When I ran my first 7th Sea campaign I introduced each adventure with a short piece of fiction. This was often a cut scene that gave the players a little metagame knowledge as to the focus of the adventure. For those of you unfamiliar with 7th Sea, it was a swashbucklingÂ RPG based on a fictional world that strongly resembled 17th century Europe lightly flavored with magic.
One PC in the campaign was Thora. She was the daughter of (in real-world terms) an English noble and a Viking. In her backstory, she’d rejected the refined upbringing of her mother and idolized her often-absent pirate father. During one adventure, I hinted that her mother was coming to visit her. Thora’s player, of course, was delighted. She knew that her mother despised the life choices she’d made and she couldn’t wait for the arguments to begin.
When I wrote the “cut scene” for the following adventure, I wrote it from Thora’s mom’s point of view as she traveled to meet her daughter.Â One revelation wasÂ that Thora’s father was abusive to her mother and that she hid it from Thora because she knew how much she idolized her father. There were other revelations as well, but suffice it to say that the cut scene essentially turned Thora’s assumptions about her parents on their head.
At the time, I didn’t see a problem with the cut scene because it didn’t invalidate the player’s version of Thora’s backstory. I just added a hidden layer to it. My purpose was to encourage roleplaying scenesÂ where Thora and her mother began to mend fences. However, when I showed it to another player prior to the session, he cautioned me against using it unless I showed it to Thora’s player first and cleared it.
As it turned out, he was correct. Thora’s player was not happy with the scene, because she feltÂ it did invalidate her backstory. She wanted dad to be the good guy and mom to be the bad guy and felt that my scene diminished her character. Unfortunately, I had little time to prepare something else, so I excised the cut scene andÂ watered downÂ the confrontation. Unsurprisingly, the resulting mother-daughter scenesÂ fell completely flat.
So today’s hot button is this: Where do you draw the line? When is it no longerÂ okay to add elements to a PC’s background during play? (note: this presumes that there is no prior agreement to cover this).
Bonus question: If youÂ found yourselfÂ under the circumstances of my anecdote, would your reaction be closer to “cool!” or “no way!”?
I would say “cool!” and I think most of my players would, also. You weren’t changing her character; you were, indeed, adding a new layer or dimension. Who’s to say that the mother was right? The cut-scene showed her perspective, just as the character has her perspective. Why didn’t you just sell it as being from the mother’s point of view and establish that it wasn’t necessarily how things were? Sure, the father could have been abusive, but what’s missing? Perhaps the mother was having an affair, or attempting to subvert his operations.
My players usually allow me quite a bit of flexibility because they trust me to add elements that don’t take away from their characters, but give them a little bit more to work with. I’d never change a pre-agreed-upon background. However, most of my players would say “you can decide why X is the way it is” or “feel free to make Y perspective the truth, or just my PC’s point of view.”
In my opinion, your player over-reacted and chose not to work with it. It’s not set in stone. You play the cut-scene out, and have Thora call her mom a liar. How does she know what actually happened? If a hated co-worker comes up to you and tells you your respected and well-liked boss has been going behind your back, would you just take it at face value? Why did the player take your cut-scene as gospel?
This is an issue with the player’s unwillingness to be imaginative. It is not the DM’s issue, in my opinion.
I have done a LOT of dream-sequences, cut-scenes and similar stuff recently. Not one of my players has had a problem with anything I’ve done.
Why? Because they trust me to be brutal. I am brutal with the game, and brutal in the cut-scenes. I then reward them heavily, and we have a good time. We spend a lot of time on building the characters, and that’s that. Because we play on-line using MapTool (rptools.net [blatant plug, yes]) as our virtual table-top and have massively conflicting schedules, we don’t have frequent sessions. The result is that we work together on other stuff via email, my game site, and other sources. All together it has been a rich campaign with lots of good role-playing.
I could have pulled this exact stunt off, and gotten not even the slightest complaint, as the person would have responded like Rafe suggests, by calling the mother a liar.
In your position, I would have suggested, gently, to the player that she try to roll with it and imagine what the character would do with that information. In the meantime, you note that she isn’t happy about the idea that Dad is abusive and alter your plans slightly to fit. You don’t want to the player upset, but adding the sense of uncertainty to the game is fine.
I’ve had to occasionally remind players that it is ultimately a vehicle for enjoyment, and that they are not their characters. And this is only for something simple like planning the next course of action for a 5-player party (3 choices only, really, and they argued fairly heavily about it…)
Man, 7th Sea was awesome.
I’m actually facing something like this in my current game (I’m DMing). The backstory of one of my PCs involves searching for her long-lost brother. Later on down the line, I’m intending to introduce the LLB as a second-string antagonist, who will eventually side with the party against the campaign’s primary antagonist (enemy of my enemy, and all that). I’m hoping that the character in question will use that time to further define her relationship with the LLB. Of course, this all hinges on the player accepting that, and being comfortable with these revelations – I’m prepared to scrap that whole plot line in the name of avoiding bad blood at the table (compounding the severity of potential fallout, the player in question is my girlfriend).
I like to think of gaming as collaborative storytelling – the DM (or GM, or Storyteller, or Keeper, or whatever terminology you want to use) guides the story, but the players are the ones writing the details. As DM, I reserve the right to use (or not use) any plot that the players care to hand me, including introducing twists (or failures in viewpoint) like the one you describe. I handle any sort of backstory interaction in the same way I’d handle introducing plot elements that some of my players may not be comfortable with – I make sure that everyone at the table is comfortable with it, and will be having a good time. If that means that I need to scrap a plot twist, or even an entire plot arc, then so be it. We all know how attached players can get to their characters.
Having said that, I do think that your player overreacted to your cut scene – of course, I don’t know anything else about the player in question, or anything else about the campaign, so I can’t say that I would have reacted any differently than you did, were I in your shoes.
IMO – The problem is that you revealed the info to the player and not the character. Dark family secrets revealed in a cut scene isn’t a good idea, but hinting that the mother has a secret to reveal would work better. Then you can gauge in game whether or not the mother NPC would tell her daughter anything. I don’t think the player would have overreacted (and the player did overreact) if you didn’t intend to share the shame of the mother’s secret with the group in a cut scene. Just my two-bits.
