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Author Topic: Character Back Story  (Read 15157 times)
Christopher Kubasik
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Posts: 1153


« on: June 25, 2002, 09:19:57 PM »

Hi everybody,

I just hammered out a PC for a game Jesse's going to run.  Before I'd even gotten to the Kicker I'd hammered out a Gothic Adventure, full of a lost bride, the man who sent my character away to indentured servititude to get my bride, the madman who my guy served in a windowless castle, the man my made a pact with to work with to survive our imprisonment (and who I betrayed when I made my escape), and the demon dagger I found in the swamps on the night of the escape (fleeing the madman's strange "pets").

After a decade Franz (new name) has arrived as a "manservant" in a village near the one where his life was ruined to scope out the scoop.  He's got dagger who Needs blood along it's shiny edge, with a Desire to be near him when he makes love to women (Icky Details: the dagger doesn't care if the woman is willing or Held; and Franz imagine, either way, it's his wife.)  

His Will is 5: love of his wife, vengeance on the guy who sent him away.

The Kicker: the first day of work, the beautiful 18 year old daughter of the guy who sent him into slavery arrives at his new master's manor house to stay as a pupil for a year.

Now, here's the thing... The Wife, the Guy Who Set Me Up, The Madman in the Castle, The Guy I Betrayed.... None of them might matter anymore, right?

I'm seeking vengeance... But that guy might be dead already -- depending  on Jesse's sense of humor.  Right?

My thinking is, all those characters are for Jesse to do with as he wishes: ignore them, use them... Kill them, make them anything he wants...

But my question is: did I do too much?  

And if not, am I allowed to go running back to the castle of the madman on a frickin' whim?

Thoughts?

Thanks,
Christopher
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Lemonhead, The Shield
Uncle Dark
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« Reply #1 on: June 25, 2002, 11:55:01 PM »

Christopher,

Yeah, you might have gone a bit far in making your character's background. There's an awful lot in there already... how well will it mesh with the kind of game Jesse and the other players may be into/looking for?  In a way, you've written a whole relationship map for your character's story, and nobody's even begun to play yet.  You've got six humans and a demon involved in relationships here... that's as many as I used when I ran Sorcerer a month or so ago, and that was enough for four sessions for two PCs.

Of course all these people still matter.  They're all major influences on your character and how he thinks, even if they never set foot "on stage."  That, and Jesse'd be mad to ignore the fact that you're handing him golden strings attached to iron hooks in your character's heart.

To an extent, whether or not you've done too much backstory will depend on how married you are to it.  If Jesse and the others in the game look at it and say, basically, "nah, doesn't work for us," how much are you willing to change or ditch?

If I were your GM, I'd worry that your attention and effort have been misplaced.  You've put a lot of work into justifying your character's focus on vengance, but almost nothing on the relationship with the demon.

You have this fairly elaborate backstory, but it all sort of breaks down at the point where Franz "just finds" this demon dagger in a swamp.  After all the detail around what another player might just have written as "My guy wants vengance against the guy who stole his wife and sent him to prison," the character's introduction to sorcery is glossed over.

In my games, I'm fairly clear that a sorcerer's demon is an extension of the character.  Something about its form, its nature, and/or the relationship between sorcerer and demon says something important about the character.

In my last sorcerer game, one character was a classic ceremonialist, with a master-slave relationship with his demon.  The other was more shamanic, viewing her demon as a tutelary spirit guide.  These relationships expressed something core about how these characters dealt with power and responsibility.

I don't see anything like this in Franz's relationship with the demon dagger.  How does Franz know it likes to be near him during sex?  Does it talk?  For that matter, the "demon dagger with a need for blood and twisted phallic themes" is kind of old hat.  What makes this demon different from the horde of other Stormbringer homages out there?

Remember that your character's demon is the one NPC who will be with the character in nearly all scenes.  It is also the one NPC that you have final say on.  It is also your PCs primary foil.  And you seem to have devoted less thought to it than to a quartet of human NPCs whom you already seem to consider disposable.

Reading back, that all sounds harsher than I meant it.  Sorry if I ruffled your feathers, there.

Lon
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Christopher Kubasik
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Posts: 1153


« Reply #2 on: June 26, 2002, 04:09:48 AM »

Hey Lon,

No ruffling occurred.

For the record, Jesse's running a Gothic Fantasy game in the style of Ravenloft.  The S&Sword rules are in effect, so a guy can be truly Niave about Sorcery (know nothing about rituals) and still bind a demon.  In my view this is when Franz betrayed his buddy.  Also, it was never my intent to *use* the characters unless Jesse used them first.  Most of them were back in a place I never wanted to go back to.

