The Memory Game

January 16, 2013

An Alternative to Extensive Back Stories No One Wants to Read

Writing an extensive back story is not for everyone. For every player that revels in writing a back-story, it seems there are two that absolutely hate it. Sometimes, getting acceptable back-stories from players is like pulling teeth. And the truth is, most of the stuff in a back-story is utterly useless crap.

Writing a back-story is the RPG equivalent of narrative masturbation.

Yes. Crap. The thing a lot of folks forget is that a back-story is the part of a character’s story that isn’t interesting enough to play in the game. If it were exciting and interesting, we’d play it at the table instead of writing it down beforehand. That’s not to say it isn’t useful. The back-story helps the player make consistent decisions about the character’s actions. It also occasionally comes up in the game when a character discusses past events.

Ragnar: “Wow, I didn’t know you could ride a horse so well!”
Taloon: “Oh sure. When I was little, I grew up on a ranch in Aundair. I remember one time, we had this nasty magebred stallion that hated everyone. And I…”

But, most of the back-story is a just filler. The important bits are the bits that explain a particular skill, ability, personality trait, motivation, or goal. Sure, it gives a nice consistent picture of a character. But there is a reason why most books and movies don’t start by giving you the back-stories of all the characters. Instead, the important parts of the back-story are woven into the narrative (as above) whenever they are needed. Usually they either explain something or set something up for later (Taloon might reminisce early in the book so that later, when he gets into a chase on horseback and is utterly amazing, the audience doesn’t think it’s odd). Even though many authors do have some sort of extensive back-story in mind, most of it ends up on the cutting room floor, because it isn’t interesting to read! Its there in case the author needs it!

Apart from mostly being useless, the back-story actually has another weakness in an interactive, collaborative game like D&D. In movies and books and even in real life, we come to know characters (or other people) primarily through interaction. We are social creatures and, as such, we are most strongly defined by how we interact with others. Role-playing games can be very interesting explorations of characters precisely because the characters are constantly interacting with other characters without knowing what those other characters are going to say and do. In a book, a single author controls everything so we never see the character coping with unexpected interactions. Well, a back-story is a role-playing game minus the interaction because it is entirely under the control of the author. And the purpose of the back story is to define the character. If you look at it from that direction, writing an extensive and detailed back-story is removing one of the unique elements from RPGs. I have had endless fun “discovering” character foibles simply by deciding on the spot that my character reacts a certain way to something someone else has said and then figuring out why later. Or never.

Taloon: “That wasn’t a smart move.”
Ragnar: “Are you calling me stupid!? Nobody. Calls. Me. STUPID!!!”

Moreover, RPGs are team-based games. As such, it is sometimes important to bend to the will of the team. And we sometimes discover that some character details just don’t work within a particular group. A good player is willing to bend their character and back-story to make the group gel. And if an extensive back-story has already been written, people are less inclined to go back and alter things. Especially because people get emotionally attached to anything they put a lot of work into.

And I get it. It is fun to write a back-story for a character. And part of the fun is having a chance to write your character without anyone else interfering, with the full power of the author who controls everything. Writing a back-story is the RPG equivalent of narrative masturbation. And a well written back-story does help create a consistent, nuanced character with connections to the campaign world and well-defined goals.

But, as I said, it is not for everyone. Some players just don’t like writing. Some DMs just don’t like reading the damned things. And most of it is just useless crap that will never, ever be important. So, if you and/or your players wanted an alternative, you could be totally forgiven.

It just so happens that my current campaign focuses on reincarnating heroes and past lives and I needed a mechanic for handling memories and how they might affect a character’s personality, motivations and what have you. And, as I was typing up the basics, I realized it could actually serve as a useful and powerful alternative to the pages of back-story. So, I decided to share it.

