Posted by: Sean | February 5, 2009

Do you really need a backstory?

Ugh. Yesterday was not a good day for blogging. Not only was the bus trip “odd” to put it mildly (we had an odd crowd of passengers that ended up denying me my standard good blogging seat) but then my blog editor refused to post. Still, that lets me come back to the topic I was thinking about yesterday.

See, I’ve been thinking a lot about back-story lately – What can you do with it, what good is it, and what should be in it?

A lot of people think back-story is what makes a role-player. It’s the difference between actually making up a character at the character generation screen and just ‘rolling’ your next hunter. The general approach to a back-story is that it does double-duty. The first thing it provides is a context for role-play: By creating a set of events and circumstances that define your character it gives you a better understanding of their personality. This then helps inform your decisions and manner while actually role-playing. The second thing it does is provides a springboard for later role-play; You can use a back-story to create villains, related characters, former compatriots and the like who you can then bring out again later to spice up a story-line.

I’m not too inclined to disagree with this analysis. It’s roughly what I’ve done with mine, although I emphasise the former quality more (usually) and the latter less so.

But… and I’m bordering on heresy here… is it really required at all? Could you start up a character – Absolutely flat, no planning whatsoever – and make them work just as well? After all, context can be created easily enough. How often do you actually manage to bring in an ‘old character’ from a backstory anyhow? I’ve only managed to pull it off once. And you can always improvise backstory as you go.

Let’s give a few examples:

Creating a villain: This is a classic of back-story design; make a villain in your story – Ideally a dungeon boss. And before you ask, no, this isn’t Mary-Sue territory as long as it’s plausible. Being the child of Van Cleef is heading into Mary Sue. But being a former member of the Defias Brotherhood and thus being tutored or even recruited by Van Cleef isn’t. I mean, geeze, it’s what he does, right? But I digress. Generally, this is a classic goal of a back story. It gives a role-playing context to that Deadmines run, or that Gundrak run or whatever.

But the problem is, it can (as always) be improvised. These dungeons have lead up quests; you spend a lot of time in Westfall before going into Deadmines. There’s lots of time for you to reveal your shameful past there – Even if you just made up your shameful past right then and there. Before you go into Gundrak there’s a number of (optional, true) quests that lead you in. Make something up while you’re doing that. There’s always possibilities.

Showing a relationship: Another classic, this is a great way to tie role-play into another character. You knew Katafray on the Exodar! You’re Katafray’s sister! You’re an ex-boyfriend of Katafray! (Boy, Katafray gets around.) As a result, there’s built in ties to that character than can be exploited. And that’s fun, no question! Being able to say, “Oh, shut up, Kay-fray. God, this is just like that time with the tomato soup…” and hint at a long held past is more fun than generic speech.

And I have to admit, this one makes a bit more sense for a firm background. It can be improvised, but it needs to be joint-improvised in whispers on the fly. And some just don’t make sense – How can we ‘suddenly’ reveal that you two are sisters? Doesn’t work.

But dammit, I’ve done this. I had a human priestess who ran into another human priestess in Westfall, on the run from authorities. (Her boyfriend had been framed… by a paladin no less!) We both mentioned that we were trained in Northshire Abbey. And quickly, we improvised the relationship between the two of them in whispers. My character had never really noticed her, my character being more popular and successful, her character struggling with the priesthood and being best known for bad singing. I quickly had my character do a double take of, “Birdie?” as I recognised her, using a nickname we agreed on.

See? Improvised back-story. And immensely satisfying.

Character context: And what about the idea that without a past, you can’t portray a character’s personality? Ha! Even with a solid back-story, most character development is purely done on the fly. You just can’t get a character’s personality right on the first play; it takes multiple sessions, a bit of back and forth, experimentation and the like in order to get it right.

(OK, once I got a character’s personality right on the first go. Once.)

In short, I’m not persuaded. Yes, I agree if you’re going to collaborate with another player on a shared heritage, working that out ahead of time makes a lot of sense, if only so your stories are straight. But otherwise? Meh. Do it if you want, but don’t let it scare you. If you want to role-play, just frickin’ ROLE-PLAY. Once you have a concept, you’re gold. The rest is details.


  1. Many of my City of Heroes characters started as nothing but a name and a costume. While I played them through the tutorial zone, the backstory usually grew from there. This may account for the historically low quality of said backstory.

  2. I always grow my story as I play my character too. I find that sitting there trying to make something up out of whole cloth is really difficult, but as I play, different ideas will strike me, and I’ll fold them into my character.

    I don’t do heavy roleplay anyway, for me the story I build as I go along is the interesting part, so the backstory can easily fill itself in as I go and I don’t have a problem with that.

  3. I usually start with a very vague concept. When BC came out my first blood elf was ‘scullery maid’, because I figured not all of the ex-high elves could all be noble.

    And years later she’s gone through many, many things, yet I try to play her as though her childhood growing up subservient still does effect her way of thinking.

    But I find that it’s more fun for my own playing if I let myself ‘discover’ what has happened to the character as I play them. Just why -is- this guy so miserable? And you let the details pop up the more you play.

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