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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    ElfWarriorGuy

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    Default Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    This is a thread to discuss one of my favorite tools as a GM for setting up a campaign and building player buy-in to the world: the shared backstory. In essence, this is when the players are asked, before the start of play, to collectively come up with some aspect of the world which is common to their characters' origins.

    The most common version I use is to tell the players that their PCs have lived either all or most of their lives in the same town or village. I then ask them, within some broad constraints of setting, to come up with key details about that town and their place in it. Some things I ask them to collectively agree upon are climate, dominant species if relevant, forms of subsistence & industry, leadership, distinctive customs, traditional enemies (monstrous or otherwise), famous events & historical people. Then, based on their choices (to which I may suggest tweaks to fit the setting better), I place said town geographically in the setting. I then either devise a plot (for more narrative adventures) or seed adventure hooks (in more sandbox-style games) based around what I've been told.

    That's just one way of doing it, but it combines a lot of advantages. Players feel invested in the setting because of their creative participation. There are established connections between their characters, and between character and NPCs. It can provide very personal stakes to any plot that puts that location in danger.

    I've done this with the WH40K RPG Dark Heresy as well, having the players invent a shared event that resulted in their recruitment into the Inquisition, and then having them answer a series of questions to determine the events of their first mission.

    A friend of mine is working on a system that starts with the players building a shared tribe in a stone-age-type setting from which their characters hail, the premise of the RPG being that they have been sent forth by said tribe to explore & bring back knowledge of new lands.

    Other ideas I've had but never tried include having the players all be members of a Black Company-style ancient mercenary band, members or retainers of a unique noble family, crew on an explorer's ship, or from the same neighborhood of a much larger city.

    Some RPGs that I know of actually incorporate this idea directly into the system, but groups of isolated loners are far more the norm. That can be fun, but also limiting, especially when it comes to building investment in the world. The main drawback of this approach, from a certain perspective, is that it puts limits on an individual player's ability to shape their own backstory and character. Share any experiences you've had running or playing in a game like this, and how you or your GM handled it.
    The desire to appear clever often impedes actually being so.

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  2. - Top - End - #2
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    So I began a new in person game with several players I am very familiar with.

    • Anathema Haniel Tiefling Paladin (Oath of Redemption)
    • Grace Obadiah Aasimar Cleric (Twilight)
    • Kasumi Makaio Iolani Goliath Monk (Way of the Four Elements)
    • Skrizz Tabaxi Rogue (Soul Knife)


    Because I had two "religious" characters (Paladin and Cleric). I started there.
    In my world, a recent evil goddess ascended and killed eight gods of light.
    So I thought, "OK - go from there. The cleric has been tasked to go out and find out what's happened."
    The Paladin had a background where she came from a church that worshipped angels, but treated her differently since she's a tiefling, so she departs.
    So I had her run into the cleric - and she took it as an omen that this cleric was put in her path and happens to be an aasimar.
    From there, I thought - how do I get the rogue in?
    Got it. He had heard that the Church had acquired several new relics from this new land - and he had an interest in stealing it.
    He's caught by the church - as someone told them he was coming.
    The Church then offers to hire him to go with the cleric and keep her safe - since she's headed for a new land where these relics are coming from.
    And these relics are from ancient temples buried deep in the sand (similar to Egyptian type mind-set/theme)
    At the port, they run into the goliath who says that she sensed a recent shift in Ki energy (aligning with when the gods had been slain).
    So she joins. Aboard the ship to the new continent, the four of them become close.
    Need a character origin written? Enjoyed what I wrote? How can you help me? Not required, but appreciated! <3

    Check out my 5e The Secret of Havenfall Manor or my character back stories over at DMsGuild.com! (If you check it out - please rate, comment, and tell others!)

    Subscribe to my D&D Channel on Youtube! (Come by and Sub)

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    It's odd to see someone call underused something that I use in almost every game.

    Unpopular opinion: for groups above two persons, collectively coming up with shared background has negligible benefits over a single person (usually the game master but could just as well be delegated to any of the players) writing backstory for all player characters. Reasons being, when you have just two people, it's relatively fast for them to bounce ideas between themselves and contribute roughly equally. Above two participants, work by committee slows the process down and you start to see division of labour follow the law of vital few, where 20% of players do 80% of the creative work anyway. Hence, it is frequently quicker and leads to equally good results if one person just writes the whole backstory and then the other players just decide if it's good enough or not. Since scenario design largely already works this way, a game master can incorporate it directly in the game pitch, especially in games where backstory is not prominent driver of actions during play.

