Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Why Having No Character Background Makes Sense

My preference, when creating D&D characters, is to have no, or minimal, background details. I think this is common to most people who play older versions of the game, because bitter experience shows there isn't much point wasting time creating a special snowflake PC given they have a 75% chance of dying before level 3.

This is one reason why outsiders are sort of snooty about old versions of D&D, I think.

But there's a good, sensible in game reason why not having detailed character backgrounds makes sense, at least in D&D. And it's this:

People go off and do crazy adventurous things when they have no responsibility and no ties. When I was 18 I went off to Kyrgyzstan for a few months to volunteer. When I was 21 I graduated from university and hopped on a plane to Japan with the intention of working my way around the world. I did these things because I was young, single, and fancy free, and didn't feel any real connection with where I grew up. In D&D terms, I had no 'character background' - you could have summed me up in one sentence (probably even less than that). I was a "Level 1 University Graduate". It was only after I'd lived for a while that I started to get anything like an interesting background worth speaking about - in other words, it was only after my 'adventuring career' had started that events in my life became worth cataloguing.

This would be even more true for D&D characters. In a typical D&D setting, life is nasty, brutish and short, and not only that - there are actual fucking orcs out there that will skin you alive if they catch you. The people in such a world who would be starting off an adventuring life would be, not to put too fine a point on it, young, dumb and full of cum. They wouldn't have interesting and elaborate back-stories tying them down to home and hearth. They'd be wet behind the ears. They'd probably be the youngest child in the family with nothing to hang around for. They might be orphans or urchins for whom the adventuring life is all upside (the alternative is dying in a gutter with leprosy). These are not the sort of people with interesting back-stories. It's when they set off into the dungeon that their lives really begin.


  1. Nice post - sounds about right for real life as well as YEG. I wouldn't haul my fat aging carcass back to half the hellholes I've visited. I guess that's why there are all these kings and ex-adventurer barkeeps out there - they wise up and settle down.

  2. Well...yeah. If your game is like that and if your character is primarily a disposable interface to the game, then a background is really pretty irrelevant. Not everyone likes that sort of game, but if that's your thing then it does make sense.

    Tangent: It's weird that i see a lot of the OSR community that plays this way also claiming that computers will never be able to match the tabletop experience. In reality, this is exactly the sort of experience that computers will successfully emulate first. It's all those hippie story games that AI will have a hard time handling. The 4E and to some extent the 3.X players tend to be far more accepting of the inevitability of (and even eager to experience) electronic DMs.

    (In retrospect, that all sounds a little flame-bait-ish, but it's not intended that way. Just a random observation - not a judgement.)

  3. Sorry if this is a little's not aimed you or your post per se but it reminds me of a conversation on the subject I had just a few days ago...

    You hit upon one of the many reasons I am not a fan of D&D.

    At first level, you are treated as if you sprang up on the spot out of thin air. You generally have no background, no ties and honestly, no knowledge of anything outside of a 25' (if you're lucky) radius sphere around you.

    While I do enjoy building on my character's back story and personality as I play, I also want to play a character I care about. Blank cardboard cutout #12 is not an interesting character for me.

    It seems many GMs like this approach (IME) as they don't really concern themselves with the player characters all that much. That is, the game is cool because of THEIR world and the challenges THEY put in it.

    Many players share that opinion (as noted in your previous post about getting into your character by doing things - things like beating a trap or fighting a monster).

    For me, I stopped enjoying playing the role of player with a PC long ago because I didn't feel my ideas about my characters (who they were and why) mattered to the GM and HIS game.

    If one of my players has an idea on his characters background history...AWESOME! Fuel for my continuing stories. You want to give me more material to complicate your virtual life? Why thank you.

    Now I am not advocating someone pitch me the manuscript to Roots. A paragraph or two or just some solid idea of where they grew up and/or why they are facing the ridiculously dangerous world for the off chance of finding a few gold coins is fine.

    I noticed you mentioning playing or at least trying a few Story Games lately but, unless I am misunderstanding, you don't really seem a Story Game kinda guy. And that's fine. I guess I was wondering how you feel about those kinds of games when your preference lies elsewhere.