TO BE CLEAR: Dear Internet, I am not suggesting everyone dump their back-stories in favor of just using memories because it is better. I am not saying back-stories are bad and that people who write back-stories are stupid. I am just offering an alternative I’m using in case anyone wants to try something different. I know I said some bad things about back-stories up there. But I also agree there are good things. It’s a tradeoff. Please don’t tell me why I’m wrong to be “hatin’ on back-stories.” Thanks. Hugs and kisses, Angry.

The Basics of Memory

A memory is a short, simple vignette from a character’s life that had a lasting effect on the character. It consists of a brief narrative description of the event and a sentence that describes the impact it had on the character. They should be no more than about five sentences and be quite bare bones. The player can fill in other details when the memory actually comes up in play.

(In my game, to reflect gaining and losing memories of past lives, I am using index cards. A character will essentially have a deck of memories.)

“When Alena was fifteen, her brother, Kiefer, was killed by goblins during a raid on her village. She insisted on taking up a sword and joining the militia that was going to fight the goblins, over her parents objections. Many of her townsfellows died fighting, but they prevailed. This experience left Alena tenacious and coldly desensitized to death.”

“During Kiryl’s apprenticeship to the wizard Borya, Kiryl would often take shortcuts and cut corners out of laziness. The wizard preferred to use pain and fire to discipline his students. Kiryl never gained a work ethic, but he did get much better at making excuses and trying to talk his way out of trouble. This experience left Kiryl with scarred hands from the many burns he received and the quick wit of a creative liar.”

“When Mara was little, she became deathly ill with a terrible fever. Her father entertained her with stories of great heroes and noble deeds, partly to distract her from the illness and partly to distract himself from the fear of losing her. Eventually, the fever passed, but it left scars in her mind. This experience left Mara with a very poor memory and occasional migraine headaches due to brain damage from the high fever, but a strong relationship with her father and a starry-eyed, romantic view of the adventuring life.”

A good memory explains some things about the character, particularly things that can’t be explained from the character sheet alone. Like personality traits (Alena’s tenacity and coldness), unusual skills or feats (Kiryl the wizard clearly has training in the Bluff skill or perhaps even Skill Focus (Bluff)), or motivations and goals (Mara adventures for the fun and excitement of it). A good memory might also fill in other details, like why someone is a member of a particular class or who trained them (Alena became a fighter, Kiryl was apprenticed to a pretty rotten wizard and was probably forced to into it) or even suggest other personality traits (Mara might be an eternal optimist with a zest for life). A good memory can also lead to interesting questions and fuel role-playing and improvisation at the table.

Mara: “How did you get those scars?”
Kiryl tells the story of his apprenticeship.
Mara: “Oh… but if you were so miserable and he was such a rotten wizard, why did you study with him?”
Kiryl has to come up with an answer.

In my game, the first line must define when, specifically, the event happened and the last line of every memory must explain how the memory affected the character. What lasting impression did it leave? Remember, a memory that doesn’t shape the character in some way is utterly useless narrative masturbation (and no one wants to see that; masturbation is only fun if you’re the person doing it).

By focusing the players on specific events rather than on a broad narrative, and forcing them to address the lasting impact of the event, the events become more powerful and they reinforce the character. It is easier for the players to write a few key events than to create an entire narrative out of whole cloth. It is also easier for both the DM and the player to remember a few events than it is to remember pages of back-story. They are easier to skim for plot hooks. They also ensure some consistency between players in the back stories (avoiding the fact that one player brings you thirty pages of psychoanalysis while another brings you a paragraph summary of their training and nothing else). Most importantly, because each one defines the lasting impact it has left on the player, they are much more likely to come up in play and to be talked about.

Required Memories

A DM could get more out of the memory system by setting specific requirements for the memories. For example, my game starts out at 2nd level. So, I am requiring one memory to be of a recent past adventure. Another memory must be of an event during the character’s class training or education (whatever that might entail).

A DM who wanted to obtain a good pool of NPC’s related to the party might require at least one memory from each player involving a close friend and relative who is still alive today. Or a rival.

A DM who wanted to establish relationships between the party might require each player to write a memory of how they met another member of the party or two (with appropriate collaboration… or not).

