Trust, GM Willingness, Player Interest, and the Backstory Character

Yesterday, I talked about four categories of backstory characters, and mentioned the particular importance of understanding them to tabletoppers, both GM and player. Today, I’m going to look at why. Note that I am using the same terminology as in the previous post: the central character is the character being provided with the backstory, while backstory characters are any other character that might show up in that backstory.

There are three major issues unique to RPG backstory character creation: GM willingness and ability, player interest, and trust. Of these, the combined issue GM willingness and ability is the simplest—does the GM want to deal with a character of this sort, and is the GM actually capable of dealing with a character of this sort? Some GMs are nervous playing characters whose heads their players have been in; they don’t feel that they’ll be able to live up to the player’s expectation. Some can’t handle vague characters, since they don’t feel they have enough information to get the character right. And then there’s ability—there are some characters that, for whatever reason, a GM really can’t handle. Player interest is equally simple; does the player actually want this character to see play?

Trust, on the other hand, is somewhat more complex. It boils down to one question: “Does the player trust the GM to take the information she is given and return something that will give the player what he wants out of the character?” A lot of people don’t write certain kinds of characters into their backstories for just this sort of reason—the GM hasn’t shown any skill with the character archetype or type of relationship in question (or has shown the ability to screw it up); they would love to explore the character’s relationship with her backstory characters but figure the GM will just use any friendlies they create as angst hooks; they themselves don’t think they can get the idea across properly and aren’t going to be asked the right questions, and so on. The reasons are numerous, but they all boil down to a lack of trust.

What does this have to do with character categories?

The first thing to look at is how the categories match up with GM willingness and ability. GM willingness is mostly affected by the level of detail: as I noted before, some GMs will shy away from detailed characters due to nerves, but throw themselves into vague ones because there isn’t enough parameter to mess up; others get nervous around vague outlines, but are likelier to air a character the more detail she possesses. Likewise, detail can affect ability, particularly when dealing with a tricky concept; clear and specific instructions are more likely to be followed correctly than vague, hazy ones.

Then there’s player interest. This one is usually indicated by distance—the closer the backstory character is to the central character, the more the player is indicating a willingness to have that character used. (This, if nothing else, says a lot about the sheer number of orphaned heroes running around the various RPG worlds.)

And then there’s trust, and that’s where things get messy. I’ve seen some people detail every aspect of a character in order to ensure there’s no way she can be done wrong, and some create their backstory characters extremely vague so as to not get too attached to any one image of them and risk having it messed up. This can create conflicts—for instance, a non-trusting player creates a vague but close backstory character hoping that she’ll be used, the GM shies away because he doesn’t think he has enough information, the player gets frustrated because the character isn’t being used, the GM gets frustrated because the player won’t provide information or just figures the player doesn’t want the character, and nothing gets done.

So think about character categories the next time you’re peopling a character’s backstory. What does your GM work well with? What does the category say about the character? And if the GM’s not bringing out a character you were hoping for, is there any way you can tweak the category to fix that?

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