In retrospect, I think I'm gonna scrap the whole thing and start again -- make my guy an adept, so forth.  (I did find it amusing, though, that you compared the dagger to Stormbringer -- I was thinking Sweeny Todd's straight edge...  There's a reason, I supposed, sharp-edged metal is always presumed to have a thirst for blood.)

But this is moot.  The real question I want discussed is: Do PCs have pasts?  If so, how much?  Are their people from their lives that once mattered?  If I had written the PC background of the Orphan who knew no one, I'm guessing Lon would have made strong comments about that too.  So where do you draw the line?  Is the PCs life just sunny until the day the Kicker arrives?  Well, if not, what do you do about previous conflict?  Is it handled in certain way?  Ignored?  What?

Use the original post as an example if you desire.  But let's put it on the table: what parameters for backstory are useful for a Narrativst game?

Thanks,
Christopher
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Lemonhead, The Shield
joshua neff
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« Reply #3 on: June 26, 2002, 05:54:20 AM »

Christopher--

Some people feel they need to write up as much character background as they can in order to get a handle on the character. Personally, I find that tends to inhibit my actually playing the character & creating a story. If I write less background & just come up with a few broadstrokes that will kick off the character's story in the first session, I feel less constrained by what's been pre-written. And I can always make up background stuff on the fly.

Plus, there's also a danger when writing up loads of background that you've pre-written the story & there's nothing more to do with the character--or, at least, all the best stuff lies in the character's past.

To use Elric as an example (he comes up again! Ack!), when you read "The Dreaming City", how much of his background comes up? How much is relevant? We know he wants revenge, we know he hates Yyrkoon, we know he's in love with Cymoril, & we know he has a nasty sword called Stormbringer. And...?

How much about your character is relevant to Story Now & how much is filler or could be fleshed out through play?
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"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
Paul Czege
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« Reply #4 on: June 26, 2002, 06:27:18 AM »

Hey Christopher,

I think you guys might be short-circuiting yourselves a bit by not treating your characters as tentative/proposals, and ultimately finalizing them in a group chargen session. Take a look at my http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=245">post about our group's Sorcerer chargen session last summer. A great deal of the protagonism in that game came from the incorporation of input from other players into the characters and their resulting vested interest in how things would play out. My recommendation is to bring your character notions to the session, and go around the room revealing and discussing, commenting and making suggestions, one time for Telltale, one for Price, Kicker, etc.

Afterwards, send an email to the group about the character, and hold yourself to embellishing on what was actually negotiated/finalized during the chargen session by no more than 15% or so.

Protagonism isn't so much about what a great story you can tell to yourself, but about priming for and managing audience interest in your character.

Paul
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Christopher Kubasik
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Posts: 1153


« Reply #5 on: June 26, 2002, 06:43:17 AM »

Sigh.

Hi guys.

Listen.

We're not short circuiting anything.  Please note that the entire premise of this thread is that I'm trying to figure out how one establishes a useful N-style character in general.  Please note that I've already said I'm willing to scrap what I've come up with.  Please note that Jesse has set us up with shared email that we'll all be using to create this stuff together.  Nothing is finalized at all at this time.  This really isn't the issue.

The issue is background in general.  One has to know what is most useful to to bring to the group, and that's what this thread is about.

You'll all note that I started the thread with the presumption that something was wrong.  So please, no more posts telling me something is wrong.  We're looking for constructive posts for what one brings to the group.  Please assume that I'll be taking that to the group.  (In fact, I already emailed it to the other group, and then realized, "This feels wrong.")

My guess at this time is that the basic character gen requirements in the rule book (including the Kicker) are all you need to get going, without a background.

This means: the Kicker is in fact not tied (or does not need to be tied) to any kind of background.  Yes?  This is what my brain is having a tough time wrapping around.  But it seems to be true.

My Cover, my stats, at least one solid and interesiting relationship (the demon), and my Kicker, are all I need to submit to anyone else.  This is my guess.

Take care,
Christopher
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joshua neff
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« Reply #6 on: June 26, 2002, 07:18:03 AM »

Christopher--

Rereading my previous post, I'm not seeing any attempts to identify any problems you may be having or any talk about "short circuiting" anything.

You asked: "Did I do too much?"

My answer: Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. How much do you & the rest of the group feel you need to create Story Now? There's no hard & fast rule here. If you feel like you did too much, you probably did. And since you've said you're going to rewrite the character's background, it sounds like the problem's solved, yes?

As for the Kicker--no, it doesn't have to be tied into any background. It's simply the thing that has recently happened that has dramatically changed the PC's life. Obviously it could be tied in to the character's background, but it doesn't have to be (nor, obviously, is there any rule about it). As you know, the Kicker, like the SAs in Riddle of Steel, is the Player's opportunity to tell the GM, "This is what I want my character's story to be about."

Quote
My Cover, my stats, at least one solid and interesiting relationship (the demon), and my Kicker, are all I need to submit to anyone else.