  4. The AD&D 1e DMG has very similar advice about characters. If you've never read it, you might be surprised at how explicitly it lays out its themes and assumptions about the world.

  5. I guess it all comes down to expectations. If you're expecting that the game provides you with clear definition of your character's background and takes just this job away from you by being hard-coded into the game's rules, you won't like what older D&D offers. But if you are willing to embrace the concept of interpretation (the data the game gives you: attributes, equipment, etc.) or coming up with a background yourself either beforehand or through playing, even if it the rules don't provide on that front, you're just fine with classic D&D.

  6. A level 1 "University Graduate" rolls a d4 for HD. We are all glad you survived those lower levels.

  7. lol@anon
    I once saw a post on a World of Warcraft forum where a guy said he just graduated college and compared it to hitting max level and getting ready to raid. The rest of the forum took great glee in letting him know that in reality he had just gotten out of the starting zone. In D&D terms - 2nd level?

  8. But, it isn't always the case.

    By 18 I had already seen most of Free Europe, gone behind the Iron Curtain at least once, driven crazily enough that I escaped pursuers, handled firearms, sampled exotic sundries, and read works on the occult.

    Similar to your own description, but seen from the perspective that these are non-normative, horizon broadening and possibly mind-altering events/activities. That isn't a 0-level anything.

    There are folks I've know well whose lives have been more harrowing in their first 15 years than most white Western folks lives will ever be: homeless, thieves/burglars, druggies who got themselves straight, joined the military, etc.

    These are character backgrounds. They may not apply to everyone, and those folks may become 'adventurers' later in life, or would become one in a D&D-type world, but that isn't the point.

    Every life lost is a story, not the means by which it occurred.

  9. @Matthew:Well...yeah. If your game is like that and if your character is primarily a disposable interface to the game, then a background is really pretty irrelevant. Not everyone likes that sort of game, but if that's your thing then it does make sense.

    That's a bit reductionist and a bit of a strawman.

    Let's take a classic example of modern culture.

    What, specifically, is Luke's back story to his knowledge at the opening of Star Wars? He's an orphan working as a hand on his uncle's farm. That's it. Had he not had the desire to travel and adventure he never would have learned more.

    Yet Luke is, at the beginning of Star Wars, the classic first level D&D character. Even at the end of the first act of the movie all we know is his father was a Jedi and was killed and betrayed by Vader. It takes until the end of the movie to give him two adventures and a dead mentor in addition to the mortal enemy.

    He's probably also leveled up twice. He accumulates back story along with adventuring experience.

    Is Luke a "disposable interface" to the Star Wars movies? No, he's an integral part of the story and the development and revelation of his back story is a key part of the narrative.

    If the goal of playing a particular game is to develop a character from the beginning of his story until his full flower of ability creating back story is stealing from the game.

    Having too much back story feels like starting Star Wars at the beginning of Empire. Sure, it works, and lots of novels are written that way. But it's not what I want in D&D.

    In reality, this is exactly the sort of experience that computers will successfully emulate first.

    Really, please describe the algorithm for determining which actions and connections are meaningful to the character's narrative as they occur? I write computer software and trust me, despite over 30 years of playing D&D I don't know where to start in writing software that can mechanically take a string of game play results, find the relevant results, and create a narrative structure out of them.

  10. @Barking Alien:Now I am not advocating someone pitch me the manuscript to Roots. A paragraph or two or just some solid idea of where they grew up and/or why they are facing the ridiculously dangerous world for the off chance of finding a few gold coins is fine.

    I have run much more into players who give me the manuscript to roots in the past decade or so than those who can't come up with a single paragraph.

    In fact, to bring in my Star Wars example from above, I have seen more people whose back story is bigger than Luke's at the end of Empire than people who treated characters as disposable interfaces.

    I have no problem with some brief details, but when you start the story already knowing your arch rival is Duke Strassen for burning your village and you've sworn him eternal enmity in public already how are you still alive if you did it at first level and are you going to call me a killer GM if I follow through on that oath logically.

    How about you just tell me some evil noble burned your village and you were forced to make your way in the world.

    To pull in another popular movie, write me two paragraphs telling me why you, the young Inigo, are now making your way as a sell sword, not how you are going to the capital of Florin to kill Count Rugen.

