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View Full Version : How much back-story can I demand?



Järnblomma
2008-12-28, 08:10 PM
In my games I try to get a lot of charachter-specific plots, with old friends showing up, old enemies getting back and old loves come to join the forces of good or evil (or well, the opposite side or their side. Evil and goodness tends to be highly subjective in my games).

But know I face some gamers I haven't played with much, and I ask you, how much back storyu can I expect? What is good questions to ask? What should I want to know about them? Only the general things or should I demand a ton of aquintances, a family-tree and their excakt grades in school?

How much can I do before the players get bored even before weäve begun playing?

Addition: This campaign will involve more role-play than action and the players are aware of this.

Jack_Simth
2008-12-28, 08:11 PM
That depends on your players. Ask them. It's a matter of their personalities, their tolerances. There is no way we can reasonably answer your question.

woodenbandman
2008-12-28, 08:13 PM
I don't really demand a set amount. If a character wants to have amnesia that's fine. I just make sure to tell them what I'm going to do beforehand if I take liberties with what backstory I've been given. Like if they tell me they have nemesis X I won't give them a warning, but if I want them to have nemesis Y I'd run it by them.

I get bored by loads of backstory. I hate coming up with backstory. I like getting what i like through in-game interaction. If you have a player like me, throw a variety of characters at them, and see who they like. Talk to them and see if you can come up with a family for them, or if they want to help you. Nothing worse than having the DM say "You hate your father" without making sure that the player won't say "no I don't."

Järnblomma
2008-12-28, 08:13 PM
That depends on your players. Ask them.

Let's say I can't (even though I can :smalltongue: ), what then?

AmberVael
2008-12-28, 08:15 PM
My experience has generally been that DMs allow players free reign in what they write for backstories- not as in they can write anything they want, but the DMs don't say "I want to know this, this, and this." Some do give perimeters, and it works out, but you want to be careful with what questions you pick.

Personally, I love writing a page or more of backstory, but I know I am definitely not most people. A few short paragraphs (or one long one) seem to be a standard length.

CarpeGuitarrem
2008-12-28, 08:15 PM
One decent rule of thumb is called a 3x3 array. Three acquaintances (friends or foe), three major events in their life, and three goals which they have. Feel free to substitute other threes in there. That should be enough info to generate plot hooks.

Flickerdart
2008-12-28, 08:16 PM
Well, it depends on how good their sheet is. If they have a flavourful character with lots of interesting things going on, you know they'll RP well. If they have a min/maxed uber Batman with a handful of words in the History line, they're not going to do so well.

CharPixie
2008-12-28, 08:22 PM
I'd probably never demand more than one page. I think it's reasonable to ask for that much (as long as you give people a few weeks to do it). Generally, if I really wanted to draw from it, I'd ask for two places, three people not including family, and something about their family. And at least one major event. I'd also give them a note that they could contact me for ideas and suggestions, for those folk who freeze up on character creation.

Tsotha-lanti
2008-12-28, 08:26 PM
Let's say I can't (even though I can :smalltongue: ), what then?

Then you're screwed and can't really demand anything, if you want them to play.

So either you ask them or you demand nothing.

Järnblomma
2008-12-28, 08:34 PM
Thank you all! :smallbiggrin:

Nefarion Xid
2008-12-28, 08:43 PM
One decent rule of thumb is called a 3x3 array. Three acquaintances (friends or foe), three major events in their life, and three goals which they have. Feel free to substitute other threes in there. That should be enough info to generate plot hooks.

Oh! I was going to mention the 3x3 bit since it's quick, easy and as soon as you've finished you basically have a coherent backstory.

My group has some vital story stats we adhere to without exactly following the 3x3 rule.

1. How you learned your skills (magic, swordplay, whatever) and any mentor you might have had.
2. Make up an enemy.
3. Make up a friend.
4. Why the heck you're doing the "adventurer" thing anyway. Not all games are focused on vagabonds who go waaay outside the comfort zone and put their lives on the line. But, if that's the case, then classic adventurers are either crazy, desperate or evil. There's got to be a really good reason why your charater decided that dungeon crawling (or what have you) is a valid alternative to blacksmithing as a career choice.
5. At least one aim, goal, or hope.

EDIT: Point being...you don't really need a narrative in any form. The quick and painless way is to just give them a Fill-in-the-blank backstory. That way you get to the game without pulling teeth and you get all the stuff you need.

