Last year I realised I’ve been running games for a quarter century. Now that’s a bunch o’ time. When I started playing, all revolved around what you wanted to play – backstory was not a big deal, nor were the dynamics of how a group was formed. At around the time I started be on the other side of the screen, games and gamers were full swing in a revolution where the emphasis was entirely on character. It became routine to see characters that had the equivalent of a small novella of backstory for their characters.
Now, I think most will agree this was a positive change from the old “We need a mage so you’ll have to be one.” or “I’m going to be an elf, even if they’re attacked on sight everywhere in this land!” from olden days. The tale of Melf is a rare one these days.
But… Time for controversy… I truly believe a character’s backstory is massively overrated.
Before reaching for the pitchforks and torches, I’d like to state that I believe backstory is important but far more important is an interesting character. Far too many times I’ve seen characters completely dominated by their backstory and yet have no clue what their character is. Almost all systems have a crutch, something that limits and locks in the character in some manner and it’s too easy to make that the character – instead of using it as a strength of the character.
Good ol’ D&D (and its offspring) is loaded with these crutches. All players have at one time or another cursed the limits and constraints of the alignment system. The Paladin class comes with great power and great restrictions. Everyone has seen a Paladin played badly. I’ll happily concede that the alignment system is not perfect, but it has strengths. It immediately tells you something about a character and gives a framework for how to play. Simple fantasy thrives in a black and white world and when all characters become conflicted masses of shades of grey, they also quickly become bland.
In my time as both player and GM I’ve seen some great characters. Most of the best were not hampered by a giant backstory, but were described by their players in such a way that their character became their story. Some truly memorable ones include a large bald, bearded and scarred warrior who preferred not to use armour, wrote poetry, was a weaponsmith’s apprentice and very rarely laughed and a 17 year old farmer’s daughter who recently manifested sorcerous powers and tried to hide them until her family found out and gave her what they could, told her to go away and never return. In the first example, I knew everything about the character instantly (including his story) because of his description and in the second there was a one sentence story that told me all about the character and a lot about the world. I have also seen a player hand me a 14 page printout with this character’s backstory that did not give me a clue about neither the character nor how to fit the story into the planned campaign. It was also the story of a high level character, who had seen everything and would never fit into a group of novices taking their first steps in a grand world.
Now, at this point some of you may be screaming at the screen that it is my job as a GM to fit the character and his story into the world. To that I say – yes, it absolutely is. And that neatly brings me to my main point. The all important Session 0.
Before fully explaining what that is, should you be unfamiliar with the concept, I know many groups already do this and are very familiar with its merits. But it never ceases to amaze just how many don’t, especially experienced players and GM’s who really should know better. I cannot stress the importance of Session 0. It makes life a lot easier for the GM and makes the players and their characters far more important pieces of what the GM has in store for them.
Simply put, Session 0 is an entire playing session (or several) completely dedicated to the GM explaining the game world and/or campaign and working with his players so their characters fit into what’s in store. This is important for two reasons – it brings the players into the world and makes sure that all players are equally prepared, in fact it should absolutely make them the stars of the world with time. I’ve sat down at a table with a ready character with four other players and a GM for the starting session of a new campaign that really would have needed a Session 0. Two of the other players had 10 page backstories, one had no character notes or story and the last one had a character with no name, alignment or even a gender. Then the GM unveiled what his campaign revolved around and none of the characters could fit into his world without major changes (except possibly that last one). The campaign very quickly fizzled out and derailed, for a lot of reasons but one of the biggest was that nobody felt like anything fit. And these were good, experienced players as was the GM.
To boil it all down, I suggest that GM’s make sure there is room for what their players want for their characters and that players should do the same. If you have a fantastic idea for a character and a story, then the GM should absolutely make sure he or she shines. A GM should never say an absolute no to a player’s idea for a character. Just work together.
This all should be common sense but I’ll say it again – it never ceases to amaze me how many don’t do this.
And, of course, don’t forget rule number 1: everyone should be having fun.