Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No, You're A Rookie. Get It?

This past few days has brought to my attention something about character creation that I'd long forgotten: the interminable 'back story.'  The effusive, complex description of how the character's life has gone up to the moment they begin to play in the campaign, rich with murders, revenge plots, life-long enemies, the many twists and turnings - and ever the angst, delivered with pounding hammer, of a character driven of the distant land of their birth and forced to contend with exile in a foreign, hostile country.

Can I just say something here?  These characters are supposed to be FIRST level ...!

There is no denying the cognitive dissonance going on here with would-be players who insist of relating their prospective characters to their heroes in the movies or in books.  The D&D character who starts the campaign does not come into the frame in the middle of the story, but at the beginning.  The character is not Bilbo at his 111th birthday party, with deep dark secrets and a knowledge of the world.  The character is Bilbo when the road is nothing more than a place where others come from - not a place where he has gone.  The whole point is that the characters are at the START.  There is no back 'story.'  At best they might have a few things they've picked up along the way, an error or two they've made, a mistake, a skill they've picked up or a few friends they've gathered.  But nothing earth-shaking.  Nothing where the world has pivoted upon their existence.  The character has NO experience.  That should give a hint or two.

If the character has travelled some, or hit a bad course, or made a good show for the community, it stands to reason from the total lack of experience that two things are true:  1) the character has never killed anyone; 2) the character has never seized any wealth.  What damage the character may have suffered was necessary to bring them along to leveled status.  What coin or wealth the character has accumulated is coin that has been given to the character.  Earned in wages, perhaps, but I don't give experience for wages.  The point is the coin hasn't been obtained through any sort of adventure.

So how can there be enemies the character has?  How can the character be the subject of a plot?  Who even knows at this point the character exists?

No one.  The character is a first level nobody.  It is up to the character to play in order to become a somebody.  That somebody status isn't given.

It is very rare, but it is possible for a character of my world to be of noble birth.  Does this make the character a 'somebody?'

No.  He or she still sits at the bottom of the pecking order, even if the character's parents have died and the character sits upon the throne of the kingdom.  It's presumed the last parent has just died.  The character knows nothing, and has not yet worked out his or her place in the courtly power struggle, and may in fact be murdered at any moment by a usurper.  The player may have a wildly different environment to run through, but the rules are the same: the character must establish their reputation.  He or she doesn't get given one by default.

It's better that the character has little or no personality in the beginning.  This gives the opportunity for the character to develop one as the game is ongoing.  The less important the character is at the beginning, the better things are later on when the character can remember when he or she was a nobody.  "How things have changed," they can say.  "Remember when we had trouble buying horses?  Remember how a few orcs were enough to threaten our lives?  Damn, remember that bartender in Barracks?  What was his name - Pistol, that's right.  Almost killed us ... but if it hadn't been for him ..." and so on.

Players who want all this at the beginning of the game, who don't want to work through the process of finding character-defining paths through actually playing, don't really appreciate what the game is about.  It is not only what your character IS, but what you hope your character may be someday.  Right now, in the beginning, you're only a comer.  Everyone has to be a comer first.

That's how the game is played.


Shieldhaven said...

That's one way to play the game. There are also valid and entertaining ways to play the game that are not dreamt of in your philosophy. The Birthright setting is the extreme case of this, but intermediate examples also exist. Character histories exist to weave the character into the existing background and give them some guidance on how to react to unfamiliar stimuli.

Also, character growth trajectories can reasonably start at a wide variety of locations. Obviously you can do things however you want in your game, but many players have had the experience of being a first-level nobody enough times already and want to try something else - an inexperienced somebody, perhaps.

Alexis said...

"...many players have had the experience of being a first-level nobody enough times already and want to try something else..."

A symptom of far too many dead-ending campaigns, where players never get to play the version of themselves from scratch because the campaigns don't last long enough.

Means jack shit to me, Shield. If you cop into the game halfway through with a whole bunch of shit you never earned, it's still a cop. I know a lot of the world plays this way, but I never met any of these people who I felt held the tiniest patch on playing the game well. Just a lot of lazy people looking for shortcuts.

Wickedmurph said...

To an extent, I think this depends on the system you're using. Vampire characters, for example, could have a whole life's worth of backstory from before they became a Vampire.

1st level D&D, not so much, unless it all happened when the character was small/young. The background I just submitted for a 2e game was basically - father woodsman, disappeared in woods - left home to find fortune with dad's spare gear.

Much more than that is overkill... but you did ask people to really hunker down and chew on the setting, so for some, character background is a way to do that.

Kenwolf said...

i would never let a person start above 1st level. the first few levels is when your character comes into their own so to speak.

i like the players to have a very simple back ground that would be common for a person of the age that they are when they start the game. so if they start the game at age 16, they wouldn't have a history more then what a person that age would have.

Alexis said...


I asked for players to produce a proactive INTENT ... sadly I got a few too many pulp fiction novels of stuff that would happen if time and space were perfectly suited to a player's ideal.

