Backstory - Grrr!


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion

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Ahem...

an old man shuffles to the center of the courtyard and stands up on the ranting soapbox

I don't get this obsession with requiring an extensive detailed backstory for every PC.

Yes, the PC had to come from somewhere.
Yes, you want to make sure the PC will have a personality that can mesh with the others at the game table.
Yes, some idea of how the PC will behave, react, and be motivated can help the GM deal and maybe even other players interact.

I get that. All well and good. I will give a paragraph or three about where he (or she) comes from, what motivates him, his general attitudes, and maybe even his future plans. But guess what. I am not an acclaimed fantasy author. I will never be an author. I don't want to be an author. I won't be writing a multi-page autobiography for every character I put forth for consideration.

"Tell me what it was like being a human in a mostly gnome village? Give me some details." I don't know. I've never been in such a situation. I don't care. What does it matter?

"Who was your PC's first love?" Why does it matter? Who cares? Yes, I had a crush on some girl in middle school. Guess what? Her name and what she was like has had zero impact on anything after I got out of middle school.

"How many siblings did you have and how did they get along with your parents?" Now you're asking for expanded backstory on other people you had me add to my expanded backstory?!? WTF! If I wanted to invent a detailed clan history, I would have done so.

"Give me details on his life before he became a magus." Well he has a rank in profession fisherman. So I  guess it is reasonable to assume he was a fisherman. But you know what? No, I have really given no thought to what the everyday life of a Renaissance fisherman is like. Why do you want to know this?!?

"What other adventures and exploits has he accomplished?" He is a 17 year old, zero experience, 1st level character. He hasn't yet slain any dragons or rescued any damsels in distress.

"What side is he taking on the moral conflict between Desna and Erastil?" What conflict? He's a magus and has Nethys in the deity slot. I, as a player, have heard of no such conflict. He, as a character that worships a different deity, probably would give a rat's behind. Is it something you happened to see mentioned in some other source book? Why would you assume I know about it and that my character would have to take a side?

And heaven forbid that something in all that invented BS should happen to not agree 100% with something cannon in one of the umpteen source books, modules, AP's, scenerios, or 3rd party books about Golarion that the GM has read and I have not.

Aargh!

Again, I will give a paragraph or three about where he comes from, what motivates him, his general attitudes, and probably his future plans (if he has any). But why would you expect or even want me to put all that useless/meaningless effort into a PC that you, as like as not, are going to decide not to allow in your game?

The inclusion or lack of a small novel detailing every nuance of the PC's history and mental meanderings has nothing to do with how I play the PC and whether or not he has a personality.

the once proud figure, his shoulders slumped, steps off the ranting soapbox to allow someone else a turn


Without context I can't possibly answer your question. At best I can relate my own experience.

When backstories come up either not much is required and/or the DM also offers a reward of some kind in exchange. If you don't want to take the time to write out a detailed backstory then you can expect little to no reward which seems fair IMO.

In a 5e Eberron game I recently started playing in the DM wanted us to answer the following questions.

Questions I need you to answer about your character:
1. What country do you hale from? Do you have any connections there?
2. What did you do during the Last War? Who did you fight for? Against? Do you have any friends/enemies/contacts?
3. What do you think happened on the Day of Mourning? How convinced are you that you’re correct? (I can help with some of the most common theories, if you’d like)
4. Are you religious? (Most aren’t)
5. How long have you been in Sharn? What do you think of the town in general? Why are you here? (Again, I can help with this)

The point of the exercise was two fold. One, as a player you needed to do some research on the world in order to answer the above questions. Two, it was so that the DM would know what sort of things would be motivating factors for the characters.

It's also worth noting that for questions above you could absolutely get away with short answers and the DM would be fine with it as it gives them what they're looking for. We were not required to write out a detailed backstory we just had to answer those questions. In another game I'm playing no backstory was required (beyond picking your campaign trait), but if you wrote up a backstory and sent it into the DM before the 1st game. You would get something in return. For example the DM upgraded my character's starting armor from four mirror armor into nimble half-plate that I have the option to upgrade further (in game) into nimble full plate.


Well said.

A characters background should be just that. It should not be the main story. Too detailed of a background can often get in the way of the story. If the GM wants to use a NPC from the characters past life and the player has 57 reason why they would never know that character the background is hindering the story instead of enhancing it.

Realistically speaking it should be maybe about a page at max, and probably less than that. It should be a summary of the characters past not a detailed description.


I've yet to play in any game that required what I would call an extensive backstory. I want backstories for my campaigns,as I work backstories into the adventures, but anything more than a page is extensive, and all I specifically want is maybe half a page, and I'll settle for less. I've written as much as a three page backstory, when it seemed I had that much of value to say, but I've never received that much, and that's all fine.

Ultimately, I want what will add to the campaign. YMMV.


Have you tried talking to him to understand why he wants all that info?

I get you, we aren't all writers, and we don't all have the skill/time/interest to write a lot of stuff. It sounds as if you feel there's a good chance the character just gets vetoed anyways, which is an extra demotivator.

Some of the questions do look nitpicky and tedious. But there might be a reason for these questions. Anyhow, there /should/ be a reason for them, because if there aren't, then indeed it's just being burdensome.

The question about the conflict between those two gods makes sense if the GM is planning a campaign where that conflict will play a central role. It doesn't make any sense if he has no such plan. If you ask him for help, a reasonable GM would be happy to help you fill out the blanks. If he's asking the question, he presumably has ideas on the matter.

Details about the past are sometimes a fishing attempt for plot hooks. Asking a full biography from the players and then never using it for anything is kind of poor taste, in my opinion, but generic details about a few key aspects of the character's life isn't asking much. Maybe he wants to bring back his first love as some NPC in a quest down the road. Does scribbling down a random name and not thinking about it take all that much time? "Diane", there, took half a second to think and write down. Now if he starts asking who "Diane" is, when they met, how long they hanged out, why they broke up... he better be planning to make that character pretty damn important. But also should probably be asking this of a player who has more interest in crafting this kind of thing, instead of you/every player.

Same applies to the extended family. "George, Martin, Isabella, and Lucas". There, 4 siblings, took 2 seconds to write out. If you have a hard time spouting random names, there are numberless random name generators out there. Again, as with the first love, maybe the GM wants to implement this in the story. And again, if he then asks you what are the ages of each, what day they were born on, how they all get along with each other, what are their professions, are they married, where do they all live, etc., then yea, I agree it starts to be asking a lot and that would warrant further justification.

Ultimate Campaign (and the SRDs) have random background generators, if you have a hard time thinking of stuff on your own.

I also find that players who cover at least a few of the basics background elements then tend to invest themselves more in their character and have more ease roleplaying with it. But again, this doesn't mean writing down 10 pages of background. Bulletpoint can easily address the issue.

So, "why"? Don't know, don't know your GM, nor exactly what he asked of you. Maybe you misunderstand what he's asking, maybe he just wants a very brief answer for each point. Maybe if you told him you don't really see the point, he could give you some explanations that facilitate answers.

I find that the basics, along with plenty of potential plot hooks and random NPCs, can typically fit well in about half a page, and that bulletpoint can often serve the purpose fine, stylistic narrative text being superfluous. There really isn't any need to do more than a page, and anyone who does so would probably be best served also writing a shorter half-page summary with it.


This made my morning complete.


OK, now that I've got the initial eruption of bile out into the open, I can probably be more calm and give some more details.

This seems to be mostly an online thing in my experience. Either trying to get into PbP games or Roll20 online gaming sessions. I've only had a single F2F GM who wanted these extensive backstories for all the PC's.

I can understand if it some piece of information that will be used for the campaign. But then what he needs is that piece of information, not a story.

All of these are examples of questions I have been given to "Expand your backstory to give me a better idea of who you are." (I changed some of the details slightly so it won't be quite as clear who I am railing against if they happen to read this.) As far as I could tell, none of it had anything to do with what was intended to occur in the campaign.

