Moving Beyond the Backstory

This is stolen from a blog.
And really is for Dnd, but the principles apply to SW too.

Ravyn wrote a great post today on Character Angst, and how to make it work. I was inspired to draw from that post as in some ways it tied into my Roleplaying with Royalty post yesterday. People enjoy having tragic back stories. The whole idea of rising from the ashes and avenging their mother/father/brother/sister/family/clan/town/honor/puppy dog appeals to a lot of players.

Having a character that is constantly brooding, or refuses to be a nice person… for the entire campaign… can get tiresome. The DM is constantly forced to grasp at straws for plot hooks to get your character to actually adventure, roleplaying encounters almost always end badly, and whenever you do act nicely or bite your tongue and stop listening to Simple Plan long enough to help the villagers, you feel like you’re “going against your character”.

In the end, no one has fun.

Ravyn gave some simple ideas to manage angst in a good way:

Don’t overdo it: “…angst is like spice—a little in small doses adds flavor, but too much and the whole thing becomes unpalatable.”

Recover: In time, wounds heal. Be willing to “get over it” as time goes on, or if your DMing, allow characters their chance for revenge or closure.

Ensure that it serves a purpose: "Angst for angst’s own sake is pretty pointless, but angst that means something can be useful.

You can read more about it on her blog.

So how a character with a tragic back story move beyond it and become a hero?

Evolve.

People grow and change, and so can your characters. Below are some common character attributes people like to incorporate into their back stories, and how they can change and evolve as the campaign goes on. Remember, you have to be willing and ready to make these changes in order for them to work.

My character doesn’t trust easily: If your character has been betrayed in the past, is overly paranoid, or simply knows that there’s so much evil out there that none can be trusted, you might choose this character attribute. This usually means that you will not trust your party members, or any NPC you meet – regardless of whether they are good or evil.

As the game begins, this is a fine trait to have, but people can learn to trust, and so can your character. As you adventure with your party they fight in battle and risk their lives right beside you. If for no other reason, an intelligent character will realize that not trusting your allies in battle is much more likely to get you killed.

So evolve from not trusting, to grudgingly trying to trust – perhaps sharing a story or two of your past – to the slow emergence of real trust, to full trust. This evolution shouldn’t take more then five levels or so to accomplish, and try to complete it if you can.

A great roleplaying moment is when the angsty untrustworthy half-orc approaches the young halfling rogue and says, “Hey you, I trust you.” Awwww.

My character is the only one who can fight: Some characters think they’re the bomb, and that all others should bow before their awesome combat prowess. Surprisingly, warrior classes are not the only ones who fall into this. Warmages, evokers, clerics… pretty much anyone seeking to maximize their character’s combat potential can fall into this personality trait.

A party needs to work together. You are a team. As such, you need to focus on your team, and the accomplishments of your teammates – rather then simply your own badassness. Everyone in a group contributes equally. Yes, I’m going to say that again because some of you may have been plugging your ears and singing “la la la”. Everyone in a D&D group contributes equally.

Sure, you may be the most heavy damage dealer in the party, but this does not mean that the group hangs simply on your shoulders. Something I’ve heard lately from one of my groups is that if the tank isn’t there, the party’s doomed.

Well yes that’s true.

But if the healers aren’t there, the party’s probably doomed too.

Or if the trapfinder isn’t there, have fun in that dungeon.

No ranger? Enjoy your flying dragon battle.

No casters to blind and trip up your enemies?

A lot of the time, damage dealers take their comrades for granted. They might view clerics as portable Band-Aids, or rogues as tools allowing them to get to the next room and save the party even quicker!

Do me a favor and start adding up how many hit points your party’s healer has healed you. Check that number in three levels, and tell me that it’s not a humbling experience.

Evolution here is simple. Open your eyes! See what your comrades are doing, and thank/congratulate them on a job well done. Have your character learn over time that they are not the sole person holding the party together. Have your character learn to respect their party members for the assistance they offer. Have you character learn to be humble.

If you constantly talk about how you are the most valuable person in the party, your fellow players are going to get upset. Let other players shine and offer them the spotlight. Let their characters know that your character respects them.

Think Gimli and Legolas. They always had lighthearted competitions, but at the end of the day the respect each other and both admit that the other made a great contribution to the battle.

You don’t need anyone: Ah, the loners. You stand alone, and adventure for your own reasons. If people want to help you out or follow you around, you won’t stop them, but if they’re going to stop you from doing what you want to do – then to hell with them!

My first suggestion? Don’t play this character.

A house rule I use heavily for character creation is “your character must be built in a fashion where they will work well with other party members.” This brings a groan from some of my players who want to play the anti-hero or the antagonist, but for a D&D game to run well, there has to be a reason for your party of adventures to be a party of adventurers.

If you feel the need to play a loner though, you have to figure out a reason for them to work with the party. Build in a way for them to evolve. Have them begin to respect their fellow party members. Have them slowly take on the idea that maybe they can’t make it on their own.

So what if you can’t make it work?

You’ve tried to evolve and compromise, but your character simply isn’t working in the party. The other party members (or a single other party member) is driving you crazy, and you feel like you’d completely have to sweep your character’s personalities under the rug in order to not have conflict.

This does happen.

Even to yours truly!

In a campaign I played in two years ago, I played a gnomish bard. He was chaotic good and was an incredibly benevolent and kind person dedicated to squashing out evil wherever he found it. His traveling companions were equally devoted to good, but perhaps not as much of a zealot as him.

Halfway through the year, a new character entered the party, as the player had come back from abroad. He was playing a lawful evil character who had been betrayed by the BBEG and was out for vengeance. He joined the party as a clearly evil character who was willing to work with us since we had a common goal.

But… but I want to make evil go squish!

Well, I tried to evolved over the next few sessions, but he favored torturing our prisoners and doing all the “evil work” that we good characters couldn’t handle.

I pulled the other characters aside and discussed his membership into our group with him. They were mostly neutral good and were making character sacrifices to allow the player to join in with his character of choice. I tried as well, but my character thusfar had been built on preaching about the ideals of good, singing songs of happiness and flowers, and swearing often and proudly to stomp out evil. I had to completely leave out all of this roleplaying in order to avoid conflict.

I tried, and it didn’t work.

So what do you do when it doesn’t work?

1. DON’T tell another player to change their character, or insult their alignment, or in any way make it into an out-of-game player vs. player issue. In order to keep the game fun, you should never tell another player how they should or shouldn’t play. That’s the DMs job.

2. DO talk to you DM. See what their thoughts are.

And finally…

3. DO be prepared to make a new character.

Sometimes, your character just doesn’t fit into the party. At this point I the campaign, the party could have been good without him, or neutral without me. I try to never tell other players how to play their characters, so I took one for the team.

After challenging the character to a dual (which ended as a stalemate, like I’d planned), I said my farewells and left the party. I rolled up a new character and rejoined the game next session.

If your character is holding back the party from functioning well, or holding back you from having fun, you can try talking it out with the other player or with the DM, but in the end sometimes it’s just best to make a new character.

I made a necromancer. It was fun.

Return to the Table of Contents

Return to the Main Page

Moving Beyond the Backstory

Edge of the Empire BrandonJ BrandonJ