As for who gets to determine what an NPC does/is in my games? The GM of course. I don’t put words into PCs mouths. If I want a trusted or despised NPC from a back story to be revealed as something else that is my right as a GM.
Rafe’s point about perspective is well taken. I like a certain number of reversals anyway, whichever side of the screen I’m on.
I had a situation in which the parents of a PC became important to my campaign’s story. The player outlined the parents in detail, and she collaborated with me to establish those details, but we still had divergent ideas about the -directions- for both NPCs.
She’d conceived the father as a former hero who’d become an “amiable nitwit” in his old age; I saw the former hero beneath the surface, trying to come back out. Once we’d decided in advance to kill him off (another mutual decision intended to drive the PC’s character arc), I started thinking about how to present my ideas for the character without invalidating hers.
Rather than butt heads, though, we kept on collaborating. I presented the changes in the father, she portrayed the son’s reaction, and when she thought he stepped out of character, rather than fight me, she came up with a better explanation than mine.
The end result was better and more satisfying than anything I could have come up with on my own, and it seems pretty seamless to anyone who wasn’t aware of the collaboration.
But I can see how this approach might not work if you don’t have an open-minded player (or GM).
You can read the NPC’s final scene, and our comments about it, here: http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/cold-blood/adventure-log/interlude-haden-and-cerellis
DarthKrzysztof – I think your approach is a very valid one, and for some GMs and players it is definitely the way to go.
That said, I think that not collaborating is a great way to get spontaneous and intense role playing scenes at the table. Having that NPC revealed to be something other than what the PC believed is a powerful tool (and one that should be used with caution).
If a GM has a good sense of what the player considers to be fun, than that GM should plan NPC curve balls that will heighten the player’s fun. Collaboration takes away from the surprise effect of such moments.
As long as the result is a fun game for all it really doesn’t matter which approach you take. Just don’t rule any of them out. Experiment and see what works best for your group.
I like have characters write a short BIO on the character’s life up to the start of the game. Two to three paragraphs will do. It doesn’t have to be a novel by any means. Usually I will pose four or five questions to help the player get focused.
I’ve always had an understanding that the player would submit the bio and that I would suggest alterations or additions and then once the player and I agreed the character’s back-story was set in stone. Anything in the story that was specified was absolutely so. Anything in the story that was not specified was open to GM spin. Perhaps this relies on the GM-Player trust level.
In our recent Star Wars Saga Edition mini-series, one of our players had written a set of twin sisters into his back-story. Jaina, the upright and bold sister had gone to the Republic Academy after secondary graduation. Katrina, the adventurous and more rebellious sister had taken up a life on the edge, hanging out with scoundrels and the like.
I decided that Katrina had fallen in with the wrong crowd and that she had come under the influence of a Sith Apprentice. As Katrina was Force Sensitive, she had begun training in the Sith tradition. Katrinaâ€™s jealously of Jaina and her bitterness towards her controlling mother were fueling her passions and leading her on the dark path.
Paul, the player who wrote the bio with the sisters, didn’t have a problem with my spin on his background because he knew that I was doing it for the good of the game and he trusted that I wasn’t just “yanking the PC chain.” This turn of events caused him to have strong roleplaying characterization. His character, Jaris, became determined to bring Katrina back from the dark side and return her to the light. It was really good stuff, especially when the other PCs aided him in that cause. Player trust allowed me to do that.
Gnomestew’s Scott Martin was playing Doumar Creef. Doumar had a family in his background which was thought lost on Taris during a Sith bombardment. Since I hadn’t been playing with Scott for very long at that time, I wasn’t sure how I could fiddle with his bio. In this case, I decided to be more low-key. I decided that Doumar’s sister had survived the bombardment by being away from home when Doumar’s parent’s home was obliterated. She had been captured by slavers and sold to one of Doumar’s old enemies as a house slave. Doumar would be presented an opportunity to learn about this and then try to find his sister as the story unfolded. This also worked well, probably because it wasn’t as drastic as what I had developed for Paul’s character.
So perhaps GM-player trust or experience together is a factor in all of this. I’d be much more inclined to talk to Scott about a bio modification than I would be to talk to Paul about one. I’ve been gaming with Paul for so long that we have established more report with each other than Scott and I have. I think that greater report develops between a GM and a player the more that they game together.
>>> If I want a trusted or despised NPC from a back story to be revealed as something else that is my right as a GM. <<<
I disagree. All NPCs fall into the domain of GM control… HOWEVER, an NPC from a character’s back story is not the GM’s – it’s the player’s on loan to the GM. He or she made it, and made it specifically to have something to do with his or her PC. In my opinion, GM fiat does NOT apply; there’s no open or full creative license in this case.
The issue is one of degree. A GM should not change aspects of a PC’s back story NPC if it alters who the PC is in a fundamental way. On the other side of the coin, static NPCs are not believable.
Collaboration is great, but can ruin a large part of the surprise and thus the fun of the game. I find that if a player wants something to change, he or she approaches the GM/DM and says, “Hey, you know X NPC? I’d like something like Y to happen” and the GM/DM decides how best to make that happen. In this way, the player has added input, but doesn’t control the alterations and will be surprised in how the GM/DM implements the changes. Sometimes a simple suggestion gives a GM/DM a great idea.
You have to trust your GM/DM to be in the game for the players and not himself/herself alone. If he or she isn’t, get a new one. GMs need a little sadism but a big helping of altruism.
(wow… that was a lot of political correctness…)
I think adding elements to an NPC is almost always good. If you take an player’s NPC and run with it, many players are happy that their backstory is making an impact on the game. I don’t think anyone expects the GM not to use NPCs for their own purposes- that’s why they asked for them. Contradicting existing/defined elements of the players’ NPCs should be done carefully and with hesitation, but if you can do it respectfully, the collaboration often makes them more vivid than one imagination could.
With 20-20 hindsight, once I found out about her reaction to the change, I’d have gone with a “belittles her dreams and desires” kind of neglect instead of “beats her daily, twice on Sundays” kind of abuse. Dunno if that’s worth anything, but …
In my case it was “something cool is discovered about your character”. Fergon the Barbarian hailed from the Great Glacier, although his clan was pale-skinned and red-haired. His village was destroyed by Red Wizards, and he eventually escaped slavery and sought life as an adventurer. Ages later, the party is on one of the outer planes, and runs into Siamorphe, the goddess of nobility, who is upset that one of us is not taking his proper place as a noble and lord. I look at the rest of the party: Aasimar Cleric of Ilmater, Human Mystic Theurge of Grumbar, Xeph Soulknife of unknown parentage, and Fire Genasi Fire Wizard, and start guessing who it is… Then she says, ‘Fergon, your people were driven from their lands, and in your veins pumps the blood of nobility.’ I was totally floored, and we went on to finish the campaign by returning me to my proper place.
It was awesomeness and then some.
GREAT discussion topic.
I GM Hackmaster, which makes MUCH of the adversarial player-GM relationship, to say the least. My players and I love this, as it makes advancement and survival a real challenge rather than a given. As a result, accomplishment carries with it a great deal of satisfaction.
Your story today really reminded me of a lot of things I have done with my players in the past, and they’ve loved it.
To begin with, it is my perspective that your players are in control of their own character, and his/her reactions to the circumstances in which she finds herself. You are not altering her character in the least by presenting her with a secret background that she knew nothing about. Is it feasible that Thora’s mother was able to conceal this abusive past from her daughter. Yup, people do it all the time. The key to the believability of this scenario is the “often-absent” aspect of her father. Someone who is not around a great deal is easier to make rosy, etc. Her parents are NPC’s, and NPC’s are YOUR characters, as the GM…not hers. (Rafe, this is my opinion, and the way I run my game. I’m in this for the fun of all, so I don’t do all I can to screw the players over. But I do like throwing curveballs at them, and I DO feel that GM fiat applies heavily. NPC’s are mine to control. If it’s feasible to the story, then it is within my rights as a GM to introduce the twist. My players have never complained, as they’ve always enjoyed the unforeseen, and have come to expect a certain amount of it at my table.) She can continue to choose to idolize her father despite her mother’s revelation, and many people have mentioned that Thora would likely disbelieve her mother, given that the relationship is strained anyway.
My players would likely look upon this as an excellent twist. It’s good story, and isn’t that what RPG’s are all about? It’s an excellent chance for character development, and I would reward my players heavily if they used these unforeseen aspects of the story to help shape their character.
My general philosophy regarding PC backgrounds (and the subsequent fiddling with them thereof) is that if they didn’t specify it, I get to play with it. If you don’t want me to decide that your father who left home to go raiding on the high seas was abusive to your mother, then make sure you tell me something about your Viking-esque father that makes it really hard for me paint him in that light.
That being said…yeah, your player totally over-reacted. You’re within your rights as game master to redefine the boundaries of the PC’s knowledge of their family. You didn’t change the character’s background. You made them reevaluate the character’s perception of their childhood.
Regardless…the only person the player has control over once the game starts is their PC. Everyone else is the domain of their respective player, or the game master.
As a GM, I’d be pretty reluctant to make such moves without feeling out the player first. There’s no such thing as GM’s “right” to do anything in the game. Every player’s responsibilities and decision powers in a game (including the GM’s) are derived from consent.
About the only thing players can control in the game are their own characters, and that autonomy shouldn’t be lightly disrupted.
Making these kinds of determinations about a character’s background do constitute actual changes, not simply new layers. A player shouldn’t have to include in the write-up of his character, “And Jack Hero also happened to use post-cognitive powers and mind-reading to verify that things were as they seemed” to make sure that his own ideas aren’t changed mid-stream.
Changing an important background NPC from a hero to a villain is a big deal because, if the PC discovers it, the player is somewhat obligated to change their portrayal of their character, if they want to realistically roleplay that PC.
I’m of mixed mind here myself, but that’s because partially I’m surprised at the idea of the GM playing a relative of the player rather than the player themselves. I’ve done both ways in my game, but most often the GM only played a relative when either the relative was already one of the GM’s characters or the player had already given explicit permission to the GM to do so. Usually in my games, both as a player and a GM, the characters mentioned in a PC’s backstory have been under the control of the PC except for the two exceptions already mentioned. Now, if it does fall under one of those two exceptions, I’d be happy with something like this happening. If not, though, I’d be ticked off from the start that the GM took someone I created and used them in a way I didn’t approve. Am I the odd one out here?
We have no evidence that the player “overreacted.” Just that she was deeply displeased with the idea. Can’t a player dislike a plotline? Must a player meagerly accept whatever plotting the GM pushes onto them?
The real problem is that the GM and the player had different expectations about the game. It’s a common problem, and while talking about expectations up front helps, RPGs cover so much territory that it’s not possible to address every issue. In this particular case: how much can the GM mess with your backplot? If the GM has lots of control, it makes the world less predictable; hopefully in a good way. In general, the more control a GM has over things, the more exciting of a world it is to explore. Running things past the player in advance can ruin the surprise. However, it’s perfectly reasonable for players to want to contribute, and the more control the GM has the less influential the players are. Messing with characters from a backplot has special problems since the player is invested in them. In a small way it’s similar to taking control of the PC away from them.
Generally speaking, I’d err on the side of not mucking around too much with backplot. If I feel I really need to, I would either tell the player’s up front that the campaign required it (without giving details), or ask permission when it came up (again, with as few details as possible). There is, however, a key exception. Check the character’s backplot for things marked as being mysterious or unknown. “My parents were very well off, but never discussed where the money came from” or “My master would disappear for weeks on end with no explanation, only to return as though nothing had happened.” That’s the player strongly signaling, “Hey, grab this and use it for cool.”
Mind you, you can do things to characters from the backplot; although strive to avoid invalidating the reason they’re there.