I also understand plot hooks. I like it when players give me a few things to work with in their background. However I don't require it of everyone and I don't insist it be some detailed multi-paragraph adventure intro.

@Goblin_Priest
Just throwing out a name would never have been enough. They want details, narrative, exposition, etc...

@LordKailas
I have done some of the same rewards for something in the background when I am GM. Though not quite that extensive. I've given someone a 5' higher speed on his horse, a few combo alchemical items, a climbing kit, a couple uses of a cheap drug/poison - because it matched what they put down for their background.
I have a changed the name of a random NPC shopkeeper or contact to match the name given in a background.

Grand Lodge

Well, it is a role-playing game....

Kidding aside, it depends on what the goal of the game is. Is your DM/GM running a pre-made adventure with little-to-no modifications? Then it's likely a heavy back story won't matter. Has the DM/GM created his own campaign world and adventures that are very player driven? Then a detailed back-story could be important. I have run both kinds of games and played in both kinds of games.

I personally prefer the more character-driven kind but can enjoy both. I enjoy writing a few paragraphs about my character but I enjoy my character more when my DM asks me questions that make me think about my character a bit more.

Also, as mentioned earlier, the DM may be fishing for plot hooks. This is only my personal opinion, but if the players are helping to drive the plot the game is more interesting. That doesn't mean, however, that everything about your character should be expected to become a plot hook. I have experienced campaigns where some players were more willing to go deep on the back story and the adventure hooks rewarded them more than those who didn't.

Some game lend themselves more towards being tactical/combat heavy games and some more character driven, but any RPG can do both. Generally, D&D and Pathfinder tend to lean more tactical/combat heavy because of the complexity of the combat rules. World of Darkness or horror games tend to be less combat and more character driven. At least, that is my experience.

If the DM is asking for more character detail you could try giving him the benefit of the doubt that there is a reason or just ask why, if you must know. I don't know your history with your GM but maybe you each have wildly different expectations from the game. Maybe a compromise can be reached if that's the case and maybe it can't and you should go your separate ways.

In the end the game should be fun for both the GM and the players. All are responsible for working together to make that happen or moving on.


Beswaur Blue Bottle wrote:

OK, now that I've got the initial eruption of bile out into the open, I can probably be more calm and give some more details.

This seems to be mostly an online thing in my experience. Either trying to get into PbP games or Roll20 online gaming sessions. I've only had a single F2F GM who wanted these extensive backstories for all the PC's.

Ahhh! now it suddenly makes a lot more sense to me. PbP games are by nature much more rp and detail oriented. It's entirely possible the DM is trying to do one or more of the following.

*Assess the quality of your writing style
*Encourage you to make your writing more interesting and/or make longer posts.
*Encourage you to be more expressive with your writing, such that the reader can more easily understand your character's motivations.

Combat has a tendency to slow the game down in F2F games. Combat is 100x worse in PbP. To the point that in many games (that I've played in at least) the DM has you submit your character's strategy so that the combat can be run offline and the DM can come back and make a big long post describing how the combat went.

As a result it means that while you do get XP from fights, much of your XP comes from non-combat activities. How much you get is judged largely by the quality of the content you produce. It doesn't matter so much what you do, It matters how you describe it being done. Make an interesting/compelling enough post and the DM may let it slide that the thing you're trying shouldn't work.


Most of the time my background/backstory is just a bunch of spurious generalities that tie a bunch of mechanical decisions together...

Why yes, I did grow up in the islands of Minata. I've always wanted to be a Magus, but before I could pursue such fancies, I made one too many bad choices and woke up a pirate. My family moved me to Kyonin and enlisted me into a monastery. I stayed there for some time before venturing out to try my hand in the Kyonin Ranger corps. The queen prefers her Rangers to be well-versed and multitalented, thus giving me the ability to study as a Magus, my childhood dream come true... a partial backstory for an Elvish Swashbuckler/Monk/Ranger/Magus I played.

Did I originally care at all where Variel was born/from?

No. Absolutely not.

But the trait I wanted for mechanical reasons is specific to Minata, and now I am responsible for tying it into my background if I want to use it.

Deal. I can do that.

It's literally just me BS'ing my way through explaining my chosen race/class/traits/feats that I start as... and all of those are chosen for the mechanical benefits they offer the overall build.

I don't choose Reactionary because I want a sob story background of being bullied. I want it so I can bully my enemies before they can bully me... Initiative is essential.

I don't choose Indomitable Faith because I want my character to be religious. I chose it as a safeguard to keep me from becoming a danger to the party.

I didn't choose Combat Reflexes at level one to show that my character has combat experience in their backstory. I chose it so I can make AoO in the surprise round... hopefully keeping me alive long enough to level up.

It's a complete fabrication of nonsense connecting devices and details that have nothing to do with one another other than how they interact with my planned character concept. It's all a lie just so I can have what I want...


Some GMs do it exactly for that reason, though. They don't want these things to be taken purely for mechanics, but want it grounded in story. "Well, if you want to make this quirky build that crushes human and gnome mechanics, then you must at least earn it with a proper explanation".

Not everyone, of course, but some do.

And to a certain extent, I kind of agree with it. Taking a feat about how your religiousness buffs you, to then play an explicitely areligious character, is kind of a cheat. It's wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

That doesn't mean for a second that I feel that every feat choice, skill choice, and so on needs an elaborate story behind it. I mostly make character build decisions for the mechanics, myself. But there's a line to be drawn somewhere for verisimilitude, and that line's going to vary a lot from person to person.


HOT TAKE: The main reason GMs of online campaigns (in a recruitment scenario) ask for detailed backgrounds is to make the PCs stand out so that they can better help the selection process. If a GM who is planning a 4-6 person adventure or campaign has 20 applicants, the players that put more effort into a PC, can show they follow directions, and can show that they know how to effectively string multiple sentences together is going to earn more points.


That makes sense. I haven't played on online platform, but I could definitely see myself weeding out applicants this way if I had lots more than I was aiming for.


As I haven't played at length by forum in ages and then it was with people in knew in real life, I don't have much expertise on the matter.

As a game master around a table - or via live chatter -, I ask less for the backstory of my players' characters as I ask for their personality, for my players to tell me about their characters without talking about their class or race or whatnot that has to do with the system. If they lived on Earth today and you were their good friend or their classmate or their neighbour, how would you describe them?

A few sentences though I have nothing against a few paragraphs or pages, with a backstory. When I am a player, I enjoy writing such a text.

Another example of personality description, when I am a player, I write a line or two taken from the lyrics of a song that I believe fits the character. It is then a small bit I can draw from when I role-play.
For example, my cleric of Sarenrae has « Take my wings and rely on them in battle and fight. » as she strives to always bolster her companions and my Sorcerer in a D&D campaign in a Conan-like setting has
« In ages past when spells were cast
In a time of men in steel
When a man was taught no special thing
It was all done by feel.
»


I don't think it really gives them better players though. It's just giving you the people that kinda really wanted to be an author. That doesn't mean they can roleplay well. It doesn't mean they understand the game mechanics. It doesn't mean they will reliably check the site and give meaningful posts.

I role play my characters very well. Probably even more so in PbP rather than F2F or online session gaming. Simply because I do have more time to think about what makes sense for this guy to do/say in this situation.

I try to interact with the other PC's (some don't cooperate with that, shrug). Not romantic relation ships. That is not something I need or want in my games. But friendships, competitions, one-ups-manship, tweaking over differing beliefs, cooperating to hide stuff from the guileless honest dude, etc... Yeah I try to make that happen.

I always try to make sure there is something more than "swing sword & dice", in my posts. Yet I also try to put out-of-character statements to clearly give the details of what buffs I still have up, what my actions are, put the text in spoilers where appropriate so the GM doesn't have to look everything up, etc...