    The greatest benefits for backstory (and characters) made by a single person exist in domain of games with secret information and player-versus-player action: when a single person writes all those details, it's possible for them to set up tensions that serve as drivers for play without revealing more to the players than necessary. For contrast, setting up a "spot the impostor" scenario when players are collectively making backstory is a hassle. Or, to put it differently: you don't need to involve players in design process of Werewolf for them to be invested in and have fun playing Werewolf.

    Outside of that, it's good to ask: what purpose is a shared backstory meant to serve in the first place? Is it just an excuse to have these different characters be in the same place at the same time? Because for location or event-driven scenarios (f.ex. exploring a ruin, fighting through a natural disaster), such excuses are often unnecessary or can be incredibly thin. "There's money in it", "you were all conscripted into the army", "it's a major city so you all were present by coincidence" all work and players are individually capable of coming up with this level of excuses themselves. Or is the point to enforce co-operation? Co-operation is best enforced by the game scenario requiring co-operation and non-co-operative groups failing to achieve game objectives. Trying to solve this via backstory is literally backwards, past is not binding predictor of the future and backstory motivations for co-operation can as easily be broken by game events as game events themselves can create the motivation to co-operate.

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    ElfWarriorGuy

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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    It's odd to see someone call underused something that I use in almost every game.
    This is an odd statement considering how unfavorably you then proceed to speak of the concept in your reply.

    Unpopular opinion: for groups above two persons, collectively coming up with shared background has negligible benefits over a single person (usually the game master but could just as well be delegated to any of the players) writing backstory for all player characters. Reasons being, when you have just two people, it's relatively fast for them to bounce ideas between themselves and contribute roughly equally. Above two participants, work by committee slows the process down and you start to see division of labour follow the law of vital few, where 20% of players do 80% of the creative work anyway. Hence, it is frequently quicker and leads to equally good results if one person just writes the whole backstory and then the other players just decide if it's good enough or not. Since scenario design largely already works this way, a game master can incorporate it directly in the game pitch, especially in games where backstory is not prominent driver of actions during play.
    This seems like a rather cold analysis of the process. As I said in my OP, a large part of why I like this approach is its value for gaining player buy-in; it's more about building consensus and shared understanding of the game world than it is about generating x units of backstory. While having one person generate the backstory may be 'efficient', few people are going to respond warmly to having character backstory unilaterally imposed upon them.

    Let's say that in the event, as you say, 80% of the legwork is done by 20% of the players. That small portion that the other players do allows them to make sure that elements which are important to them are included, and to push against elements which bother them. And in the process, as the GM guides the process, players are thinking about their characters in a social framework with the world and each other, something that pure solo character generation and background writing doesn't encourage.

    The greatest benefits for backstory (and characters) made by a single person exist in domain of games with secret information and player-versus-player action: when a single person writes all those details, it's possible for them to set up tensions that serve as drivers for play without revealing more to the players than necessary. For contrast, setting up a "spot the impostor" scenario when players are collectively making backstory is a hassle. Or, to put it differently: you don't need to involve players in design process of Werewolf for them to be invested in and have fun playing Werewolf.
    That is so, though I note it's not impossible to do secret information like this in a group setting; a lot can be accomplished by simply passing secret notes. But campaigns of this sort, with a focus on inter-party secrets and relationships as the central gameplay structure, are not my primary assumption.