    If you do the later all I can do is provide Count Rugen and then we get to Inigo's line at the end of the movie. If you do the later we can spent several levels learning who the man with six fingers is.

  11. It's funny that you should write this just as I'm brewing a post on background and its importance in defining otherwise little-defined ODnD characters. I see your point and largely agree - that's a perfectly valid approach. But...

    playing Skeree the Bonewoman this past week has taught me a whole lot about Carcosa (where she's from and may never go back to, as she FLAILSNAILS around various Europes). I've had to define Carcosa on the fly because I've had to build a basis for Skeree's actions, attitudes and potential skills. She's not very smart so she doesn't come up with brilliant plans, and she looks like a skeleton so she doesn't chat it up with the knowledgeable and influential NPC priest. So it would be very easy for her to just be a walking axe, trailing around after the other PCs with no motivation. To prevent that I have to make up background left and right. I've learned she can track in wilderness and she's heard about the cats of Ulthar and all sorts of other unexpected stuff because if I didn't bring it, she'd have no traction in whatever world she just dropped into, and I'd have to be even stupider - roleplaying her lack of knowledge about the campaign world compounded with my own. As it is, she gets flashes of insight from her past and (I like to think) she makes the worlds she passes through a bit more Carcosan as DMs pick up the cues (who knew a Roman cat sorcerer spoke Debased Yuggothic? Well, now we do).

    I guess I could play her as an absolutely blank slate and then the problems I see would melt away, but then it wouldn't matter that she was a visitor from beyond, and I think that would be a missed opportunity.

    Less egotistically and more to your point, I have some starting characters for you with important backgrounds, from my research into Dutch East India Company mutinies. I contend these guys are starting adventurers: they begin the game Shanghaied onto a ship, going to exotic and dangerous climes, and they hope to get rich but are likely to die trying.

    Jacob Croos, 31. Trained as a soldier, 4 years military experience, contacts in French regiments. Sold fraudulently to the Company as a stonemason, retrained as a sailor. Has a wife and kids. Motivation to mutiny: to get back to them in Germany with stolen money to replace the demob money that was taken from him.

    Daniel Martin, 22. Trained as a baker, speaks English, French. Sold to Company and retrained as a sailor and trumpeter. Motivation to mutiny: wants to rejoin his brother and establish a bakery in London, using capital sent ahead by courier.

  12. I think what's interesting here is that every detail a player puts in their background is potentially locking down something in the gameworld. You want your player to have been kicked out of a Mage's guild? Well, you're assuming there are guilds for mages in our world.

    This can be really problematic when player details start trumping each other. So, you both want to be deposed princes from the Drow empire, but the empires you describe are completely different? Whoops.

    Or course we could all sit down and try to negotiate this I suppose-- build the world together before we even start playing. Seems more efficient to build the world together by experiencing it.

    @Richard: yeah, yours is an extreme example, rather than helping you flesh out your character the many different worlds actually undermine that with their own contradictory details.

    I wonder if we might come up with a list of things that people would find interesting as player backgrounds but would require imposing little to nothing on the gameworld and other players?

  13. Tedankhamen: What's YEG?

    Matthew: Computers won't be able to emulate human judgement or intelligence, though. I agree they'll be able to produce no-background characters very easily. But that's not really the USP of Old School D&D...just an element of it.

    Barking Alien: I have diverse preferences - I think all kinds of different play styles are fun. Some times I like to play the kind of games you seem to prefer - I had lots of fun with Apocalypse World, for instance. And the characters in my current CP:2020 campaign all have big networks of interpersonal relationships for me to draw on for adventure hooks, for instance. But I don't think D&D is really geared towards that sort of play. Or at least, I like using it to do something else. You don't always want to drink coke, right? Sometimes you want orange juice.

    Timeshadows: I think what you're saying is that you got to 1st level at an earlier stage in your life. I don't think it invalidates the proposition that your 'story' started once you'd begun 'adventuring', not before.

    Herb, Richard and Telecanter: Good comments. I want to stress that I don't think this is the one true way of gaming, or even the type of gaming that I prefer above all others. It's just what I want out of D&D.

    I think having the players give input into world-building is really fun and gets them invested in the game and how it develops. And I think having players create back stories, and especially webs of NPCs who they know, can really add depth to a game.

