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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Play by Post Backgrounds

    Play by Post roleplaying creates a unique opportunity, because the written medium allows so much more depth in roleplaying. And now sure, that's not everyone's cup of tea, but even for those who do strive to create interesting roleplaying, there's quite a lot of boring going on. So this is going to be my thoughts on what a PbP background should accomplish. This isn't meant to be comprehensive and it's pretty off the cuff, but it's a little bit like a rant, so that's okay.

    My main motivation for this is based on the campaign I started recently - in the application phase I received many backgrounds and what I quickly realized is that some of them were both very long and very worthless. This post aims at letting applicants understand how to make their backgrounds not suck. Making them awesome is, of course, up to the skill and imagination of the writer.

    EDIT: to be clear, I'm going to misappropriate the word "background" to mean "everything you write about your character". Backstory will be the character's story up to this point. Get it? Got it? Good.

    So what does a character background entail?
    Well first, I want to clarify that "background" is an umbrella term and encompasses everything you're telling the DM about your character that isn't represented on the stat sheet. So as much as physical appearance isn't really encompassed in the word "background", for our purposes it is.

    Backgrounds usually contain three main elements: the backstory - what the character's life has been like up to the point of the story, the physical appearance of the character and the personality of the character. More on whether all three are really useful later.

    So that's great! Slap those three together and you've got a character? Well, yes, you've got a character, but not necessarily a good one. Because the problem is that it's very possible to put a lot of words onto the page in all three of these areas and really not tell the most crucial part of information. What's that?

    Yes, What does a background try to do?

    So we know that a background is a backstory, a personality and an appearance, but these aren't the purpose of the background. It may sound odd, but here's my opinion: the purpose of the background is to inform the reader about what sort of person your character is. You're trying to flesh out, as quickly as possible, a three dimensional character that is interesting and real-feeling.

    And that's the key, the main point to this whole post. Make a compelling character. Having an epic, soaring backstory is fine, but if it doesn't say anything about who your character is, it's useless. Compare your character to real people - not in their story, but in their psychology and decide if your character is anywhere near as complex. You obviously can't be as complicated as a real person, but the comparison is still useful.

    NPCs

    If the first purpose of the background is to give you a unique voice, a person to roleplay when roleplaying, then the second purpose is to give something back to the DM, namely, NPCs.

    Part of this is personal preference, and it certainly isn't as crucial as determining what sort of person your character is, but you should feel free to interact with other (nonplayer) characters as you create your character. You can have detailed NPCs or ones that are just a name and their relation to your character, because the DM can always choose not to use something if it isn't useful. But basically, if you can give something back to the DM, that'll just make for a more interesting, character-oriented campaign - assuming the DM bothers to incorporate the NPCs. But that's not really your problem.

    Characters to Avoid

    This section is about what not to do. If you write a lengthy-enough background, you'll probably get accepted into campaigns with these characters, but really are very boring or very unrealistic and you should stay away from them.

    1. The Classic Do-Gooder: the guy with the troubled past who has some really complicated backstory and has arrived at the location of the adventure with the intention of... upholding justice. And punishing bad people. There are such an incredibly large number of these with slight variations because they hide so well - their long backstories might make you assume there is more to the character, but if all that backstory says nothing about the character, then it's pretty useless. This isn't to say your character can't be a do-gooder, but a good rule of thumb is this: if you met the character, could you be around them for more than 10 minutes assuming they don't talk about their past without being so bored you wanted to stab your eyes out? Often, the answer for the Classic Do-Gooder is decidedly not.

    2. The Really Really Powerful Character: you see these more in higher level campaigns when people have munchkin'd out their characters (or not) and the player just wants to get across to the other players how badass his character is. You'll often see extended pissing matches, ridiculous actions and nonchalantness as players try to prove how badass they are. Seriously, it gets old.

    3. The Character Whose Motivations Make No Sense: He saw a star as a kid and developed a passion for light, so he became a mage. He saw shadows as a kid and was really interested in shadows, so he became a rogue. You see these characters quite a lot. The problem with them is that their character motivations are ludicrous. No one devotes their life to an interest in shadows - at least without developing some seriously interesting social disabilities that you could play up. Seriously, it's akin to someone who became a doctor because they were obsessed with the color red - conceivable, but you'd better realize that there's *way* more going on there than just an obsession with the color red.

    A good rule of thumb

    Here's one good rule of thumb to keep in mind. If you take away your character's past, their job, everything on their statsheet and even the physical description, can you still describe someone interesting?

