Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Character Backgrounds

Well, it’s been more than twelve hours…time to post.

[note to self: need to get organized about actual reading and posting of blogs]

Over at Trollsmyth, ol’ TS is looking to start a discussion about character backgrounds in OS D&D land. At least that’s how it appears to me, so I’m using it as a jumping-off point for yet another fine reminisce about the “good ol’ days.”

Back in the “good ol’ days” (call it 1984-87) I was involved in a long running D&D campaign, that had such luminaries as Bladehawk and Lucky and Sneakshadow…characters that had begun in the primordial days of B/X before graduating to first edition AD&D. Like paleontologists we (the players) defined several layered strata of our game world, each conferring to a different “D&D Age.” The titles we conferred were (if memory serves):


There fourth was very short, and followed by one-last “doomsday” style campaign that led to the demise of our gaming group (already waning)…in fact, it consisted of only a single game session before disintegrating in shambles.

[a B/X campaign and my “Alejandro-Blackrazor” campaign were the only long-running D&D campaigns I ran as a DM after those…I played in two separate multi-adventure campaigns, but I haven’t DM’d an on-going D&D campaign for a loooong time]

ANYway…back to the Big Four (mainly the Big Three plus appendix): the way we defined the beginnings and endings of these campaigns were with destructions of the game world. The campaigns were like the Mayan of Navajoh ages of man…we’d get tired of how far out-of-spin the game world was and BOOM…decided to blow it all to hell. Famous PCs might or might not (at their player’s option) be reincarnated at 1st level. Sometimes they were reincarnated at a high level (or one consistent with their status in the last campaign), but generally only as an NPC. The start of a new campaign was a SPRING time, a time of renewal, when all the regular players of the game group would sit down and roll up new characters or put new faces on old characters with new rule sets.

Anyway, because of the carry-overs and consistencies from game to game things like character background became immensely important. Relationships (between characters, between PCs and NPCs) became important parts of the campaign world. Just because two characters hated each other or were rivals in a prior campaign didn’t mean there had to be karmic carry-over…but sometimes there was. Likewise, a character’s destiny in one campaign did not mean anything to his (or her) potential fate in the new campaign.

Think of it more as a comic book imprint. No matter how many times he’s “re-loaded,” Bruce Banner is always a skinny guy who accidentally gets dosed with some kind of radiation and becomes a rampaging Hulk. Batman is always the playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne, driven by the murder of his parents (whether they were killed in the 20s, 40s, 70s, or some other decade means nothing).

To continue: these backgrounds were important; they helped us keep some sense of continuity, some sense of game history. Our character sheets had stats on the first page and then a couple additional pages of lists attached with friends, enemies, loves, hates, fears, desires, family, etc. Some things (and people!) might fall into multiple categories. Characters with longer histories would have longer lists; new characters might have a couple hooks or tie-ins to other characters, but would generally have shorter lists. This didn’t mean they were unimportant, though!

My bard character was a wandering, lusty son-of-a-gun for instance…a real Don Juan-type (at least in the beginning). As a half-elf he’d been around for several decades…maybe he was somewhere between 50 and 70? It was not unreasonable to assume he had sired some (or many) bastard children in his wanderings.

So one of our group (my friend Matt) decided to create a new character that was the adult bastard son of my character. This was during what we called “the Current Campaign” and it led to so much interesting drama/conflict (the son had a bit of a bone to pick with the father in addition to having a kind of Oedipus thing going on with his father’s wife), that we decided to reload the whole campaign a 4th time, but only using “children of former PCs” as characters. This was in 1987, several years before the Dragon Lance folks released their “Second Generation” tales. A post for a later date.

Adding character backgrounds means more time and energy invested into the character creation process…period. The more time and energy, the more investment. Two thoughts immediately strike me about this:

1) This kind of background development and investment is only worthwhile in long-running, existing campaigns…campaigns where characters retire, settle down, become dominion lords or NPCs that can offer service, advice, etc. In that kind of campaign it may be helpful to have an Auntie Bladehawk that can foot the bill for her nephew’s resurrection, or a godfather what is a hierophant druid. In one-off games or short campaigns it’s unnecessary and the investment may not be worth the cost (D&D is not designed to be a premise-addressing “story-telling” game; emotional investment can lead to upset when one’s character gets killed on the dungeon’s first level).

2) This kind of background development is more useful with old school games (OD&D, B/X, AD&D) where characters have limited stats and where a little narrative goes a long way to filling in blanks. It’s one thing to describe the monastic warrior-cult your B/X fighter belongs to…in D20, you probably need to invent a whole goddamn prestige class! Plus later editions, with their extensive, “interesting” character generation process already requires a substantial investment of time and energy at creation…why add any more? If you want to do that much work in crafting a character, you should probably be writing a novel instead.


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