Really, after you've got a mum, dad, sister, aunt, rival, friend, mentor, a hometown, an education (of sorts) and one goal in life...you've got a coherent backstory anyway.

valadil
2008-12-28, 10:24 PM
I always request a page. These days I'll still let players play if they don't do any backstory, but in the past I've actually required it. Now I prefer to reward backstory instead of punishing laziness.

I reward all players who give me a backstory. Players get an additional reward for writing the best or longest backstory. It's pretty straightforward.

I also request more information than the standard biographical stuff. I like to know how the character got to game start. How they arrived in town and what their business there is is much more important to me than their father's name.

Finally I explain that I ask for all this homework because I'd rather use a character's own plot than making a character care about my plot. The more plots a player gives me the more he gets to be in the spotlight. This doesn't help with warm bodies who just go along for the ride, but anyone who wants to be the main character gets into backstory with this kind of explanation.

ericgrau
2008-12-28, 10:27 PM
I've seen plenty of games without any. How much is really up to you and your group. My personal preference would be something simple, but certainly more than nothing.

Mark Hall
2008-12-28, 11:15 PM
Our DM gave, in 2nd edition, 500xp per page of backstory.

From one player, he got a barely legible, quarter-page scrawl.

From my younger brother and I, he got 17+ pages.

horseboy
2008-12-28, 11:28 PM
Personally, hand me more than two pages and you get the official TFFV Head Spanking Rubber Chicken upside your head. Usually I get mine in a 10 minute oral presentation. Because we rarely actually write it down, but we do talk over ideas and what not. If I've got the time, I'll usually do about a page and a half, with another half page or so of personality notes.

mabriss lethe
2008-12-29, 12:45 AM
As a DM, I really don't want more than a page or so. Generally speaking, you can get the meat and potatoes of a character's past in a few concise paragraphs.

Skjaldbakka
2008-12-29, 12:57 AM
I love the 3x3 thing, although I've never needed it myself, and that isn't how I build my backstories. I kinda want to go back and apply it to some of my old characters now, as they were at the beginning of the campaign.

Also, generally speaking, more than one or two pages is a bad thing, because it becomes more work for the GM to read it and absorb it all. What I encourage for PCs with creative writing skills is keeping a character journal (in or out of game), and sending that in. I actually give a small xp award.

Grail
2008-12-29, 01:54 AM
Well, it depends on how good their sheet is. If they have a flavourful character with lots of interesting things going on, you know they'll RP well. If they have a min/maxed uber Batman with a handful of words in the History line, they're not going to do so well.

Rubbish. It comes down to the individual player. One of the guys in my long-term game is a bit of a min-maxer, he'll try to optimize quite a bit. Won't give much of a background for his character until the game starts, and then he will go with the flow and bring it up in game.

I've seen the opposite as well, where a guy that I used to roleplay with wrote up a couple sheets of background and then just sat there and rolled dice.

herrhauptmann
2008-12-29, 01:57 AM
I'll generally write 2 or 3 pages of backstory, but that's because it's a story. The actual listing of past events, associations, goals, and how they affect me would only take about a page or so.

I've found that journal excerpts are a good (if long) way to get bonus XP for backstory.
Another character I've run was adventuring under the name of a person who gave his life in exchange for my characters freedom. Since the adventure hook was a letter summoning my character to a town, his backstory took the form of a letter explaining that he was likely not the person the letter was originally intended for. But he would do his best to fill their shoes. (Got the most bonus XP of the party, 350 at 3rd level)

CarpeGuitarrem
2008-12-29, 02:31 AM
Agreed with the wishes for a shorter backstory. It's not supposed to be a novel, it's supposed to be a reference for the DM.

AslanCross
2008-12-29, 05:17 AM
I think it depends on the character level. A Level 1 character would just be starting out, so maybe the player can give some details on his immediate family and why the PC is adventuring, but that's it. A Lv 5 character would have some history: past adventures, etc, but that only serves to develop why the character is the way he is.

I think the question is how much do you need? Will you be working their backstories into the plot, or is it just so that you're sure that the players actually thought about their characters before their builds?

Behold_the_Void
2008-12-29, 05:28 AM
A page is usually sufficient, if that. Generally, my players just tell me about their character, which works fine, and I craft extra world and plot points around their ideas. I have a player who, while generally not bad as a player, likes to write but is horrible at it. She tends to have a hard time staying in my "1 page" rule, and her backstories tend to be both rife with cliche and and poorly written. I'm a Journalism major, so I like things to be well-organized and concise. This causes issues, and I'm just better off not getting extended backstories from people, so long as I know what's important about their character.

Something to keep in mind though is I game with a decent group who is actually interested in the roleplay aspect, so I don't have problems and don't need to "force" backstories, as it were.

