Monday, June 25, 2018

Expected Backstory Poll Results

Back in February, on the Facebook AD&D group, I asked a poll on the following question: "About how many pages of backstory is expected for a new AD&D 1st-level character in games you play?"

To be clear, this is not a question I would ever think to ask on my own. (Another poster previously asked, "How can I write the required 8 pages of backstory for my new character", or something like that, which generated a lot of interest.) As it turns out, this seems to be the most controversial/viral thing I've ever asked there: it generated 493 votes and 128 follow-up comments to date, with fiery opinions in all directions. Here's the original as it appeared on Facebook (out-of-order, and with vote totals of 100+ not visible):



Here's a possibly more useful version, with a table and chart in numerical order:


As you can see, the most popular choice by far was "zero pages" (by default, what I would have answered, the thought never even naturally occurring to me) with about 60% of the votes cast; but "one page" was also popular, with about 20% of the votes -- even more popular than a "half page", with 13% of the votes. On the other hand, while almost no one picked options in the range of 5 or 10 pages, ten people picked either "20 pages" or "More" (2% of the total voters), and were likely to post a comment justifying this stance (and so triggering counter-comments from the no-backstory camp).

Disclosure: There is a possibility that a few people picked "More" (i.e., more than 20 pages expected) accidentally, as by default Facebook only shows the top 5 options in a poll until one clicks "More Options...", that is, the options for 5-10-20 pages would be initially not visible.


In statistical practice, it is sometimes said that bimodal (or multi-modal) results like these indicate that one is measuring at least two disparate populations that perhaps should be separated apart in future analysis. The difference between "zero pages" and "twenty or more pages" of expected starting backstory is so startling that it does indeed seem like at least two different games are being played.

18 comments:

  1. Twenty or more pages of backstory? That's so astounding to me that I can't help wondering if you got a bunch of joke answers… except they posted their justifications??

    What… what even is in 20 pages of backstory? What kind of information takes up that much room? Is it in prose? Are these people literally writing novellas as backstory?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A number of comments were on the theme of "As many as it takes/As many as the player wishes to write.", etc. Below I'll post 3 of the more notable.

      Delete
    2. "As a DM I love see character history and backstory. These can provide very rich and relevant adventuring hooks, reveal old friends or rivals, give ideas about family history or deeds of parents that may impact the character, goals, motivations, fears, hopes and dreams to be crushed...uh.. I mean encouraged. I'm fine if people want to play shallow generic characters who meet in a tavern, but this is a role-playing game so I'm going to want to play the role and expect my players to also."

      Delete
    3. "As we have gotten older, however, backstory has become much more important. For my current 5e character, I have a roughly 1500 word backstory, and that is just what I have written down (much more in my head)."

      Delete
    4. [Heavily edited] "If it's a detailed campaign you've written over 6-12 months for highly intelligent, well read adults, that will last more than a year of play, with a complex plot that has a bunch of backstory and mysteries, you might need 5-10. Some characters more, some less. Just because they are first level, doesn't mean they don't have a complex, mysterious, rich and varied back story. If anyone thinks that's not true, they're a lazy DM and should stick to running one off games for kids... I know groups of players that love getting 10-15 pages of backstory before they start a campaign to study a week before we start playing. But they are mostly holders of graduate degrees with exceptionally high IQs."

      Delete
    5. Bonus: The very first comment in the thread was: "I... may have written a 60,000 word novel..."

      Delete
    6. Oh my everlovin' flargin grag, that [Heavily edited] one.

      Tell ya what, supra-genius, you hand me that doctoral thesis of a backstory for your first level character over my DM screen and I will take *immense* pleasure in dissolving that over written wad of auto-fanfic with a random encounter green slime before you even reach the bottom of the stairway into the dungeon.

      That is if you can stop congratulating yourself about how big your damn brain is to actually get around to playing the game.

      Sheeeesh.

      Delete
    7. Seriously, though, yes it does seem like to Delta's point we're looking at people playing two very different sorts of games.

      I'd probably ask a player not to give me much more than a few lines if even that, and it wouldn't be mandatory. Some plot threads to weave into the world are handy, but as Mr. Mahney says the emergent storytelling is much more interesting than pre planning every thing.

      I'd also refer to Paul's excellent point that if you front load all your character development beforehand in a backstory then there might not be much left to do with the character once you get them to the table.

      Delete
    8. That heavily edited one seems to talking more about the backstory of a campaign, not a character. At least that's how it reads to me.

      Delete
    9. I guess it seems to fall into two categories then.

      1) I like to really think deeply about my characters, find out where they came from and where they're going. Once I've done that, why not write a bunch of it down?

      2) Mmmmm, I'm just FAR too clever for short, LESSER backstories. If you're willing to settle for INFERIOR games, I suppose you could spend less than a month writing a backstory. Probably drink wine costing less than 150$ a bottle too, filthy commoner.

      Delete
  2. I generally have players write about half a page or bullet points covering the characters early development.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'll never understand the urge to write extensive backstories for 1st level characters. As a player I don't want to write it, as a DM I don't want to read it. Usually they end up contradicting my campaign world, or giving the PC experiences that would necessitate them being higher level than they are. I'd prefer players save that for their fiction, because D&D works best as emergent storytelling.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed (of course). And that was broadly the consensus among this AD&D crowd. But wow, that other population... !

      Delete
  4. I think one or two sentences helps me to figure out what type of character someone wants to play, and as the DM I can work the system to make it happen.

    For example, a new player of mine once chose to be a cleric, but she wasn't so interested in being a front-liner who smashes things with a mace. She had chosen elf as her character's race, so I let her be a nature cleric who was allowed to use bows, but was limited to leather armor. Even more common, as I've taught quite a few people how to play, new players have had an archetype in mind and I've helped steer them toward the appropriate class.

    If they actually want to write more than a sentence or two, I'm happy to read it and take it into account in my world-building. Within reason, of course, but no one in any of my groups has ever been inclined to write a novella and/or a Mary Sue type background.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Depending on which character sheets you were using, some of that "half page" of backstory was subsumed into the homeland, family, social class, entries.
    I think character background can mimic campaign world background (especially in high mortality rate editions). Establish the basics that you need right way, and keep the deep/big ideas fuzzy until you know that things are going to pan out.
    So I guess, feel free to write it if that is your process and what gets you excited to play, but maybe keep it behind the curtain until you get a few levels.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Based on the way Facebook organizes the options, the data may be skewed in a couple of ways.

    For example, most people stop looking when they find the result they want, and the numerals suggest they'll be numeric order. If they come to the survey thinking "about half a page", they may just stop looking when they see 1. (Obviously, 0, 1, 1/2, 2, 21+, 20, 5, 10 is not the most intuitive ordering.) The 1 page option may have stolen some of the 1/2 a page audience.

    Similarly, if it only shows you the most popular five options, some might have interpreted "more" to mean "more than 2", not "more than 20".

    You might consider using ranges instead of just numbers, "none (0 pages)", "less than 1 page", "about 1 page", "about 2 pages", "3 to 5 pages", "6 to 10 pages", "11 to 20 pages", "more than 20 pages".

    ReplyDelete
  7. IMO, If you’re writing more than a paragraph of backstory, then the campaign is not nearly lethal enough. DM is being way too easy.

    ReplyDelete