A DM who wanted to work a specific story element into the campaign (a place all the players had visited or a particular organization) might require each player to have one memory involving that element.

A DM who wanted to set up a specific start to the campaign could use memories as well. Perhaps all of the PCs begin as criminals in an evil empire’s prison. The DM might require a memory that explains their crime or arrest.

Remember: as useful as back-story is for a player, it should also be useful for the DM. Placing some requirements is a great way to ensure you get the things you need as a DM out of it. Of course, it is still a player’s back-story you are messing around with. So leave some freedom. Don’t require five memories and then tell the players what four of them need to be. Try to only mess around with one or two of them. Leave half or more for the players to explore.

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7 Responses to The Memory Game

  1. Josh on February 4, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    This was an extremely useful piece to me. A few years ago I had the privilege of playing with a DM who came from WoD (Vampire, Werewolf, ect). He was the best storyteller I had ever met, and he became the standard by which I measured myself. Since then I have made great strides, and I hope that I will one day be as good. His game felt so real because the people and places felt so alive, and I realize he was doing something similar to this. I also read some of his Vampire books, and each skill description contained just a few sentences about some person using the skill. That tiny little breath of life made it a completely different experience from playing D&D, where the rulebooks have the tendency to make you think in a meta way with the goal of minmaxing, rather than thinking about a person, and what they might do, how they might do it, and why. This should help me a lot to improve my game.

  2. [...] Angry DM is at it again, this time ranting about PC backstories. It always seems there’s either none or waaaay too much. How do you find [...]

  3. LonePaladin on April 23, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    I’ve done something similar to this. When I’m making a new character, I refuse to write a back-story. I prefer to start with a basic idea (like “Aoth the warlock is a hedonist, and only helps the party as long as he can clearly benefit”), and work in the history and motivation stuff as the story progresses. I’ll even dare the DM to throw in new elements out of the blue (such as, “A young girl comes running down the street, crying. Aoth, it’s your sister.”) to keep me on my toes.

    I really have to sell this idea hard when I’m joining a forum-based game. Way too many DMs online demand that all prospective characters have a five-page essay for a background.

  4. GlitchBounce on July 31, 2013 at 12:35 am

    I’m currently listening to the sound of glorious silence as my 5 pc’s bow their heads over pieces of paper carefully constructing a short snippet with all the creative intensity of a monk crafting a haiku. This was a great idea, thank you.

    • TheAngryDM on July 31, 2013 at 9:01 am

      Umm… you’re welcome?

      Seriously, though, glad you got some use out of this idea!

  5. Jaist on August 5, 2013 at 4:04 am

    I have to say I disagree here. My PC’s back stories range between 3 pages of 10pt font and a single line of text but every backstory is an endless source of ideas for my campaign.
    It also lets me know what type of character the player wants to play.

    I take the PC’s backstory and with their consent rewrite small sections so it fits in with the campaign. We play these as one on one flashback sessions. It allows me to introduce NPC’s in a more meaningful way and is an excellent tool for re-enforcing motivations.

    I have gotten the most positive feedback from the players for these sessions as you can play them a lot more casually, it’s almost scripted and they really appreciate when you throw them a curve ball but they still end up on the right track by the end (it is a flash back after all).

    I think the trick is to really know your campaign and know where its heading, you can then interject a flashback to reveal something the character would know in a situation, but wouldn’t really think of up to this point. When you weave part of their backstory into the main plot it blows them away.

    So far my PC’s all think they are on different super secret missions and just generally heading in the same direction and have grouped together for protection in the wilderness, but in about 3 sessions time they are going to find out that they have all been sent on the same quest since the start.

  6. Colin on July 12, 2014 at 3:59 am

    Great approach to back story, Angry!

    This allows small incremental additions to back story as needed. I plan to use these with my next campaign.

    I think I’ll have the memories phrased in the first person, “When I was a hatchling, …”

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