Saturday, April 4, 2009

Character Back-Stories and Portraits

I’m getting ready to start a new campaign, and among other things, I find myself thinking about the question of character back-stories. In addition to sharing my own thoughts on his matter, I’m especially interested in how other gamers handle this issue.

By “back-story,” I mean information about a given character’s background, history, place of origin etc. Conventional wisdom holds that, the more detailed this information is, the richer the role playing experience becomes. I pretty much concur with conventional wisdom on this account.

The question that I’m trying think through here is: is it better to encourage players to work up their back-stories by using great amounts detail and by using techniques similar to those associated with fiction writing? I will call this the “creative writing approach.” Or is it better to go with something looser, a rough sketch of an idea or an outline that simply gives the player something to work with, something to play off of at the table? Let’s call this the “basic outline approach.”

Obviously this is a complex question, one for which there is no final or correct answer. Ones answer to this question will largely be a matter of personal taste and what each individual wants to get out of a role playing game. But that said, I still cannot help but wonder if one approach or another might tend to produce a more enjoyable experience at the gaming table than the other. What are the relative merits and weaknesses of each approach?

I currently play in a campaign that promotes the creative writing approach. Participants in my game are encouraged to post character back-stories on a blog that we maintain mostly for this purpose. Players begin by posting background info on their characters’ history. As the game progresses, players reveal more detail about their characters, typically by creating further stories about their characters’ personal histories and by offering up fictional vignettes that situate their characters in the “present” reality of the game world and describe those characters’ thoughts about recent events. Characters’ internal psychic landscapes are revealed in short story form for all to see. In order to encourage this sort of thing, characters receive a small bonus in xp for each post, but can only receive the bonus for one post per level.

This system is a lot of fun and adds a tremendous amount of depth to the characters. It infuses the game with great deal of psychological realism, which is I think for many people one of the primary pleasures in playing RPGs. There are some potential problems with this approach, however.

(1) It often turns into a kind of creative writing workshop in which other players offer advice and feedback regarding the aesthetic merit and intellectual content of each others work.

So why is this a problem? It’s not in and of itself, but with the creative writing method, some players will eventually begin to write back-stories and character portraits primarily to hone their craft as writers or to provoke interesting discussion with their fellow gamers, rather than to contribute directly to the game. When this happens, players’ writings and the subsequent discussion tend to take on a life of their own, independent of the game itself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but while these writings have a tremendous amount of intrinsic value, I’m not sure they ultimately help to develop the campaign very much.

For instance, one of my fellow gamers is very sharp fellow who plays a wizard. When he posts a character portrait to the blog, he will often use the character’s persona as a platform from which to philosophize about how elements in the game world can be thought of in relation to similar elements in our “real” world. These posts, in the guise of excerpts from the character’s fictional journal, read like really witty, insightful, mini-philosophical treatises. One of my favorites drew a complex and nuanced analogy between how the alignment system works in the D and D world and our own. The analogy was not overt of course, but drawn by way of clever innuendo and subtle allusions. I love reading stuff like this. But this sort of philosophy or social commentary can be difficult to import into the game. Practically speaking, my friend has two characters, the one who is a social critic and philosopher on the blog and the one he plays when we all sit around the table. Don’t get me wrong—I love them both. But there are two of them.

Let me be clear. I don't think this is bad in itself. I’m just trying to think of ways to use character back-stories to help enrich the “at the table” experience, to better integrate the highly personal world of a player’s imagination with the collective experience of the group..

(2) The creative writing approach can also create problems for a DM who wants to maintain an internally coherent world and a consistent style of presentation of that world. Inevitably, circumstances will arise in which players write stories that contain factually incorrect information about the campaign world or in which a player introduces elements inconsistent with the world’s style or tone. In these cases, the DM is in an awkward position. Should he or she correct the player and potentially invalidate something that the character has put a great deal of time and effort into? If the player just has some rough ideas in his or her mind or sketched out on a piece of note paper, such a correction is easy to make.

It’s much harder to say, “I’m sorry but that short story you just wrote and published on our game blog, the one you spent a week on, is entirely based on things that simply don’t exist in this campaign world.” A typical response to such a concern might likely be to simply say: “who cares? Why not just go with it? If those elements did not exist before in your world, they do now.” According to this position, the players are allowed to share in the overall creative process; they are helping to create the world. While this is a good idea in theory, it does not always work in practice. When you have several people collaborating on something like this without a clearly defined and shared sense of how the game world works or what it is supposed to feel like, you can easily wind up with an incoherent mess.

Suppose for instance, I’m DMing a campaign heavily modeled on ancient Hellenistic society. I have a player in my game who really loves pirates, pirates modeled on the popularized Hollywood version of the historical pirate of the eighteenth century. Now suppose that every character portrait that this player writes and publishes to the blog is filled with references to ships of the line, tri cornered hats, knee high cuffed leather boots, people who say “matey” a lot, and all sorts of things that don’t quite “fit” in my campaign world. Would I be out of line were I to say, “You know that kind of ship doesn’t really exist in this world. Why don’t you make it a trireme?” Maybe I would be.