I almost always manage to check the PbP game progress at least twice a day during the week. Usually more often. Baring a work crisis, I am nearly always ready for the online sessions well before start time.

Managing to come up with a full complete history of everything my character did, thought, or experienced before the adventure starts has nothing to do with any of that.


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But it does show that you can write. And that you want to be in that PbP game enough to put some effort in. How does the GM know any of the stuff in those previous 5 paragraphs starting with 'I'?


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Like the nor of age, I don't run games through the forums. The only reason I ask players for any details from their characters' pasts is for 2 reasons:

1. I want a justification for choices they made at level 1, such as Traits, Feats, Skills and such

2. I'm looking for what interests the player about the game world so I can customize the campaign to those interests

I run mostly homebrew stuff. Sometimes I use prepared modules or adventures, but these I usually tailor a bit to fit my homebrew setting. As such I like to run a game as much for my players as myself.

I can make a generic 5-room dungeon style adventure for any level, as a jump start to a game. Mechanically I can glance through the character sheets of my players, determine general strengths and weaknesses and then add threats to the "dungeon" I've made to play to those qualities.

However if one guy in his backstory says he came into the region a year ago after his mentor was slain by a heretical cult, and I've got some undead in the first dungeon, I can add the symbol of the cult etched into the bones of the skeletons to tie the adventure to that player.

Without a backstory, without the player making any initial attempt to add anything to the setting and ongoing narrative, it is that much harder to get the player to see my games as anything more than a video game like Elder Scrolls or something. Sure, there's ongoing stories and your character's choices can influence them, but you're a "plug and play" sprite in a pixelated world with no real stake in the creation of that world.

So I challenge my players to use their backstories to carve out a niche for themselves in the game world, something unique to them. In one campaign I'm running for example, thanks to the 4 players' backstories, one guy's choice to be a monk created a monastery where there was none in the setting source material. One gal took alternate race traits for her elf PC and inadvertently created an elf class war which has impacted 2 game sessions out of 9 so far. Another PC chose a Trait that he tied to being the son of a famous opera diva and that little detail gave him a crucial Circumstance bonus in a political side plot.

So I want to know where your level 1 (or starting level) choices come from, and I want to know what you want to see in the game. From that I'll create plot threads and threats that directly relate to you in the game, along with the overarching narrative. The backstory then makes it as much YOUR game as it is mine.


"Help me help you (have fun)".

Sure, elaborate character backgrounds aren't irrefutable proof that the guy will be a good player. I agree with you. But on an anonymous web platform... it's a lot like a hiring process. The GMs get a bunch of CVs, and based on very little information, and without the time/energy to go interview every single applicant, they'll have to think of filters to narrow down the number of candidates into a manageable shortlist. And it's not unreasonnable to assume that a candidate that puts more time/effort into getting a spot will be more likely to put more time/effort into maintaining it and making the most of it. Sure, some people go all in and then desinvest themselves. And some people don't put much into a vague hope of maybe it paying off. But there's still generally a correlation, or at least seems to be.

Every GM will have his own expectations, and his own interpretations. So I'd say, you be you. Write as you want, and if the GM doesn't like it, then maybe he wasn't a good fit for you and you are better off in another game?

I know some GMs can be very anal about some details that seem absurd to everyone but them. Sometimes they can run fun games despite this, but sometimes it just takes over everything.

"Who was your character's first love?" This is a question that as a GM I've not asked, and would not be likely to ask, but if I did ask this, the following would be completely acceptable to /me/:
-My dude is asexual and never had a love interest.
-My dude is socially awkward and never had a romantic relation.
-My dude just never found any gal to his liking.
-My dude just dated once, but it was childhood sillyness and he barely remembers her.

Some GMs may expect a lot more than this. If that's not your style, which it clearly isn't, then why play with these GMs? For my part, sometimes I do require random tidbits of the character's past, because just writing down an answer (no matter how short and generic) at least means a minimum of thought was put into it, and if ever I want to draw upon it, it's there and it's canon, without me having to ask on the spot.

Another way I could see myself using these things as a GM on PbP (which, again, I don't do) would be to sort candidates into groups. If I've got 5 people with tragic but otherwise generic backstories and 5 people with elaborate backstories of privilege, maybe I'll sort them accordingly, and then decide whether I want to run a more hack n slash murderhobo campaign, or a more social and political one, or both, and organize the parties accordingly.

The Exchange

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generic backstory - works for most any martial type PC

IC: "ah - about a week ago I was found unconscious in a back ally of the settlement we are in - what's it's name again? - and some temple dudes helped me recover from some sort of wounds to my head, or maybe it was drugs, I'm not sure - I was kind of out of it at the time. All this stuff I've got I had on me at the time, as well as several gemstones I used to pay for my healing - to those same temple dudes, from that one temple - you know the one over by the town square? There's no temple near the town square? It's around here someplace... anyway, so this is my stuff, it fits me, smells kind of like I've sweated in it for several days if not months and ... anyway. My stuff. I seem to know how to use it. 'Muscle Memory' I think they call it...

"I don't really remember anything from before waking up in the temple - you know the one over by the town square? Or where ever, anyway, so I've been going by the name of 'Nameless One', but I kind of like 'John Doe' too, so whatever works is fine. 'Hay You!' would work I guess. OH! and I think I'm some kind of fighter, as I have armor and a sword and bow and stuff...

"I speak common, and this other language (short phrase of non-sense sounds), but no one I've talked to so far recognizes that language, so ... what ever. Anyway - I understand you guys need some type of fighter? And I could really use a job, as I'm sort of out of gem stones now..."

The Exchange

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GM: "Tell me what it was like being a human in a mostly gnome village? Give me some details."
Player: "Wait, what Gnome village? I thought they were just short! You mean ... but... wow. I got to reassess my entire childhood. Maybe I don't actually HAVE a pituitary gland disorder...

GM: "Who was your PC's first love?"
Player: Peggy Sue.
GM: isn't that your wifes name?
Player: Yeah, childhood sweethearts. And after all, she gave me a kitchen pass to come play tonight...
GM: (Eye-roll)

GM: "How many siblings did you have and how did they get along with your parents?"
Player: 2. Brother and Sister. We don't talk to Kevin sense he joined Scientology, and Sis ran off with that Biker dude a couple years ago...
GM: "yeah, I had a crush on your sister... wait! those are your real siblings
Player: yeah, so? easier to keep track of them this way. If I wanted to invent a detailed clan history, I wouldn't be able to keep it strait without notes.

GM: "Give me details on his life before he became a magus."
Player: Married his childhood sweetheart Peggy Sue. Joined the Army for a 4 year trip to ... Germany?... to get access to the GI bill, and picked up a few ranks in Wargamer....Well he has a rank in profession fisherman. So I guess it is reasonable to assume he was a fisherman.
GM: wait - is this your personal background again?
Player: see answer above...

GM: "What other adventures and exploits has he accomplished?"
Player: ah... a lot of table top gaming, some other RPGs, but in the world setting? Zip. Nil. Zero experience, 1st level character. He hasn't yet slain any dragons or rescued/put any damsels in distress - yet.

GM: "What side is he taking on the moral conflict between Desna and Erastil?"
Player: What conflict? Are those gods? He's a magus and has Nethys in the deity slot, mostly because Nethys doesn't care much. I have heard of no such conflict. He, as a character that worships a different deity, probably would give a rat's behind about these other deities. Nethys is kind of non-caring about this sort of thing. Heck, maybe I should listen to my brother Kevin and look into Razmaran or whatever his name is. Why would you assume I know about it and why would my character have to take a side?


I have definitely made detailed backstories for my characters before.

Sure they were just elaborate lies to thinly disguise the choices I made for their mechanical benefits, but sometimes you have to lie a lot to get things to fit.