    Not clear? Okay, here's the difference (stolen from a rather excellent video review): Think about Han Solo. Aside from his job and all that stuff, who is he? He's a rogue, a charmer, but he's got a conscience. He likes to appear tougher than he is, but shows up when his friends need him. And so on.

    Now think about Obi-Wan Kenobi from the new trilogy. Who is he? He likes his master? He's a jedi (but wait, that description's not allowed). Who is Queen Amidala? She's... normal? But what else?

    This is the problem with both the new trilogy and many characters people create: despite working them very thoroughly into a plot, they are totally insubstantial and boring characters.

    And you might try to answer this by just reading down your "personality" description, so let me make this one step harder and make your background one step better - describe your character in the same way, but only use information you can pull from your backstory. This leads us to our last section.

    A Personality Section - Good or Bad Idea?
    At first, it looks like I'm suggesting not bothering to give your character a personality. To be clear, I'm not. What I'm suggesting is that people often use the personality section as a crutch so that they don't have to bother working the personality into the backstory. A well written backstory, like the saga of star wars, should have enough character development that a personality section is redundant.

    The backstory really should imply most of your personality. When people take actions, it's usually because of what type of person they are. You shouldn't need a personality section.

    So should you skip the personality section? Personally, though you don't need them, I'd say yes, write them anyway. That's just because backstories are often significantly longer than the personality section, so the personality section is a nice succinct description of your character's personality. Just try to make sure that whatever you say about your character's personality could be inferred from their backstory.

    /rant
    Last edited by thewamp; 2011-09-30 at 02:01 PM.
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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    I think also a character background, or indeed a character sheet, should include some ideas about what the character's got in mind for the rest of his life. In fiction we tend to cheer for characters who aren't passive about their lives, but rather pursue their goals -- characters who are proactive about their destiny, who want to achieve some sort of goal.

    Ideally, such a goal should have some specifics. "I want to be rich" isn't really a goal for an interesting character. "I want to have X amount of gold because that's the amount I need to return to Moldydavia and buy the slave girl I've always loved since I was a kid" is a bit more interesting. If your character has a goal in life (or hell, a goal of any kind) then he has motivations. And motivations are what make characters really interesting. It's easy enough to make up a past, but I think good writers know how to make that past push into your present. A bio isn't a dead document, it's your character's life up to that point. And the past determines not just who you are, but what you are. As the OP said, personality is suggested by your past. I find personally that making characters whose goals extend out of the past into their potential futures means they seem more like characters moving through life than just out of cold storage for the purposes of the game.

    I think you have to recognise, of course, that a detailed set of goals might not fit in with the premise of the game you apply for - a character who signs on for the Tomb of Horrors probably isn't worth creating in terms of a character who wants to go home and free all the slaves in his region, most likely because he won't ever get there. On the other hand, if it helps you play your character better to have a set of goals, I'd say have them.

    In terms of character templates: I recommend 45 Master Characters from Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Yes, people can bridle that characters are unique and can't be broken down into stereotypes, but this book is addressing archetypes -- both male and female -- and is excellent reading because it provides a set of skeletons for you to base your character on rather than having to reinvent the wheel.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    I'd argue that personality is far more important than background. Background is established gradually through a narrative, not given all at once, and while that holds true for personality as well, evidence of personality comes far sooner. The background paradigm is fundamentally useless, and while you can have a good character made through one, it certainly doesn't help. So where is the meat of the character?

    Beliefs and Desires. What they think, and what they want, particularly where they conflict. Lets look at Han Solo again.
    Belief: Principle of Beneficence, Loyalty to Friends
    Desire: Appearance of Personal Stability and Power, Appearance of Independance.

    Conflicts between these four elements are possible, if not inevitable, and that makes this character interesting. Moreover, this character would be just as interesting if you stripped away the trappings of him being a rogue and a charmer, and substituted others.
    I would really like to see a game made by Obryn, Kurald Galain, and Knaight from these forums.

    I'm not joking one bit. I would buy the hell out of that.
    -- ChubbyRain

    Current Design Project: Legacy, a game of masters and apprentices for two players and a GM.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Well, Knaight, two things which will sort of touch on the last thing I said - you shouldn't need more than a backstory if you do it right.

    First, you might have missed it, but I'll edit something in read to make it even clearer. I'm using 'background' to mean 'everything written about a character'. 'Backstory' is my word for what you're referring to.

