RPG Design – Whither Backstory?

   A lot of adventures don’t pay much attention to the backstory and adventure background. That’s more-or-less understandable – that kind of thing is usually designed to be dropped into almost any setting and used as-is – but it can lead to major problems if the characters are even slightly thoughtful or actually attempt to play in character. To illustrate this…

   Once upon a time, there was a game master.

   A game master who had invested a good deal of time in creating a complex dungeon-tomb and a couple of other interesting places hidden in a perilous forest on the borders of a lawful-good kingdom. He created a noble lord and a couple of eccentric advisors (including a Mind Flayer who’d somehow become lawful good, just to add some tension to social situations) to rule said kingdom, and made it strong enough to withstand most direct attacks – leaving the forces of darkness to rely on subversion, treachery, and assorted plots in their attempts to overthrow it. The characters would – more or less – be recruited into the royal counter-espionage forces. The game would start off with a mission to rescue the kings daughter and gradually expand as the characters uncovered the array of evil forces and dark plots arrayed against the king.

   A bit cliche, but certainly good enough to start off a campaign with, right?

   Since he wanted characters who might be recruited for their unique talents, he told the players that he wanted unusual first or second level characters who would be operating out of the capital city – and things started going downhill.

   He got an exiled drow bartender blade expert, a Krynn-style minotaur martial artist and bar-room brawler, a chain-smoking temple-robber from modern Egypt who’d picked up the wrong artifact, been given clerical abilities he couldn’t control by a deity he didn’t believe in, and been sent to another world as some sort of agent (my character), a thieving young half-elven mage obsessed with magical rings (and already having several with cantrips in them), an elderly retired gardener who had – at a rather advanced age – heard the call of both adventure and druidism (or “a really good fling before he died”), and an oriental bird-person staff-fighter and archery specialist.

   Since none of these characters except the drow and the minotaur had any prior connection to each other, our valiant game master took a swing; he had the Royal Guard – instructed, apparently to find people with “unusual talents” – haul everyone before the king. Naturally enough, some of them wanted to evade this apparently unmotivated sweep – which brought up the subject of how big the army was.

   The numbers that got tossed out called for roughly 10% of the population of the kingdom to be on active duty, with at least that many more in the support side. There was sudden doubt as to the lawful-goodness, peacefulness, or contentment of an unthreatened state that kept pretty much all the able-bodied men of the kingdom under arms. There was also considerable speculation as to the tax rates, the conditions of the peasants, and similar issues.

   The game master didn’t see what the problem was; he’d told everyone that it was a lawful good kingdom, that the king was a wise and benign ruler, and that everyone was content. Wasn’t that enough?

   So, a random collection of the most conspicuous people in the city got hauled up before the king and court, without explanation – although it did duly impress them with the kingdoms strength, wealth, and plentiful supply of much more powerful people. The king then dismissed the court and all but his most trusted guards to speak with these misfits in private.

   He then told them that – given their special talents – he had a secret mission for them.

   His daughter – deeply beloved by both the people and himself – had been kidnaped. Fortunately, the crime had been traced to a gang of bandits who were believed to be hanging out in an old tomb – it belonged to some ancient archmage or something – in the middle of the nearby forest. Since he didn’t want anyone to know about this mission for fear that the bandits would kill her, he couldn’t use any of the important or powerful people known to work for him; their disappearance would be noted. There weren’t many clues about how she’d been taken, it was believed to be an inside job though – which was why he was being so cautious.

   So to set up a secret mission to rescue his beloved daughter from deadly peril, he’d had the guard publicly haul in a random selection of the most memorable, eccentric, and inexperienced characters in the city. People who had never worked together and who had no major special talents (there’s only so much you can do with a second level character). Then he’d displayed them before the court that he ADMITTED was probably compromised, made it obvious that he wanted them to do something secret, and then given them a really cruddy briefing.

   He couldn’t spare them a guide who knew the forest, give them a map or much information about it or this supposed tomb, and he CERTAINLY couldn’t give them any extra money or equipment (Game Master: “What are you talking about? You’ve already got your starting gear!”).

