Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What would you do for a Klondike bar?

You know, back in the day we never seemed to feel the need to come up with intricate backstories for our characters, or motivations, or any of that.

We rolled up a character, maybe had an idea in mind from the latest fantasy book, movie or video game we'd accessed, and were ready to explore some dungeons, kill some monsters, and loot their treasures.

Then somewhere along the way (around 97 for me, when I fell in with the Evansville group and I was chock full of ideas for stories that I'd never get around to writing) I began to want those backstories and motivations. Maybe it was something about the 2E books, which I picked up around then. Maybe I felt like it was more 'mature' that way. Maybe it was just something in the air.

For the past few years, though, I've been worried less about backstory or motivation. If I've got some ideas, great. I'll roll with them. If my players want to come up with them, again, great.

But I find D&D works best if the only real motivation your characters need follows this statement:

I boldly venture forth into the dark places of the earth, face countless horrors, and all for fortune and glory.

Anything more than that is unnecessary, but the above is vital. If you're not out for the gold and glory, you probably shouldn't be playing in my D&D games (other games will vary).

[And Dave, if you're reading this, this is just a general spouting off of ideas, not directed at anyone in particular in our group.]


  1. I generally liked the notion of "what happens in levels 1-4 IS your backstory" though I'd usually have just some tidbit or another (orphaned or blacksmith's son or whatever) to just say my PC had a history. I'm actually now fond of having some random tables for generating some unique talents and flaws and background bullet points for a PC. Then I can take what I've rolled and kind of flesh it out if I want or not (why does the PC have no teeth or when his village was burned by goblins, how did that affect him or whatever...). But I've never given more than a couple sentences to any kind of backstory. The ones that are pages long are just too much for me...

  2. I am reading this. We come from extremely different worlds and approaches to our gaming, and I can dig it. And I am able to do the Old School style stuff that I did when I was 11 or 12. I chalk up my reasons for wanting complex character motivation and personality (they're more important than backstory, to me, which is really just peripheral) to all of the books I read. And most of them weren't gaming.

    I started getting sick of the 20-page backstory in college when my players who kept handing me them were also the people with the least idea of how to portray their characters. It was always something angsty, so I always preferred to focus more on motivation and personality.

    Take STAR WARS for example. We don't need (or get) 20 pages of backstory on ANYONE. What we get is this:

    Luke: Motivation--Get off Tatooine, do something that matters. Personality--Young, inexperienced, eager, slightly foolhardy but well-meaning, idealistic.

    Han Solo: Motivation--Pay Jabba, stay alive, make a buck. Personality--Cocky, a bit impulsive, sarcastic, irreverent, unscrupulous, but trustworthy, willing to risk his life for his friends.

    Princess Leia: Motivation--See justice done, oppose the Emperor, restore the Republic. Personality--Arrogant, confident, sarcastic, self-sacrificing, determined, unwavering, idealistic.

    Obi-wan: Motivat...

    You get the idea. I'd prefer these things over 20 pages of backstory. And this is something that can be done with much less difficulty. We know nothing about Han Solo's past in STAR WARS, but we know enough about his personality to make him a great character.

  3. I've never really cared for backstory, on the grounds that your first level character doesn't have that much interesting about their background in the first place. Besides, it's all boring and stupid. Like Dave mentioned, it's all angsty nonsense.

    No, what's cool is Emergent Gameplay, where your game and your characters define themselves through repeated interactions with the game-world and the rules. That's what's cool, if you ask me. It's a natural growth of your character instead of an artificial background inserted into your game.