A recent Facebook post by a friend of mine got me thinking. He and I often end up in the same irregular RPG group playing Achtung Cthulhu! or Apocalypse World or whatever else people feel like at the time. In this posting he referenced someone else’s blog telling the story of how they developed the background story to a RPG character over time, rather than the traditional all at the start. My friend thought this was a good idea and something he preferred to do as well. This got me thinking about how games could handle a continuously developed player character backstory.
Most games I’ve played place very little importance on your character’s backstory. Traditionally some backstory is told at start and is then ignored or has little impact on the game. Some games force backstory on characters in the form of connections to other characters. Perhaps some tabletop GMs enforce backstory, and I’ve seen people play to their character’s history - but mostly it just seems to be a set of guidelines. Very rarely (as in the blog post that started this train of thought) a character’s story from before the game started is developed as the game continues (games where the player has lost their memory and is slowly regaining it are a notable, but cliched, exception). Many games build constructing a backstory into the mechanics of character creation - what better way to explain the character’s abilities. Although this involves some early investment in a character - I have seen make certain players uncomfortable (like my friend). Humorously, it was possible to die during character creation in Traveller - so much for that investment of time and emotion!
By developing the backstory as you play the game it is easier to fit your backstory to the way story turns out. The GM/computer can adjust game to fit the emerging backstory. Perhaps new adventures can be created riffing of new aspects to the characters’ story. Also the history is built up as as the player becomes more comfortable with the character. It might even increase player involvement as they see the history increase and want to keep it going. There are a few problems too of course. The longer the game continues, the harder it will be to find suitable things to add to the backstory, especially for characters that start in an inexperienced state. Also, it may lead to contradictions if the player/GM if not careful and a new bit of backstory doesn’t match a previously played part of the game. The ongoing backstory idea could also be extended to become part of the game itself. Perhaps flashbacks could be used to highlight a part of the player’s past. Or, the game could progress inside-out like The Use of Weapons where the story starts in the middle of the narrative and progresses forwards and backwards in alternating chapters.
Another way to use the continuing backstory idea would be to include it in experience/advancement systems of a RPG (tabletop or computer). This would fix it into the structure of the game.
A hallmark of almost all RPGs of some form is character advancement. There are a few I can think of that don’t use this mechanic - Fiasco for example. However, for the vast majority of players (especially in computer RPGs) improving the abilities of your character over the course of many adventures is very important. There are various drivers for this advancement mechanic in different games. It can be finishing a quest/scenario, performing a particularly notable action (or failing an action!), or just the old default of killing things (hopefully monsters:).
One idea to combine these two concepts is to have the reward for advancement being writing a sentence or two of backstory that impacts the character’s abilities. It could be that the whole ability or skill system is replaced by sentences of story. If particular skills are still required or noteworthy then they could be used or underlined in these sentences. For example, “Katniss often provided for her family by hunting for food in the woods near her home, becoming proficient in use of the bow”. Here, bow and hunting are skills. How the skills translate into gameplay depends on how the game should work. For more story oriented games then the player could justify their actions with reference to their backstory. More numerical rules oriented games could perhaps assign a value to each mention of a keyword with adjectives acting as modifiers. Really “crunchy” rules based games probably wouldn’t work well with this system. When ready to advance the player could, for instance, come up with a sentence related to their current situation and a sentence related to their past. These would have to be agreed with the GM (particularly with respect to the number of keywords and adjectives if they are important).