I read a post today over at Wrath of Zombie, “No One Cares that You Are A Beautiful and Unique Snowflake Except Your Mom.”
But I do. I care.
In short, if you didn’t read the other post, he laments that players write the long-winded backstories and then get upset when he doesn’t read them and doesn’t incorporate them into the game… Which is perfectly fine if it works for him (though the fact that players are upset suggests that it doesn’t work for all his players). I’m dangerously close to telling another person “how to play” here though and I don’t want that. Seriously, if he’s happy — go for it.
But I’d like to suggest another path.
Embrace the long-winded backstory. Cherish it even. Because a player that is going to write you a long-winded backstory is likely a player who is deeply invested in your game. And your complicity in making that back-story into part of the present-story will create a rich game for you and that player.
Here’s a quick stroll down memory lane…
A player walks up to me after a session in a 3.5 game I used to run and he says, “Hey, so, the paladin had a heart to heart with his goddess, the bard has this crazy aunt living in the city that we keep going back to for tea and information, and the dwarf is part of some ancient bloodline of heroes connected to a dwarven religious heresy. I blow things up when we fight. Why do they get that stuff?” My answer, “they wrote me backstories and asked for that kind of investment in their histories and characters.” His answer, “oh, yeah, okay, it’s not worth it then.”
A player who wants to show up at the table and play each week and not be that invested is fine. If they like swinging the sword, rolling some dice, and drinking some Mt. Dew — no problem. If they want to have a deeper connection to the game though, that takes commitment. Now, I did end up working with that player I just mentioned and helping to coax him into the campaign’s “life” a little more, but he never got over the hump of deciding to really wanting his character to have connections or existence beyond the party.
When I ran my super long Amber game that lasted for years I had a player ask me, right at the beginning of the game, “Can I have a Pattern sword like Corwin’s?” My answer, “Yeah, write me a novel about why you should get to have that and I’m in.” Of course, he showed up at the next session with a composition book about 3/4s full of sketches and story bits and conversations and I just laughed and gave him the Pattern sword. I used a ton of stuff that he brought me in that little book to flesh out areas of the campaign that needed a little polishing (without sacrificing any of my plans as GM) and we suddenly had an amazing new character to add to the campaign and enough baggage and drama that I could have run that game forever.
Now — don’t get me wrong. I don’t think back-story should trump present-story. What happens at the table is most important and always will be. But back-story is a great way to get ideas, to get investment, to get players more tied in to your world. And quite frankly, it gives me a moral high-ground. If I read everyone’s backgrounds and commit to making them a part of games… then I can reasonably expect players to actually read my campaign handouts and commit to trying to be a part of the world they are in.
Backstories can be mined for so many things. You can never have enough NPCs and when players are handing them to you in their backgrounds — awesome! Characters that come with backgrounds often have investments in things and goals they want to complete. Well every character goal or old enemy or rival organization or mentor? That’s an adventure idea. That bard’s crazy aunt up above? She wasn’t in the backstory. But she was implied by the history the character had written and so when the player asked me, “Hey, I have relatives in this city, are any of them speaking to me?” I could answer, “yeah, your eccentric aunt Beth lives here and she’s always been a little odd, just like you!” Beth went from a one-off appearance to becoming a beloved and recurring NPC. And her arrival in the campaign came at the junction of in-play judgment (based on the bard’s personality) and the player’s backstory.
And those goals? More than just suggesting specific adventures, goals motivate players to push their characters. And it doesn’t have to be, “kill the vampire that ruined my life.” That paladin I mentioned, he was a guy whose sole dream was owing a rural inn. Just a little side of the road place. But he’d been chosen by the goddess of hope — in a time of need — to fight for the hopes of many. And when he had a crisis of faith, she was there, to keep him on the path, to provide hope, and even though he never got to retire to that inn in that game — that off beat goal kept him strangely focused as we went along and offered up some interesting chances to roleplay that we might not have otherwise had.
Embrace the special snowflake. Use it. Shape it. Again — I don’t endorse the inmates running the asylum or that backstory should ever trump the action of the campaign. But I do think it should always enhance it — and I think it often does.
Thanks for reading.