Friday, August 26, 2011

Backstory Rewards

Some folks like and encourage (sometimes with rules & benefits) extensive backstory as part of their RPG character-creation. I don't think it's any secret: I don't. Personally, I find it to be a hassle, a burden, a bondage, and generally a waste of time -- particularly in the context of an old-school RPG where we expect a fairly high body count/turnover. As a player, I'm very happy to experience my PC's "story" unfold in its entirety at the gaming table, to have it be organically anchored to other players and the milieu, and to be surprised and have to improvise as the character-arc unfolds (whether briefly or at length).

But let's think for a moment at the possibility for "backstory rewards", that is the inverse, awards for keeping your backstory shorter rather than longer (perhaps even a cap or a rules-based prohibition on long backstory). Say that at 1st level, you get to add one item of backstory to the campaign -- maybe as simple as your character's name. If you tell me anything more than that you get penalized in equipment (ha!; semi-joking). If that seems limiting, recall that in classic old-school play even naming the PC at 1st level was commonly avoided; some folks didn't bother to pick name until survival to a later level was proven. (And, sadly, this has a reflection in reality: once upon a time, it was common practice to forgo naming newborn babies for some time. I'm only a single generation removed from that myself.) At 2nd level, you get to add one more item of backstory -- like making up the town where you're from. Maybe at 3rd level you get to make up/specify a cult, ally, or magical school that gave you training in the past. And so on and so forth. Perhaps around name level (9th-12th or whatever) you earn the right to establish descent from a particular royal line or something.

So, in theory, this would accomplish a few things: (1) it would limit the initial backstory which can be seen as wasteful; (2) it provides yet another benefit to "leveling up"; (3) it allows limited player input to the campaign as a reward for superior play (but not carte blanche for any new entrant to mess it up); (4) it models many sources of literature where the protagonist's "special birth" or "chosen one" status unfolds as a mystery over time, only being revealed in full near the end of the character arc; and likewise (5) it plays with the idea of "fate", normally extremely hard to simulate in RPGs, as a function of re-interpreting history after-the-fact, as it were.


8 comments:

  1. That would reduce the effect of those players who show up with 5 pages of backstory, each of which introduces 2-3 new campaign elements, and whose PC dies in a pit trap 30' into the dungeon. Leaving a huge campaign impact only rivaled by the next PC the player generates.

    If I get another one of those I'll use a variation of this. "Tell me your name and one thing about you - kingdom you came from, your father's job, whatever." As they prove survivable they can add more . . . I like it.

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  2. Peter: Exactly! Glad to know I'm not alone on that observation.

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  3. I used to be that player, but playing with Delta showed me the light. Fact is even if you don't die, you're still pretty much done playing by the time you sit down at the table, so why bother?

    Seriously, just roll on this chart:

    http://jrients.blogspot.com/2008/09/whats-my-motivation.html

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  4. The beauty is those players who generate vast backstories for their characters don't waste it on a sudden and early demise. They can just recycle the unused elements the next time around.

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  5. I like this idea. I think I'll impose a "one fact per level rule".

    That being said, I though the reward for a making a good D&D backstory was called "name level".

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  6. Even though I am more excited about back-story than you (doesn't sound hard!), I kind of like this rule and the way it cuts both ways: I'm definitely going to give it a try.

    Where do you get these players who show up with 5 pages of back-story when I have to beat players to get them to produce a half a page!? There must be some kind of inverse law at work.

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  7. Theodric: Ha, well I don't get that myself much anymore, for a couple reasons -- one being that I proselytize enough my players usually know about that.

    But in the past I've played in other games and had the inverse problem: like, sit-down pre-game interviews with the DM asking for backstory that felt endless to me (and that I personally couldn't care about).

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