaster input or influence.
  • Less is more, You and your GM can always add to less. It’s hard to cut away More.
  • . Think back to your own life. It’s the defining moments we recall not the daily grind.
  • Your backstory tells the events that lead up to the moments of your stories beginning.

Tips to think about when writing your Backstory

  • Does the GM need this info?
  • How can I shorten what I have written?
  • Is this relevant to who my character has become?
  • Did I leave room for the Gamemaster to add input?

Be sure to add

  • Any Life changing moments
  • Achievements and Failure
  • Fears and Flaws
  • Motivations and Goals

All that said, what do I think a good Character Background would look like. Well as above I mentioned something akin to a resume. Something that would let the GM know my main traits. A few experiences or adventures that helped shape my life. As well as any contacts or rivals that may still be creeping around in my past and what kind of influance they may have.

This is mostly inspired by one of the best Character background sheets I have seen over my years of gaming. The Dresden Files Character Phase worksheet. Here is my version.

Your Name Here & Your PC’s Name Here

Class:
Personality Trait:
Bond:
Ideal:
Flaw:

 Long Term Goals

List one or two goals that your player would like to achieve.

Background (List three past events & how they affected you)

Event One, Location– Note here if any other PCs were involved

  • What Happened?
  • How were you Affected?
  • Was the Event Resolved?
  • Name a contact or Rival Gained? Roll 1d6 Even Contact Odd Rival

Event Two, LocationNote here if any other PCs were involved

  • What Happened?
  • How were you Affected?
  • Was the Event Resolved?
  • Name a contact or Rival Gained? Roll 1d6 Even Contact Odd Rival

Event Three, LocationNote here if any other PCs were involved

  • What Happened?
  • How were you Affected?
  • Was the Event Resolved?
  • Name a contact or Rival Gained? Roll 1d6 Even Contact Odd Rival

Contacts & Rivals

Contact/ Rival Name :
Influence & Resources:

Contact/ Rival Name :
Influence & Resources:

Contact/ Rival Name :
Influence & Resources:
Description:

 

Please let me know your thoughts! Thank you, fellow followers for the inspiration of this blog. I hope you all found this helpful. Did I change your mind or are you now further entrenched in long form backstories? I look forward to your replies.