Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom and Autonomy: Backstories

Players have to have freedom- some might say they need the illusion of freedom, but I think they need both. They need to have room to make choices and they need to know that they have that room. They also need to know that the choices they’ve made will be respected and considered. I’ve talked before about the difficulty of sandboxes and the paralysis which can hit players when they don’t see some kind of signpost or signal. Players may be more comfortable making choices in some areas than others. I think that’s most important regarding character definitions.

I had an exchange with my friend Gene about ideas for the Superhero Year One campaign. Gene thinks epic, he thinks complex and he thinks outside the box. He tossed what he called “a simple idea” at me that was anything but that once you sat down to really look at it. It has all kinds of dimensions to it, and would be great for a face to face game, rather than the short term and online once I’m working on. I mentioned some of it to Kenny, one of my tabletop players and he said that’s a campaign he would play in.  One of the concepts involved layering a cosmology onto the players- that they would in fact be representative of another force or aspect. That “true identity” would reveal itself through the course of the campaign. That’s cool, but runs up against a core premise of the campaign.

Part of the idea of doing a Superheroes: Year One campaign is to allow the players to tell their own stories about these existing characters. They can change up their origin if they like, mix up details, or even hew closely to the source material. When I started spinning the world background I tried to incorporate those details. The presence of Mister Miracle suggests the whole Darkseid cosmology; Thor says something about living myths. Nightcrawler means mutants. Mr. Freeze wanted some particular details: no Batman and no Batman involved in his orig. Instead the Penguin ended up causing many of his problems, setting up a nemesis. I’d originally sketched the Penguin as something else entirely, but once Mr. Freeze established what he wanted I changed things. The idea of later on telling the players that they’re essentially beholden to a greater supernatural force which serves as their origin undercuts these early choices. The concept could work but in the context of another game.

I played in a campaign several years ago which had this kind of revelation of “true origin” for some of the PCs. When it happened, it bothered me. In particular I found it objectionable because the GM hadn’t really deal with the background I’d established at all. In the case of another player, the revelation completely went against the personality and abilities of the character. I understood what the GM was going for, but it felt like something we had no say in and which threw away all of the work we’d done.

Over the years I’ve tried to listen to what players say when they establish their character’s backstory. If they name NPCs I try to pay attention to those. I let them establish all the fact they want about that. Whatever they don’t establish gives me room to play in. If they come up with a brother or sister, but don’t define the relationship, that’s something I can come along and spin later. If they do establish them as allies or enemies then I try to respect that. I might eventually work an arc to show how that can shift over time, but it will be something that gets played out- rather than me suddenly revealing that their sibling was a traitor all along.

The obligation on the player’s part is to make those relations and how they see them clear to the GM. If the GM plays something out differently than you pictured, and you hadn’t given them any information to the contrary before that, then you need to suck it up. You can offer the GM some suggestions and perhaps consider this a spur to fill in other gaps in your background. I’ve had this happen a couple of times. Players sketch out their backstory and left several significant elements undefined and undeveloped. They got upset when those characters appeared at the table different than they’d pictured. Since they hadn’t clued me in, I had no basis to work from. Instead of looking for compromise, those players became angry because I hadn’t read their mind.

Some players take these methods and work with them defensively. A few will write backstories to make themselves immune from GM tweaks. On the other hand, they usually immunize themselves from interesting stories as well. Those kinds defenses, not unlike the character who avoids committing to anything, make for boring arcs and GMs working harder trying to find something useful. The opposite extreme is the player who might sketch some things, but then avoid filling in the details at all. When the GM dares to impinge on their territory, they become defensive. They might tell the GM they can’t deal with that, since they have plans for it. Often they’ll delay getting any material down in writing- saying that they’re still working on it. They might also sketch things broadly and become even more defensive when they’re “misunderstood.” These are rare cases in my experience, and usually the sign of selfish players.

When I do “tricks” or revelations for players and their backgrounds, I usually keep an ace up my sleeve- a further revelation which will show the first one as a trick or deception. That gives me room to reverse things if the player doesn’t seem to be enjoying the storyline. For example, in a campaign we had with a significant VR component, the PCs eventually decided to meet up in real life. This was fairly late in the campaign and gave me the chance to show a detail I’d been building towards for a year. The group discovered that one of the players was in fact an AI who thought he was real- with a complete backstory and separate world of illusion he lived in. If the player had not cared for that development, I would have had that be a temporary thing- that he’d been captured and made to think it. But the player liked the idea of being an AI and the full backstory he now had, so I stuck with it.

GMs: Be careful when you make changes to a player’s background, core identity, or key NPCs they’ve developed. Listen to what the player wants from those.
Players: Tell the GM your story. Don’t get upset when they violate the story you have in your head which you haven’t actually communicated to them.