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.  


  1. This is one of those really tough things about cooperative storytelling that I'm glad to see you write about. I can't tell you how many times I've had a carefully crafted character become alien to me simply because a gamemaster injected an element that I not only disliked, but despised. And the worst part was that he knew it. "Oh, Jim doesn't care for anime? Let me make his character's entire family characters from Project A-Ko. He'll never know, so I'll get away with it. That sort of thing. It's enough to make a player quit a game. When done well, though, filling in those blanks can add significant details to a character's background to enrich the game play. Craig Merrick was very good at that. So are you.

  2. Lowell, you're running the true heart of RPG gaming, improv from multiple improv actors. You're right that I was suggesting epic authorial fiction, life in a one-eyed world. Very perceptive! I imagine in play that it would have meant that they'd learn they'd have powers and find followers who might be seen as railroading them for a job. In the same sense that Neo got railroaded into becoming the One in the first Matrix movie, or Luke Skywalker got railroaded into becoming a Jedi Knight.

    This is a VERY popular conceit in fantastic fiction right now, but I have no experience about how it would feel to roleplay a surprise destiny.

  3. Last thought on this. There's an odd disconnect between what the player experiences and what his character experiences. In a very weird way, the player is telling a story TO his character. He's laying down surprises and plot twists. The player is also telling this story the other players and the GM, but in a weird way the character itself is part of the audience. If I understand you properly, the GM needs to get out of the way of the player's part of the story.

    I sometimes think of GMing as being an author, sending missives in inalterable print to his readers. That's really not the case, it's more like a sing-a-long where people can make up lyrics and even throw in new melodies.

  4. @Jim: I'm glad to have your input on this, especially since you saw a great many variations on this in AEGIS. When I did the NOLA game I took some liberties with the Domino origin, to present a splinter version, an anti-Domino group. I was never sure if that really worked- but I wanted something that connected with your character's background and gave a slight twist without violating the principles of it.

  5. @Gene: On your first comment- I think the structure and idea you came up with works- in the right context. With situations like that, you need to have player buy-in to the process of change. For example, coming out of a mystery origin. Let's say everyone gets powers but they aren't sure why. They might think they came about in some surface way, but the later reveal could change that around. I know Jim did a NWO game, with players as the first supers. That kind of thing suggests some mystery to the origin.

    Aberrant from WW has some of that in the metastory. The incident that causes the arrival of powers has a weird twist about its origin and purpose- which changes things up later (in Trinity).

    On the other hand, let's say you do have established characters from a property. The GM would have to signal early on that this is going to be a serious twist-up on things. I think they'd have to do that right at the start- hinting that the GM's going to create a new cosmology. In either case the changes should, as you suggested, form the spine of a plot/arc of discovery. They should enrich most of the characters, with perhaps a couple having to struggle with the revelations (but not all or it reduces the value of that plot for the players individually). Perhaps something like Strikeforce Mortui where after they've been using their powers for a time they discover those are killing them. But the GM needs to communicate some of that to the players- or have establish enough trust that when the twists occur, they're willing to go along with them. And there's the question of scope and level of complexity. All of these are structural concerns the GM has to be aware of. The trick is matching those campaign ideas to the structure available- something I've only become good at through practice. I used to be really terrible at it.

    On your second comment, I do think it is important to consider each person at the table as simultaneously actor and audience. A good player embraces both sides- investing in character, delivering material to the table as a whole, and being willing to pay attention when others have their scene. That's why player secrets and dark background things don't work even though the player loves them. Players often build these concepts but don't share them- don't allow others to play with them as well.

    The amount of GM authorial intrusion varies from campaign to campaign, from span to span. Often early sessions have a lot of it- just because I need to shape the direction and set the stage. In the case of the Superhero game, I know that I'm going to be imposing a lot of my vision at the micro level: session episodes, choice of villains, the crimes to be solved. So I really want to take and value player input everywhere else. If they throw something out there, I want to make that happen.