|"Gamer ADD" in action.|
It’s a surprisingly controversial subject, and discussions of it on forums – which invariably start with the topic creator shaking his fists at the notion – explode into many dozens of posts worth of tirade.
For my part, I love them. From a new player, it tells me – above all – that he or she is likely to be a strong roleplayer, certain to view the character as more than a piece on a chessboard. It’s reasonable to assume that the player is going to be unusually interested in setting details, and I’ve got a very dense setting. They provide plothooks, they provide motivations, they make it easier to introduce NPCs, they're good for getting past the awkward "Why in the heck do these people want to adventure together?" They aid me in helping the players create their characters - certainly even the one-line stories some have mentioned above like "I'm an ex-gladiator who bought his freedom" and "The king ordered the murder of my parents" suggest skill sets, advantages and disadvantages obvious to many of you.
Am I intimidated by them? Certainly not. Some are good, some are crap, some are too long, some don't tell me anything I couldn't have figured out from the character sheet ... yeah, I figure that someone with Farming skill and five weapon skills probably was a farmer who decided to go off to become a warrior, thanks ever so.
Now there are certainly campaigns where backstories are pointless. High-mortality? No need to write a background for a PC who’s going to be dead inside of three sessions. Hack-n-slash? If the campaign’s not about roleplaying, a roleplaying tool doesn’t make much sense. But otherwise? Allow me to dig into my archives and toss out some common complaints:
* So the players gave you different amounts of backstory? I don't consider this any more of a problem than when Player B goes into extensive RP with the NPCs and the others don't, or when Player A uses sound, well-reasoned tactics and the others don't, or when Player C takes the trouble to learn the rule system and the others can't be bothered. Yes, there are players who hate to put pen to paper. There are also players who hate to roleplay, players who hate to read so much as a page of rules and players who can't stand plans more complex than "I walk up to the dude I think is the bad guy and hit him with my sword." I don't go out of my way to nerf those who go to some trouble in order to provide lowest common denominator gaming for the lazy or the mediocre. Players who put time and trouble into the game get more benefits than those who don't.
* So you can’t stand the player who wants to blather about the cool things his character did in the “past?” People do that a lot in real life. But it's not as if we neuter combat because there are players who are combat-obsessed, or eliminate loot because some players go completely over the top in treasure-grubbing, or eliminate character creation because some players get obsessive over that. A GM who doesn't have "Nice try, but no," in his or her arsenal is hamstrung from Day One.
* So most backstories are written like bad fanfics? And I suppose GMs are all a combination of Frank Capra, John Grisham and Spencer Tracy? You're all expert plotters and character actors? I sure like getting a couple of well-written pages over a couple of poorly written pages, but c’mon?
* So you don't like getting a five page backstory? Quite aside from that many GMs have background handouts / webpages that run a hell of a lot more than five pages, and that I have little sympathy for GMs complaining that reading five pages at the start of a campaign will break them -- this while using a stack of 500 pages worth of corebook and splatbook rules -- there's a startlingly simple answer: no one's forcing you to read it.
* So you believe that backstories are stupid and every trait should be developed through play? Great. Don't write one, and develop all your PCs' traits through play. What? Your players might have different play styles and likes and dislikes than you do, and aren't necessarily going to play the exact same characters you would in the exact same way you'd choose?
* So a backstory might clash with your setting? Ah, but there's this marvelous invention called a pen. When reading through a backstory, if there's a bit that clashes, take that pen and draw a line through the offending material. Hand it back to the player and tell her about the clash. Why, you've even informed your players more about your setting by doing so! Win-win.
* So you’re secretly worried that your world won’t be as awesome as what the player envisons? Since when did this become a zero-sum competition, where people are so afraid of the possibility of excellence that it has to be banned? Are players writing backstories really so self-absorbed that they're ignoring the other players, if not the whole rest of the setting, but at the same time are thinking "Aha! I'm going to stick it to those mediocre bastards, who of course can't possibly be as creative and skilled as I am, and show them who's the real author of the bunch! Take that!"
* So you’re puzzled that a player wants to introduce stuff into the game before play starts? So what? I don’t imagine someone who wants to be engaged with your setting before play won’t care any more thereafter, do you? I've been creating for over thirty years now, and I'm not remotely close to done. I'm not only quite happy for players to take some of that burden off my hands, but to bring their ideas and concepts – ones I might not have thought up on my own – to the game. I'm also quite happy when they're thought out in more detail than three minutes of bull session around the dice and potato chips, and I'm somewhat at a loss to figure out why such creation taking place outside of game sessions needs to be reflexively disqualified.
* So you don’t like a player developing friends and family outside of play sessions and think that RP should solely be contained around the gaming table? I'm likely to make a great many other choice that you yourself wouldn't make in my shoes. You might hate playing rogue/mercenary types. I like them. You might hate playing hardbitten survival experts. I like them. You might hate playing characters who fuss over equipment lists. I don't. You might have no use for characters who avoid frontal assaults. I do. Sorry, but I don't want you choosing the degree I have insta-camaraderie with the group at the expense of the character's life to date, any more than I want you dictating the type of character I play as well as his personality traits. Come to that, I believe I can figure out for myself what constitutes a more enjoyable game experience. If I believe that involves an elaborate backstory, that's my decision. I won't require my GM read it – at least I won't be any stuffier about it than he'll be about me reading his handouts – but I don't expect guff about the degree to which I pay attention to it and play according to it.
* So you think the character will change far beyond the realm of any backstory? I agree: the person my character will be a year from now, or five years from now, will surely be different from what it is today. Any long term character of mine – and my two longest duration characters went for fourteen and twenty-three real time years respectively – will be affected by his experiences. No kidding. But of how many of us can't that be said, in real life? Are none of us changed by our experiences? Does that therefore mean our pasts don't matter at all? If we were to sit down at a coffee house and get to know one another, how many of you would respond with "What I've done, what I've seen, what's happened to me, who I am; none of that matters worth a damn. All any of you need to know about me is what you observe from this moment forward." To which I'd likely respond with an "Ooookay" and turn to the next guy, hoping he wasn't quite so weird and/or combative as all of that.
* So you resent the time you “waste” reading them? As a GM, I like to know things about characters. I don't require backstories, but I appreciate them, and backstories engender interesting plot tailored to them. I don't require that they be expertly written; they're tools, not literary exercises, and I'm not grading on style. Does that mean I "suffer" through turgid writing every rare once in a while? I can't say so, because I'm not remotely enough of a whiner to complain about the two and a half minutes "wasted" in going over a four-page backstory (I just timed myself reading an example I'd saved) every year or two. What was I going to do with those 150 seconds, get into another Internet discussion?