How much of the PC's backstory is railroad?

Strange Aeons

I am prepping for a first game with this campaign trail. Just ordered book 3 and 4 last night. I was wondering though if there's any leeway with how much the players can't know. Like if they just don't remember the past 7 years or so then that's fine. Though if the entire backstory is just blank it makes it a little harder for me to hint at past things for their role play.

If there's signifigant spoilers of terrible things the PCs might have done that was wiped away please PM me.

My understanding is that some recent events are kind of set for plot reasons, but their early lives are far more open.

Your players know that they're playing an Adventure Path, not a sandbox campaign, right?

Railroad is a subjective and loaded term. To sandbox extremists, any preset background not determined by the player, is a railroad.

However to play an adventure path as it should be played, to get the maximum atmosphere and immersion, the campaign background guide is something to take as a heavy weighted box of suggestions for character creation.

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There is an amount of player agency that is innately taken away when they don't have direct control over a portion of their background. The amount the PCs cannot remember is variable. I believe it's said "no less than two years but not more than 5" cannot be remembered from their fugue state/amnesia.

Everything else is very much GMs fiat. I allowed my players to create their backgrounds except for the past 5 years of their lives. I told them during this time, they can't remember anything but they will recover those memories in time. I told them they may not like some of the things they did, and if they're not okay with that to communicate with me.

You can have it be that the players remember their pasts except for a small chunk, or like me, that they woke up in Briarstone unable to remember anything. Not even their names.

Even the events that occurred during those forgotten years can be changed to more suit your PCs. If you want to really fiddle with that, most of the work will most likely be done during Book 2, in which they encounter some NPCs who have...mixed opinions of them. :)

Some players absolutely love backstory and don't want to live without it. Some don't care. And then there's a big middle group that likes it okay but is perfectly content to try a campaign that starts without it.

As with so many things in this game, it's ultimately a judgment call on the part of the GM.

Doug M.

Silver Crusade

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

This is actually specifically discussed in the intro to Book 4.

PC Backstory & Amnesia:
At the very least, the fugue state has robbed the PCs of the last five years of their memory, which they spent in Count Lowls' service. Beyond that, the PCs may remember or forget as much as they wish. The idea of the entire group of PCs having origins as a group of slaves that Lowls purchased in Okenko is presented as an option, but it's not required.

Personal preference... ALL of it is mine. I write it up and send it to the GM. Of course I am reasonable, my characters usually have a low profile, no adventuring background etc. Amnesia is another issue, there the GM can long as they are reasonable too :)

Dark Archive

I don't have any of the books, but I'm looking to play this at some point. I have read the players guide. Regardless of the answer to the question in the thread above the fact that you asked about how much of a railroad this is... I think you owe to yourself to make sure this an AP you really want to run. I think the premise is fantastic and with a GM I have trust in to not do pretty stuff it's the most interesting AP I've seen, but if you already have that type of question it could turn into a bad experience for everyone. I might be off base, but it doesn't hurt to step back a little.

Shadow Lodge Contributor, RPG Superstar 2010 Top 8

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I had my group write each other's backstories, round robin style (player A writes player B's background, player B writes player C's, etc)

They're not going to get to see them until book 3 when they get their memories back, but they're getting clues along the way--one player found that his sword had a name engraved on it...his name? The name of someone he cares about? Another player woke up with tattoos they don't remember getting, tattoos that might be connected to Groetus.

I specifically asked each to leave off about 5 years at the end, for me to add secret GM stuff, and for each to include some moral failing to tie into the themes of the AP.

I love that!

I'm totally doing that.


Unfortunately, between books 1-4, and the players guide, there are several different suggestions for the degree of amnesia. Some suggest a limited time frame, like posted above. A few do actually suggest a complete wipe, like scooping all the cookie batter out of the bowl and leaving only a few spoon lines on the bottom. Enough for a slight taste, but certainly not a whole cookie, and not a whole batch by any measurement.

I told all my players that the game relies on the amnesia, and the discovery of the missing memories, as a major plot point. So I had each give me a light backstory (knowing some of my players have.... expansive definitions of light...) and a secret. I warned all my players that said backstories would be "refurbished" by me, leaving them recognizable but definitely not what was originally given.

Think of it like alternate universe versions of comic book characters: distorted, possibly wildly different, but still recognizable. Speaking of which, I've gone to the trouble of making the "original" versions for that end of book 3 fight as it suggests, rather than use the default monsters. That reveal is going to be fun.

The secrets were then sealed in dated envelopes so nobody can accuse me of pulling those surprises out from my buttocks when the time comes. We are starting book 3, and about half of the secrets have been guessed, but recovery of memories at the end of book 3 will be the official opening for most of them.

It is true that for the theoretical "best" version of Strange Aeons, there should be a bit of "railroad" regarding the backstory. I beleive the amnesia state gives PCs greater actual agency as they ability to be different from what they were and later marvel at how they have diverged.

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

and remember, you are picking up facts as you go about who you are.

book 1, it's a bit scanty, but you figure out that you worked for the Baron.

book 2, you can actually figure out what you DID for the Baron. people in town would have seen you over the last few years, and you probably interacted with some of them, and maybe spoke of some of your history.

book 3, you get the full reveal at the end.

so... it's actually a constructive process if you think about it. you can work with the players to develop a character over the course of the AP, integrating stuff that they DO as reflective of their backstory.

I think that's pretty cool.

I'm running this for some players that don't have a ton of experience with RPGs, and none at all with Pathfinder (One guy's played a fair bit of 4th, one guy played just a little 3rd, one hasn't played D&D since 2nd edition was the new thing, and the fourth had never played any RPG at all before). We met through improv classes, so I knew they're comfortable with someone throwing a situation at them and rolling with it.

So I made up four PCs myself and wrote up backstories for each, including sealed envelopes containing specific memories that would unlock at pre-determined points in the campaign. First session, I gave each player a blank character sheet with just the ability scores filled in, and didn't explain any game rules to them before we started. When they tried something, I told them how it worked mechanically, and had them roll, then told them what bonuses they could add based on the full character sheets I kept behind the GM screen.

They loved it, but its not something I would have tried with my regular group of grognards who have all been playing D&D for 20+ years. They would have hated not having the agency to create their own characters.

I ran book one recently. The PCs essentially give up the last five years of their PC's life. They can design the rest of their backstory, or leave it blank, while the last five years are a complete blank. This will be filled in as events progress forward through the first two books and the players learn more about their character's past.

Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I told my players that amnesia was a major plot point, and that they didn't remember the last few years, but how much else they remembered was up to them; most of them filled out up to the cutoff, but one let my write up their entire backstory; which was fun.

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