Yep, that's all you need to bring to the table. Anything more you want to do (like an extensive or not-so-extensive character background) is up to you & the rest of the group.

Does that answer your question?
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"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes
Christopher Kubasik
Member

Posts: 1153


« Reply #7 on: June 26, 2002, 07:32:36 AM »

Hi Josh,

Yes.  Thank you.  I've got what I need now. Thanks.

For the record, you'll find the reference to "short circuiting" in Paul's post.  Your previous post, while helpful, spoke more of what not to do, but not much of what to do.  Thanks for helping nail it down.

Thanks to everybody for nailing it down.  I remember speaking to Ron a couple of months ago and him saying, with a smile I could hear over the phone, "Well, it will be interesting to see what habits you'll have to shed as you start playing again."  And here it is: it begins at the first step.

Thanks again,
Christopher
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #8 on: June 26, 2002, 07:47:12 AM »

Christopher,

My post was absolutely intended to be constructive. The way to know what's most useful to bring to the group is to bring what's important to you to the group in a fashion that constrains excesses during its actual presentation, and informs your understanding of what's engaging to the audience. I don't know why people think email groups are an acceptable substitute for sitting in a living room and having a conversation. They simply aren't. Body language, tone of voice, how much people pay attention, whether they nod, the energy of spontaneous suggestions and input fueled by someone else's spontaneous input are all compromised by email. A little negative body language from the group as you begin reading aloud a lengthy character background, and you begin to summarize and abbreviate it, naturally, spontaneously. The important parts are exposed to you this way. It isn't work. You're making it into work. A little frown from someone when you describe your Kicker, and you're prompted to question, "What don't you like?" That stuff doesn't happen by email. Email chargen discussions are analytical and thorough..."I like this"..."how about if..." That's fine if you're planning to play exploration of setting. But for Narrativism, what you want is passion. You don't get it from firing off missives to each other. You get it from the joy of creative, spontaneous engagement. Analysis is of marginal value related to protagonism. The other players won't have time during play to analyze and consider their interest in your character, so you need to develop and test your character concept in conditions closer to actual gameplay. There is no recipe for how much is too much, or what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize. Bring what's important to you to group chargen.

Paul
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Uncle Dark
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« Reply #9 on: June 26, 2002, 08:06:18 AM »

Christopher,

Ah, knowing what's going on with the Ravenloft-esque setting gives the background you wrote a bit more context.  Addressing your more general point, I do not see a need for an elaborate back-story for Sorcerer characters.

All the backstory one needs is, thinks I, written up in the attribute descriptors and the kicker.  Anything else should probably be elaboration on these.  Four questions I ask players are:

Where (very generally) did this character come from?
What was s/he doing up to the point of the Kicker?
What is his/her knowledge of and attitude towards sorcery?
What is his/her relationship with his/her demon like?

I agree with Josh about how too much backstory can interfere with in-play spontineity, but how much is too much depends a great deal on you and the others in your group.

Lon
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Christopher Kubasik
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Posts: 1153


« Reply #10 on: June 26, 2002, 08:15:24 AM »

Hi Paul,

I appreciate everything you're saying about getting together as a group instead of via email. However, this isn't my decision, so there it is.  I do appreciate you passion on this matter, as well as the fact that it is constructive.

However, please note the context of the word constructive in my post: "We're looking for constructive posts for what one brings to the group."  Your suggestion are all about how one interacts with what one brings.

I understand, I really do, what you're saying.  But it is adressing a different matter than one I'm asking about.  I know, I know, they dovetail together.  But one happens first, then the second.  I'm still on the first.

And trust me, it's not work.  I'm having fun so far.

Thank you again for the great notes.... and if I'm ever in charge, I promise you, we'll all do it face to face, and I'll send you group photo. ;- )

Lon,

Yes.  I realized my overwrought background was floating free of all context, and that was a mistake.

All that did though, was make it clearer that I was creating my own Gothic story....  And now I know not to do that.

Thank you for your replies to the background / bare-bones-what's-needed question.  I'll add we've got four players going into this cold.  Thus, I'm looking for any clues I can to help inspire the other two players with tools and techniques that will helps us all rock this thing out from the get go.

Thanks to all again,

Christopher
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Blake Hutchins
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« Reply #11 on: June 26, 2002, 08:43:09 AM »

I've found it useful from both player and GM standpoints to craft no more than a 50 to 100 word backstory that lays out a character's past a la The Pool or Hero Wars, but ending on the Kicker.  A shorter backstory gives the GM less to assimilate, but also allows a narrower focus on the core themes and highlights of the character.

Where I've written extensive in-character journals or detailed backstory, it's been for my own "get into Actor voice" purposes and the sheer pleasure of writing.

So on whether you've done too much, I agree with the "it depends" guys.