    But second, I think I fundamentally disagree. Backstory is the best way to inform about a character's personality, but most people are just awful at it. Here's the thing - what you wrote there about Han Solo, that was great, a wonderful summery and a trite way of summing up what he's about. But it's so much less complex than the full character (which is sort of a restriction of the medium). We can do better.

    You know how we can do better? Telling the story of Star Wars. Because I can learn so much more about who Han Solo is by watching star wars, than by reading anything you can write about it.

    So that's where my backstory opinion comes in - it's the best way to tell about a character's personality (which sort of encompasses beliefs and desires), as long as you're good at it. The key being, you have to make sure that it's a character-driven story, at least as much as it's a plot-driven story. Also, you have to be creative.

    And yeah, Saintheart, I entirely agree with you, future goals are a fantastic thing to include, because like NPCs, they give you and the DM more to work with. But I think these goals are really character elements that should be developed in the backstory, not just a quick seperate section that says "Jason wants to free all the slaves in the land of Quagmire." I mean, why does he want to do that?
    It says signature, but when I tried to sign my name, I just got pen on my computer screen.

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    Want to play diplomacy? Want to GM a game? Want to learn what the game is? Good.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by Knaight View Post
    I'd argue that personality is far more important than background.
    I agree with this. Personality is what fleshes out your character and makes it interesting. Background is mostly a collection of plot hooks.

    Physical description is good too, because it helps everyone imagine your character better.

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    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by Tengu_temp View Post
    I agree with this. Personality is what fleshes out your character and makes it interesting. Background is mostly a collection of plot hooks.

    Physical description is good too, because it helps everyone imagine your character better.
    See, I think the problem with your statement is that if your backstory *is* just a collection of plot hooks, you're doing it wrong. That's the very definition of a mediocre at best backstory. You should be able to tell everything about a character's personality just by knowing their backstory - if the writer knows how to write.
    It says signature, but when I tried to sign my name, I just got pen on my computer screen.

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    Want to play diplomacy? Want to GM a game? Want to learn what the game is? Good.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by thewamp View Post
    Now think about Obi-Wan Kenobi from the new trilogy. Who is he? He likes his master? He's a jedi (but wait, that description's not allowed). Who is Queen Amidala? She's... normal? But what else?

    This is the problem with both the new trilogy and many characters people create: despite working them very thoroughly into a plot, they are totally insubstantial and boring characters.
    It is like you barely watched the new trilogy...

    We know about Oni-wan Kenobi: trained by his master in the force, but failed to protect his master when it mattered most. He thus shows the new kid Anakin more leeway than he should as an attempt to placate his feelings of failure. His motivation is making up for his failure. We know this. Or those who paid attention to the movie should. Heck if you think about it it further cements his failure motivation in New Hope (why he agreed to train Luke) and died for him.
    He is smart, wise, follows the rules when he can, and is a decent swordsman.

    We know about Queen Amidala: she isn't all about following the rules. Heck, she prefered to pretend to be the bodyguard to get more freedom (and likely some protection as most people target the Queen not the bodyguard). She later befriends and romances a forbidden love (Anakin) furthering her ignore the rules when it suits her style.
    She is kind, generous, and wants to be a force of goods for her kingdom; thuough she is inexperienced.

    This is all from the new Trilogy: if people aren't paying attention, that seems their issue. The movies had interesting characters.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by thewamp View Post
    See, I think the problem with your statement is that if your backstory *is* just a collection of plot hooks, you're doing it wrong. That's the very definition of a mediocre at best backstory. You should be able to tell everything about a character's personality just by knowing their backstory - if the writer knows how to write.
    Oh, of course I can and often do write long, detailed backstories that establish why my character is the way it is. But most of the time, all that writing is pointless - things that are not plothooks will most likely never come up in the actual game. And more often than not, if your background is too long, no other players will even read it and the DM will just skim over it - you're writing it only for yourself.
    Last edited by Tengu_temp; 2011-09-30 at 02:11 PM.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by thewamp View Post
    You know how we can do better? Telling the story of Star Wars. Because I can learn so much more about who Han Solo is by watching star wars, than by reading anything you can write about it.
    Star Wars isn't the backstory. Star Wars is the story. All we actually know about Han's backstory is that he has a debt to Jabba, knows Lando, has criminal connections, and a few other details. Each of the details of the backstory was woven into the narrative, rather than being given upon introduction. The equivalent with a game character would be one developed through play, rather than one made at the beginning in a complete form. Only the basics are really needed to start, and Han Solo is a perfect example of that.
    I would really like to see a game made by Obryn, Kurald Galain, and Knaight from these forums.