    Outside of that, it's good to ask: what purpose is a shared backstory meant to serve in the first place? Is it just an excuse to have these different characters be in the same place at the same time? Because for location or event-driven scenarios (f.ex. exploring a ruin, fighting through a natural disaster), such excuses are often unnecessary or can be incredibly thin. "There's money in it", "you were all conscripted into the army", "it's a major city so you all were present by coincidence" all work and players are individually capable of coming up with this level of excuses themselves. Or is the point to enforce co-operation? Co-operation is best enforced by the game scenario requiring co-operation and non-co-operative groups failing to achieve game objectives. Trying to solve this via backstory is literally backwards, past is not binding predictor of the future and backstory motivations for co-operation can as easily be broken by game events as game events themselves can create the motivation to co-operate.
    Building individual motivation to play out the designated scenario is a more difficult process than I think you credit, and one where I find that unsatisfactory results are common. If 3/4 PCs are easily motivated to go on an adventure, but one PC isn't, that player often has to choose between distorting the character and bringing the party to a screeching halt. A backstory held in common between the PCs, and characterization built in accordance with that shared backstory, allows for the GM to craft a scenario where it is readily comprehensible why all the PCs would want to go on the mission, find the treasure, save the town, et cetera. I have found in actual experience that it can work to cut down on these sorts of tensions.

    Other advantages:

    I observe that most players tend towards risk-minimizing behavior in most aspects of RPG play, and this extends to backstory creation as well. Pesky things like family, loved ones, responsibilities, history, culture, and ties to a community can all make a PC human and vulnerable, which is why you instead see so many variations on Badass Orphan Loner #3,078. If a player has the purely individual choice between a character with strings and one without strings, they'll mostly choose the latter, and that can get boring. If everyone adds strings, and does it together, that eases the sense that you're painting a target on your back.

    In the course of play, if you want to draw upon the particulars of character history in play, it is usually a tough balancing act that requires emphasizing one character at the expense of others. Shared backstory means that you can have that kind of drama while engaging all players simultaneously.

    It's fun? Subjectivity alert here, but I find the process itself of crafting a shared history & community to be a fun creative exercise, in which I get to both show off my own creativity, and adopt ideas I wouldn't have thought of on my own. It gets me excited for the game, and anything that gets the players or GM excited can't be too bad.
    The desire to appear clever often impedes actually being so.

    What makes the vanity of others offensive is the fact that it wounds our own.

    Quarrels don't last long if the fault is only on one side.

    Nothing is given so generously as advice.

    We hardly ever find anyone of good sense, except those who agree with us.

    -Francois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Pixie in the Playground
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    In the homebrew Cyberpunk game I'm playing the shared background developed semi-organically. We had a series of tables to roll on and after 4/5ths of us had rolled or chosen to be nomads two of us got the exact same result on one table - our nomad family/clan had been rounded up and imprisoned. We decided they would be the same people and the two of us who had avoided capture had joined with another nomad family where we met the other two nomads in the party. The 5th player had a Night City background and, courtesy of the tables, his biological family had been murdered and he was on the run under a false identity.

    Our first adventure had the PCs participating in a large hijacking where we were betrayed and almost killed. The same corporation is involved in both the arrest and the double-cross and the entwined revenge quests have been the motivation for a lot of our subsequent activity.

    I'm a big fan of rolling on tables for background events and circumstances because (i) they often give better ideas than I can come up with on my own and (ii) they give a more natural feeling of fate and happenstance setting up the starting state of the party.

  6. - Top - End - #6
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    This is an odd statement considering how unfavorably you then proceed to speak of the concept in your reply.
    How do you think I figured the unfavorable parts out?

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    This seems like a rather cold analysis of the process. As I said in my OP, a large part of why I like this approach is its value for gaining player buy-in; it's more about building consensus and shared understanding of the game world than it is about generating x units of backstory. While having one person generate the backstory may be 'efficient', few people are going to respond warmly to having character backstory unilaterally imposed upon them.
    It's an analysis, yes. The reason I seem to not give much weight to the same things as you because I've found the part I underlined to be by-the-numbers false. People respond warmly to stories written by other people all the time. Books, movies, video games, majority of all the fiction that inspires people to try roleplaying games, all involve people getting invested in characters made by someone else. The most common type of character made by a beginner player is a carbon copy of a character they're fan of.

    The lesson there being, a half-decent writer can capture imaginations of players and create that shared understanding simply by having players read through material they wrote. The opportunity for a player to create their own backstory is often just the cherry on top for a game, it isn't the main draw. On the flipside, a sufficiently interesting character written by another person can be.