I had a gestalt Elder Mythos Cleric/Scaled Fist Monk Kobold adopted by Halflings... converting two separate classes from their parent stat to Charisma via archetypes, and picking up the Helpful trait via Adopted... the story gets "involved" and I had to do research on deities and the world map of Golarian in order to make my lies, I mean backstory, believable... it takes a lot of lies to get from Pitax to Osirion and back to the Stolen Lands.

My Swashbuckler-1/Monk-4/Ranger-1/
Magus-6... the Master of Panache, Variel, was introduced at level 9, I had to have a believable lie making that mess of multiclassing all make sense. It takes a lot of lying to get from Minata to Kyonin to the Stolen Lands.

These stories are definitely more than a couple generic paragraphs, but they are also nothing more than a series of lies connecting purely mechanical choices I have made involving race, traits, feats, classes, and archetypes...


Sometimes I'll have an idea for a backstory before I make a character and that ends up influencing the mechanical choices.

For example, I have a character named Tara. She is a princess whose parents want her to be the so-called proper princess that is sweet and demure and plays music. (One level of bard here.) But Tara is more of a tomboy who wants to go out into the world and make a difference as an adventurer. She secretly takes magic lessons (See level of bard) as well as sword lessons. (One level of Swashbuckler here.) She then disguises herself as sneaks out. (Vigilante levels here.)

Other backstory elements will be thought up later as applicable.


It's more of a "justification after the fact" than a "lie". Which, imo, is fine, though some hardliners would not appreciate.


Sir Ol'Guy wrote:

generic backstory - works for most any martial type PC

IC: "ah - about a week ago I was found unconscious in a back ally of the settlement we are in - what's it's name again? - and some temple dudes helped me recover from some sort of wounds to my head, or maybe it was drugs, I'm not sure - I was kind of out of it at the time. All this stuff I've got I had on me at the time, as well as several gemstones I used to pay for my healing - to those same temple dudes, from that one temple - you know the one over by the town square? There's no temple near the town square? It's around here someplace... anyway, so this is my stuff, it fits me, smells kind of like I've sweated in it for several days if not months and ... anyway. My stuff. I seem to know how to use it. 'Muscle Memory' I think they call it...

"I don't really remember anything from before waking up in the temple - you know the one over by the town square? Or where ever, anyway, so I've been going by the name of 'Nameless One', but I kind of like 'John Doe' too, so whatever works is fine. 'Hay You!' would work I guess. OH! and I think I'm some kind of fighter, as I have armor and a sword and bow and stuff...

"I speak common, and this other language (short phrase of non-sense sounds), but no one I've talked to so far recognizes that language, so ... what ever. Anyway - I understand you guys need some type of fighter? And I could really use a job, as I'm sort of out of gem stones now..."

So... you have amnesia and have no real connection to my game world? Got it - you want to kick open doors, kill monsters, get treasure. Now that's not a problem; I've got plenty of generic combats, a fresh battle mat with dry erase markers and lots of minis.

After a few levels, I really hope you, as a player find some little part of the setting and story to own and call yours. If not, it's likely that the endless game of "Munchkin" we're playing, "find monster... kill... get treasure... go up level... find monster..." will make you as bored as I am at which point you might either quit my game or worse, begin taking your frustrations out in session.

I'm not saying that this style of play is bad, I really am not, but in my experience the "I'm a generic martial type that just wants to kick a$$ and chew bubble gum, and I'm all out of bubble gum..." motif is usually a short-lived high for the player.

I once had a player who genuinely refused to give his dwarf PC any sort of real personality other than "pay me to kill monsters, or let me take lots of their treasure... and I have no backstory" and he had lots of fun with the themed game I started running for a couple games. Then the other PCs wanted to do some Downtime and during said Downtime wanted to advance the overarching plot involving the Charm Person fueled subterfuge of a group of Green Hags.

Needless to say, the Downtime bits, while fun for everyone else, were torture for this player.

After two such sessions sandwiched between small dungeon/wilderness hacks, we came to a third Downtime and I asked the dwarf what he was doing during the next week. He said "I wait in the town square." I prompted again, are you using the one Profession skill I gave you as a bonus, are you staying at the inn, are you talking to anyone... "I'm waiting right here, in the town square, and not doing anything else." Then the player, an hour in, got up and left the game. That was the end of him at my gaming table, by his own choice.

The dwarf, in game, spent a week refusing alms for the poor, sleeping in his rusting armor and threatening any guards who tried to remove him, in the town square. During this time he neither ate, nor drank. Eventually he succumbed to the loss of Con and died, the character retired from the story after the player quit.

As with all my posts, I know my stuff is all anecdotal. I get that experience at other tables will vary. If you're choosing to game with me though I'll tell you up front that I'm wordy, have as many "talky" parts of my game as I do fight scenes, and I intend my games to be collaborative.

I don't see my job as GM as being there to entertain my players; I'm not a video game or a board game. Rather I create the sandbox that you play in. If you only like ONE toy in the box and it's not always available, you'll likely get bored at my games.


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Amnesia is kind of a lazy trope, but on the other hand, it does have a great virtue: it explains why the character does not know more about the setting than the player does. Because, otherwise, it's impossible for a player to know as much about a game world as someone who actually grew up in it would be expected to know. It also grants flexibility to retcon useful plot hooks into the unwritten backstory, and intrigue. If some NPC comes up to the amnesiac PC and claims to be a friend, is he telling the truth? Normally a PC would be expected to know this, but in this case the player has no idea if the GM is creating background content for him or pulling a fast one on him.

Granted, though, that requires the player to then want to dynamically grow his character in collaboration with the GM. Which, in most cases, probably won't happen, and most likely the fault will mostly lie on the player for continuing to be unwilling to flesh out his character.

An dialed-down amnesia trope would be the hermit. Isolationism is another valid excuse for the character not knowing much about the game world. I'm not overly familiar with the world setting of Golarion, because other than it's pantheon, we never used it at our table, but assuming a generic tolkien-esque pseudo-medieval westernized setting, the world will have a lot of rural territory, and rural citizens will probably be too busy with their day to day lives to travel much. Some, heck many of them will probably take pride in their isolationism. They'll see it as a virtue, proof of them being focused on their work, and their work being too important to allow leisure. "Traveling? That's for the weak merchants who can't toil the soil and couldn't survive a day on their own. Son, we feed the nation! Without us, there is no kingdom, only anarchy. It is our moral obligation to work relentlessly!" Or for a more diffuse and less nationalistic nation, center that more on tradition and family values. The cities will likely be seen with disdain, as centers of vice, sloth, crime, privilege, etc. Small town and agricultural PCs could very well be expected to know little of the game world beyond their immediate area. Meanwhile, it'd still be easy to justify just about any character build with it, by adding a retired mentor figure or such, and playing with motivations and worldviews. The most overdone rural background trope is that the character yearns for leaving his small town life and dreams of adventure. Of course, small-town and rural folks in these stories are typically written by urban writers. And, admittedly, this phenomenon is real, and plays a role in rural exodus (which is mainly economical, though). A less done pitch would be the rural PC who is actually proud of his rural upbringing, and who embarks on an adventuring journey despite him. Something happened to him homeland, and, well, "if you want something done, you need to do it yourself". The city folks and urban-centric government probably isn't very close to its rural citizens, and either don't care or don't really know about their plights. The challenge with this spin, though, is keeping the character in the party, as presumably he would go back to his home as soon as possible.

The Exchange

Mark Hoover 330 wrote:
Sir Ol'Guy wrote:

generic backstory - works for most any martial type PC

IC: "ah - about a week ago I was found unconscious in a back ally of the settlement we are in - what's it's name again? - and some temple dudes helped me recover from some sort of wounds to my head, or maybe it was drugs, I'm not sure - I was kind of out of it at the time. All this stuff I've got I had on me at the time, as well as several gemstones I used to pay for my healing - to those same temple dudes, from that one temple - you know the one over by the town square? There's no temple near the town square? It's around here someplace... anyway, so this is my stuff, it fits me, smells kind of like I've sweated in it for several days if not months and ... anyway. My stuff. I seem to know how to use it. 'Muscle Memory' I think they call it...

