Tuesday, August 29, 2006

let me give you some background here...

So, I am playing in an Exalted game that meets every other week or so. It started up relatively recently. I don't really have the time for it, but I wanted to play in the game. So far, I've been having fun.

I have one strange problem with the game. The GM wants me to submit a character history. I find this to be a strange problem because this is usually the sort of thing I do automatically. I like to write down notes on characters in order to help myself flesh them out more fully. I've been finding myself increasingly resistant to this, though.

I think that this comes from my LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) days. I was (once upon a time) very involved with vampire LARPing (I was a clan coordinator for One World By Night for awhile, if that tells you anything). In LARPs, when you bring in a new character, it is entering into a very fleshed out social world. The sorts of backgrounds players wrote for their characters (which unsurprisingly tended toward ever-increasing badassedness) rarely meshed well with that world unless the player was familiar with it. Moreover, when the GM : Player ratio is about 1 : 20 (at best), little of your character's background is going to make it into the plot.

This never stopped people from trying - nor did it stop GM-types from recommending (or requiring) detailed backgrounds. I was as guilty of this as anyone, though I did make an effort to at least draw plot ideas from PC backgrounds.

In the five years or so since I've been in a vampire LARP, I've written a number of character backgrounds, but they've become shorter and shorter as time has gone on- now they rarely do more than sketch out major life events and relationships. They rarely detail anything that would count as an adventure that would have occurred before the game's beginning. I've begun to see the fundamental futility of the PC background. A character isn't the person described in a document written before play begins; a character is the person who is described through play.


Jeff Rients said...

Here, here! Everytime I ever wrote a lengthy background to a PC it was futile attempt to frontload the awesomeness I wanted for the PC. The fact of the matter is that you can only make that PC awesome through actual play. And if the awesome-osity isn't coming though, then the problem is at the level of actual play not at the point where you write the PCs background.

szilard said...

That's pretty much it.

I've also, though, had a few PCs who I thought were pretty damn awesome in play... but in a way that was different from (and sometimes contradictory to) their awesomeness in their backgrounds. This wasn't a problem in play - as they were cool - but it does indicate the potential pointlessness of that sort of background.

Joshua BishopRoby said...

I think character histories are not so much intrinsically futile as they are often misused. If you go into writing a background as if it is a sort of prequel, and the content described in the background will be more-or-less the same as the content of the game, then yeah, you're asking for a disconnect.

However, if you go into the writing of the background thinking of it as a prose listing of the sorts of things you're interested in, and the kinds of conflicts and issues that you'd like to see picked up in the game, I think you've got a pretty potent tool. Full Light, Full Steam uses character histories in this way, as giant piles of flags. GMs are directed to build situation off of the flags presented in character histories, and the other players are told very simply, "If you don't want something showing up in play, don't put it in the history. If you don't want to roleplay opposite your parents, don't put them in there." Additionally, capping off the character history at 200-300 words also forestalls a lot of the badassitude that tends to crop up in character histories.