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    Let's say that in the event, as you say, 80% of the legwork is done by 20% of the players. That small portion that the other players do allows them to make sure that elements which are important to them are included, and to push against elements which bother them. And in the process, as the GM guides the process, players are thinking about their characters in a social framework with the world and each other, something that pure solo character generation and background writing doesn't encourage.
    You are not wrong. In practice, that 20% of work left for 80% of the players can consist entirely of them reading through material given to them and then deciding whether it's good enough to play.

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    That is so, though I note it's not impossible to do secret information like this in a group setting; a lot can be accomplished by simply passing secret notes. But campaigns of this sort, with a focus on inter-party secrets and relationships as the central gameplay structure, are not my primary assumption.
    My point is that with a single person creating the material, the note-passing starts with character backstories, profiles, etc. - that way players don't have unnecessary information of who other players are playing. I guessed this was not your primary assumption, that is why I brought it up.

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    Building individual motivation to play out the designated scenario is a more difficult process than I think you credit, and one where I find that unsatisfactory results are common.
    My point is about particular types of scenario design. So clarify, are you thinking of event-driven, location-driven or co-operative scenarios like I am, or something else?

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    If 3/4 PCs are easily motivated to go on an adventure, but one PC isn't, that player often has to choose between distorting the character and bringing the party to a screeching halt. A backstory held in common between the PCs, and characterization built in accordance with that shared backstory, allows for the GM to craft a scenario where it is readily comprehensible why all the PCs would want to go on the mission, find the treasure, save the town, et cetera. I have found in actual experience that it can work to cut down on these sorts of tensions.
    It's important you to realize I don't disagree with this, I was pointing out cases where this is trivial or unnecessary. Especially that case about a player having to choose: that isn't something the game master needs to solve. A failure of the party to move forward isn't the same as a game failing, players losing is an acceptable outcome for most game formats. Tension isn't always undesireable, because it is also one of the things that forces a player to move and clarify their position.

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    I observe that most players tend towards risk-minimizing behavior in most aspects of RPG play, and this extends to backstory creation as well. Pesky things like family, loved ones, responsibilities, history, culture, and ties to a community can all make a PC human and vulnerable, which is why you instead see so many variations on Badass Orphan Loner #3,078. If a player has the purely individual choice between a character with strings and one without strings, they'll mostly choose the latter, and that can get boring. If everyone adds strings, and does it together, that eases the sense that you're painting a target on your back.
    For the game type where character relationships matter the most, such as freeform character-driven roleplays or political LARPs, I see this behaviour never. This kind of behaviour is almost solely the domain of games where the apparent rules are about killing things & taking their stuff, and the players were drawn in to kill things and take their stuff. Or, to use terms I used above, it's a negative reaction to attempts to inject character-driven play to what is on the face of it a location- or event-driven scenario.

    It's unnecessary. Characters in a location- or event-driven game develop connections and become more invested naturally as play progresses. For example, cute animals nearly always manage to trigger sympathy in at least one player in a group, and if it is possible to buy pets or hire retainers, nearly always will one player in a group will do so. Now these game objects are achievements or investments they themselves acquired, and any risk-minimizing behaviour is directed towards protecting them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    In the course of play, if you want to draw upon the particulars of character history in play, it is usually a tough balancing act that requires emphasizing one character at the expense of others. Shared backstory means that you can have that kind of drama while engaging all players simultaneously.
    Law of vital few applies to how easy engaging all character backstories is, and how engaged players tend to be in those stories. Which, in groups larger than two, means there often is a clear favorite and clear least favorite. Every character being equally important isn't actually necessary. Sometimes, you get a group of player where everyone is very jealous of their time in the spotlight and the game master needs to do your balancing act, but it's important to learn to notice when this is not the case.

    Quote Originally Posted by Catullus64 View Post
    It's fun? Subjectivity alert here, but I find the process itself of crafting a shared history & community to be a fun creative exercise, in which I get to both show off my own creativity, and adopt ideas I wouldn't have thought of on my own. It gets me excited for the game, and anything that gets the players or GM excited can't be too bad.
    I know creativity and self-expression are important aesthetics for players. But beyond them there's challenge, competetition, sensation, discovery and submission. Many parts of fellowship, narrative and fantasy also don't require players themselves being the creative party. Point being, players who are very creative themselves often over-estimate and over-emphasize how big of a draw being the creative party is, especially when it comes to aspects such as backstory or character creation that are parts of the game set-up, with majority of actual gameplay existing beyond that point.

