Some Things I Love About Shared Backstories

I recently talked about the process I’ve found most successful when concocting a shared backstory between two or more PCs. As you’ve probably guessed from the collection of cross-backstoried characters I listed off during said post, I find shared backstories to be one of the most rewarding parts of putting together a new character, sometimes even enough to offset my usual annoyance with chargen in general. Here’s why.

Collaboration! Eee! Let’s face it, I love working with my fellow players. Working alone, I do sometimes get a rush from planning, but I have to be pretty immersed in the character to get it with any reasonable strength, something which usually doesn’t happen for me unless the character’s in my head already. A lot of my backstory work, particularly if I’m working with an unfamiliar setting or one I haven’t done much with, feels like I’m sticking my neck out with every word. When I’m coordinating with another player, though, it’s a runaway exchange of ideas and jokes, and whatever risks I’m taking with my interpretations of and modifications to the world, at least I’m not taking them alone.

It’s also a chance to test out my character, her voice and her mindset ahead of time. While shared backstories don’t usually involve me talking in voice, the fact that it’s a give and take of “Oh, if he does this like you’re saying, I think she’d do that” does start putting me into the character’s mindset, and voice follows soon after. Given that one of my greatest barriers to adapting to a new PC is the difficulty of getting our minds to click, this is rarely a bad thing.

More, being cross-backstoried ensures that I won’t be completely isolated in a group. I’m rather paranoid about that, to be honest; the first time I played in a game where character mattered, mine somehow managed to in-character alienate the entire party, and in two others the session in which the social dynamic was mostly hammered out also managed to be the one I had to miss because of a field trip or a class I was teaching, leading to being ignored or outright distrusted. Anything I can do to avoid a repeat of either of those incidents is automatically a bonus in my book.

Moreover, the shared backstory gives me a sense of at least one social dynamic within the group. I’ve been pretty spoiled with my game groups, at least in that respect; we’ve usually had opportunities for the players to talk between bouts of frenzied action, and I even had one game in which the GM, one of the players and I regularly got into sidechats outside the primary game. It was fun to know how our characters meshed, and it meant that mutual loyalty ended up being a big theme of our games. But now even we don’t have near as much time or energy, and in many games with new groups, little things like how the characters are getting along are lost in the hurry to get to whatever’s next. At least if I’ve coordinated my backstory with someone, I know how my character and theirs will generally be getting along.

So that’s why I love to coordinate backstories with at least one other member of the group if given half an opportunity. If you’re prone to the same, what makes it work for you? If not, why not?


  1. burnedfx says:

    It definitely works for me as a DM. The concept of coordinating the backstory with other players is usually the first thing I ask of my players. In general, it bothers me if the group assembled just would not be together.

    I haven’t had this issue with the girls; they are pretty good about coming up with something (explaining why this dwarf is even talking to this elf in the first place or explaining why this low level character is suddenly going to group up with the higher level characters).

    Although there have been times where we had to brainstorm together to figure out why this new character would join the current group.

    For instance, Kay wrote a page long story of why her mage would hook up with the other characters. I looked it over, told her why something wouldn’t work and offered a few suggestions. Specifically, only one thing needed to be changed. She had written a creature that just didn’t exist in the game world, so we switched it out for something that did.

    That’s the worst example I have currently, which is thankfully a good track record.

  2. Vellan says:

    Have you tried playing Fiasco?

    One of the things (my group and) I love about it is the way that each character has a solid connection to two other characters. It feels like you have been playing these characters for years, even though you made them twenty minutes ago.

  3. Ravyn says:

    Burnedfx: Excellent points! I’d been considering tossing out my opinion on the GM side next week–silly editorial schedule.

    And yeah. I’ve had a few games where the group was pretty much thrown together, and… oye. Not pretty. Best game I was in, though, only one of us wasn’t already cross-storied with the other two, and he ditched not long in.

    Vellan: No, I haven’t, but I’ve used a couple FATE-based systems that required pretty much the same thing. Main problem I had there was just figuring out who to backstory with (in one case, it just ended up being “pretty much everyone”) and to get it together at practically the last minute because of chargen nerves.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Some Things I Love About Shared Backstories Part 2: Behind the Screen | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply