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Author Topic: Fancy-Schmancy Character Backgrounds  (Read 8663 times)
jeffd
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« on: December 08, 2003, 01:01:35 PM »

This is something I've noticed in a lot of my play group up here.  It's something I'm wondering about so I'm bringing it to the Forge to discuss.

I GM a Fading Suns game.  I've posted about it before.  The game is heavily Sim with a focus on Character Exploration, and an occasional smattering of narrativism.  I've got five PC's in the game - here's a summary of their backgrounds.  One of them is the one I'm talking about - let's see if you can guess.

Lady Jieza Li-Halan:  Played by Jen, my live-in girlfriend.  Jieza is a Li-Halan Banneret who also happens to be a psychic.  When she revealed her powers to her powerful father he packed her off to the planet of Pandemonium to hide her from the Inquisition, which was sniffing around (psychics are considered to be pretty evil and heretical in this world).

Dame Aixa Li-Halan:  Played by Tina, a friend.  Aixa is a Li-Halan knight who fled a marriage.  She's not the marrying type (would rather slay villians than manage a house) and besides which her little sister was in love with the groom.  

Jaxom:  Played by Drew, a friend of Jen's.  A freeman (ie no formal allegience, in the Fading Suns world playing one of these guys is akin to Dropping the Soap in prison).  Born on Holy Terra as an orphan (Mysterious parents!).  Worked as a translator to the Vau for some time (the Vau are a big power alien race that kicked humanity's ass once) but lost that job for reasons he never made clear.  Has psychic powers and has used them to kill someone who had raped and murdered his lover.  Was a member of the Scravers guild but was kicked out and branded because the person he killed was a Scraver

Bada-Gur:  Played by Wolf, the guy who introduced me to Fading Suns.  A Civilized Vorox Commando (Vorox:  Think a wookie with two extra arms and the mentality of a sixteen year old human) who fought under Jieza's brother in the Emperor Wars.  When Jieza was dispatched to Pandemonium, her brother arranged for Bada-Gur to be assigned as her bodyguard to keep her safe.  

Brother Vanya  Played by Luke, Tina's boyfriend.  Brother Vanya was raised into the Brother Battle, the militant order of the church.  Was assigned to be Aixa's confessor because the previous two were killed in battle (Aixa insists her confessor accompany her into battle in case she is mortally wounded and needs to make a final confession before dying).  

So, can you pick out the PC the subject is referring to?  

It's Jaxom.  While the other players have pretty reasonable character concepts that tie them together (something I specifically asked for; as a GM I didn't want to have to pull some chicanery to get the PCs to work and play nice together) Jaxom's background is just sort of all over the place.  Here's a list of the "neat" stuff he's got in his background:

1)  He's a freeman.  Society in Fading Suns is very much a feudal one; it's about who you know and who's protecting you.  As a Freeman, he has no one to protect him.  But of course he's also beholden to no one.
2)  He was born on Holy Terra.  This is a big deal - Urth (as it's also called) is a legendary world that very few people ever get to see.  But Jaxom was born there.  In an orphanage.  And they let him leave too!
3)  He was a translator to the Vau.  I'm not sure why this was in his background originally (and actually this is where I put my foot down - I don't want anyone to know anything or have any experience at all with the Vau for my game).  This is just something absurd for a freeman to be - but he was pretty snarky about the fact I wouldn't let him have it.
4)  He's a psychic.  Big bad idea for a freeman.  Jieza can get away with it because she's a noble.  With no one to protect him Jaxom is screwed if the Inquisition gets wind of his ability.  
5)  His lover was raped and murdered and he killed her killer with his psychic powers.  I could make a seperate post on this, but suffice to say for now that it's there.
6)  The man he killed was a superior and he was sent into hard labor, kicked out of the guild, and branded for his transgression (not killed for some bizarre reason).  

I don't think I'm missing anything.  Anyway, this isn't the first time I've seen this "Fancy Background" syndrome.  I can understand the need for an interesting backstory (no one really wants to play Joe Normal) but why do some players feel the need to layer one thing on after another until we reach the realm of implausibility?  A poor understanding of the source material is probably a contributing factor, but with the exception of Wolf and Tina the other players were total newbs to Fading Suns as well.  

Any ideas?

JD
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: December 08, 2003, 02:27:16 PM »

Hi Jeff,

We've discussed this in some detail at the Forge before. I'll hunt down some links for you, but here are some notions in a nutshell.

1. The "play before you play" phenomenon. This usually arises because a person is pretty well convinced, from previous experiences, that he or she simply will not achieve any degree of satisfactory thematic content through actual play, so therefore the thing to do is get it in while you can, during character creation. When play drifts and stumbles about all sorts of bogosity, you can daydream about your character background.

2. The "same character over and over" phenomenon, which I think is rightly pegged as an ongoing attempt to get a particular theme or issue resolved creatively, which is continually frustrated. It sometimes leads to a "character salad" when several different themes are involved, which is related to the famous Buckaroo Banzai character-creation tactic, in which the rocket-scientist race-car driver ex-Green Beret sorcerer  meets the ... etc.