Narmoth
2008-12-29, 05:42 AM
The easiest solution is to give more role-specific plots to those who provide a detailed backstory as reward for the greater work they put into their character. Also, it will show the less backstory-oriented players why you want a backstory.

Satyr
2008-12-29, 05:43 AM
For a character background, quality is certainly more important than quantitiy, but a certain quality standard necessarily requires a certain volume. Ideally, the public character background should be compact enough to be read within five to ten minutes and doesn't need a David Copperfield introduction. A player could (and probably should) write a more complex and detailed for him- or herself, which could be more comprehensive and include more details, but the characterisation for the GM and the other players should be of elegant brevity. One page is a good minimum, two pages a good maximum.

In addition, a character background should be evaluated and a player who obviusly put a lot of effort and crativity in the develoment of his or her character should be rewarded, e.g. with additional skill points or higher ability scores, while players who do not invest the minimal time and effort in the embodiment of their characters certainly deserve an additional drawback or two.

Heliomance
2008-12-29, 05:56 AM
Well, it depends on how good their sheet is. If they have a flavourful character with lots of interesting things going on, you know they'll RP well. If they have a min/maxed uber Batman with a handful of words in the History line, they're not going to do so well.

I would dispute that. I'm something of an optimiser, and I have a tendency to try and make strong characters. I also hate writing backstory. I never know what a character's personality is going to be before I start playing them - it evolves organically. That doesn't mean I'm a bad roleplayer, far from it. Aside from the small flaw of finding it hard to disconnect my real-world morals from the game world, meaning my characters tend to drift towards neutral good, I like to think I'm a fairly proficient roleplayer. My characters evolve personalities, quirks, and so on. Just because I don't know what they're like when I start doesn't change that.

Kiero
2008-12-29, 06:32 AM
I would dispute that. I'm something of an optimiser, and I have a tendency to try and make strong characters. I also hate writing backstory. I never know what a character's personality is going to be before I start playing them - it evolves organically. That doesn't mean I'm a bad roleplayer, far from it. Aside from the small flaw of finding it hard to disconnect my real-world morals from the game world, meaning my characters tend to drift towards neutral good, I like to think I'm a fairly proficient roleplayer. My characters evolve personalities, quirks, and so on. Just because I don't know what they're like when I start doesn't change that.

Your character's backstory has little to do with their personality, its about giving hooks and ties to the world to your GM.

The one I gave my Saga Edition GM told him where he'd been, who he'd been associating with, who trained him to use the Force, that he had a goal to avenge his dead sister, and several enemies too. Nothing to do with his personality, as far as the material the GM was interested in. Course we started at 4th level, but the early part of his backstory talked about his upbringing on Dantooine, and when the Jedi came to take his older sister away. Along with running away to join an explorator crew at 15. That's all 1st level stuff.

I don't think the other players have formally communicated their backstory to the GM, which might be why mine is featuring much more prominently in the current storyline than theirs. I've got two of my enemies right there in the mix with us.

Heliomance
2008-12-29, 06:38 AM
Oh! I was going to mention the 3x3 bit since it's quick, easy and as soon as you've finished you basically have a coherent backstory.

My group has some vital story stats we adhere to without exactly following the 3x3 rule.

1. How you learned your skills (magic, swordplay, whatever) and any mentor you might have had.
2. Make up an enemy.
3. Make up a friend.
4. Why the heck you're doing the "adventurer" thing anyway. Not all games are focused on vagabonds who go waaay outside the comfort zone and put their lives on the line. But, if that's the case, then classic adventurers are either crazy, desperate or evil. There's got to be a really good reason why your charater decided that dungeon crawling (or what have you) is a valid alternative to blacksmithing as a career choice.
5. At least one aim, goal, or hope.

EDIT: Point being...you don't really need a narrative in any form. The quick and painless way is to just give them a Fill-in-the-blank backstory. That way you get to the game without pulling teeth and you get all the stuff you need.

Really, after you've got a mum, dad, sister, aunt, rival, friend, mentor, a hometown, an education (of sorts) and one goal in life...you've got a coherent backstory anyway.

If you're starting at level 1, you don't really have much in the way of backstory. One of my characters is a Ranger. He was a hunter, living out in the wilderness, came in to town to get some supplies, and got tangled up in the plot. Another character has even less - he's a dragon, and the campaign started approximately five minutes before he hatched.

