Please Be a Special Snowflake!

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.

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13 responses

  1. Yeah, I think it all boils down to player and DM preference. I’m more in the “background-is-levels-1-6″ camp but I’ve done the “here’s my character’s background” thing too and neither is THE correct way. The problem is when the DM & players are not on the same page about background, which in my experience is usually when one or the other can only roll their preferred way and thinks the other way is ‘wrong’ or ‘not roleplaying’ or ‘not investing in the game’.

    1. I’ll admit, I never even heard of the “background-is-levels-1-6″ thing until recently. I mean, I played a lot of old school but we were always “role-players” in the sense of the word that usually is used to mean “people who have big backgrounds and all that stuff and nonsense.”

      Heck, when I started playing we used the Basic/Expert rules and level 6 was practically halfway through a career… for halflings it was almost the end!

      That said, I completely agree. As with most problems at the table, not being willing to adapt and respect other play styles at the table is where the tension is — not whether one guy has a background and the other doesn’t.

  2. Good alternate view :) I respect the back story and even endorse someone who wants to write it because, as you said, it means that they are invested.

    For my group- MOST o’ my players won’t do this and the one(s) that do tend to NOT take my game world into consideration. I’m all for making concessions and altering stuff to make it fit, but not to read my world stuff, etc (which I feel is a bit more important than a backstory) shows a lack of motivation and a bit of a selfish self-serving slant.

    My main complaint for all of this stems from playing OSR style games and a player having a 3+ page backstory and then dying in the first session and then complaining about all the work wasted. I understand. I do. But that’s why I advocate not doing it.. Let the writer beware, I guess.

    I don’t mean disrespect to those who like to do backstories because I don’t feel there is any wrong way to do RPGing as long as all involved have fun :)

  3. See, I’m with you. I’d be annoyed if my players were investing in their backgrounds without regard to the campaign setting. That seems like it falls into the “my stuff is more important than the group” camp of thinking.

    And I’m totally okay with let the writer beware. I don’t kill a lot of PCs but I’m certainly not above it — I get a fair share from time to time. If a player complains that their character died during the game… and they lose their “backstory”? Yeah, let the writer beware indeed.

    Thanks for the comment, glad you dropped by.

  4. I think I fall somewhere in between here. I want characters to be connected to the world and players to be invested. I also like having interesting backgrounds from which I can draw inspiration.

    However…

    I don’t have time to read a novel. A short story might be okay, but I really just want a few paragraphs: a story that is usable and plausible, but as succinct as possible.

    That said, I also want my players to keep the setting in mind. It does irk me when assumptions are made in background stories that would undermine my setting.

    1. You’re right… I don’t really want to read a novel. I exaggerated a little overmuch. But if a player brings me two or three pages, some clever pictures, etc. I will want to commit myself to reading that and bringing as much as I can into the game (reasonably). Definitely though, if a player won’t be bothered to settle their background into your world? Probably a selfish move.

  5. Okay, I’m going to say it so nobody else has to…

    If you take the time to immerse your character in my world, either by back-story integration, or by current story same, then you can expect me to both subtly tailor the world and story to your desires as well as giving you a bit of a boost in survival.

    Fair? Probably not.
    Required? Certainly not.
    True? Yep.
    Noticeably biased? Don’t care.

    Call it the back-story equivalent of XP rewarding good play.

    1. Love the post, and I agree with Kevin completely. My players generally don’t write backstory, and I find it a shame. I tried to use Obsidian Portal as a way to encourage them to do it, but careers intervened, and few of us ended up using the site.

      If my players DID make the time to write a ‘book’ specifically as a part of setting up for my campaign, I’d definitely make time to read it. I might stop at the fifth grammar or comma error, though. :)

      Oddly enough, my players absolutely don’t mind if I end up creating complex backstories FOR the PC they designed. That would drive me crazy as a player, but the couple of times I did it, they ate it up and were happy to roleplay whatever insane nonsense I designed.

  6. Hahaha. The grammar joke made me laugh. Heck, I barely even register those kinds of errors in player writing. (Mostly because I can’t count on the majority of professional books to be any better… editing!)

    I’ve had a few players who were excited by the idea of having me do the backstory for them. It’s always a fun negotiation. Well, that, and the fact that I come from a background of running a lot of Amber alongside D&D and one of the conceits of that game is that you can’t pick your family… which makes for interesting dynamics in play.

  7. […] post even got a post reaction for a two fellow bloggers (The Rhetorical Gamer, and Role | Playing).  I was pretty flattered by that.  I read through their reactions and I’ll […]

  8. An important presentation of the other side to this issue, thanks. I think it’s good for GMs to reflect on what it communicates to players if they flat reject their investment in their characters, because I reckon I know what would happen to players who showed a similar rejection of the work that the GM puts into the game.

  9. Depending on the campaign and whatnot (my next one is probably going to be a West Marches-style sandbox) I may have the players work on the setting material. Not just character background, but a little bit more.

    The Kreshtar Tribes (and a fair bit more supporting material) came out of a conversation with one my players. He wanted to play a particular brand of half-orc, we talked about why he was that way, and we ended up with something that could provide quite a bit of story (and be described in about a page).

    I find that working with players on this sort of thing serves a few purposes. First, it gives me background to hook into that I can expect them to be interested in. Second, I can often find ways to work the pieces together so the PCs have reason to travel together (shared background or shared goals, at least). Third (and most importantly), it gives me a pretty idea of what the players are interested in.

    If everyone talks about martial cultures and/or organizations, it’s pretty evident that wizard’s guilds and religious organizations are of little interest to them — so I won’t focus much on them. “A quick stop at the temple and a small donation, and it no longer burns when you pee” might be all they’re looking for, they neither know nor care much about the religious hierarchy and history of the world.

    I don’t look for uniqueness, but tell me where you fit in and how you got there. If it means you’re like a lot of others, that’s fine.

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