3. The "baffle the GM" phenomenon, which is to say, whatever's forbidden, insist on it. Hey folks, I don't want you-all to know anything about the Vau. Oh? Well then, my guy was raised by the Vau, and he has a Vau buddy; they travel around in a starship together. This is a flat-out anti-railroading defense behavior.

Just some thoughts, as I say. But there are a ton of great threads about this stuff, including an excellent set of pages on Ralph's (Valamir's) recent thread at RPG.net. I'll try to hunt'em down over the next few days.

Best,
Ron
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Valamir
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« Reply #2 on: December 08, 2003, 03:05:29 PM »

My rant which actually turned into a pretty good conversation on pretty much this exact topic can be found here

A really good follow up thread can be found here

Jaxom's player pretty much hits all of my rant buttons.

1) refusal to connect to the actual context of play.  The "loner" character.  In good stories the loner character serves as a mirror of society's values.  It is through what the loner chooses to reject that we see into what the society is like.  In RPGs too often the Loner is just a defense mechanism.  "If I have no ties, then there nothing for you to take away from me".

2) Lots of cool stuff stuff in his background.  Cool stuff should be saved for play.  Holy Terra is cool.  Having a goal to get there during play is good.  "already been there" in the background...not so good.  Wanting to learn about and connect with the Vau is good.  "already did that and had a relationship with them" in the background...not so good.  This to me is the habit of someone who never gets to do the cool things in play (perhaps due to alot of exposure to railroaded plots) that he decides to get the cool stuff in by putting it his back ground.

3) Every thing interesting in the background is already resolved.  Loose ends neatly tied up.  Girlfriend who was raped...good stuff.  Oh...she's dead.  Seeking revenge on the guy who did it...good stuff.  Oh...already killed him.  Contact with the Vau...could be good stuff for certain campaigns.   Oh...that was in the past and is done now.


Yup.  I didn't have any trouble picking this guy out of your list.
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jeffd
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« Reply #3 on: December 08, 2003, 03:15:03 PM »

I'm always amazed at the ability of people at the Forge to be smarter than me at identifying what's going on.

My reasoning about Kitchen Sink Backgrounds is that they stemmed from a disconnect about what makes for an "interesting" character.  I was suspecting that I found Jaxom's background to be problematic because I feel that a good character background provides for some meaty conflict that can be resolved during play - that conflict makes characters interesting.

For exampe, take Jack Bauer from the first half of 24 Day 1.  Jack is deeply conflicted between his professional duty (protect David Palmer) and his duties as a father (if you don't kill Palmer we'll kill your family).  That made his character really interesting.  Jaxom's character doesn't have any conflict - it's all wrapped up (as Ralph mentioned, he hit that one without me even pointing it out).  

I suspected that Drew's definition of an interesting character is based off of "what happened" - ie all this nifty stuff happened to me so I'm interesting.  That might be true.  Anyway, thanks both for the insight!

JD
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anonymouse
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« Reply #4 on: December 08, 2003, 04:07:04 PM »

Not knowing the player - and having played on more than a few MUSHes where this kind of thing is par for the course - I'd lean more towards your last paragraph as reasoning. It's character "background" or "history". It's writing up a story and then trying to play it. Usually doesn't work out too well simply for system reasons: I killed 100 enemy soliders!.. but I have a -2 to attack and am only proficient with butter knives..

Which leads to another possibility: system reward. A common line I hear is: Justify your stats. You come up with all the numbers you want first, then try and come up with a reason for all of them. It winds up being about building an effective character (for whatever reason) and then pulling stuff out of the air to justify it. This dovetails with Valamir's over-cooling.
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MachMoth
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« Reply #5 on: December 08, 2003, 05:59:29 PM »

I've had players like that, in the past.  Much to my suprise, two have completely reformed.  Both would try to fill their background with impressive, resolved events.  So, I sat down with them, and said that we would work together, and help each other develop our characters.  Right away, both had ideas for past events, witht he same problem.  Instead of turning down their ideas, I opened them up.  Like the example with the killed lover (since I honestly don't remember the actual characters), we altered it so that the killer was still alive, and the event would be resolved in play.  It must have opened their eyes, because after that, both of them began coming to me with story elements and character backgrounds that they wanted to see their character "go through," instead of things they've done.
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Ben Morgan
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« Reply #6 on: December 09, 2003, 04:36:08 AM »

One of the things I've noticed might help this kind of behavior is to alter the character creation rules a bit.

I'm not familiar with Fading Suns directly, but if it's like a lot of systems that came out in the late 90's, I'm guessing there's some kind of point system involved.

What helped me with Vampire and Legend of the Five Rings is instead of charging points for stuff (like advantages or merits or backgrounds or whatever), simply set a limit on how many they can get (I did the same thing in Cyberpunk with items and cyberware). The same thing can be done with background elements.

So tell them, "when you come up with a background for your character, pick (for example) three things that stand out about your character's history." Stress that these three things are not everything that has happened to your character, they are simply the most important. That still leaves room for mystery, if that's what they want.

You could also tell them further, "at least one of those background elements has to relate to one of the other PCs."

