Throughout the month of April, I will be creating a series of posts called “Building a Better Hero”, which focus on character development for D&D and other tabletop RPG characters. Like the tangled fates of Protagonist and Antagonist, this series will parallel and intermingle with “Building a Better Villain”, both of which are part of my attempt at the 2012 April A to Z challenge.
We begin our look at Building a Better Hero with the Backstory. A hero’s backstory does more than tell the tale from whence they came, it helps to establish their motivation and their personality. It is fallow ground from which grow the hero’s strengths and weaknesses. In the realm of tabletop gaming, it serves as a touchstone to guide the player in his/her roleplaying and helps the GM craft situations that are meaningful/challenging/inspiring for that character.
The backstory as roleplaying tool has its share of pitfalls. Late last year, Vanir, over at Critical Hits posted about the corruption of backstory from tool to oversimplified justification for bad behavior. The wary GM would do well to heed his advice. Actually, Vanir has some excellent suggestions for implementing backstory jiu-jitsu to turn an otherwise unwieldy backstory bludgeoning back into a tool for deepening the character.
Anyway, players’ approaches to their characters’ backstories are about as varied as the stories themselves. In my own group, I have one player whose character is essentially a blank slate. Childhood trauma has “blocked” much of her memory. Some GMs might feel like this player just didn’t want to flesh anything out, but that’s not necessarily the case. I have another player who sits at the opposite end of the backstory spectrum. The tale for one of her characters involved a complex yarn about illegitimate birth, devil worship, the murder of her mother followed by the character’s escape with a prized token of her mother’s memory and so on… Both of these approaches are perfectly valid, and both can be leveraged to draw the character deeper into the story.
Using these different approaches to backstory as a tool for adventurecraft is simply a matter of how you, the GM, go about incorporating them. A character with an extensive, pre-written story offers a wealth of hooks for entangling them in the adventure. In the case of my own game, Ms. Storytime found out that the same cult that had murdered her mother was behind the major conflict at the center of the adventure. With the pre-told stories, figures from the character’s past, with all their established meaning, can make return appearances. Old grudges can rear their heads and past loves can be used as a catalyst for adventure. Backstories are often the playground for a hero's nemises. Archenemies are often born from the shadowy depths of the hero's adolescence. If not, a clever nemesis, will certainly attempt to dredge up as much discomfort as possible from the hero's past.
With the blank slate character, by contrast, the GM has the opportunity to craft his/her backstory as the game progresses. A character without a written back story doesn't mean they don't have one, just that it is not written down, or hasn't been fleshed out by the player. In many ways, playing through the game becomes a way to build that backstory. In the case of my particular game, the blank slate character went from being someone whose motivations amounted to “I’m just along for the ride” to the long-lost princess of such'n'such kingdom that the heroes were actively working to save (the kingdom, not the princess). Blank slate went from a passive rider to someone with a spot in the driver’s seat.
Regardless of which approach a player takes to his/her character’s backstory, the GM should keep them in the loop as much as possible when crafting stories that draw upon, or reveal new aspects about that character’s history. A secret reveal to just the character’s player can both test the waters for the new information and put that player in charge of determining the time and place for a more public revelation.