"I don't really remember anything from before waking up in the temple - you know the one over by the town square? Or where ever, anyway, so I've been going by the name of 'Nameless One', but I kind of like 'John Doe' too, so whatever works is fine. 'Hay You!' would work I guess. OH! and I think I'm some kind of fighter, as I have armor and a sword and bow and stuff...

"I speak common, and this other language (short phrase of non-sense sounds), but no one I've talked to so far recognizes that language, so ... what ever. Anyway - I understand you guys need some type of fighter? And I could really use a job, as I'm sort of out of gem stones now..."

So... you have amnesia and have no real connection to my game world? Got it - you want to kick open doors, kill monsters, get treasure. Now that's not a problem; I've got plenty of generic combats, a fresh battle mat with dry erase markers and lots of minis.

After a few levels, I really hope you, as a player find some little part of the setting and story to own and call yours. If not, it's likely that the endless game of "Munchkin" we're playing, "find monster... kill... get treasure... go up level... find monster..."...

well - gosh... you missed the plot hook on this one.

"So... you have amnesia and have no real connection to my game world? "

actually half right. The PC appears to have at least partial amnesia, unless something really strange is going on (Previous soul inhabiting the body was destroyed and a fresh soul/sprite/komi/mind parasite moved in and is running the body? A Clone of some great wizard that got animated on it's own and now a free spirit? An android that somehow got "reset"? So many possibilities and we don't even have to decide NOW, because we-together can discover this in PLAY), so we can start playing working under that assumption, and build on that. This does mean that starting from right now, as we begin to interact, my PC becomes immersed in the world setting. He has NOTHING else (well, some equipment I guess), so saying I "have no real connection to my game would" is really incorrect. It's just that I, as the PLAYER don't know your world setting. Perhaps the PC was a Mook for the current Villian, and the first time we encounter them the Baddies are going to say "Hay Bob! What are you doing working with the Intrepid Heros?!"

Or heck, John Doe could be a Druid (mysterious language that no one recognizes?) who has lost his Druid abilities because someone dressed him in metal armor, which... means he really ISN'T very good at the "kick open doors, kill monsters, get treasure" part of his current job and hopefully we'll discover this soon!'

Or so many other possibilities.

He's a blank slate that we, together, in your game, are going to draw as we play. So rather than have me show up with a "part of the picture" that we now have to blend into your game...
Player:"Yeah, I'm the third son of the Warlord of Narnia, and I have this magic sword that...", GM: "We're playing Call of Cthulhu, Modern." Player: "But I have 8 pages of backstory! What about my love affair with the Martian Princess? And ..." Yeah, I have had this sort of thing happen in a campaign... "Please alter you campaign to include the continent that I am the heir to..."
... we get to draw this guy IN GAME, at the table, revealed as we go along. He is going to fit into the setting perfectly (or nearly), much better than if I walk in and present you with a puzzle peace that you need to weave into the fabric of your would, and that I may have expressed poorly in my description to you. Do we find an ancient manuscript that no one can read? GM turns to John Doe: "But you can read it..." Player: "I got to really figure out what this language I know that no one else does is, and how the heck I can speak it... what the heck was I before?". Great Fun!


How do you play the role of a character, if you don't know the character?

A few questions some GMs ask for do seem unnecessary, but I like to think about it as getting to know someone on a blind date. Sit down with your character at an imaginary table and ask them the kinds of questions you'd want to know of someone you may be spending a short life together. Where are you from? How's your family? What do you do for a living? How'd you get into that? What do you usually do for fun?

And the answers shouldn't have to be much more complete than what you'd expect on a blind date. "I'm from the Northlands. --- My family is still there, we weren't close. --- I guard caravans . ---- I hired on to get out of the Northlands and got along well with the crew, so stuck with it for a bit. --- When we reached a city the guards would all like to gather at a tavern and drink and play cards."

And you may find as you ask more questions and get more answers that you can make even better followup questions and answers of the character. And before you know it, you have a character that has their own personality and history.

The big thing is that we are not necessarily "authors' in this game, but we are "story tellers". The players may only tell the story of their handful of characters, but they are still story tellers.

The Exchange

I am currently running a long running AP. I've spent a lot of effort to "flesh out" and "customize" an AP, so the world setting is that of Golarion, and I thought we'd be ok as almost all my players are long time PFS players.

So, let's talk player backstory for some examples:

Most of my players create minimum backstory, mainly grabbing a trait from the AP and expanding a bit on that.

One of my players spends an hour on the phone with me and we work out a background for a Vigilante PC that we'll expand on thru play.

Another one of my players sits down with me and over lunch we take an older PC of hers and restart a clone of it fitted to the AP story-line.

Then I have a player who comes in with an extensive written back story that he emails me. (more than one page long) GREAT!

And I start reading it to weave it into my game... and I have a real train wreck on my hands.

I call the the player and ask - "what the heck is this?"

Player: "My guy is XXXX! You know, from the video game YYYY!" total blank on my part. I have never heard of the character OR the video game "I had to adapt a couple of Archetypes to get it to fit right, but he's really cool!"

Me: (so I read the Archetypes and find that the Player actually "adapted"/modified the Archetype, changing the rules on how they work) "Wait, from the background you sent me, the rest of the players are going to want to stake your character and burn the body... maybe even bury the ashes under two or more crossroads..."

Player: "Huh? no my guy is Neutral! and he's just here to help people!'

Me: "According to your write-up, you are a malevolent spirit, inhabiting a corpse - that you have access to the memories of, and in your former life you killed all your living relatives, by hand, one of whom was a small female child, your little sister who had been left in your care?"

Player: "Yeah? but I'm really interested in being helpful..."

Me: "wow... how do I spin this to the party? One of whom is a Corpse Hunter Ranger, all of the others built PC expecting to fight Undead?"

Player: "Just don't tell them my background..."

Me: "You know the Badguys are going to ... try to 'control' you and, stand a good chance of having spells to do that?"

Player: "well, we'll handle that when it comes up. But they wont think of that because"... (new rules that alter how the game system works - effectively giving his PC a secret Super-Power that not even his PC knows he has, even when he uses it) "...I'll just do that, and the Badguys wont think of it then."

Me: "Wow... this is going to be tough..."

Now that we have started play, the player is running the trope of a "Dark-Mysterious Silent Anti-Social Misfit" who doesn't interact well with others, so whenever an encounter starts, he exits the area, avoiding all actual contact with the NPCs and most of the PCs.

But he did present me with the most well developed backstory - highly detailed and in depth.


Well, that is a completely different issue. Player characters should fit the campaign. If you make a "cool character" and it doesn't fit the campaign, then you should save that character for a future campaign where maybe it does fit. This doesn't even have to be backstory stuff. Playing an anti-paladin in wrath of the righteous would be even more troublesome than your example, without even needing to have a backstory.

I have numerous "cool characters" that I haven't had an opportunity to play yet, because they aren't a good fit for most parties.


Melkiador wrote:

Well, that is a completely different issue. Player characters should fit the campaign. If you make a "cool character" and it doesn't fit the campaign, then you should save that character for a future campaign where maybe it does fit. This doesn't even have to be backstory stuff. Playing an anti-paladin in wrath of the righteous would be even more troublesome than your example, without even needing to have a backstory.

I have numerous "cool characters" that I haven't had an opportunity to play yet, because they aren't a good fit for most parties.

yeah, I've run into that. I have a couple of necromancer concepts I'd like to play but our next campaign was/is WotR. So, I went with another build I've been wanting to play that was a better fit.