   The “party” looked at the king, looked at the Mind Flayer advisor, and looked at each other – and “took the mission” in lieu of jail.

   Make that a swing and a miss.

   Once past the gate, the general discussion tended towards “making a run for the horizon and getting over the border”. The setup was so incredibly blatant that the absolute BEST thing that they could be was a diversion. More likely, he didn’t really want the girl back at all – or had arranged her kidnaping himself if she was really that “beloved of the populace”. He wouldn’t be in charge if he was genuinely stupid enough to think that the best way to set up a critical secret mission to rescue his daughter was to publicly pick out a random group of totally inexperienced but extremely conspicuous individuals who had never worked together, refuse to provide them with any assistance, and announce to the world that they were being sent on a secret mission. Maybe that Mind Flayer wasn’t really “reformed” and was secretly in control? It WAS just possible that the princess was a threat to it somehow, and they could hardly think of a better way to try and get her killed. Perhaps she’d run away?

   The game master nearly blew up right about then, and somehow everyone wound up at the ancient tomb anyway. He might as well not have bothered at that point; the game suffered final meltdown a few minutes later, when the first ancient cryptic inscription came up and the decision was to ignore it, since it was probably a trap. After all, it was a tomb full of traps. The point of tombs was that you put stuff in, set the traps, sealed it up, and no one ever went in there again. Leaving helpful inscriptions would sort of undermine the entire design philosophy.

   All that work on the campaign pretty much wound up in the garbage can.

   Now, the game master in that game had prepared his encounters well, and his “dungeons” would no doubt have been quite interesting for a novice (if perhaps a trifle cliche) – but he’d gotten so involved with the obstacles and enemies he intended to throw at the characters that he’d neglected to put much thought into his setting and the mission setup.

   If he’d told us that:

   “For the last couple of months you’ve been doing a bit of undercover work for the King as novice agents in a town on the fringes of the forest – where weirdos are more or less expected. Mere hours ago, your drow friend – thanks to his superb night vision – spotted a group of bandits hauling the crown princess into the forest! You’ve sent an urgent message to your boss of course, but it will take days to reach him – by which time the trail will be long cold and the princess might be dead. You can either take the blame if that happens OR you can go after her right away, with whatever supplies you can grab! It can’t be any more fatal than waiting for the king to find out that you let her be carried off, and – if you succeed – you can expect promotions and rewards! It’s the chance of a lifetime!”

   That would probably have worked out just fine – and cooking up a reason to look at the ancient inscriptions would have been a minor problem, rather than the final straw.

   Like it or not, for a game master, setting comes first. Your world needs to make sense, and the players have to have some idea of how it works. If ten percent of the population, chosen at random, is sucked into the realm of the bingo gods every morning and only returned at nightfall, then having a boss who demands a perfect attendance record from his employees doesn’t make a lot of sense. The characters motives need to make some sort of sense, and there needs to be some sort of logic in how they pursue them – having a few lunatics about is OK, but nobody wants to play in a world full of them. If the world isn’t reasonably logical and consistent, you’ll soon wind up with a game of Toon – which may be fun every so often, but doesn’t make for long campaigns.

   Once you have a good setting, a really, really good game master will be able to spin backstory, and create encounters, on the fly. Those with less practice will need a backstory ready to go, but will usually be able to improvise from there – and that’s vital as soon as the characters get off-track. And they will.

   It doesn’t matter if the characters or players (and they ARE separate) never find out about that back story – although if the players want to know it out-of-character after the game there’s usually no reason why they shouldn’t. The game master needs to know it. It’s one of his or her most vital tools.

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3 Responses

  1. Great story! Good advice too.

    I chuckled during the briefing part – I’ve been that situation, doing that to PCs when I get lazy or uninspired.

  2. Well said! I’ve cross posted this to the Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester on Yahoo Groups, in case you want to follow any discussion there that may come from it. :)

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