Friday, April 15, 2016

Character Build: Backstory and Motivation

The only book you kinda need
Good afternoon, friends, and welcome to another fascinating episode of the blind leading the blind, or Blind (Mitigator, Patron). Today, I'm going to be talking about something that has all the hardness of special sensitive gum formula Jello: backstories. I have opinions about backstories, and I think I've never exactly explained it just right to my players, so I often get things that are technically backstories, and they might even be written well, but it misses the mark entirely of what I really am asking for when I ask for a backstory. So today, I am going to wax extremely editorial on a topic I didn't see much advice for, and I encourage anyone else who has opinions, whether they are in a vehement opposition to mine, or they are in adamant agreement, to give me your thoughts.

Borrowing a bit from engineering, I think of character creation as a (fun) version of responding to a request for proposal. The GM is soliciting you to take part in a game, and you in turn are expected to create a bid and proposal that explains how you and your character fulfill the needs of the GM, which are, hopefully, described in some kind of campaign planning format. The GM asks for characters that want to perform mission x in setting y, and you are going to explain why your character z is fit for mission x in setting y.

Mechanical Benefits

First this post is pretty system agnostic, and I suppose advice on writing a useful backstory can help any type of player playing almost any type of game, but to start with, GURPS does offer a bit of advice on potentially rewarding players that give a thoughtful backstory. In Basic Set - Characters, p.12, it says that creating a backstory can warrant free character points according to a rubric laid out on p.11. So, if not for anything else, a player who doesn't think a backstory helps them, is fun, or anything else, it's free points (if your GM uses that optional rule!)

Writing to Your Audience

The backstory is something you write for up to three possible audiences, the third being a little optional:
  • Yourself, the player
  • The GM
  • Optionally, your fellow players
Considering these three targets, while writing the backstory, think about how each detail impacts that particular stakeholder. Does remembering a really important fight in your childhood matter to yourself? Your GM? Your Players? Why does it matter? Let's try exploring the needs of each target.

The Player

How does a backstory help the person who creates it? Using a different engineering metaphor, your backstory is a requirements document, and we want to have a certain type of traceability from the background to a character sheet. I mean, GURPS is a game, and it's meant to be fun, so no one will die if your character sheet isn't the perfect implementation of your backstory, but what makes your character interesting today should be informed by it. What does that mean?  If your character has a trademark aspect, like favorite tools, major weaknesses, what have you, in the perfect ideal, it is in your backstory, and in turn it is on your character sheet because it is in your backstory. That's traceability: the things that make your character don't come out of nowhere.
In a mechanical sense, having a consistent character is also rewarded with the metagame mechanic of character points. Composing a character that is consistent and sensible makes role playing easier, and less frustrating. Why does writing a backstory help this? Let's look at some disadvantages someone might take for example. Let's say Loner and Sense of Duty (Adventuring Companions). These on the surface are more than a little opposed to each other, but both seem to be somewhat popular disadvantages. If you take those two disadvantages, or want those two disadvantages, can you write a compelling scene that manifests both traits at once? Can you do this repeatedly? Can you keep this up for every single session for the entire campaign? I'm not saying you can't because there is the trope of the super cool dude who likes to work alone, but has a deep internalized need to protect his colleagues. But maybe you can't, and if you can't do it once where there is no pressure, how much harder will it be to maintain session after session after session? In the end, this will penalize your character, and put you in a position where you aren't able to enjoy yourself as much because you are trying to improv a character that doesn't make sense to you.
One other often overlooked point of the backstory, criminally neglected I'd say, is aspiration. A character needs a reason to be doing what he or she is doing, and from the players perspective it should be more specific than "for the sake of adventure" or "The search of knowledge." What kind of adventure? What kind of knowledge? Why Adventure? If the why is answered somehow else, what happens to your character then? What will they do when the wanderlust is fulfilled? What will they do when they obtain knowledge?
Why does it matter? This is a bit of a house rule and personal style thing, but if one of my players say that their character is interested in learning something, it makes it a lot easier to justify when they spend points on it. Your character doesn't have any points in sign language? Your backstory says you are trying to learn sign language? Well, hey, if you had a hand full of hours here and there to presumably study during the campaign, I don't have any reason to reject spending points on it when it comes up.

