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  • Writer's pictureDawn Dalton

The Importance of Backstory in Games

Keeping the group from falling apart by giving them a reason to work together.

The picture is of the interconnections map from a Smallville game we played many years ago. And I'll maintain that Smallville has the best mechanic for giving players a reason to work together other than "a wizard sits down at your table in a tavern."

This topic has been on my mind for a while, ever since one of the games I played fell apart in an epic "my character has no reason to not kill this other player's character" fashion. And the GM gave us no real reason to trust or want to work as a cohesive group. In his defense, it was a Vampire game, but there should have been something to gel us together in the pre-game character building session.

Most of the games I've played that fell apart quickly were due to infighting or not really caring about the other characters. It's hard to care when the other PCs are really interchangeable. My character only trusts them to have her back in combat because I know it's my friend's character.

The best games I've played are where all of the characters have a reason for trusting, or at least working with, each other. It could be as simple as during character creation we discuss that we're in the same class at Hogwarts or in the same house, my family owes your family a debt and I'm supposed to keep your character safe until this task is complete, etc. It doesn't have to be a huge story, but there does need to be something there to suspend disbelief. Otherwise, why is your character there?

This actually brought up a character leaving our party in one of my games because their task was done. There was no reason for them to not move on from the party, so the player made a new character. Would it have been easier to keep the old character? Yes. But did it make thematic sense to have them go back to their plane of existence? Also yes.

I think a lot of groups skip this step because it doesn't matter to them. Either because their characters are so generic that they can be switched out for another without making any difference to the game or because they don't play into the inherent prejudices their clan/ God/ whatever give them. And I think that detracts from what could be a very rich and interesting game.

Also, what could be better than your GM bringing in elements of your backstory into the game? All of a sudden, your rival challenges you in the middle of a party you were trying to infiltrate or you get a letter from your long lost love that they are in trouble. Think of all the possibilities for extra role play.

What do you think? Do you write backstories for your character? Do you think I'm wrong? Let me know in the comments!

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