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It is so hard to get to play a necromancer. Mine isn't even technically evil, but he still wouldn't fit in with a lot of parties.

Spoiler:
Basically, it's a character who wants to use undead to fix everyday issues. "If we left these skeletons in the field, they'd scare off all of the critters trying to eat the village crops. Or, let's tie some bells to these skeletons and have them guard the city entrances at night. If the bells start ringing then the real guard know to wake up." And of course, he doesn't understand why other people aren't totally cool with this, because it's so practical. He's not evil because he's genuinely trying to help people. But he's not good, because he's raising the dead. So, he's conflicted neutral.

The Exchange

Melkiador wrote:

Well, that is a completely different issue. Player characters should fit the campaign. If you make a "cool character" and it doesn't fit the campaign, then you should save that character for a future campaign where maybe it does fit. This doesn't even have to be backstory stuff. Playing an anti-paladin in wrath of the righteous would be even more troublesome than your example, without even needing to have a backstory.

I have numerous "cool characters" that I haven't had an opportunity to play yet, because they aren't a good fit for most parties.

bolding mine.

Yeah, in creating a characters backstory, a player should interact with the person running the campaign, to ensure that the PC "fits".

This is a two way street - and over the years I have been up and down that street, and down many of the dark alleys that link to it, many times.

My example above of a "generic backstory - works for most any martial type PC" was one that allows the player to start in most games, even when that Player/GM interaction has been limited. Haven't had time to create a detailed backstory? Create it after the campaign starts, during the Play of the Game. That example allows for that. Just not sure if it would work for more than one PC in a group... Though you know (now my GM brain is kicking in, I could see it being the start of a great story....).

Silver Crusade

Melkiador wrote:

It is so hard to get to play a necromancer. Mine isn't even technically evil, but he still wouldn't fit in with a lot of parties.

** spoiler omitted **

I remember playing in a home game where there was a little mountain country (picture Tibet) where it was common practice to Animate Dead on your ancestors. A party of adventurers, on arriving in town found a Zombie chasing children is a fenced in yard. And did what adventurers do, only to be arrested for chopping up "Great Aunt Magrat". They had to pay to have her put back to gether and pay for the trama caused to the children who had been playing Zombie Tag with her. Real culture shock. Different cultures, different customs.


Sure, a generic something can "fit in" almost anywhere. But "fitting in" isn't what you usually want either. Someone who fits in doesn't really stand out. Ideally, you want a character that stands out without being disruptive to the party or the campaign.

There's also a difference in "expansive" and "detailed". For example, I can have an expansive backstory that only specifies I was raised in "a big city in another country", and then the GM can fill me in on the details of what that city is and in what country. And you can do that with many details of your backstory, "I was raised by my mother, because my father died in a war". What that war was can be fit into the campaign later down the road.


Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Companion, Maps, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

There are ways you can leave some details about your backstory to the DM without disconnecting from his world. For example, in one D&D 4E campaign, my PC was a changeling raised by dragonborn who was found next to her murdered human (?) mother. Since my character would not have known such details, I left her actual origin to the DM -- but I did have some interesting details about her childhood.


Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
well - gosh... you missed the plot hook on this one.

I'll agree with you in theory. In my experience, however, none of the people that went for such an easy and generic backstory ever then proceeded to put any effort into developing their character.

The lack of ante desincentivized character growth.


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A lot of the issues here can be solved with a Session Zero. What kind of a game will we be playing? What genres does it fit into? What will be the central themes? What about the setting?

Once I've laid the groundwork for the game, I'll ask my players about their character concepts. And a concept isn't "elven rogue" or "DPS'er". It's "veteran caravan guard with a heart of gold" or "naive, bookish scholar".
And if the mechanical representation of your concept is inferior to another player's, I will reinvent the game to level the playing field.
But if you want to compile a list of The Biggest Numbers so you can "win" this collaborative experience, my games are probably not for you.

The Exchange

Goblin_Priest wrote:
Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
well - gosh... you missed the plot hook on this one.

I'll agree with you in theory. In my experience, however, none of the people that went for such an easy and generic backstory ever then proceeded to put any effort into developing their character.

The lack of ante desincentivized character growth.

over the coarse of many years and many game systems I have run many Campaigns in which a lot of character development has taken place. In many cases - in fact I could easily say that in MOST cases, the PCs have developed a vast amount of their "backstory" over play. Many times when presented with a an in-depth backstory (either from me the player, or to me as the GM) it has lead to conflict with established cannon on an existing game system, or even with the actual mechanics of the rule system being used.

Some of the most memorable PCs I have every encountered started without even a name. One in fact was called simply "nameless" for so long that that became her name and she was know as "The Nameless Cleric" after more than a year of play. By then we (the entire gaming group) knew her dress size (9), her taste in fine dining (roast meats, in red wine sause), all her relatives by name and her favorite color (red). But when she started? Nope. Hadn't even given the PC a name, heck, the only reason we knew she was female was that deity only had female clerics. She was originally intended to fill a placeholder slot in the party for the player while he learned a bit about the world setting. After a year of real time, she was central to the main plot and associated with several long standing blood feuds between different political factions in 3 different countries on two continents.

As a GM, I would much rather you give me a brief sketch of what is important to your PC rather than a 10 page background of fine details that when I ask you about you have to look up on your copy. If you tell me you are an orphan raised by wolves - heck, that's going to be important. And something we an really expand on. And we will. But if I have to quiz you on how many brothers and sisters you have and how they interact with your parents when you haven't even mentioned your race? Unless there is a STORY REASON why this is important... I am doing you a disservice. What does it matter? If it never comes up? or worse, if it conflicts with the canon of the world setting... "Hi! my Mom is the Pope, and I was born at home in Hong Kong, during a blizzard..."... ah, How do I work that into my game?

This thread is entitled: "Backstory - Grrr!" and the OP was posting (I'm pushing him off the Rant Soap Box and climbing up there myself) about how he had issues with his GM presenting him with a Questionnaire to fill out, instead of (it seemed to me) just working with him to find out what is important to him about his PC. And how to fit him into the world setting, perhaps even getting his input on creating that setting. And I can see that as being an issue. As a GM, and as a Player, I want to be sure my Character FITS into the setting. As either one (Player of GM), I would like to "together" create a Character that works, that is part of the world in which we are playing. Perhaps even changing the world setting to fit the PC?

This means as a GM, I try to sit with each of the players and get them to tell me about their character. I don't ask them for random things unless it's going to be important in the campaign.

side tanget:

("what colors do you dress in?" - "Red shirt and black pants"- "You can't actually wear red clothing in Eck-Toran, the City you are starting in. It's against the Law for religious reasons - so you should likely change that. Unless you want to be a Demon worshiper?"), and I LISTEN to what they say. I've actually emailed a 3 page background/description for a PC to my GM before - and on the third meeting he "discovered" I was playing a female character. A female elf actually. he hadn't realized it until I mentioned that in my background I had talked of having a "fairy god mother complex" with another players PC (young human). It seems that this GM had a standing rule I was unaware of. We were not allowed to play cross-gendered PCs. Our PC had to be the same sex we (the player) were. That made me wonder if he had actually bothered to read my background... He actually hadn't known the sex or race for my PC till then...

If they mention something important to their PC, I may weave it into my setting...
another example:
One of my players once described how his PC always worn something white... and thus was born the prophecy of "the Return of the White Witch" which ran as a sub-current through a year long campaign during which the players discovered the prophecy, and interacted with it as a sub-plot they discovered as they went along... It was most fun when part of the players had figured it out, but the guy running the actual "White Witch" hadn't.

or not...

As a Player, I try to go over my backstory with the GM at a time when we are NOT burning other players time. Perhaps over lunch, or on the phone or something, so that we get a better "in depth" picture of what my PC is like. And perhaps I can produce a more immersed character, one that fits the world setting better.