    I'm not joking one bit. I would buy the hell out of that.
    -- ChubbyRain

    Current Design Project: Legacy, a game of masters and apprentices for two players and a GM.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by Tengu_temp View Post
    Oh, of course I can and often do write long, detailed backstories that establish why my character is the way it is. But most of the time, all that writing is pointless - things that are not plothooks will most likely never come up in the actual game. And more often than not, if your background is too long, no other players will even read it and the DM will just skim over it - you're writing it only for yourself.
    I think it's quite possible to have a well-written high impact story that says a lot about your character without making it super long. I also think that's probably really difficult and time consuming, so like I said at the end, it definitely makes sense to do a personality section most of the time. But it shouldn't be necessary, in principle.

    Quote Originally Posted by Knaight View Post
    Star Wars isn't the backstory. Star Wars is the story. All we actually know about Han's backstory is that he has a debt to Jabba, knows Lando, has criminal connections, and a few other details. Each of the details of the backstory was woven into the narrative, rather than being given upon introduction. The equivalent with a game character would be one developed through play, rather than one made at the beginning in a complete form. Only the basics are really needed to start, and Han Solo is a perfect example of that.
    You're trying to find too close of a parallel. My argument was "this is possible with narrative" not "if Han were a character in a campaign, here are the parallels". Star Wars or any other work of literature shows what is possible in terms of characterization with a backstory. It's high school English all over again - show don't tell and all that.
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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    That's an awfully long post just for saying "I'm annoyed because I can't find players who write interesting backgrounds."

    To sum up the entirety of my misgivings about your post: it lacks objectivity.
    Last edited by Shadowknight12; 2011-09-30 at 02:22 PM.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by Tengu_temp View Post
    I agree with this.
    Me too.

    Writing a background is just a way to "play before you play". To have your character do a whole bunch of cool stuff no one cares about before they actually have to be challenged. It's definitely more prevalent in play-by-post, simply because the games go so slowly that the only way to get anything satisfying to happen is to write about it independently of the game itself. Still, I do meet people in real life with the 4-10 page backstory. It's a bit silly, if you ask me.

    There are alternatives, of course. The best thing to do is to play a game that incorporates a 'backstory' like mechanic into the actual system, which makes the stuff that happens in the backstory genuinely matter.

    Burning Wheel's lifepaths generate a basic backstory from birth to present day as you fill in your skills. The Dresden Files has you write a sentence or two about several phases of your life, and then you derive an Aspect from it to use in play. Mouse Guard has you fill in important details about your character's life, and each detail raises or lowers numbers on their sheet accordingly. And so on.

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    Quote Originally Posted by thewamp View Post
    You're trying to find too close of a parallel. My argument was "this is possible with narrative" not "if Han were a character in a campaign, here are the parallels". Star Wars or any other work of literature shows what is possible in terms of characterization with a backstory. It's high school English all over again - show don't tell and all that.
    The game is the primary narrative. The story is the primary narrative. This isn't too close of a parallel, this is the most reasonably interpretation. Everything necessary is possible with a narrative, yes, but the information needed about characters at the beginning of a narrative isn't very much. For that matter, narratives containing copious back stories are usually poor to begin with, because, again, show don't tell. There's an obvious analog for that as well: You show through play who a character is, instead of telling the GM at the beginning with a back story. All you need beforehand are notes on how to do that properly, rather like the notes authors tend to have.
    I would really like to see a game made by Obryn, Kurald Galain, and Knaight from these forums.

    I'm not joking one bit. I would buy the hell out of that.
    -- ChubbyRain

    Current Design Project: Legacy, a game of masters and apprentices for two players and a GM.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    Quote Originally Posted by Knaight View Post
    The game is the primary narrative. The story is the primary narrative. This isn't too close of a parallel, this is the most reasonably interpretation. Everything necessary is possible with a narrative, yes, but the information needed about characters at the beginning of a narrative isn't very much. For that matter, narratives containing copious back stories are usually poor to begin with, because, again, show don't tell. There's an obvious analog for that as well: You show through play who a character is, instead of telling the GM at the beginning with a back story. All you need beforehand are notes on how to do that properly, rather like the notes authors tend to have.
    Well, arguably the backstory should be part of the game. In fiction, backstories often are interesting enough to warrant their own books -- "The Hobbit" is probably the canonical example, but George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, all delve quite deeply into backstories of their characters. One of my favorite authors, it can be argued, pretty much makes his books uncovering of backstories.

