Donnerstag, März 28, 2013

The Old School Approach to Character Creation, and The Story

The old school approach of quick and simple character creation is something that appeals to me, because it is quick and simple: you roll the dice and make a few very limited choices. Swords&Wizardry White Box is a favourite here, because no matter what you roll, you can pick any of the character classes and head the character into the dungeon. Even if he's stupid, someone in the party will point him to the door and shove him through, if necessary.
But that's not what I want to write about. (You can skip the rest, if you're fine with short character background stories.) This is no article about story-telling games. It's about writing, I guess. I'm a little confused now myself.

Character Background and The Story

I've been through a phase when I wrote long background stories for my rpg characters, and then as a DM demanded asked the same of my fellow gamers. Some of them did, actually, and some wrote even more excessively than I did. Parts of the background stories were woven into the fabric of the campaigns (like the rogue dark-elf wielding two swords ...), others appeared as minor details that only a few players noticed and enjoyed.

I believe that the (probably ad-induced) misconception of "You can play anything you want: a ranger like Aragorn, or a warrior like Conan, or a wizard like ... well ..." led some players to embrace the idea they and their characters were writing great stories, when, in fact, they were just sitting around a table, munching pizza, and rolling dice with intermittent blurbs of "Yeah, I attack.", and "Okay, I search the room.", or "I call my contacts to find out more information." There isn't even much theatre in role-playing, as some would want you to believe, or at least its worse than most daily soaps. But that's beside the point. A role-playing game is a game, not a play. (With all the discussions on railroading you may get the impression that some games are rather heavily scripted. While that might be true, a comparison with any standard board game where you follow a given path is more to the point than one with theatre, or movie scripts, and their performances. The execution of a script can be good fun, while a scripted adventure can be really boring. I think, I never tried a completely scripted role-playing game. How would that work, I wonder ...)

Then there were articles in the Dragon magazine, and long discussions with like-minded players about authentic player characters that were unlike the ususal cardboard characters and standard fighters. It seemed what players had to do to enjoy the games was writing background stories, and then demand that their 'novel' ideas were implemented into the campaign by the DM. The results ranged from the enjoyable pulp to the pretentious and ridicilous. (I wrote stuff that fit all of them.)

Now, I enjoyed writing background stories, and I still do. I even encourage players to write background stories, and to come up with an interesting consistent story. What I do encourage now, that I did not some years decades ago is brevity. (That does not count for blog posts, you know.)
Do not write short stories on the former exploits of the character, nor a detailed account of how exactly his parents were kidnapped by orcs, and his favourite cuddly toy was destroyed by some bullying kid. (For more ideas on character background read here.) These events can be traumatic, and yes, they do influence people. But just mentioning these facts in one sentence, as I just did, envokes the image of emotional suffering, and empathetic players may well relate to that. No more is needed.

When you start out with your group, think about what motivates the characters to journey together. Sketch out their relationships, and sympathies, if any. Then play the game.

School Years

So, essentially, writing character background is writing practice. Exercise. It trains to focus on the writing process, measure the necessary amount of detail, maintain consistency, make use of syntax and correct your spelling. Writing can be rewarding, and writing skills are important. So practise, and if some of your fellow players want to write background stories, by all means let them! Read them through, or have them read out loud, summarized, or mentioned 'in character' whenever the situation seems appropriate. But for your average gaming session, and any starting sessions with new characters just a few sentences are enough.

Play and Write, You Playwrights, and Authors

If you want to participate in a role-playing game all you need is the dice, game stats for the character, pens & paper. If your imagination fires up, and you see the character roaming the land in search for his lost true love, the meaning of life, or the land beyond the great ocean then write that down as first fragments of a story. You will find more of those pieces as you play along.

You can use your rpg sessions, and adventures as basis for a play. Audio record the sessions, or write down the memorable lines of players. A good line characterises just as well, and often more to the point than three pages of background story. You can always fill in the details later, when you eventually sit down to write the novel.

What happens within the game world can be told afterwards, summarized, expanded, exaggerated, filled with detail, or boiled down to single lines ('There and back again' is a good one.) It will connect to the character's background, but wether the fragments, threads, and bits and pieces are then told as one or more stories, is up to the player, and the amount of writing he wants to do in his free time. It is not part of the game at the table, unless you meet as the Gaming Authors, Poets of the Polyhedral Dice, or something like that.

To the point, now!

Writing character background stories is an extension of the game, not an essential part of it. You create the character according to the (house) rules, and play.

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