Reprise: Keeping Angst in Check

Originally posted on September 9, 2008. Have you ever gotten tired of a character, PC, NPC or just plain fictional, who invited himself to a pity party and never left? So have I.

No beloved peasant villages were harmed in the making of this post.

If you’ve been running games for a while, you’ve probably seen one of those backstories, either from one of your players or shared by a facepalming fellow GM. If you’ve been writing, or playing, or doing anything that involves the creation of characters for a while, you might even have written one. Either way, you’ve most likely run into it: Angst Incarnate.

Yes, tragedy is a key part of literature. Yes, dark does not necessarily equal bad. Yes, it’s easier to motivate a character with bad things than good. But does that really excuse the sheer number of people who, unable to decide between being orphaned, abused, shunned, responsible for the death of someone they loved, witness to the destruction of something they loved (possibly multiple times), losing their beloved home (be it peasant village, castle, or whatever), abducted by who-knows-what, wrongfully accused of some misdeed, or—well, you get the idea—choose all of the above? It shouldn’t even be an option!

The problem with character angst is that many of the people who use it tend to wallow in it. So tragic! So poignant! So—why are you folding up my backstory? Is that a paper airplane? Why is the fire li—NOOO! …sorry about that. The daydream lingers. Anyway, the other problem is that excessive angst can lead to loner-type behavior, which isn’t very good for group dynamics.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be used, though. Just that it needs to be used carefully, under the following conditions:

  • Don’t overdo it. This isn’t The Jungle, after all. We’re trying to enjoy ourselves. Besides, angst is like spice—a little in small doses adds flavor, but too much and the whole thing becomes unpalatable. You don’t need more than one or two sources of angst to get the point across.
  • Make sure they’re recovering or will recover or, failing that, at least have some way to dissociate themselves from the tragedy that is their lives. Now, this isn’t to say spring back with an enormous smile every time something goes devastatingly wrong. But over time, and with distance, people will generally recover, and besides, it’s much more heroic/admirable/respect-worthy to be fighting against a rough life than to be perpetually moping about it. And people who don’t have something they can use to separate themselves from their circumstances tend to just plain break, which isn’t pretty. I’ve done nonfunctional on accident; I really don’t see why anyone would want to do it deliberately.
  • Ensure that it serves a purpose! Angst for angst’s own sake is pretty pointless, but angst that means something can be useful. It could be a reason to travel: for instance, the elf girl whose innate magic is completely out of control looking for a cure, or the researcher who could never get anywhere working in his more traditional parents’ shadows looking for a new place to set up shop. Maybe it’s explaining a change in personality: the idealistic if a bit passive young woman whose blackmail by an old flame forges her into a snarky and highly proactive intelligence agent with major trust issues, for instance. Perhaps it focuses them on a potential motivator: people who feel the world is against them but find one person to trust or one idea to follow can show amazing levels of devotion to that one thing.

The above advice goes double for writers and GMs. After all, backstories are small chunks of information; if you think concentrated angst is bad in those kinds of doses, imagine trying to deal with it in novel length, or over the course of a several-month campaign. Too many consecutive downers with neither respite nor a chance at improvement, and even the most dedicated players may have to get distance to protect their sanity. Don’t forget it!

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