Best,

Blake
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #12 on: June 26, 2002, 11:39:00 AM »

Christopher,

I've been on a "beware of playing before playing" watch the last week or three, so your post brought that to mind.  I'd recommend re-reading the Art Deco Melodrama threads (about Ron's prep of a Sorcerer game). Ron's issues about over-prepping as a GM can be mapped to over-prepping as a player, I'm sure.  Exactly *how* that mapping occurs . . . I'm not so sure.

I found Ron's comment in the "Final Chapter" thread about how playing-before-playing can result in diminishing the desire to role-play at all pretty useful - if you're becoming more attached to the story of your character as its' own story, rather than as a springboard for the groups' story, you've probably gone too far.  If you're thinking about how neat it's going to reveal all this backstory as play occurs, you're not doing STORY NOW, you're revealing pre-created story.

Hope that's the kind of input you're looking for,

Gordon
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jburneko
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Posts: 1351


« Reply #13 on: June 26, 2002, 12:24:05 PM »

Hello,

Well, as the GM in the situation I thought I'd just go ahead a weigh in here a little bit even though it seems that Christopher has worked out his problem.  So, I'm going to be making some general comments for those future readers who may come across this thread at a latter date.

First of all, I TOTALLY 100% agree with Paul's comments on Face-to-Face character generation and in different circumstances I would set aside one whole session for character creation.  HOWEVER, the scenario is being run in a stretch of time that is finite and I want to use all the available sessions for actual play.  Thus I'm trying my hardest to simulate a character creation session via a carefully constructed and moderated email discussion group.

To address Christopher's question directly and specifically to Sorcerer I turn to the character sheet.  If you note, on the back of the sheet there's sort of a 'fleshing out' matrix there that is associated with the key core elements of the sorcerer character.  I think that's a good guide to figure out what is too much SPECIFICALLY for Sorcerer.

For example, if you have a Lore descriptor of Coven Member and you jot down the names of the NPCs who got you involved with the Coven you're all good.  However, if you have a string of NPCs all leading UP to you joining the Coven and it makes no sense to write those NPCs down on that matrix because they're really too far removed personally from those squares, then you've probably gone too far.

Another phenomenon I noticed about Sorcerer characters is the utter lack of explicit character 'goals.'  Kickers are not goals.  They're just things that get the character moving and the goals of characters seem to develop through actual play.  In the case of Christopher's character the real Kicker for his character happened WAY WAY back when he was first betrayed.  What is presented as a the Kicker is really a BANG in Sorcerer terms.

If it helps I'm really GLAD Christopher created this character because I've heard Ron mention many times to watch out for 'playing before you play' and I was never really sure quite what that meant.  Now, we all have a concrete example because we have a situation with a player not only crafting a Character and a Kicker but also running right through the first 2 or 3 bangs as well.

Hope this was insightful.

Jesse
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Christopher Kubasik
Member

Posts: 1153


« Reply #14 on: June 26, 2002, 03:26:41 PM »

Hi Paul,

I wanted to thank you for your emphatic posts earlier today.  They've been in my head for hours and I've had several "light bulb" moments. I understood compeletel now the distinction you were making between "work" and "fun" -- and the vital distinction between email posts (work) and face-to-face (fun).

I also saw for the first time how the distinction between "playing" and "character generation" is completely artificial for a Narrativist game and can only lead to lead to delays, if not outright derailing of enjoyment.  They're distinct activities, of course, but the idea of entertaining each other is crucial and might as well start as soon as possible.

In another thread I recently spoke of the kind of intimate "craft" of RPGs -- and I wasn't generous enough in my understanding.  All of the act of creation, the chargen not just the play, is part of the craft, and -- you're right, we should expect this to be not just a social activity, but part of the creative act we share as part of the fun.  

(At the risk or irking Mike, this is of course how my group did it Back in the Day.  I honestly can't recall when the idea of character generation got switched to something to be gotten over with, but I assume it had something to do with calculation heavy games like Champions and the introduction of number-templates for characters in Star Wars and such.  Creating characters because something you wanted and/or needed to get out of the way to get the fun part.  This, again, is symptom of the story not being about the character, but instead the story being done to the character.)

Jesse,

Yes.  I'm glad I did it too.  I view the public forums here as a chance to share and illustrate the process of different styles of games.  I truly think I've been propperly chastised and have learned my lesson (thanks all), but I also think it's great it's here for a reference.

And I think you're analysis -- my PCs Kicker actually took place a decade ago -- is spot on.  I think you've nailed something of key value future players will be able to measure their own Kickers by.

Oh, and gosh darn it... The back of the character sheet.  Completely forgot about that.  Of course once you start having to slot element in that circle things get more focused.  That too is a great yardstick.  (That Ron Edwards... one fucking clever guy.)

Thanks,
Christopher

Thanks again,
Christopher
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