Well, I’m thinking about the last two groups I’ve GMed, and if I were about to deliver someone’s mother. Of those groups, less than half of my players would have run with it, and been looking forward to the argument, as you say, the rest wouldn’t react much at all. So, I would definitely have tested the waters a bit, mentioning that a dark secret was coming. To me, it’s rather important to promote the RPing, so wrecking a cherished character aspect is not something done lightly. I would have gone for more collaboration.
As it is, I’m looking forward to resurrecting one of those groups, and seeing how PC A (noble) introduces his gf PC B (common, bastard) to his parents. Parents and backgrounds are highly important all of a sudden!
I disagree with the idea that having an NPC from a back story reveal hidden information is changing the back story. It is expanding upon the back story.
Now let’s say that a PC has their NPC mother as a big part of the back story and that dear old mom is a pretty average person with a good upstanding image in the community. A GM saying “It turns out your mother is a prostitute.” is a pretty stupid move. That invalidates the back story. That is wrong IMO.
But what if it is revealed that the mother nearly left the family to be with another man? She never had a physical affair, but she was tempted to do so. And now that man has returned, with some sort of evil agenda, and mom explains the situation to the PC. That does not invalidate the back story. It makes the NPC more dynamic and more valuable to the story.
I’d much rather play in a game where my PC learns new things about those close to the character, even if those things may be upsetting at times. I never knew that my grandfather’s father beat him and stole his trophy’s from sporting competitions to buy booze with. You never would have thought that if you met my grandfather. Before he died he shared that with me. It was an eye opener. Those are the kinds of moment I’d like to have in game as well.
The GM has no vested interest in any NPC or PC, but the GM does have control of the world. The story is their PC. The PCs and the story interact. Why should the GM not take advantage of their story’s abilities (the power to help shape events) as long as they are trying to challenge the PCs and provide the players with a good time?
If you are a good GM than you can mess with the NPCs in a back story. Just don’t do anything that would undo how the PCs would have perceived the events in the past at the point in the past (i.e. – “I never wrote that my PC’s brother was a mutant with four arms! I think my character would have remembered that!”). On the other hand, making the NPCs dynamic can really improve the game and you don’t need player consent to do that (i.e. – “My brother is a known gambler? He’s been slowly racking up debts for years and was ashamed to come to me for help? Egads!!”).
I think this was invalidating the back story, because the player’s back story had implicitly (or possibly even explicitly) the information “My mother is unreasonable and my father is a good person.” Making the father abusive invalidates that statement.
It’s not, “My character thinks her father is a good person,” which would leave room for change. When a player hands in their backstory, I think a GM should take it as fact, not as merely the character’s perspective, unless the player says otherwise.
Changing things in the future is different. If the father had recently fallen on hard times, become an alcoholic, and started down the path towards being abusive, that would be adding layers. Her father would still be (or at least, have been) a good person, but flawed and human and in trouble. That would not be a contradiction. The character would have the opportunity to save her father from himself, and great plot-like stuff could result.
I can see the “scene diminished her character” thing. While children can be blind to spousal abuse, PCs are considered to be above average at most things, and that includes in perception. Having “I grew up in an abusive household and not only didn’t notice it, but unknowingly sided with the abuser” added to her character without her consent seems like it would understandably be a big deal.
While that sort of twist might be really cool to some players, it’s a serious enough change that I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable making it without consulting the player.
Dynamic NPCs, whether part of a backstory or not, are great. But the things revealed about NPCs that are part of a backstory shouldn’t contradict anything that’s already been established, even implicitly.
One additional comment, I notice that so far everyone’s looking at backstory as if it’s written from the character’s perspective. That also goes against how I’ve normally thought of backstory. First-person backstory, it’s reasonable to think it might be colored by the character’s views or whatnot. But third-person backstory to me carries an implicit assumption that “this is what really happened”, that the tense is in fact third-person omnipotent unless there’s obvious signs in the writing that it was written using an unreliable narrator.
I’d say the player over-reacted but that the DM had overstepped the bounds.
As a player I’m find with the DM running with small changes to the backstory but really want to be consulted on big changes – as much as I’m in their game, I’m playing my character so I have thoughts and plans too. I’m willing to modify them but not to have them completely turned on their head without my knowledge (I’ve had bad experiences with this, can you tell? 🙂 ). There are also certain situations/themes/etc…. that I will not deal with in a game and to which I would probably act the same way as the player if they were presented to me in the same way.
As a DM I definitely like being able to muck with my players’ character’s backstory/life/morals but I prefer to check with them before doing anything large, as I would like as a player. If they’ve gone to the thought and effort of creating the backstory and character personality I like to respect that, even though I’m happy to twist it to my own ends too. If they’ve told me that anything & everything goes though, it does 🙂
I’m going to disagree with the majority of posters and say you were lucky that you asked for a second opinion and the person gave you a good one. From my perspective, the best outcome was hurt feelings.
You made three mistakes IMHO going in:
1. You and it sounds like a lot of other GMâ€™s assume that characters from background (BNPC) are automatically NPCs; they are not. BNPCs are more then that; they are created and envisioned by the player, who therefore has a large ownership stake in them. When you muck with BNPCs, you are doing so with player consent. Keep in mind, several systems (Hero, Gurps,â€¦) give character points (rewards) for creating BNPCs who provide regular plot complications.
2. You significantly invalidated the playerâ€™s concept of Thora. The change you described was more then adding a few layers to the BNPCs, it was a major rewrite. As mentioned up thread, the player describer the relationship in third person, which implies authorial knowledge. Based on your brief description, it sounds like the relationship was basically benign. Mom hates the adventurerâ€™s lifestyle, which creates conflict with Thora. Thora idolizes dad. No sign of major conflict between mom and dad, and most importantly No Bad Guy status for either. Now youâ€™ve gone and made it a morality play between mom and dad. Dad is no longer someone to be idolized, but is instead a nasty brute. You tore down dad (now Bad Guy) to build up mom and suddenly and without warning you discarded the character concept. BTW, and I say this with extreme IMHO; I donâ€™t think your choice of plot development was particularly strong. It seems too much like mediocre TV melodrama. One of my personal rules is I never attempt to make a good story out of a plot line that cause professionals problems.