    Note that I don't say this as argument against share backstories, I say it as argument for inequal involvement of players in creating such backstories.

  7. - Top - End - #7
    Ogre in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    My preference depends on the length of the campaign:

    One-shot or 2-4 sessions => Assuming the backstories actually matters (which is not the case in every campaign), I prefer when the GM creates almost everything in the backstories, possibly taking some input from the most motivated players.

    Short campaign of between 5 and 15 sessions => Shared backstory is a great tool. It allows to start the campaign in-medias-res with the players having of good idea of who they are and what they want. And as a bonus point, this creation of a shared backstory is a great moment to insert every "session zero discussion" you need, as short campaign are the best place to try out some crazy ideas that might go out of the zone of comfort and/or subject of interests of a few players.

    Longer campaigns that is expected to last for a year or more => I don't care about the initial backstories. I'm fine with blank slates that get progressively retconned during the campaign, and if some interesting dynamics is build between players they can even retcon a shared backstory. Though for the most part, the first few missions together have the role of this "shared backstory".
    Last edited by MoiMagnus; 2023-08-27 at 03:15 PM.

  8. - Top - End - #8
    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    I like shared backstories and we use them all the time with my regular group.

    My experience has been they generally work best in Traveller style games with random character generation. I think this may be because the players have less invested in "I'm going design my character the way I want" than D&D type games where players have total
    control over the mechanical design of their character.

    One of the later editions of Traveller introduced the idea of rewarding players for having a shared back story with the characters gaining skills for having a shared back story.
    By providing a mechanical advantage for having a shared back story it encourages players to invest in the shared story.

    I've never found the bunch of random gather in a tavern to answer old man questgiver's call a satisfying experience. If a group of people are going to share high stress high risk adventures together it makes more sense for me to that they should have connections before the start of adventure one. It also provides a reason for the characters to continue to work together after adventure one beyond my player needs something to do on Friday night.

    I've never had a shared backstory written for me. I've had/required certain elements that needed to be included in a backstory. For example in an urban fantasy campaign I'm writing I will require the players to be in a particular age range, have lived in the town where the campaign starts for at least 5 years,, be normal members of society, to be unbelievers in the supernatural and be in good physical condition. However I would have no problem with someone I trust writing a complete shared backstory for me as long as I had some degree of ability to edit the character particularly in relation to personality.

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Titan in the Playground
     
    KorvinStarmast's Avatar

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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    Quote Originally Posted by Vahnavoi View Post
    How do you think I figured the unfavorable parts out?
    My guess would be experience.

    Characters in a location- or event-driven game develop connections and become more invested naturally as play progresses.
    "You play to find out who your character will become."
    I say it as argument for inequal involvement of players in creating such backstories.
    IME, in a given group of five players, the amount of investment in the shared world/make believe is uneven. This tends to be reflected in their interest in, or indifference to, any background or back story. (And that's a place where a game like Traveller can, with it's procedural steps, be helpful).
    Quote Originally Posted by Pauly View Post
    I like shared backstories and we use them all the time with my regular group.
    I do as well. We had a great opportunity to do that a couple of years ago: the set up was that we had all attended the same school, knew of each other there, and the headmaster (who was an undercover operative for a powerful faction) had arranged that we all end up in the same place for different reasons to begin the adventures. The four of us players were collectively (on discord) making our backstories and how we fit into this when one of them had to be the "Oh, I'm special, I didn't actually go to the school" {censored} and threw a wrench into the works. TBH, that annoyed me (player, not DM), but as we'd played a campaign together previously, I didn't let it stop me from enjoying the set up. I spent 17 levels with a protective instinct (to protect one of the other PCs who'd been bullied at the school, and I'd been thrown out of school for standing up for them) as a key factor in the choices I made. Two of the four players didn't lean into it, which I should have expected, but as it worked out the team eventually gelled.

    The example illustrates Vahnavoi's point, I think: uneven buy in need not stop a shared back story from being the premise, but it is wise to temper your expectations.
    One of the later editions of Traveller introduced the idea of rewarding players for having a shared back story with the characters gaining skills for having a shared back story.
    By providing a mechanical advantage for having a shared back story it encourages players to invest in the shared story.
    Why not incentivize the behavior one desires?