Kizara
2008-12-29, 07:38 AM
Some examples:

http://z9.invisionfree.com/Travellers_Respite/index.php?showtopic=444

In case you can't put 2 and 2 together, I'm also Kizara on that forum and my post is the 5th one in.

Kiero
2008-12-29, 07:55 AM
Here's what I gave my GM (a backstory wasn't requested, I just like putting these things together to gather my thoughts about what a character's goals and Issues are):


Born on Dantooine, Coll's family has a long history of service to both the Jedi Order and the Republic. He grew up hearing tales of his great-father Dace from the times of the Old Republic, who had been an Antarian Ranger, and his great-uncle Deco who was a Jedi Knight. But while his childhood was a happy and peaceful one, he also thought Dantooine was the most boring planet in the galaxy. When his older sister Helia was discovered by the Jedi and taken away to be trained, he longed to be able to follow her off-world. He could lose himself in the trackless plains, but nowhere ever seemed far enough to imitate the adventures of his ancestors.

It was another decade before he was grown enough to leave, joining his cousin aboard an explorator vessel that roamed the Outer Rim. Armed with nothing more than the clothes on his back, the journals of great-father Dace, and a boundless zest for life, he finally left Dantooine. He was the lowliest member of the crew, cleaning out refreshers, loading and unloading cargo, cataloguing finds, but young Coll wasn't phased. He was travelling the stars, and increasingly he got to see the surface of all these foreign worlds. But even on the move he was restless, finding it difficult to stay with one group for too long. He wanted to see as much of the galaxy as he could.

Life changed with the usurpation of the Empire by the Sith Order. The crew he was signed on with lost their contract, and were forced to turn pirate. For a time after the destruction of the monastery on Ossus and Temple on Coruscant, he didn't know if Helia was dead or alive. It was almost a year before she found him on Nam Chorios. It was to be a brief reunion, she had to stay on the move to avoid Sith and bounty hunters. She warned him that the whole family was in danger because of their connection to the Jedi - and because the Force was strong in them. They formed a plan to get what remained of their family off Dantooine, and went their separate ways to execute it.

A year ago, Coll had a vivid dream where he saw Helia die. She was cut down by a Sith assassin. When he awoke, he couldn't shake the sensation that it was more than a dream. Attempts to reach his sister failed, and he was nearly killed a few weeks later when his band ran into dark Jedi Avod Laal's pirates. They were saved only thanks to the intervention of Zebet Shas, a Devaronian Jedi Master and Helia's former mentor. She drove off Laal his lover, Morghaine, a Dathomiri Nightsister, wounding the renegade. But Master Shas' appearance was no happy coincidence, she came bearing bad news. Helia was dead.

Coll took the news hard, though since the dream he'd had a feeling it had happened. For years he'd been ignoring Helia's suggestion that he should train as a Jedi, there was always another planet, another system, some uncharted region of space to explore. Now all that seemed unimportant. If he was to avenge his sister, he would have to train his talents. He persuaded Master Shas to take him on as her apprentice, she reluctantly agreed musing it was better that he was Jedi-trained than someone else twisting his abilities to their end. Along with the grim tidings, she brought a gift, Deco Arranda's lightsaber that Helia had carried as a Padawan before she built her own. It seemed fitting that the family heirloom should be passed on to another Arranda beginning their training.

Master Shas spent three months with Coll on the backwater world of Shintel, in the Kathol Sector out on the Outer Rim. There in the rainy forests and mountains he began the long journey of making the Force his ally. He was a natural with the physical disciplines of the Force, but the subtleties of influencing other minds was largely beyond him. When she had deemed his basic training complete, Shas left, having stayed in one place for too long and needing to vanish once more. Coll returned to his wandering lifestyle, signing on as surveyor or scout with whomever was looking, and always staying on the move. All the while gathering what information he could on his sister's killer.


Morghaine is one of our present enemies (and apparently the target for my character's Redemption Destiny), his sister's killer is now Darth Kharne (possibly the uber-villain for the game, or at least right now). The lightsaber he carries was recognised by the other Jedi character, and she was eager to hear news of where Master Shas was.

We're expecting the sister to turn up as a Force ghost at some point, and I helpfully had a go at statting up both Master Shas and Avod Laal for future use. The GM gave me a brief look at Darth Kharne's hideous stats (he's a Soldier/Sith Apprentice), Coll won't be taking him on any time soon.

Prometheus
2008-12-29, 08:29 AM
Our DM gave, in 2nd edition, 500xp per page of backstory.

From one player, he got a barely legible, quarter-page scrawl.

From my younger brother and I, he got 17+ pages.
Yeah, same thing happened to me except I was the DM. Some players will never write much about their character, but you can coax out some reasonable character sketch from it.