3. You were railroading the player to have her PC reconcile with the PCâ€™s mom. Maybe that wasnâ€™t your conscience intention, but reread your post and it becomes fairly clear.
As a GM, I try to deal with this by asking for character biographies – they don’t have to be long – and then being true to the spirit of whatever is actually IN the bio. I often tweak a few details or add some gray areas, but I doubt I’d do anything quite that drastic without giving the player an out somehow. If the event isn’t specifically spelled out in the bio, though, I would’ve felt free to turn it around. I try to make that clear to my players beforehand, so that no one’s surprised, and if anyone wants something to be set in jelly they can say so in their bios. (Even then, I try to stress that in most cases, their biographies are their perceptions of what have happened. How many of us know everything about how their parents get along, really? There’s always a chance of someone being wrong. I just always try to stay to the spirit of what they asked for, and to give them an out if they really, really hate a drastic new idea, although it’s not always an *easy* out.)
As a player, I would’ve been okay with the change; I’ve actually thrown out hooks like that in character bios in the hope that the GM would run with them. (It’s happened once; he brought in one of my character’s childhood friends with amnesia, had him start to remember bits and pieces about her, then had him betray her utterly. I did not see it coming and thought it was awesome… well, as a player, anyway.)
If I *had* been displeased with the change, I would’ve found a way to work with it – in this case, I would’ve made it clear that my character believed that her mom was lying through her teeth to try to turn her daughter against her father. That would’ve preserved the backstory (the “bad” mother is trying to turn her daughter against her “good” father by lying to her! Oh no!) while giving the GM the option to decide at a later date whether or not it’s wise to go with his idea, and giving us both an out if he decides against it without shooting him down entirely.
Wow, lots of great responses!
I should also point out that this particular campaign was heavy on the soap opera (if you want to know more, buy me a drink at GenCon!), so pulling something like I did wasn’t completely out of left field. Also, this campaign was long enough ago that I’m a bit hazy on the particulars myself.
This is a tough one. I think you need to have a prior agreement. I don’t think the player overreacted; while the story is collaborative, the biggest stake a player has in a game is their own character. If the character’s story doesn’t go where the player wants, then that’s the biggest failing the story can have for that player.
I think it’s good to throw challenges at a character, but they need to be ones the character can overcome. Changing a backstory is something the character has no control over, and in this case, it forces a change in the character’s perception of her own life and family. She had an image of her home life and relationship with her parents, and if that was a big part of the character’s identity then turning it on its head needs to be done with the player’s consent. I think the big problem was that it wasn’t a new element, but rather a change that says “your father has lied to you, and so has your mother, all your life; he’s not a good guy, he’s an abuser and always has been and you just have to deal with that”. That’s dramatic and good soap opera stuff, but it’s also pretty confronting for a fantasy game and if the player doesn’t want her Dad to be a bad guy, then I think as a GM you should respect that.
One way around this would be to add the abuse in as something new; perhaps her father has become angry and possibly violent, which is out of character. Then that can be a further plot – perhaps it’s because he’s been cursed, or he believes he’s dying, or he’s covering up being blackmailed from his wife, or any number of things that the character and player can then move to change and resolve.
So, to summarize my first and rather long and rambly comment: I think it’s nearly always good to add *new* things, but changing *established* things denies a character – and player – an opportunity to resist that change if they want to, so you should make sure the player is okay with it first.
I havenâ€™t read all responses, but Iâ€™m curious.
Was there any set, agreed to, mechanical way to adjudicate who had the power at the table to dictate the nature of the historical content?
From my experience, in more traditional games like 7th Seas, there is a murky zone when it comes to Content Authority and character backgrounds. Hence the social tip toeing and hedging in this situation.
It would have been interesting to see the same conflict within the Universalis rules, where pre-establish facts strengthen the player that wants to maintain the status quo, but does not prevent a player spending coins on contrary elements.
Without some rules specific to Content Authority it would appear the GM has 100% power to dictate the content.
Your idea, in my opinion, offered a great bang. It called into question just how much this character would continue to hate her mother. It looks like good use of the â€œeven now?â€ technique suggested in Dogs. (i.e., give the player moral authority and continue to vary the ethical dilemmas to find the line where the character grows through choice).
Without you pushing up against the playerâ€™s vision of the character, the player might as well just stay home and write short stories. What is the Czege Principle? When one person is the author of both the Characterâ€™s adversity and its resolution, play isnâ€™t fun.
I’m in the camp that the DM owns the story and the NPCs. I’m a Railroader too, but not where the train can only lead to one station.
In general, I really like the theme of the PC finding out that everything is not as simple as they thought, since that’s part of growing up. Where I might have taken it differently myself would be:
In prior sessions, foreshadow that the PC does not know the whole truth, which prepares her for the surprise and even gives them a chance to guess it. Heck, she might feel robbed if the surprise isn’t big enough.
Don’t have an expected outcome (the recociliation). I like to end it at a decision instead. It would be better for the PC to decide the outcome. For example, the mother could say the father is not the hero she thinks and has done something wrong, perhaps mury story of killing some innocents. This gives the PC the chance to say the mother is wrong, and presents the opportunity to confront the father to find the truth. Even if the truth is ugly, then the PC can decide to be a true hero. Soap operas, serials, etc, are rarely decisive or final because that end the story too soon.
In my most recent recent campaign, one of the PCs had long lost brother. As it turns out, the LLB was happily working for the enemy. When the PC came upon the LLB and found out he didn’t need rescuing, he had a decision: Let the LLB live their own life or fight/rescue them regardless of their wishes. The PC chose to latter, so the LLB never morphed into a BBG, as I had planned, but was not fixed upon.
– The abuse angle. That made it so the mother had to be right. In fact, the female player may be a little more sensitive on that issue or feel railroaded into having a particular reaction. I like to stay away from real-world issues like domestic violence or addiction, which are not easily solved with swords, spells, or even diplomacy checks. It reminds me of reading Watchmen for the first time and wondering how you do that in a comic, which I guess the answer is that its not really a comic.