    In RPGs, though, particularly play-by-posts, you have to balance the desire for a fully-fleshed out world against practical matters like time in the spotlight (since backstories are usually not interactive between players), and simple burden on the PC's. If I've got a ~30% of getting into a game, it'd be a bit difficult to muster a the will to write a long, involved background that's very specific to the game world.

    I've found that a pretty happy compromise is to tell a short anecdote from the character's life in the 1st or 2nd person, present tense. That way you're not coming up with a character chronology from 3 generations back (or glossing over it with a "Mysterious Orphan/Stranger" cliche), but you can get a good feel for what you want your character to be.

    This is how it goes in most literature, too. The bible's the only book that comes to mind where each character starts with "And Hem begat Shem ... &c." Though I'm a comparatively mild fan of the Star Wars universe, to take an example from there, The Cantina scene where Han is introduced could serve as both Personality and Backstory introductions. It's a short scene, but you know he's a worldly smuggler, a cool customer, and there's a reason the "Han shot first" debates inspire so much passion-- the scene is essential to his characterization. That being said, you don't learn anything much about his chronology.

    Which is I guess a long way of saying that I think thewamp's point stands that breaking out Personality and Backstory into separate categories is actively harmful to interesting character development (with the usual one-size-fits all disclaimer that everyone's got their own style), and that you don't necessarily need to work too hard to flesh out a character, probably no more effort than 1-3 solid in game posts. After all, if you can't think of how your character would act in a situation involving a couple of in game posts, then you may want to rethink the concept.

    That being said, this whole discussion is predicated on a RP-Heavy PbP game. If you're looking for a 10-minute backstory or a way to flesh out a dungeon crawl/tactical/hack-and-slash type game enough to make it a bit more interesting, then that's a different question.

    ~R
    *full disclosure, I'm a PC in one of thewamp's games, but that has no bearing on this post*
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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    I often find it easier to write a short sentence of who my character is, for example: old, seasoned hunter. Now, that tells me a lot of the characters background. Then I write out a few things that drives him. The most basic things he stands for. After that personality and background comes naturally.

    I've also found that writing a long and complicated background and personality for a character might be counter-productive, often when I play I find that the character behaves in ways that I didn't foresee, because I didn't know what situations and what party members I'd interact with. I like the bare-bones approach and letting the character develop through play instead.

    At least for me that brings out the best stories and the most believable personalities.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roethke View Post
    That being said, this whole discussion is predicated on a RP-Heavy PbP game. If you're looking for a 10-minute backstory or a way to flesh out a dungeon crawl/tactical/hack-and-slash type game enough to make it a bit more interesting, then that's a different question.
    That's probably because PbP excels on the field of RP-heavy games, but is awful for tactical or hack'n'slash ones.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roethke View Post
    That being said, this whole discussion is predicated on a RP-Heavy PbP game. If you're looking for a 10-minute backstory or a way to flesh out a dungeon crawl/tactical/hack-and-slash type game enough to make it a bit more interesting, then that's a different question.
    A ten minute backstory is enough to allow development of an interesting character. All you need is a starting point, as you can retroactively add details to the backstory as the story goes on, which is exactly what one sees in basically every book. And if you need to integrate character backstory into the main narrative, which you often might (I've written a novella that basically was the revelation of backstory and interaction between characters as they hear each others stories, which leads to new understanding of their own history), both invention and revelation can be done simultaneously. Play by post is particularly good at this, as you have time to revise the history a few times before revealing it.
    I would really like to see a game made by Obryn, Kurald Galain, and Knaight from these forums.

    I'm not joking one bit. I would buy the hell out of that.
    -- ChubbyRain

    Current Design Project: Legacy, a game of masters and apprentices for two players and a GM.

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    Default Re: Play by Post Backgrounds

    I agree with most of what was said here, but I think you might get your point across better if you include a few examples. I would gladly read a backstory or two with commentary about what it does well and where it's lacking.

    Also, I'd like to add that backstory length is something that should be determined by your relationship with your GM. I've been gaming with my best friend for 15 years. We give each other 15 page backstories because we know that the other person will read and use that backstory. For a GM I've never played with, I'd probably give them something between a paragraph and a page, because I wouldn't presume that they'd want to read my crappy attempt at fiction.
    If you like what I have to say, please check out my GMing Blog where I discuss writing and roleplaying in greater depth.

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