    But sometimes I want the reverse, and I think "classic" D&D is perfect for that, in part because the rules (implicitly) accept it, insofar as they assume players start off as pretty pathetic weaklings who will likely die.

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  15. @Noisms: lol. I'll accept that as a strange sort of honour. I appreciate it. :)

  16. 1st level D&D characters are young people, often 14-20 tops. As such they don't really need a background beyond a couple of words "Aramite Nobles Brat" or "Midfolk Fishwifes Daughter" or something. Its plenty and a good group will create a backstory in play

    However other systems may assume more mature PC's and for example a 32 year old combat medic needs a bit of backstory.

    Also having that bit of story can add to the fun, a combat medic in one of my games happens to have a scary crime lord owe home a favor. Thats a lot of hooks and having hooks is never bad.

    As to what Matthew said, he's right.

    I can get very good hack and slash on my X-Box at any time. In order to make my players happy I have to be a lot more creative than that.

    Unlike during D&D's heyday (the 80's) people have lots of choices now and we need to make tabletop better than just those.

    Ans in case anyone asks, its not crazy hard. Gaming starts with two big advantages, friends and food. Add in fun and you have a hard to beat combo.

  17. See, I think what's great about D&D is that you can have players opperating on different levels in the same game and that usually only adds to the fun. So you can have "Bob the fighter" who is really just there to drink beer and kill orcs, another character with a brief backstory, and yet another character played by a real actor type with a two page background story and they can all play the same game at the same time. In fact I much prefer that sort of "mixed group" to a game where all the players are actor-types or all powergamers or what have you.

  18. I used to be a background snob. I blame the AD&D Player Character Folder. I was cured after spending more time honing approval-winning apps on WoD MUSHes than I spent playing on them.

  19. i don't understand why so many people assume character background has to be some elaborate story, something "interesting" to make a character special in some way.

    when you left university you might have been lvl1, but you can't deny that you had a "background".

    your family, your childhood, school, everything that happened to you before you started your "adventuring career" made you the man you were at the time. i doubt that could have been summed up in one sentence.

    the way you approached challenges was influenced by your "background". you had your education, your hopes and fears, your aims, your prejudices and so forth. sorry, but you did have a background.

    who cares if nothing noteworthy happened in your earlier life (doubtful), that's not what character background is about.

    all that's needed is a sketch. you need to have some sort of idea what a character might be about, how he might behave.

    i have never written down any character background, but i have never played a character without taking some time to think about what might have shaped and influenced him before he started adventuring. the more time i had the more tangible the character felt. i fail to see how that could hurt a game in any way.

    your "adventuring life" might have been much more interesting (i guess that would be true of almost anyone), but denying that you were shaped by your youth seems silly.

  20. Lum: Well, there's no secret why it's the most popular RPG, and it's mostly down to that.

    shlominus: Sure, but is there much point in that if it isn't very interesting?

  21. Sure there's a point to it. It shapes your characterization.

    Were you raised upper class? If so, you probably recoil at filth, and are not used to doing things for yourself. Were you raised in a very religious house? If so, you probably have particular taboos and values set by the religion. Are you married, or engaged? Then you have someone to go home to.

    All of these sorts of questions feed into the decisions the character is likely to make. They also feed into how NPCs are likely to react to the character.

    It is still better to sum it up in a couple of paragraphs. But I find that working some of those things out before play begins makes for a richer and more consistent personality in play.

  22. Marshall: Well, a line or two is fine. As I said in the post, I'm okay with minimal background details.

  23. I have no problem with a line or two. My eyes glaze over at the idea of writing a couple paragraphs for a new D&D character. I think Gary Gygax once said 'the first 6 levels are the character's back story.'

    IMHO, this little background generator gives just the right amount (a couple key sentences).

  24. I just recently started playing in my 15 year old son's 4e game... To start, I wrote 3 sentences of background. After joining his friends for three or four games, and learning more about his setting, I upped it to about a page. Much of it was based on how my character was interacting with the other PCs. Here's the write-up as posted on his game-blog:

    I'd agree a full-blown background doesn't make much sense in the old school style I prefer, but a few quick sentences that justify the character's personality traits can be quite useful...