OK, to recap, have surprise decisions not outcomes. Stay in fantasy subject matter.
I disagree with the idea that the player owns the back story. The player owns the character concept, and I as the GM should not eliminate the back story. At the same time, if I can expand upon the back story and reveal details that were hidden from the character why shouldn’t I?
There are two things a GM cannot do: 1) speak for the PC and 2) describe what the PC does. Those are absolutely in the player’s realm. NPCs, including characters introduced by the back story, are in the GM’s realm.
Now if a GM expands upon a PC’s back story with new details that perhaps the player objects too that is not violating either of the two rules. The player can still have the PC react and say whatever the player wants.
If the player wants certain back story elements to remain “untouched” that is stepping into the realm of the GM. You provide a back story for the purpose of giving the GM hooks as well as an idea of how you want your character to develop. You are providing material for the GM to work with. Let the GM work with it. He or she shouldn’t change the back story, but if the GM finds cracks that he or she wants to expose that is perfectly fine.
And I don’t Walt was forcing a reconciliation. The player’s PC might still have been distanced from the mother. Just because the GM expands upon the back story doesn’t meant that the player has to change how the PC behaves. A GM should be ready for the PC to react in anyway that the player deems appropriate. It goes back to the two rules.
As I once told a player who was hogging the spotlight and causing the group problems “This isn’t your novel. This is our game. It only works when you surrender control to the group at times.”
There are a number of commenters who insist that the GM has always have NPC control, including backplot NPCs. I simply remind you: that is not a fundamental part of playing an RPG. The mere existance of a GM isn’t a fundamental part of playing an RPG! Different groups will have different preferences for how much control to cede and under what circumstance. If you strongly prefer that the GM have absolute control of backplot NPCs, that’s a perfectly fine way to play. But recognize that it’s just one particular style of valid play in a wide spectrum of fun options. Given the breadth of styles of RPG play, almost any absolute statement, like “the GM has absolute control over NPCs”, is going to wildly wrong for piles of games where people are having a blast.
Alan De Smet – You are absolutely correct, but I don’t think anyone is saying “This is how it must be done.” We’re having a discussion where we are presenting ideas.
Also, the reverse of what you are saying is just as true. There are games where the GM has complete control of the NPCs and people are having a blast.
The whole point of these Hot Button articles is to debate the topic and share how we run our games. That is why they are such great fun.
Cool, most definitely. Anyhing which involves the player and GM working together HAS to be good, anything which involves the PLAYER with his/her character more so; like a “real” story, you are standing the PC’s conceptions about himself on their head, giving him a feel of what the character might be feeling? Love the cutscene idea; I would like to try that myself. As for control over NPCs, that is a sore subject with me, having last played with a clown whose idea of a “move” was describing an irrelevant speech by an NPC, then after I broke him of that an ACTION by an NPC, which was when I gave up!
I’ve been experimenting with cut scenes in the 4e game I am currently running. I use these scenes mainly to “set the scene” for the next session. I usually write up about a page of character dialog that brings everyone into the game, gently reminds them of the task(s) at hand, reinforces some NPC’s if relevant, and adds a more story-like feel to the game. So far it has been a great success. The first scene I wrote was in the perspective of one of the players. While there were no complaints, it did feel a little odd trying to write how my player’s character would think, especially since he hadn’t written any kind of background. After that, I wrote the scenes completely in third person, but used previous play as a guide for character actions, dialog, feelings, etc. I don’t plan on writing from a character POV again since I think it could lead to trouble. Furthermore, any potentially dangerous situations are discussed with the player before I write them. After a few months I still haven’t had a complaint except for the one time I didn’t write a scene.
“There are two things a GM cannot do: 1) speak for the PC and 2) describe what the PC does.”
When I first saw this topic, I thought that *this* was gonna be the actual subject matter. I mention this because a DM actually DID this to me back in 1st Edition days. He decided that my 1st level paladin’s code of honor required him to charge into the village that was being sacked by a hundred orcs, so that’s what he did, over my strenuous objection. Needless to say, he got captured, and the rest of the party spent the rest of the session rescuing him while I got to do -nothing.-
So yeah, you can imagine how short that campaign ended up being.
I don’t understand why people think that the backstory is somehow not a part of the “character concept.” I am who I am because of the things that happened to me. I may not have known everything that was going on around me, but the mere act of noticing/not noticing certain things has also shaped who I am. Why would a PC be any different?
For example, if you told me right now that a relative of mine was struggling with drug addiction while I was growing up, I wouldn’t have any evidence in my “backstory” to contradict you. But I conceive of myself myself as a person who would notice if something like that were going on. So, adding that information would definitely change my “character concept.”
DarthKrzysztof: Ah, the good ol’ days of, “You don’t/must do that; it’s against/required by your alignment.”
The back story is part of the character concept, but that doesn’t mean it is static. In fact, the character concept isn’t static either (or doesn’t have to be). Many great characters in literature evolve and their concept changes as they progress through the story.
One great example that probably all gamers know is Luke Skywalker. The first film his character concept is a farm boy looking to leave his boring life and fight for a just cause. He slowly learns about the Force and begins to learn of his destiny.
In the second film it is revealed that his greatest enemy is also his father. The concept of the character changes as he moves from naive farm boy to overzealous idealist who charges into a bad situation.
In the third film we have him as a Jedi. He still has his demons to fight, but now the object is not destruction of his enemy but resisting that dark side within him.
That’s a great character. One that evolved and changed and that had his back story expanded upon.
If a player writes a back story it should lead to dynamic game scenes. Otherwise it is merely fluff. That doesn’t mean that the back story is sacred. At that point it is a tool for the GM to use and build with. Putting up on a pedestal and saying “This can’t be added to. It is exactly as it is.” is limiting the back story to being just a starting point. It makes the character’s past a dead thing, so why introduce any of it into the present?
