Ben, in a comment on the Conan post a few days ago, gave the following definition: "Good roleplaying includes considering motivations for the character that align with the character's capabilities, history, and environment." I would ask the gentle reader to please read the quote in context, as I don't wish to repost it all again here.
With Ben's perspective, I find myself faced with an ethic to which I'm steadfastly opposed - that a player must, upon being given a history, feel duty bound to continue the "story line" of that history simply because I had given it. That to do otherwise would be, in that player's philosophy, "bad roleplaying." With regards to the posts I have written about player backgrounds, this was never my intention. I presumed that a point would be reached in the character's life where, training to be a mage or fighter or whatever done, they would be free to choose their own future however they saw fit. My players know that I have never steadfastly required that any player would be expected to take this or that action because they were an orphan, or had been frivilous with their money in the past, or had learned how to juggle.
Perhaps I've been casually dismissive about the whole topic. I wouldn't play in a world where a DM had such expectations. And in any event, I feel confident that I could take any group of details offered me and create at least six differently motivated people, one after another, from a serial rapist to a pious town benefactor. But since people don't tend to characterize as much as I do (in a way, its my profession), and since people DO seem to think that the past is a set of manacles on the present - and the future - I realize that Ben has explained why I received the lack of interest I got when first proposing those background tables. Why would anyone be interested in wearing a set of shackles?
It's a crying shame that players feel bound by the kind of motivations that are designed for a two-hour movie. I mean, I like Conan and all, but the characterization on film doesn't compare with the sort of character development that might be found in something like Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, or Les Miserables ... a sprawling, reworked perspective gained by a character as he or she undergoes a series of embattled relationships, events and tragedies. Exactly the sort of thing that can't be recorded in a film. Consider, the page of a book typically translates into ninety seconds of action on film; this would mean that even a relatively short novel, such as Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, meticulously transferred onto film, would run about four hours and forty minutes ... minimum. Because Verne tends to skirt widely over some events without providing much written detail (that was his style), I would guess in reality the length of the proper detailed film would be twice that.
As such, directors and screenplay writers are forced to cut and slash huge bits of the book to compress it into the mere three hours playing time the audience can stand. There isn't room for all that personality change. So that even if R.E. Howard had written some deep background to Conan (Howard never wrote anything deep about anything), the film certainly wouldn't have had time to show it.
Therefore, film needs to create motivations in ten minutes or less - and so the motivations must be less rounded, less complex ... and easily gotten by even the dumbest audience member, if the film is to make any money.
Why, oh why, would D&D be limited even remotely in the same way?
One session runs five, six hours; there's plenty of time for players to invent the most profound, complex backgrounds for their characters far beyond those transmitted in a mere movie. All it takes is imagination. If I postulate that the Conan becomes a character at the moment his master frees him, then all that came before that point is the background that I provide, and all that comes after is the resolution the character chooses to play. "Your character's parents were killed by brigands, you were raised as a slave, you were trained as a gladiator, instructed by an eastern martial artist and taught to read philosophy and poetry. And now your master has now set you free. What do you do?"
There is no law in the world that says, from that above, that your character's ONLY option is to answer, "I look for the murderers of my parents." It deeply troubles me that anyone would argue vehemently that to give any other answer is "bad roleplaying." This speaks fluently of a perceived tradition in roleplaying games that demands blood-for-blood, the saving of face and the demonstration of prowess.
Surely, there must be some room for a player to answer, "My experience with philosophy has taught me that, although my life has been troubled to date, all life is truly pain; to be happy, I recognize that desire is a path that leads only to disappointment. I shall renounce my past, and seek to teach others that wisdom can offer a freedom from wants that can never be obtained."
Is this bad roleplaying? Could a player not also answer, "Really, free? I'm at a loss ... I've been a slave so long. The murderous bastards who killed my parents are probably long dead by now. I don't know what I should do ... perhaps I could reach a town, find friends and use my talents as a fighter to improve my life. There are so many things I haven't tried, so many places I haven't seen. I want to go see them."
Bad roleplaying? Why couldn't a player answer, "Those bastards who kept me slave these past thirty years are going to die. I'm going to the nearest town, get weapons, and kill every last one of them! I can't wait to hear their women lament."
What about, "I decide that slavery is wrong. I will equip myself, find others who believe as I do and end slavery on this earth!"
Or, "Damn, I'm free at last to raise an army to conquer the world."
Or, "Parents? Never really knew them. I have dim memories of my mother being killed. I have killed many more, myself. Killing is a good thing - it's made me famous, it's frightened my master so as to force him to let me go. Think I'll get myself a weapon and do more, and see where that gets me in the world."
Or, "My character behaves like a murderous, wild animal. I don't think at all, I destroy all that I meet, until the day someone kills me."
Six choices. Any of which could be - and ought to be - modified with the first set of encounters my character experiences, as I, the player, change my mind about world conquest, blood lust, casual fighting or revenge. There's nothing at all about a particular background that requires any person - even those gentle readers finishing his post now - to behave tomorrow in the manner their past has dictated. Any one of us has the power to rise up, quit our jobs, escape to another part of the world, end our marriages, cease acting like an asshole, work more productively, expand our horizons or take steps to rise above our station. The fact that we don't is hardly proof that we can't.
More to the point, fantasy is about doing everything we don't normally do. We must not allow our own narrow perceptions about right or wrong, possible or impossible, to cloud our judgement about what our character would do.
Fantasy demands freedom of action. Let's not lose sight of that.