What happens when everyone begins to introduce their own stylistic twist on things in this manner? Each new post, each new story introduces another jarring dissonance into the ontology of the campaign world, threatening to reduce it to a cacophony of mismatched cultural referents and contexts. In one player’s posts, the world is Pirates of the Caribbean, in another’s it’s the world of the ancient Norse, in another perhaps the Byzantines or Harry Potter.

Moreover, once a player’s individual stylistic take on the game world has been written and published for all to see, it assumes a level of reality, of concreteness, that it would not otherwise have. It doesn’t really matter if a player in my Hellenistic campaign wants to envision his character as an eighteenth century pirate as long as I’m not fully aware that this is what’s going on inside his head. Heck, every one’s probably a pirate in there. But when his idiosyncratic interpretation of the game world is codified in the form of a published document, it becomes much more difficult to ignore. Its permanence endows it with a certain reality status that a simple verbal utterance lacks. It therefore alters the game world. Ironically, the creative writing approach’s greatest strength, its capacity to encourage a greater level of inter-subjectivity, actually may work against the DM’s efforts to create a believable and internally consistent world. Of course, this is only problematic if creating a coherent and believable world is high on one’s agenda. Each DM and each group has its own preferred style of play.

In the final assessment, both approaches (the creative writing and rough outline method) have their strengths and weaknesses. Having used the former for a while, I am inclined to encourage the latter in the campaign I am about to begin. I think I will suggest that players jot down basic points about their character’s identity and origin, but rather than use the external mechanism of a game blog to develop these points, I will encourage them to do so “in game.” Obviously, I’m very interested in hearing the opinions of other gamers regarding these issues. Are there other methods to encourage characters to develop their back-stories that I have not considered here?


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post and a great example of how game cohesiveness sometimes loses its "stickiness". I usually lay out paramters and a few examples and sit down for a a pre-game session (which can be done via an email) and give the details of my vision of what I want to run and also take feedback to incorporate into the game regarding what the players want.

A pirate I can figure in, but after years of reading Dunsany, CAS, Moorcock, Leiber and others what really slays me is "Jerry the Fighter" or "Merlin the Wizard". I can tone down and blend in ideas, but unimaginative names slay me.

Ironbeard said...

Thanks for the comments Ancientvaults. In our group the DM also passes out campaign material, pre and even mid game. But people don't always follow it or follow it completely. Of course, it might just be the particular group I'm playing with.

post festum said...

There is a good deal I could comment on in your post, Ironbeard, but let me at least say I urge you to consider changing your "backstory policy" for your upcoming campaign. I think your experience has shown that your concerns are legitimate.

That being said, I'm not one who likes shying away from putting new technology to use if it serves the right purposes. And, frankly, I wonder if the "backstory policy" you describe was just fine in principle, but ruined by thoughtless players. And not much you can do about that.

After all, if you didn't have a player who felt free to hijack the space as their own private writing group or a player who thoughtlessly interjects anachronistic elements into the game, then I suspect that player-written character backstories would be a near unqualified good thing; making use of a new technology to bring more depth to the game than previously possible. After all, what is so special about having these character histories evolve at the table except that it might serve as a check against the more extreme forms of player thoughtlessness.

Alas, I fear you will always have these kinds of players in your games, so, ultimately, it might be best to avoid the practice all together.

post festum said...

And just for the sake of further argument: How exactly do you measure "contributes to the campaign" anyway?

And why should this be thought of as the most important value? For example, aren't there other possible good things that could be accomplished by a gaming group using the creative writing approach as opposed to the minimal approach?

Trust-building exercises? Sort of "calibration" between lovers of different fantasy genres? Others?

Ironbeard said...

Post Festum - I definitely see your points.

While I certainly admit there is no way to measure how something contributes to the game in a precise sense, I still believe that one can be possessed of a general feeling that none of the stories being told outside of the game really influence game play all that much. I guess I'm really just trying to figure out a way use the technology in a way that enhances game play, even though I couldn't actually measure or quantify this.

As I noted earlier, I do believe the short story blog has a value unto itself. If people still want such a thing, there's really no reason to drop it.

post festum said...

I still side with doing away with the blog and holding to the minimal backstory.

And I appreciate your point about the ultimately ineffable nature of "contribution" and I suppose I agree we more or less know it when we see it.

For a moment, though, I had thought we'd be able to use a simple criteria for determining if a post sufficiently "contributes" to the campaign: Count the number of penises or phallus that are referenced therein, with more references always being better than less.

Still, you're probably right after all. We know it when we see it.

post festum said...

Thinking on this question a bit more I'm even more convinced that there is little reason for intensive back story development in a s&w game and it may even be counterproductive to player enjoyment.

After all, in addition to the several points you raise (I'd like to read more about your thoughts on this new technology may create problems in intersubjectivity that may not have existed when the game was first played BTW) I think a simple overlooked fact is that PC mortality is bound to be much higher in this game than in 3e, so encouraging deep attachment to low-level characters is probably just a recipe for frustration.