    I've never found the bunch of random gather in a tavern to answer old man questgiver's call a satisfying experience.
    It usually works. (With the notable exception of a game I quit last year due to slow play). But more often the players bond as they have a few shared experiences.

    I've never had a shared backstory written for me.
    I have run a few characters where the back story was handed to us, but I have always asserted the right of refusal to any back story written for me. This is the old "work with the GM" thing. In all but one case the tweaks were fine.
    In the one where it was not I opted out of the game.
    Last edited by KorvinStarmast; 2023-08-28 at 08:25 AM.
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  10. - Top - End - #10
    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    Quote Originally Posted by MoiMagnus View Post
    My preference depends on the length of the campaign:

    One-shot or 2-4 sessions => Assuming the backstories actually matters (which is not the case in every campaign), I prefer when the GM creates almost everything in the backstories, possibly taking some input from the most motivated players.

    Short campaign of between 5 and 15 sessions => Shared backstory is a great tool. It allows to start the campaign in-medias-res with the players having of good idea of who they are and what they want. And as a bonus point, this creation of a shared backstory is a great moment to insert every "session zero discussion" you need, as short campaign are the best place to try out some crazy ideas that might go out of the zone of comfort and/or subject of interests of a few players.

    Longer campaigns that is expected to last for a year or more => I don't care about the initial backstories. I'm fine with blank slates that get progressively retconned during the campaign, and if some interesting dynamics is build between players they can even retcon a shared backstory. Though for the most part, the first few missions together have the role of this "shared backstory".
    I'd say I mostly agree with those. If I'm doing short/one-shot stuff, I'm totally fine with just handing the players their characters, completed ahead of time, including backstory (and possible secret objectives for the scenario), and then go from there. I kinda put this in the same category as "tourney play".

    I don't do a lot of short campaign stuff, but I can see the shared backstory working there. It's long enough to gain value from player created backstory, but not so long that the setting itself has a super large input into said backstory (they've got more latitude).

    I tend to run mostly in longer campaigns and in a more dynamic and continuous setting (we re-use the same setting for multiple adventures, with characters potentially changing between adventures, but all existing in the same world at the same time). In that case, obviously, the setting already exists, and in all likelihood I've already decided where the next adventure starts. Having a continuous setting means that already existing characters already have a reason to work together and may even be specifically approached/contacted to deal with some problem or other. That's easy to manage. For new characters, I just tell the players where/when the adventure will be starting in the setting, and then have them create the character with that in mind. And yeah, there are going to be some restrictions based on the realities of "what is/can be there", but outside of that the players can be as creative as they want.


    I've written this before, but I tend to prefer broad backstories to detailed, and allow for filling in of details during play. I'm also not a fan of players trying to write out their future-script for their characters. Tell me where your character comes from, what motivates them, what significant events have occurred in their lives, and why they're interested in joining up with the rest of the crew of adventurers for <whatever adventure is at hand> and we just move from there. What happens from there will be dependent on what things happen in the game world around them. And while I'll certainly take some desired direction to heart, I'm not going to write something completely new and radical into my game setting just to fit one characters desired frontstory. You tell me your character was captured by pirates at a young age, and has grown up with said pirates and now is old enough to seek out his own way, I'm going to slot that in with whatever existing pirates there are, and where that would put you, and what other known figures are involved. That will almost certainly become relevant later, but not because you wrote a script of "things I want to happen to my character", but because I may at some point have the party encounter pirates, and they may just be some of the same pirates that this character knows, and this may create a RP choice for the player to run through (do I help out my pirate family, or my party made up of new friends, or find some middle path?).

    But if the player actually writes what he wants to have happen to his character over time, including specific names/places/events, and resulting effects, well.... prepare to be disappointed (unless it's pretty reasonable "life goals" sorts of things)

    If the backstory is broad enough, it can be easily filled in to fit some other stuff going on. Too specific and it's going to be more difficult *and* will lack any sense of suprise for the player. I'm pretty darn good at taking stuff from a PCs background and incorporating it into a currently running story (and making it "fit" a larger narrative too!). But I also follow some "rules" for doing this, and one of them is that I'm completely willing to have meta conversations with players about their characters, and will never introduce a major/dramatic/irreversible change to their character as part of a storyline (as opposed to something that happens as a matter of random actions/choices during play), without getting their buy in first. One of the lessons I've learned (being both a player and GM) is that players absolutely hate having "stuff done to their characters" (if they don't like it).