The GM

This is most likely the person that literally asked for the backstory, and for good reason. They need the backstory to create the kind of game to which you want to be a part. So what matters to a GM?
A lot of what the GM can use for plot grist comes from character disadvantages, but not all disadvantages actually inform plot seeds. So, hitting on the same point as in the previous section, having good, well-defined aspirations are critical.
You want to fight strong monsters? Like What? What type of dragon? Why a fire dragon? Where did that happen? How would defeating it make you feel?
You want to learn as much as possible? What will your character do with that information? What if someone does that before you? Do the ends justify the means? What if your goal becomes impossible to accomplish? What is the next thing you will do?
One thing that is critical to understand with a tabletop RPG is the GM is the universe, and the GM knows everything, and if there is something the GM doesn't know, then it isn't true and it doesn't exist. I've had players before that tried keeping secrets from me and springing the secret at a deus ex machina juncture. I can't speak for all systems, but in GURPS, it doesn't fly. You don't secretly have a special power unless the GM knows you secretly have a special power; you don't secretly have friends in high places unless the GM knows you secretly have friends in high places; there isn't a legendary sword buried in your family mausoleum, unless the GM knows there is a legendary sword buried in your family mausoleum.
If there is a secret the GM doesn't know, it isn't a secret, it's the Delusion disadvantage.
I think it is critical for your enjoyment to discuss your backstory with the GM. Creating the backstory in a vacuum is just about as dangerous as creating a character sheet in a vacuum, and I have had critical campaign issues with almost every player who tried to wing it.

Fellow Players

This is somewhat of an optional audience, but still an important consideration. If it is possible, designing a character that respects the decisions, mood, and consensus built by everyone makes it easier to interact in what is generally and usually a group activity, and making something that doesn't work with the pace already established has a chance of making you an odd-man out. This is especially easier when the group is first forming, but especially important when joining an established group in an already ongoing campaign.
On the topic of secrets, the GM must absolutely know your secrets. Other players though, it can go either way. On the one hand, keeping something secret from the other players can make the reveal that much more dramatic. And the secret will be revealed, it's kinda like a hidden Chekhov's Gun, so don't worry. On the other hand, if the players know, not the characters, this can allow people in on the idea to set up interesting role playing situations where everyone skirts around the problem.
Whether or not it helps varies from group to group, but consider it thoughtfully before saying yes or no.

Other Thoughts

I have sometimes seen novellas that do everything but answer the questions a GM really need to be answered. I think there is a misunderstanding of what is required of a backstory for an RPG versus other creative works. It might be the collaborative nature of it, and learning how to improvise something creative simultaneously with a bunch of other people is a skill that probably needs to be developed that doesn't get a lot of stimulation unless you've been involved in some measure of theater, improv, etc. I'd really like to know what other people think on this issue because this writing is really coming from a place of frustration. 
This might also be a bit context sensitive as well, but these thoughts might be moot if the GM already has a story that he wants the players to take a part in. That's not my style though. I like to putz around a bit with everyone's background and try to piece something together until something sticks, so knowing what my players want is incredibly important. Maybe I should try giving my players a more linear story?


  1. I get where your coming from. How much experience do you have with "yes and" or "yes but" improvisational techniques? Your frustration may be relieved by this Avenue of research. It was under a particular gm (Tobie abad) where I saw good yes& in action and how he weilded it was what changed my paradigm to be more narrative. It's a different school of rpgs but the trade offs work for some and not all.

    1. Yup! It really depends on how you run a game and how your players expect to play that game.


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