Apparently, DMs are not the only ones seeking to railroad games.

Frank said...

Players create these backstories because they don't understand the game, or they have played in poorly run games where they have not had the opportunity to actually affect things. So they imagine what they want their character to accomplish, and write it into their backstory. And present a "done" character.

There are games that don't start the PCs as the rank amateurs of D&D 1st level, but they still assume the character's story has not yet been told. There may be things from the past, but they are the background for the story to be told, not the story itself.

But yea, for D&D play starting from 1st level, don't expect your character to have accomplished much of anything. I'm totally with Alexis on this one.


Doc Grognard said...

Apparently, DMs are not the only ones seeking to railroad games.

Welly-well, well. That, sir, is a quote worth underlining, and no sarcasm intended.

Here's a paraphrase suitable for scrawling on a DM shield:

"Players railroad too"

Man, if I have to deal with one more " bastard half noble orphaned by who is my mortal enemy that I seek using my fathers fine sword "

No, they're never "the filthy pathetic son of displaced peasants who lived in a crowded shack in the city until he lost his job pounding rags and had to get a job, any job, before he starved or was pimped out" are they ?

Wickedmurph said...

It's bloody hard to separate the fantasy fiction inclination from the fantasy RPG, in my experience. I've been guilty of submitting 10-page character backgrounds that shepherd the characters through wars, revolutions, personal tragedies... all for a lv 1 cleric.

But I think I got past that now - hopefully others can, too. I'd have asked to play in your game myself, but I just committed to one over at thac0 forever, and my wife wouldn't be too happy if all I did was play D&D online.

Alexis said...

As long as you're having fun, Wicked. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Preach it!

Shieldhaven, I take one part of what our host is saying to be that a 1st level D&D character mechanically is not, cannot be experienced. If he were he'd have leveled. So the epic backstories are ridiculous on their face.

The other part, that this is best in life, is stronger than you think. It means you really earn your achievements rather than having them handed to you by virtue of having that "PC glow" around you.

Though I admit to playing the other way also. I try to save my back-stories for L5R or seasoned Savage Worlds characters though.

Anonymous said...

in your own campaign you had a player start with a pregnant character. that's a perfect example of how character back"story" can add something to a game.

Alexis said...

It doesn't occur as a 'story,' shlominus, since the table doesn't explain WHY you're pregnant, or even who the father is. In fact, it generally occurs only if the player has a low wisdom, and is treated as a lapse of judgment, not a plotline.

Anonymous said...

something happened before the campaign began and it adds (or can add) something to the game. it could become a plotline if the player (or the dm) wishes to develop it.

that's what good character backgrond is to me, an additional option and also something to make a world more tangible.

if you disagree why do all your new characters get a few background details?

Alexis said...

I guess I'm missing your point, shlominus.

The difference between the character inventing a whole personal backstory and the dice determining a few random events in a character's former life seems a huge difference to me.

Sure the character can make the event a plot. Or the character can ignore it, change their life and move forward. The difference between a character being locked into a plotline and having the option of discarding their former life, which wasn't necessarily what they wanted, seems a huge difference to me.

New characters get a few background details because they've lived prior to starting at first level. But they don't get background 'stories' from me because I don't railroad them. I have written whole blog posts about why one shouldn't call playing the game a story, but you stubbornly insist that it must be one.

I say it's you grinding an axe, for reasons that escape me. I don't see an argument. Makes it hard to propose a rebuttal.

Eric said...

Do you need to KILL someone to get XP, or merely deal (or take) hit point damage?

Kenwolf said...

i wonder if playing a sandbox style of game makes it so that you have a different take on character background compared to the adventure path type of games that are popular today ?

i would think if you was playing and adventure path style of game you would have a much more detailed character history. it might not be grand but it would be more detailed i would think.

Eric said...

Kenwolf: That's both a style-of-play thing and a change that came with editions. This post is relevant:

" of the differences that I feel most keenly is that back in the old days, our characters might have ‘become’ special through play; they were not ‘designed’ to be unique. So your character might have been more of the sum of where he/she had been or what he/she had done rather than the result of character design. Which was fun. Because it felt like the choices made in the context of the game, even the small ones (do we turn left or right at the intersection?), were more important."

Anonymous said...

I see much of the distinction's being made above being not so much a philosophical debate on back-story's as much as one on how they should be determined and how beholden to them the game must them become.

In Alexis's practice they are semi-random, influenced by ability scores and up to the players to define or react to. Having observed or participated in three or four different groups of PC's being generated, my opinion is that it is a successful practice.

All four of the characters in the new online game are already immediately interesting to me, not particularly cliche and we haven't really begun to play. Despite this, what the game will actually be about beyond the killing of foes and the collection of treasure is decided at the (virtual) table. Nothing generated by any of the tables demands the campaign go in any particular direction.

Alexis said...

Sorry about the delay, Eric.

Try this post.