When I do questionnaires like that, I'm less concerned with who you were than with who you are as a character. But a lot of the time, deciding who you were helps inform who you are. From my earlier example, I said the character's father died in a war. Well, that's a very formative detail. Maybe it has made the character very militant and strict. Or maybe he hates the idea of war in general and wants to always promote peace between nations. These kinds of details can really breath life into how you roleplay a character, and either choice could fit most campaigns well.

Obviously, not everything that has happened in your character's history has been formative, but those questionnaires usually try to get you to address events in a life that usually are.

The Exchange

Melkiador wrote:

When I do questionnaires like that, I'm less concerned with who you were than with who you are as a character. But a lot of the time, deciding who you were helps inform who you are. From my earlier example, I said the character's father died in a war. Well, that's a very formative detail. Maybe it has made the character very militant and strict. Or maybe he hates the idea of war in general and wants to always promote peace between nations. These kinds of details can really breath life into how you roleplay a character, and either choice could fit most campaigns well.

Obviously, not everything that has happened in your character's history has been formative, but those questionnaires usually try to get you to address events in a life that usually are.

IMHO: But questionnaires really don't. They are often more like "form letters", or "one size fits most" surveys.

taking the OPs example listed above...

1)"Tell me what it was like being a human in a mostly gnome village?

2)"Who was your PC's first love?"

3)"How many siblings did you have and how did they get along with your parents?"

4)"Give me details on his life before he became a (insert PC Class here)."

5)"What other adventures and exploits has he accomplished?"

6)"What side is he taking on the moral conflict between Desna and Erastil?"

this is going to miss the fact that your PC has had a formative experience caused by War. Except maybe #6? which deals more with "Moral Conflicts" between deities.

In fact, I can't see how #1 can even be asked without first determining SOMETHING about the PC from the player... unless the campaign is about a group of humans who live in a gnome village?

IMHO: I don't think a questionnaire is a good way of determining a PCs Backstory. It would work to help generate a world setting perhaps? Something like...

1) On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is only combat, and 5 social interaction, what do you as a player prefer?

2) By order of personal preference what are your 5 favorite races to run? and do you like being the same race as most of the other PCs, or do you prefer running the Token Human?

3) On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is extremely rare, perhaps only rumored to even exist and 5 is Magic Mart being a 7-11 franchise, How much magic to you like in a game?

4) What kind of a world setting do you prefer? High Fantasy (Tolkien), Far East, Wild Weird West, Cyber-punk, Spells & Spaceships, something else?

5) etc.

yeah, maybe that. But even then, I'd think that would be more of a talking point to start the discussion between Players and GM...


Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
1) On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is only combat, and 5 social interaction, what do you as a player prefer?

2.5-3

Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
2) By order of personal preference what are your 5 favorite races to run? and do you like being the same race as most of the other PCs, or do you prefer running the Token Human?

anything scaley (kobold, lizardfolk, nagaji, dragonborn) or any half human/planetouched. Doesn't matter to me what races the other pcs are.

Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
3) On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is extremely rare, perhaps only rumored to even exist and 5 is Magic Mart being a 7-11 franchise, How much magic to you like in a game?

4, magic is common and anything that's not for sale can probably be commissioned in a large enough settlement.

Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
4) What kind of a world setting do you prefer? High Fantasy (Tolkien), Far East, Wild Weird West, Cyber-punk, Spells & Spaceships, something else?

First off I'd quibble that Tolkien is low-magic fantasy, not high fantasy.

But to actually answer the question, I prefer Eberron- and Golarion- like settings where magic is common, understood, and can take the place of technological development. At least for rulesets like Pathfinder/D&D where it's more likely that pretty much every random commoner has the mental stats to cast 1st level spells than the str needed for power attack.


The questions in the opening post are surprisingly specific, which makes me think there is a bigger issue there. That doesn't sound like a standard questionnaire, especially the first question. The GM seems to have already received a character and realized that it wasn't very fleshed out. Maybe, if the player had fleshed the character out to begin with, the GM wouldn't have been grasping at straws trying to ask questions about formative moments.

Again, it's not so important that the GM know this history. It's important for the player to know what events shaped his character's life. And even if an event didn't shape his life, then "Why didn't it shape his life?". If his first love didn't impact him, then why? Does he have trouble forging intimate bonds with others? Was he not really into girls? Those are the kinds of things can can really inform what the character is like in the current day.

Each player should really go through their own process for creating a character. But also, many players have no idea how to do this. A questionnaire is a bit like training wheels, and having to use training wheels when you already know how to ride a bike can be frustrating. But a GM, especially an online GM, doesn't usually have a better option for helping make sure that his player's are serious about the character and the game.


Ok, let me try to explain my point of view with an example.

There is a guy in my area that styles himself an amateur playwright. Within the last couple of weeks, we both tried to join a PbP game. He glanced at the intro in the recruitment thread ripped out a vanilla wizard build with very few details completed (he had not realized the reserved spot was already filled with a wizard). He didn't even use the correct ability score method. Then he starts typing and in 10 minutes he has a 5 page backstory (emphasis on story) complete with things like juvenile disfiguring disease. (I guess I'm exaggerating, it probably is a bit under 3 pages.) The GM commented that he really appreciated the time he spent on creating his character.
He did not put exceptional time and effort into his submission because, for him, that 5 pages is nearly zero effort. It doesn't demonstrate his dedication to the campaign. Again, he can rip off 10 of those submissions in an afternoon.
I will agree he has probably shown he is capable of more flowery descriptions of his characters actions and thoughts. But that is really all it shows.

I also tried to join a game. Unfortunately, not the same one. I wish we had both applied to the same one to really highlight the comparison. I read through the intro, campaign, some of the gameplay thread to get an idea of how the group is currently functioning. I checked through the current characters in the game. Decided their style was similar to my own and I could have fun playing in that game. Based on their characters, they are lacking a divine spell caster though it hasn't yet caused any real problems in play. However, based on the few combats they had had so far, they clearly have been having difficulty dealing with the absence of anyone that can stand toe-to-toe with the opposition.
So I built a very durable warpriest, focused more on the melee combat than the spell casting, healing, and other abilities. Picked a deity that was not identical to the other PC's, but is typically considered allied with or at least complimentary alignments with them. Also constructed a personality that would mesh pretty well with what they already had and yet cover some more missing characteristics. I made sure the project fit all the PC creation rules the GM had set forth.
Wrote out a few paragraphs detailing his personality, how he makes his decisions, and a bit of background. (I admit I did forget a physical description this time.) I made sure the project fit all the PC creation rules the GM had set forth. It included where he was from, why he traveled to here, his reason for getting involved, and his near term goals. Maybe 1/3 of a page.
The GM said I didn't give him enough to work with. Without a real backstory of his life before this, he couldn't get a feel for the character.

I could easily include a few links to previous PbP that showcases how I post in a game. I'm not sure how I could give examples of my contributions in an online session. I don't think Roll20 has a record option.
Other than looking through my posting history, I don't know how a prospective GM can tell if I am a match for his style of game. But I don't believe insistence on an extensive backstory contributes much of anything to accomplish this.


Beswaur Blue Bottle wrote:

I read through the intro, campaign, some of the gameplay thread to get an idea of how the group is currently functioning. I checked through the current characters in the game. Decided their style was similar to my own and I could have fun playing in that game. Based on their characters, they are lacking a divine spell caster though it hasn't yet caused any real problems in play. However, based on the few combats they had had so far, they clearly have been having difficulty dealing with the absence of anyone that can stand toe-to-toe with the opposition.

So I built a very durable warpriest, focused more on the melee combat than the spell casting, healing, and other abilities. Picked a deity that was not identical to the other PC's, but is typically considered allied with or at least complimentary alignments with them. Also constructed a personality that would mesh pretty well with what they already had and yet cover some more missing characteristics.

