Your Story is Not Our Story

Yeah, this works.
Tonight is supposed to be the character creation session for my major, in-person The King is Dead playtest campaign. My goal is to run it a bit differently from normal. I want everybody to sit on the comfy couches, share some snacks and booze, and pitch characters to each other. I want the character creation to be collaborative, but also keep a light touch. I’m going to deliberately discourage deep, involved backstories for the characters and instead encourage light, flexible character histories.

As a very improvisational GM, one of the great joys of multi-player games for me is seeing the story emerge from the actions of the players. I love being the audience for the unpredictable results that come from the players collaborating to defeat challenges and taking turns in the spotlight. Dramatic, epic, lengthy backstories for PCs screw this up. I hate them.

I don’t mind characters with motivations. I don’t mind characters with histories. I might argue that keeping the concept short and sweet is best because you don’t really know a character until you play them, but I know some people who can’t stop writing until they’ve got a page full of origin story. That’s fine if that character history informs who the character is at the start of play.

It sucks if that history is supposed to dictate what happens next.

I may not be one of those frustrated novelist GMs who wants to tell a very specific story from beginning to end – railroading players along the way – but I still want to run the game I want to run. I still want the freedom to throw in the political events and monster attacks that sound fun to me. I don’t want to run your frustrating novel.

I don’t want to see the choices other players make constrained by your backstory. I don’t want to see the communal narrative at the table hijacked by something you wrote on your own. You don’t get to impose your epic Mary Sue quest on everybody else.

What constitutes a flexible, group-centered backstory and what makes a character history a black hole of selfish conceit is going to be different from group to group and player to player. Hell, I can think of players in the same group who spent almost the same amount of effort on backstory, but one used it as a springboard for why the character was on the group's adventure and the other used it as a way to turn the group's adventure into his own. I suppose the simplest way to put it is "don't plot:"
  • Set goals for your character but don't plot his story.
  • Leave gaps to be filled in during play, but don't make your past a riddle for everyone else to solve.  
  • Be prepared to abandon your plot points; your story is not our story.
Now to see if I can actually put this into practice...


  1. This is a good way to get good character pitches without writing the whole plot.


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