As a player I would be ecstatic for my GM to expand upon my PC’s back story with revelations of hidden truths. I’d want my character concept challenged. Relinquishing that kind of control to the GM will lead to more significant role playing IMO.
I see what you’re saying, but it’s different. Luke’s father being evil isn’t something he had a chance to perceive or not perceive, since his father was never around. Likewise for all the LLBs people keep mentioning.
The father/brother was out of the picture, and I agree that from there, the GM can do whatever they want. Relative you thought died heroically in the war actually defected to the other side? Have an older sister you never knew about, because she was abandoned by your parents at birth? The great-grandpa your dad always told you funny stories about was secretly the founder of a cabal of necromancers? All good.
A (sometimes) present father being abusive, however, is something that was happening within the character’s sphere of influence. It isn’t something the character couldn’t possibly have known about, as in the above examples.
If the character could potentially have known about something, then the GM adding that something is the same as saying, “You didn’t notice that,” which is declaring the character’s actions/perceptions for them.
I think expanding on backstories is great. I just don’t think it should be done in ways which define the character’s actions/perceptions for them. You wouldn’t do it in the present, so why do it in the past?
Those are good points, but having volunteered to help out charitable organizations such as homeless shelters and battered women shelters I believe that you can hide a lot from your kids and/or spouse. I won’t go into details, but helping people get back on their feet you hear a lot of horror stories. But what can be perceived by the PC in the back story is something that has to be taken into consideration.
With this particular example I can see it working. The father is a pirate, and the mother a noble. He would be gone for months at a time, and she would be adept at keeping up appearances. And this is based on an age where women’s rights were not a major concern for many. I could see this series of events being hidden from the child as plausible under those circumstances.
Also, in response to some earlier posts and back to the heart of this post I wanted to add that it is clear who owns the NPCs in every game. They are non-player characters, so they must be the GM’s domain. To me this is important, because a GM should not be attached or favor NPCs in any way. Nor should a GM target and pick on an NPC just to cause a PC grief as a way to get to the player. NPCs are there to tell the story with and not to mess with player’s emotions. No matter who came up with the initial concept for the NPC.
A fair GM who is not interested in “defeating” the players can use all of these things to tell a great story and to run a fun game with. I’d say that the ends justify the means in this situation. Occasionally what we do will upset players whether it be a story element or a roll of the dice that kills a PC, but if the overall experience is a good one the players will roll with it and come back for more.
“Also, in response to some earlier posts and back to the heart of this post I wanted to add that it is clear who owns the NPCs in every game. They are non-player characters, so they must be the GM’s domain.”
Except that’s not necessarily clear at all, depending on a number of factors. In one of my own games, I let a player play out a conversation between two of his background characters – the character’s parents in this case – because I knew he’d know the NPCs better than I would, given that he came up with them. (This was a one-on-one side session in an online game, so it wasn’t as boring as it might sound.) It’s not a hard and fast rule that every single NPC in the entire game in every RP is wholly under the ownership of the GM, it depends entirely on the game, the players, and the GM involved. That scene was enjoyable by both me and the player, and I’d say that alone proves it wasn’t wrong to do for that game.
Also, I’m a little confused why your claim that all NPCs are under the GM’s domain is important for the GM not getting attached to an NPC in order to favor them over a PC. Those two things don’t seem related at all, since the first doesn’t have to be true for the second to be, or vice versa. Am I misunderstanding your argument?
(Though personally I’d also say that it’s perfectly fine to get attached to an NPC [assuming you mean emotionally attached] so long as you don’t begin to favor them over the PC or start using them just to mess with the PC in the ways you described, but that’s another argument altogether.)
I think that the final say as to any NPC should belong to the GM, but I do agree with Idran that under many circumstances, players can and should have considerable input into the actions of certain NPCs.
It does, of course, depend on the type of game you run. But I can’t think of too many where the GM shouldn’t at very least consult the players for advice about their background NPCs.
Running or playing in a game is in many ways like collaborative storytelling. While you make good points in that GM control over NPCs can help the GM tell better stories, player control over NPCs can help the group tell better stories, and I think that is more important.
Player input is good, and a GM letting a player control an NPC is fine. But the issue here is the NPCs in the back story. So who should control those NPCs that the player created in the back story (and what if the player uses well known and established NPCs in the back story)?
The problem here, as I see it, is that of incentive. Players have an incentive to protect their PCs. GMs have an incentive to challenge the PCs. When players introduce NPCs what incentive do they have to use those NPCs to challenge the PCs with? Not much. Some players do, but in my experience most do not. They are usually more concerned with moving the PC forward through the current adventure.
That is fine, but the GM’s incentive is much different. The GM is only rewarded by challenging the PCs at the appropriate level. Too little and the game is boring, too much and you end up with a TPK. All combat and you have just hack n’ slash, no combat and you just have amateur hour dinner theater.
Now here you have this wonderful tool – the back story. A GM can use that to present non-combat challenges to the PC with. The GM can expand upon the back story and shake up the PC with those revelations. GMs can’t change the back story, but they can draw from them and a good GM will find ways to make those revelations plausible without changing the back story.
So what is the issue here? That the player does not want their character concept challenged? I can send hordes of zombies after the PC, have a dragon savagely attack the PC, have the wrath of the gods reign down upon the PC, but I can’t challenge the character concept?
That just doesn’t fly with me. Challenging the character concept is part of the game. Having the character grow and change, rejoice and suffer, and evolve is the point behind a collaborative storytelling effort. That doesn’t require that the player control NPCs or that the PCs back story be made sacred. That requires that the GM make the PCs the center of the story being told and put them through at times uncomfortable and challenging situations.
Now maybe the player will not enjoy this initially. Good gamers roll with the punches though. They let the GM try something and give feedback. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised, and sometimes the GM fails. That’s life.
Bad gamers, IMO, start declaring that this is theirs and do not touch it. First, how is that collaborative? Your PC’s actions can never be decreed by the GM, what your PC says can only come from you the player, and the PC is the central figure of the story. In a world of NPCs the PCs have the true advantage in that they are the only characters that matter in the end and only their decisions can change the fate of the world. That is a lot of power.