I rewarded character with more backstory by incorporating that backstory into the campaign. If you want to have a part of the story that is "all about you", I have to identify that aforementioned you.

valadil
2008-12-29, 08:40 AM
I would dispute that. I'm something of an optimiser, and I have a tendency to try and make strong characters. I also hate writing backstory. I never know what a character's personality is going to be before I start playing them - it evolves organically. That doesn't mean I'm a bad roleplayer, far from it. Aside from the small flaw of finding it hard to disconnect my real-world morals from the game world, meaning my characters tend to drift towards neutral good, I like to think I'm a fairly proficient roleplayer. My characters evolve personalities, quirks, and so on. Just because I don't know what they're like when I start doesn't change that.

As a GM I like to be able to prepare the game for the players that will inhabit it. I have an easier time doing that if players can tell me ahead of time where they see their character going. Of course characters will evolve over the course of the game but the GM should know if the wizard is going to be acting as a wise old sage or crazed nuker so he can write a game accordingly.

sparky22
2008-12-29, 09:36 AM
I quite like using the Hero Builder's Guide Book, it can create some interesting character history.

Tsotha-lanti
2008-12-29, 09:48 AM
I rewarded character with more backstory by incorporating that backstory into the campaign. If you want to have a part of the story that is "all about you", I have to identify that aforementioned you.

This seems like the fairest way (on all sides). I really don't like the idea of rewarding players with mechanical benefits for skills unrelated to the game: some people can write, others (most, in fact) can't, and it really doesn't relate to ability to roleplay. Rewarding quantity over quality is even more questionable.

Muad'dib
2008-12-29, 10:19 PM
This seems like the fairest way (on all sides). I really don't like the idea of rewarding players with mechanical benefits for skills unrelated to the game: some people can write, others (most, in fact) can't, and it really doesn't relate to ability to roleplay. Rewarding quantity over quality is even more questionable.

This!!! A DM of mine was more apt to give rewards for ingame role play instead of any back story we came up with. This meant we were more motivated to stay in character. I don't know why back story is assumed to make better role players. I always thought creating a believable personality (ok as believable as a fantasy character can be) with tangible motivations and goals to be more important than the aspects of their past. The past is past, it's interesting for a plot hook or two, but it does very little to actually role play your character. Role play is active and in-game, all back story can do is "justify" your motivations, personality, etc.

Knaight
2008-12-29, 11:42 PM
That said it can come up a lot, at least the basic stuff. If your character wasn't an orphan its going to change your perspectives on things(OK, so a lot of people make characters that aren't orphans. Its still way too common). To use an example of mine, one of my characters grew up on a caravan, which managed to get lost, and came from a nomadic, caravan based lifestyle. This comes up occasionally.

Accersitus
2008-12-31, 04:22 PM
In our group we usually play in home brewed low-magic/low wealth settings (at least until we gain a few lvls). Whoever is DM uses this to encourage the players to write a story since they need a reason if they have something unusual. A good example is in out current campaign where metal armors and swords are mostly owned by nobles and officers in the army, and a character needs a reason to carry this gear. The settings we make are quite large, so the greater events of the setting can carry over from campaign to campaign. Character stories are useful to have a real reason for your character to know about these quite nice things.
With this setup players who write good stories can start with more special gear and knowledge of the world. Since it is not too hard to explain why a character has at least decent starting gear, the main incentive for writing a story is that you get some nice RP advantages. These advantages can give your character the extra spark that makes him a great character that is remembered in the group for a long time. As long as the story is reasonably explained there should be some hooks for the DM to use. A simple example is in the previously mentioned setting if you wanted to make a fighter type character with heavy armor and a great sword, the easiest way is to have him be an army deserter, and in explaining why he joined and then deserted the army you will most likely get an insight into the ethics, morality, goals, and general personality of the character.

Kiero
2008-12-31, 09:48 PM
This!!! A DM of mine was more apt to give rewards for ingame role play instead of any back story we came up with. This meant we were more motivated to stay in character. I don't know why back story is assumed to make better role players. I always thought creating a believable personality (ok as believable as a fantasy character can be) with tangible motivations and goals to be more important than the aspects of their past. The past is past, it's interesting for a plot hook or two, but it does very little to actually role play your character. Role play is active and in-game, all back story can do is "justify" your motivations, personality, etc.

It's got nothing to do with "personality" or "motivations".

Backstory is providing your GM with some hooks, something to tailor the game to be relevant to your character (and thus presumably you, the player).