Thursday, November 6, 2014

How Much Backstory is Enough?


I am not a fan of overly-detailed character backgrounds. Playing an RPG is not the same as writing a novel nor is it the same as acting for the stage or screen. Player characters need to be flexible and open enough that players can always find a way to justify their characters participating in the game at hand. “My character wouldn’t do that” is the stupidest, most selfish thing a roleplayer can say at the gaming table, and far too many gamers of my acquaintance use detailed character backgrounds as an excuse to be jerks to their fellow players (and those fellow players include the GM).

That said, when you’re writing an adventure (as opposed to a dungeon) or a setting for others to GM and play, you obviously need to provide some background on the NPCs. Action comes from motivation, and motivation comes from background. How much background do you need to include to provide motivation?

I’ve got three articles coming up in the next Savage Insider. One is an Auspicious Archetypes article in which I provide a build and new Edges for an archetype called “the Badass” – a charismatic fighter in the vein of John Shaft and James Bond.  The next is a character spotlight article focusing on a Zorro-like heroine called La Pantera and her associated cast of NPCs. The third is a detailed location, a pseudo-Chinese, pseudo-Silk Road city intended as a setting for wuxia adventures. 

While only the last article is technically about the setting, they’re really all kind of mini-settings. The Badass article contains a short Savage Tale – a ‘70s grindhouse adventure called “Frisco Freakout” – and the La Pantera article contains the aforementioned cast of characters and a few short adventure seeds.  The setting article, of course, contains a map and a breakdown of local factions and important NPCs.

The thing is, though, that none of these NPCs receives more than a single paragraph of description.

Do you really need any more than that?  For me, at least, it’s really, really easy to extrapolate characterization in Savage Worlds from a few lines of backstory and a character’s Hindrances and Edges.

Hindrances are penalties that players give their characters in order to earn points they can spend for additional cool stuff during character creation.  Many of these Hindrances are psychological – Bloodthirsty, Greedy, Heroic – and even the purely mechanical Hindrances – Blind, One Arm, Young – have implied backstory to them.

While Edges – the special abilities and powers you can buy with those points – are largely mechanical, the particular Edges chosen can really inform character too.  A Quick character redraws initiative cards of 5 or less; a Level Headed character, on the other hand, draws two initiative cards and uses the best. The former implies greater raw speed and the latter implies a greater ability to react to changing circumstances. 

For example, here’s an NPC from “Zhàndòu: City of Warriors:”

The most prominent caravanserai is the House of Xiang. It is a large complex close to the fortress, and contains a guǎn (training hall), living quarters, stables, and storage buildings. Master Xiang Kairan is not only a commercial power in the city, but also the wulin mengzhu – the acknowledged leader of the local martial artists. He is a master of the Tiger Fist style and teaches that to his employees. The Tigers of Xiang are widely acknowledged as the true force of order and justice in Zhàndòu City – riding out to fight the bandits when the garrison abandons caravans to their fate – but this has led to them becoming arrogant and boastful. Xiang Kairan is not a young man, and, while he increasingly turns his thoughts to the afterlife, his students are getting out of control. It may soon be time for a new wulin mengzhu.

Xiang Kairen

Wild Card

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d8, Vigor d8

Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d12, Notice d8, Persuasion d6, Riding d6, Stealth d6, Streetwise d8, Taunt d8, Throwing d8

Charisma: +2; Pace: 6; Parry: 8; Toughness: 6

Hindrances: Code of Honor, Bad Eyes, Hard of Hearing

Edges: Brawler, Bruiser, Charismatic, Command, Connections (jianghu), Fervor, Improved First Strike, Improved Frenzy, Improved Martial Artist, Rich

Gear: Rich but not ostentatious formal robes; the master of the Tiger Fist style prefers to fight unarmed, but will wield a ji or jian when fighting bandits.

That paragraph of backstory tells us that Master Xiang is a rich kung fu master and entrepreneur.  He’s basically head of the local adventurer’s guild, but he’s getting on in years.  His students are honorable but full of themselves, and tend to push others around.  That’s all I really need to run an NPC, but what more do his stats tell us?

·         Attributes: His Attributes are all d8; d6 is the human average, so we know Master Xiang is above-average in everything.  He’s faster, smarter, and stronger than your average Joe, but not superhuman.

·         Skills: D12 is the highest skill die available – but the true master of a skill can get up to a+2 bonus by taking extra Edges; Xiang is a great fighter, but not the best. Have his skills deteriorated in old age, or did he just never push himself to that extra level? As a GM, that’s the kind of ambiguity I like in an NPC to allow me to make the character my own.  That he’s better at Taunt than Persuasion indicates he’s not the most diplomatic of leaders, but his rank in Streetwise shows he knows the right people to get things from.

·         Hindrances: Code of Honor tells us he’s a man of his word, but – as the expanded information on the wuxia code of honor contains in the article explains – that also means he won’t turn the other cheek when insulted.  There’s an actual Hindrance called Elderly that imposes serious physical restrictions; since he doesn’t have it, that implies he’s not that old. His eyesight is going and he’s going to tend to shout and ask “What did you say?” a lot, but he’s still hale and hearty.

·         Edges: Brawler, Bruiser, and Improved Martial Artist all add raw damage to a character’s unarmed attacks; Improved First Strike says that he’ll try to hit you first rather than react to your maneuver, while Improved Frenzy means he’s gets extra attacks. In other words, his Tiger Fist style is about sheer power.  He’s only got a couple of Leadership Edges, so he’s never invested all that much energy in being a leader (no wonder his students are out of control).  His Connections are within the jianghu – the martial arts community – instead of civil authority or the military; between those Connections, his Charisma, and his Streetwise, he’s obviously pretty capable at getting things done despite his limited interest in leadership.     

Tough and charismatic with a vicious fighting style, it seems like there’s a couple of ways to interpret his personality.  One would be a Good Old Boy – a guy who knows everyone and keeps it homey and “real.”  Another would be as a Man’s Man – and aging Clint Eastwood of a martial artist, less a leader than just the toughest guy on the block.  Another would be the Angry Old Man – a former tough guy who’s losing his edge and is pretty pissed about it.  Even though I wrote this character, I swear that I have no definitive interpretation of how to play him.  As a GM, I prefer that flexibility, but I know that isn’t true for everyone.

Since I’m now writing professionally, is this enough for me to provide?  Do I need to give GMs multi-page backgrounds for important NPCs?  How much detail is enough?  I know that every circumstance will be unique – there’s some mysteries in the adventure I’m writing for Steamscapes: Asia, and I know I’ll have to provide more background than I usually do on some of the characters – but is it better to err on the side of verbosity or brevity?

How much backstory is enough?

2 comments:

  1. Yeah. Overdoing backstory is a danger, and I think can be a misread of what media to copy for RPGs. I think sitcoms are a better fit, at least for backgrounds and backstory. That kind of TV writing emphasizes on not knowing everything but sounding like you do.

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  2. Enough to work from, backgrounds should be the starting point for a character. Setting things in stone at campaign start is usually problematic from my experience.

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