The GM on the other hand has only the story. That is the GM’s PC. You don’t want the GM telling you what to do with your PC, then show the same respect and leave the GM’s PC under his or her control. Meet each other in the sweet spot of RPGs – influence. Let the GM influence your PCs with the story, influence the story with your PCs. That is how great games come about.
One last thing – players have to ensure that the GM is having fun too. We always talk about how that is the most important part of a GM’s job. I say it is the responsibility of everyone at the table. If the GM is running a fun game for you and then decides to expand upon your back story in a way that you aren’t thrilled with, cut the GM some slack. If the game is fun and the GM thinks the development to the back story is fun let the GM have his or her fun. If it doesn’t work out bring it to the GM’s attention at a later time. Give them a chance to try though. You’d want the same with your PC from the GM.
Patrick: You need to be a hell of a lot more careful before you start labeling other styles of play as “bad.” You’re looking down your noise at people who are having a heck of a lot of fun with other styles of play. That the GM has exclusive narrative control over all characters excepting each player’s singular protagonist is not a fundamental truth to RPGs. It’s simply the most common default. The same goes for the idea that the GM gets to control the story. You’re talking about a single style of play in a wide spectrum of valid styles of play. Sure, it’s so common that it’s probably a fair default assumption, but as with all assumptions every once in a while it will come back to bite you. Some players will have different expectations. Calling a player with different expectations a “bad gamer” is unhelpful and actively limits the hobby.
Alan De Smet – I’m sorry that you feel that way.
My point was that bad gamers tend to come to the table putting their interests well before that of the group. I believe that such a player, or GM, is a bad gamer. I personally wouldn’t want to play with such a person.
Yes, there are many wonderful game systems that have mechanics and systems that do not follow the traditional model. My understanding of the post was that it was written to address the more traditional types of games.
You don’t know me. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t post claiming that I have to be a “hell of lot more careful” and that I am “looking down my nose at other people”. I seriously doubt that I am being unhelpful and limiting the hobby by expressing my opinion.
I’m enjoying this discussion. Swordgleam, Idran, and others are making excellent points and I enjoy what they are posting. They are challenging statements that require me to think about my own stance on the subject. I hope that what I am posting is challenging their own ideas.
I feel that handling background NPCs should be done on a case by case basis. In this case, it sounds like the PC had already defined her parents and their relationship, and there was no altering this in her head. In most other cases I know, however, most PCs don’t have their parents set in stone so there is a lot of wiggle room available. Or just redefining background NPCs. Most wouldn’t have had a problem with what happened. But ya gotta know the players, and some will have immovable backgrounds. Nothing wrong with that, but ya gotta know who and what to redefine. Most players I gamed with don’t give much afterthought to families or concern themselves with backgrounds, unfortunately.
On a side note, people do tend to be blind with their own families when growing up. In real life, my wife tended to gloss over certain aspects of her family life. Lately, she has noticed certain traits with her family she never noticed before. She isn’t the only one; her best friend’s husband is having the same dis-enchantment with his family, too. Moving away, getting married, and starting a separate life has had much to do with both accounts, and now both view their parents in different lights from growing up.
It happens in real life, it can happen in fantasy, too.
Unless the GM acknowledges and runs with player-created NPC characters, delivering something unexpected – these characters do not exist within the common game context — they are just words on a page. They might exist as a short story created by a player at the table — something for one player to think about — but they don’t really exist at the table until the GM makes them do something. And for that to happen, the GM is bound to have them do something unexpected.
That doesn’t mean a player can be displeased by the direction a GM takes her background NPCs. In fact, I have also dealt with a scenario where I thought I was delivering the intended general story for a player’s background (a Joan of Arc styled paladin, befriending the deposed prince and leading his people against the Giants of Geoffe in Against the Giants), but quickly found I had overthought the process. Being familiar with the story I thought he wanted, I’d planned to eventually have the Prince see the Joan character as a threat because she was so beloved by the people. I was surprised to find that he did not appreciate this development and that he preferred a version with a happy ending and no twist.
I ran into a similar problem when another player didn’t want to do a backstory, and so I made her an amnesiac and developed a backstory for her that had her involved in an exploitative relationship with a villain. She got upset at this as well.
I would take as my lesson from this that if players care about their backstories at all, that GMs should take the time to listen specifically what they expect to happen with their backstories, and establish up front how they will interact with the plot, if at all. My assumption in the first place was that the player wanted a Joan of Arc-type story, when in fact, he just wanted the superhero character and a Disney ending. I would have approached the context around that character differently, had I known that.
Another good bit of advice I’ve seen above is to ask for BRIEF bios, prompted by questions, or better yet – small dramatic vignettes describing pivotal moments, or even a slice of life for that character. This discourages the boring encyclopedia entries that drag on for pages of tragedy, and encourages players to share their interesting backgrounds. Brevity can reduce investment, and discourages players from scripting out what can happen next. It’s not necessary to detail a history that leads to the moment they begin the adventure. I find it better for a player to do a vignette about a happy moment from the character’s childhood, or some other such small item. The break in time gives the GM and player more flexibility to play with once the game has begun.
I actually have to agree with the player. You WERE only adding another layer, but if she wanted that layer in her story, SHE would have put it there. there’s nothing wrong with adding to a player’s story so long as you aren’t contradicting what they’ve said about it. Although it’s YOUR wordl, it’s THEIR character.
Personally, my answer would be, “Cool!” Yet I’ve dealt with players who wouldn’t at all be cool with it, and it stymies me. “You’re restricting my creative freedom!” seems to be the rallying cry for these players (or at least, the two that I’ve dealt with). In my experience, I think the best way to go is to add this to the list of discussion topics for the beginning of play – lay down your style, and see who likes it and who resents it. Spend your creative energies on the ones who’d enjoy them the most, and find other ways to hook the grumps.
Sorry for the thread necromancy, but I wanted to point out that bringing a “heavy” topic (like domestic abuse) into the game, and especially into a player’s backstory without prior consent is an incredibly dick-move.