This! This is what you should have included, the meta, the pencil marks of your ink drawing. The process of character creation is as important as its result as a social interaction, when those each side of the screen are learning about those on the other.

As a player with a game master I don't know, I like to show my work, to show I make sense and to make sure I make sense to the game master.


Darigaaz the Igniter wrote:
...I'd quibble that Tolkien is low-magic fantasy, not high fantasy...

Just for the record, Tolkien's works are considered to be the archetype of high fantasy literature. High/low fantasy does not mean high/low presence of magic compared to our world.

More importantly, I believe those questions were really just an example of a discussion point of the thread, rather than questions being genuinely asked.


Well, of course, we don't have the GM's take on this, so any theory on his motivations is mere speculation.

Sir Ol'Guy wrote:
over the coarse of many years and many game systems I have run many Campaigns in which a lot of character development has taken place. In many cases - in fact I could easily say that in MOST cases, the PCs have developed a vast amount of their "backstory" over play. Many times when presented with a an in-depth backstory (either from me the player, or to me as the GM) it has lead to conflict with established cannon on an existing game system, or even with the actual mechanics of the rule system being used.

Yea, that is an issue as well, particularly in homebrew settings. The GM presumably has a vision for his world, and players can't really guess it, and one of the dangers of players just writing up a full character on their own is indeed a clash with cannon.

"Oh and my character grew up in slavery"
-Wait what? Your homeland doesn't do slavery!

"Oh and my character has a boring life up to now"
-How old is he now?
"34"
-But every able-bodied persons got conscripted for the great war 10 years ago!

And sometimes, it isn't the player's fault, because it's just not even written anywhere. And sometimes, they just didn't read it. And others, the lore written is just so vast that they can't possibly know/remember it all.

But to go back on characters without initial backgrounds growing into something, I guess it goes without saying that "your experience may vary" and will be table-specific. I could see this not being an issue among a group of dedicated roleplayers. In this context, though, it's a PBP game with strangers. I could understand the GM not being overly optimistic in that case.

Which brings up Beswaur's post. On a PBP platform, I would certainly take adherence to the requested framework as having greater value than sheer volume of content. Someone can easily just copy/paste a background he wrote for something else some time ago. Or just plagiarized from some obscure source I'm not familiar with. Length of the backstory is no proof of effort or commitment. I might even have greater suspecion of a character with an unexceptionally long background. The one guy who likes long backgrounds has never been a problem player at our table, but with all of the tales I've read online... someone who spends a lot of time on making his own story, without taking the time to make sure he adheres to the character creation rules... sounds like someone's that's gonna bring an ego problem to the game.

Where do all of you find your PBP games anyways?


Honestly, I just started my first Play by Post game yesterday... on MCB, the paintball forum I am a part of.

My backstory (copy and paste from DnD Beyond):

Eric Withakay is a Half-Elf. His mother, a beautiful Elf from a well-respected family. His father, a nobody, a nameless, faceless figure who he has never met, and wouldn't have recognized even if he had.

As the years wore on, Eric was never accepted by his Elven peers. Often chided for his darker complexion, called "dirty" by the other kids with their fair and creamy skin/hair... dirty skin, dirty black hair, dirty mixed blood. He clearly has inherited the appearances of his father. His only distinctly Elven trait is his pointed ears. Someone wasn't like the rest.

Time was wearing on his mother, as well. She started to resent him, as if it was his fault for his father's disappearance. It was his fault that she is looked at and talked about by the other mother's. Her motherly love gave way to loathing and contempt.

Even though Eric was an excellent student, often excelling in both academics and sports, he was never seen for WHO he was... just WHAT he was.

In what would be considered the latter part of general education, which can last until you are 25yo, Eric had had enough. He sneaked out of his house in the dead of night, without leaving a note, but taking every book he had not yet read.

That was decades ago.

Eric Withakay has spent his time as an adult in almost complete isolation... only visiting travelers or civilization to exchange books. He is a collector and trader of literature and knowledge in general.

His time in the forests have been spent learning to hunt and survive in the wild. He has encountered animals and Fey, and learned to live in relative harmony with both. For whatever reason, Eric always seems to get along with Gnomes better than anyone else.


Quixote wrote:
More importantly, I believe those questions were really just an example of a discussion point of the thread, rather than questions being genuinely asked.

I would hope so, because most if not all of the OP's GM's questions are things that as a GM, if I want to know things like the, I'd have an NPC ask the PC. And if the player makes up the answer on the spot, that's perfectly fine. Having the players state what interests and motivates the character, so that the GM can put such things into the world, is fine, but these questions are way to specific.

___________________________________________

Darigaaz the Igniter wrote:
First off I'd quibble that Tolkien is low-magic fantasy, not high fantasy.

Ok, first, the level of magic does not indicate high or low fantasy - that's dictated by a) how different the world is from ours (with all the different races and magical stuff everywhere, middle-earth is very different), and b) how much the story impacts the world (it doesn't get much bigger than the fate of almost the entire known world in the balance). And second, Tolkien is not low magic - quite the contrary. Just because most characters don't go around casting flashy spells, doesn't mean there isn't plenty of magic around. There are magic items everywhere (including just about everything the elves created, e.g. the rations where a single biscuit sates you for a day, the camouflage cloaks, the robes that untie themself, and the boats that can go down a waterfall without spilling its contents), there are magical creatures everywhere (trolls that turn into stone in sunlight, ents that can animate entire forests, a man who can turn into animals and has animal 'servants', etc.), and the entire LotR story is about a magical item so powerful that its possession decides the entire war. A war fought with magical controlled armies of magical creatures (orcs) that were created to imitate other magical creatures (elves) on one side, and an undead army on the other side. There's a swamp where one can see the almost fully preserved bodies from a battle over three thousand years ago lighted up by will-o-wisps, and a vulcano daliberately covering the sky over half the continent in smoke clouds. And I haven't even started on the Silmarillion, with stuff like magic trees that provide the light for the entire planet (before there were a sun and moon), including with day and night cycle.


I don't understand what the problem is here.

The GM wants you to do something, and you don't want to do it. Find another game and the GM should find another player.

And if for whatever reason you can't find another game or the GM can't find a way to fill games ... then one or both of you can roleplay adults.


I've created characters with intricate, multi-paragraph/multi-page backstories, and I've created characters whose backstory could fit on half a sheet of paper. All have been a blast to play. When creating that backstory, it really comes down to, how much do I need to provide for the GM, the other players, and even myself, to get a feel for who my character is? Sometimes it doesn't take much. But, sometimes, the character is complicated enough, or I get inspired enough, that the ideas just flow out. An sometimes their build has some unusual elements, and it takes some thought to put it all together into a background that makes sense in the world.

Of course, those characters would be just as playable if I kept their ideas in my head and never wrote them down. And, as you point out, the corollary is also true: the length of your backstory has very little to do with the character's quality. I can write a novella of a backstory and still have a walking stereotype for a PC.

But here's what having at least a couple of paragraphs does do: it let's the GM know that you understand the campaign setting, and it serves as a "special snowflake" alert. If I see a generic character married to an intricate background filled with things like "juvenile disfiguring disease", to use your example, then I as a GM am probably going to pass because their care and feeding is more work than I am willing to do. But if you don't supply anything at all, then how am I to know? In the PbP world, writing is part of the game play. If you can't show your work on your character concept, then what is my incentive to choose you over someone else?

That being said, from your description of the GM and game that inspired this thread, they have taken their eyes off the ball. An oddly specific questionnaire is not a substitute for "tell me about your character's history", and they may be over-emphasizing writing as a part of the game (which is, IMHO, not sustainable...I see plenty of people start PbP with lengthy, intricate posts, but stick with a game for more than a few weeks and that disappears. Because PbP is not like writing a novel: there are only so many times you can write "Bob furiously slashes at the orc with his sword" before it all just sounds redundant.) So, I'd move along. This isn't the right game for you.

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