Where Were You When…?

There exist people, both writers and GMs, who know their entire story from the beginning. Their plot? Outlined completely. Their cast lists? Set in stone. Everything’s ready, it just needs to be implemented. Then there’s the rest of us, who… well, don’t. The plot may have a general direction, but the particulars are figure-out-as-we-go. Characters are either created as we need them or as we can find excuses to implement concepts that looked interesting. And overall, this works for us.

It also gives us an opportunity. It’s likely that we’ve at some point created characters and concepts that look like they really should conflict with what we’ve written later: they should have been here, or done this, and the only reason we have why they didn’t is that they didn’t exist at the time. And sure, most of the time a writer can just go backwards in the manuscript in progress to fix that, and modify the rest of the story as well as possible to accommodate it (assuming, of course, that the fix is in something that hasn’t been published yet), but the webcomic artist, the GM, and people whose stories are being experienced in a serial format as they create them aren’t going to be able to do the same without a blatant retcon.

In most cases, this either turns into a problem or gets swept under Those Things That One Cuts the GM Slack For, and that’s not such a bad thing. But it also gives us an advantage later on, and that’s when we need to figure out what these characters were doing that kept them from being where by all rights we would have expected them to be if they’d existed back then. Why? Because when we ask questions like this, we almost never get just the answer: we almost always get something else, and one of those somethings might come in handy in whatever part of the plot we’re currently working with.

How it works is pretty simple. Start with one of the situations that if the character had been involved in, you’d expect to have gone differently, but they weren’t due to having not existed. Let’s use an example from my game to see how this might work. My first arc centered around the abduction of game shepherd NPC Kiara by first arc antagonist Jalil, and the group doing something about it. Partway through the arc, during the long travel phase, I designed Jalil’s three children, the eldest of whom, Rukan, while devoted to his cause, was also genuinely sympathetic and compassionate, and a very convincing talker. So that brought me to the question, one that his other daughter has even occasionally asked: why didn’t Jalil send Rukan to try to recruit Kiara first, and save all of them a bad first impression and a whole lot of trouble?

Once you’ve found the question, start coming up with answers. For some people, there’s only going to need to be one answer; for others, it makes more sense to come up with a lot of possibilities and eliminate them as you go. Try to make sure it’s something you can justify with information that you have indeed committed to; after all, if you just find an answer and justify it with “because I said so”, you aren’t really going to learn anything from this exercise, now, are you? Going back to our example, I determined that Jalil’s primary reason for not sending Rukan was the potential risks. Rukan was both his favorite and the noncombatant of the family; while she could probably create a better first impression if allowed to speak, he had no guarantee that she wouldn’t end up dead halfway through her opening argument, and wasn’t willing to take that chance. (I also find myself wondering if maybe his corollary to “if I want a job done right, I have to do it myself” applied; did he really want to risk discovering that Rukan and her methods really were the right tool for the job?)

Often, situations like this will begin to snowball. After all, creating a reason for a character to have been absent is rather like telling a lie; the longer it’s exposed to challenges and the more you try to shore it up, the more justifying details you’re going to have to add. Not only does this create more of a background, but something you learn back there might be useful when you’re stuck on a situation later.

Leave a Reply