    And yeah, usually I just play things out in the game, and let them make choices. It usually works out fine. Never had a major problem with this.

  11. - Top - End - #11
    Titan in the Playground
     
    KorvinStarmast's Avatar

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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    Tell me where your character comes from, what motivates them, what significant events have occurred in their lives, and why they're interested in joining up with the rest of the crew of adventurers for <whatever adventure is at hand> and we just move from there.
    That's good guidance for any game. Our BitD group did this pretty well.
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  12. - Top - End - #12
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    Flumph

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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    I don't know if it underused. But the questions "why is the party a party?" , "why does the party stick together?", and "what is the point of the party?" Are good ones to ask. And a shared backstory can be a useful part of the answers to the above.
    It is a session zero issue IMO.

    As for 20% of the players doing 80% of the creative work? So what? Do they get 80% of the creative benefit? Not IME. Those who are less creative gain a lot more in terms of immersion, depth etc than those who are the most creative (who may well butt heads and shut down in order to keep the peace). Now is part of the job of the ST/GM/DM to help each player to build on the shared backstory etc so that each gains the note passing, secondary goals, etc benefits that the most creative laid the foundation for? IMO yes.

  13. - Top - End - #13
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    EvilClericGuy

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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    My 20+year-old, on-and-off, 2E AD&D Al-Qadim campaign started with a combo of shared backstory and a 0-level character funnel adventure. All the PCs were from the same village; they got to pick their race. They were captured by slavers. Game started in media res, as they tried to deal with this. They roleplayed, combatted, and schemed their way to freedom, linked up with some would-be rescuers, and laid out the basis for plots that are STILL coming to fruition. In game, a 1-year gap let them pick the classes and kits they wanted, and we've proceeded from there.

    We're also doing a PbtA Monster Hunters campaign where we've all got linked backstories. Some of us lean into it more than others.
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  14. - Top - End - #14
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    OldWizardGuy

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    Default Re: Underused RPG Tool: Shared Backstory

    My gaming groups have only rarely made use of shared backstory, and we've never had backstory assigned by the DM. In my own case, I tend to come up with very specific character interactions and dynamics taking place within my PC's backstory that help define who they are when the campaign begins, and tying in other PCs would change those dynamics and thus the personality of the character. However, I did greatly enjoy the two instances when we did make use of shared backstory, for the reasons others have described above; it helped give our party a shared motivation, put a unique slant on inter-PC interactions, and created an interesting dynamic with regards to loyalty and priorities.

    Instance one was during one of the very first D&D campaigns I played; a friend of mine was joining in at the same time, and since we were both newcomers to both the group and the hobby we decided to make our characters old friends from before the campaign began. Our shared backstory had us meeting at a university in the setting's Dwarven territories, which led to an interesting twist later on; we missed the clues the DM had been giving as to where we were supposed to research a specific phenomena and decided to head back to the university to look into it instead. The DM, who at the time hadn't really designed the Dwarven territories beyond the fact that they exist, decided to give my friend and I the opportunity to design them ourselves, which wound up being a fun worldbuilding project.

    Instance two was a campaign years later inspired by the anime "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure." Our first group of PCs shared a backstory starting out as recently-freed slaves starting up a small gang, and at "milestone points" during the campaign, we'd timeskip forward and switch to playing the children or relatives of the previous group of PCs. This meant that we always shared a bond, with most of our characters knowing each other since childhood; it also meant that grudges, betrayals, or long-term intrigues could pop up generations after they were first perpetrated, since that first generation ended in a fratricidal bloodbath. In that case the shared backstory contributed greatly to both party cooperation and conflict, but was very fun in either case (our group doesn't allow IC acrimony to escape into OOC relationships).

    I'd actually forgotten how much I enjoyed those instances of shared backstory until I saw this post; I think I'll be on the lookout for how to incorporate it into some of my future characters now.

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