Friday, July 4, 2014
On the Starting Player Character
It happens that I started reading Leiber with the 1996 release of Lean Times in Lankhmar, and more or less began with the titular story. I wanted to read their origin stories because I knew who they would become. And of course, Leiber didn't start with "The Snow Women" or "The Unholy Grail" or even "Ill Met," but rather "Jewels in the Forest," set after Swords and Deviltry.
A starting OD&D fighting-man has the level title of "Veteran." I like that; it implies that he or she has been through a war and survived. They are not farmboys, and have some training and idea of what they're doing. (Dungeon Crawl Classics changes this, which I think is odd.) But given the way the game is set up, we don't know if they are going to survive.
What I've found through play is that pre-written background doesn't mean anything. This is because of a principle that writers are expected to bear in mind: the story you are telling should be the most exciting and important thing that has ever happened to the character. A background made up for a PC before the start of play is, of necessity, not that interesting; after all, they never got any experience points for it.
This is why fan fiction and prequels tend to be markedly inferior. If the earlier story was the most exciting thing that happened to the character, things that happened before tend to be less exciting by definition. Even characters with serial adventures tend to have a best episode or two, compared with which everything else is simply lesser work.
Interesting player characters in my games have always been the ones that emerge in the midst of play. No amount of background has ever really fixed that. Improvisational roleplaying creates character traits that were often totally unexpected. You can't bake that into the character by writing a story of what happened to them beforehand. The best examples I've seen tend to be people who start from very broad strokes and only become more specific in the heat of the game.
Really, I think this is a big part of why D&D's class system has been so enduringly popular: it gives players a good basis to create adventurers from whole cloth, and then let them gain more definition as the game goes on. Maybe a background story will be appropriate when they hit 4th level and become a "Hero" – just as I only appreciated the origins of Fafhrd and the Mouser once I'd read their adventures in Stardock and Quarmall. But at the start, I really find they're not needed, and only distract from defining the character in play.