-- Ben
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Loki
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« Reply #7 on: December 09, 2003, 10:03:56 AM »

Everything posted so far is right on the money, but here's my two cents as to where to go from here: point out to him that his character concept has some contradictions/complications that really need resolution (ie orphan, freeman, translator, psychic, murderer, ex-guild), and also point out that probably any two of the above are sufficiently deep character details.

Ask him to pick two that work well together, and then really work with him to set them up as conflicts to explore in game.

E.g. he was an orphan, and for mysterious reasons chosen by the Vau to be their translator (related reasons).

He's a freeman psychic in trouble with his guild: and therefore in big trouble.

He was a translator who murdered his wife's rapist: but the rapist was a Vau (I don't know the setting, so rape might not work--but there are other forms of rape).

etc.

Try to emphasize that his character background is what will drive the game--so he needs to pick one that has a lot of meat on it, hasn't been wrapped up, etc. Likewise, you might want to ask the other characters to do the same: rather than have everyone simply part of this support network for the noble character (ie body guard, confessor, etc), encourage them to create backstory details that set up problems/conflicts in the future.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: December 09, 2003, 10:21:25 AM »

Hi JD,

The dialogue has turned toward interacting with the player about the character, which only makes sense ... but that's a whole issue in itself. Let's look at it very carefully.

I'll start strong by suggesting that negotiating about the character, per se, may be a faulty idea from the start.

Boy, that seems harsh, right? Well, I mean it. I think you are dealing with a player (and if I'm wrong, from my armchair, please ignore me) who simply will twist and wriggle the character into some other "turtle" conformation (I'm mixing my animal metaphors) which is no more consonant with your own play-desires than this one was.

People can be good at this, so good in fact that they can keep their fellow players dancing forever to try to keep up with their "jump right jump left" tactics. They are doing so primarily at the Techniques level of my model, specifically those connected with character creation.

I suggest backing way up to the Social Contract, Exploration, and Creative Agenda model. This is important, because we are talking about what you want (CA) within/about the cool stuff (Exploration), all within the context of you expecting him to meet you halfway about doing this (Social Contract). You're presuming he wants to meet a CA within the Exploration too, right? That's all part of your perception of the Social Contract at hand.

But what if he's not entering into that Social Contract at all? What if any and all of his participation in this whole deal has nothing to do with (1) meeting a creative goal (2) in this cool setting/situation with a cool character (3) in concert with you?

Fuck, man, if that's the case, you could do the point-spending rules-wriggling concept-twisting re-writing dance with this guy forever. Now, I don't know the fellow, and I don't know much about your relationship with him, or anything like that - but going only with what I do know, I say drop him right out of the role-playing situation like a hot potato. Just play with everyone else and save yourself the grief.

Cue everyone else recoiling in horror: "But talk to him! Communicate! Communication is the key!" Fine. If you think that will yield any positive results, that's cool. But if you only hope that it will, with little or no previous examples of the person's behavior to justify that hope, then my suggestion stands.

Best,
Ron
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MachMoth
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« Reply #9 on: December 09, 2003, 12:31:52 PM »

In retrospect, is this having an effect on actual play?  How does the player bring in "resolved past" into his story.  Does he try and use it to his advantage, or maybe just sit there bored, not having anymore ideas for the character?

On a side note, I admit to being guilty of this in my early days.  Heck, I still get the urge to do it now.  If given enough time to think out the character ahead of time, I would have quite the history.  My early GMing techniques often involved overly history deep characters as well.  

I eventually found out it was because I simply wanted to know my character, before play.  If the character had already done things before I started playing with him, I had a template to work with.  Again, this was that belief that what my character did defines who he is.  From a psychological standpoint, this would be true.  We often learn about ourselves through our experiences.  However, it doesn't work that well in this case, because you aren't actually experiencing the events.

These days, my characters (both PCs and many NPCs) suffer from "pilot episode" syndrome.  Generally, the character we first meet, doesn't really match what the character becomes.  It doesn't bother me that much.  It matches my GM style pretty well, and shows that my stories and characters are developing.  As a player, this is fine.  As a GM, it just means I need to plan the beginning of my sessions a little more than the rest.
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jeffd
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« Reply #10 on: December 09, 2003, 01:18:29 PM »

MacMoth:  It's having an effect on play insofar as I can tell that the player isn't nearly as engaged as the others.  Part of it is the fact that he chose to play a character type that is by its very nature somewhat ostracized from society at large.  Nobles, Guilders, and Churchmen don't like Yeomen - their freedom is a threat to the established social order.  Also since society very much works on a level of "who is protecting you and what will they let me get away with," freemen tend to get screwed over a lot since no one is protecting them.  I explained this when he stated he wanted to play a freeman but I sense that now that he's experiencing it in actual play he's not so happy about it.

And yeah, the other problem is that I'm really engaging the other players with their backgrounds, facing them with their issues and forcing them to deal with it... but since this guy has no really usable background he ends up just being a flunkey.  "Hrm we need someone to do this miscellaneous task, where's Jaxom?"  

Ron:  I actually agree that negotiating with the player about the character regarding this stuff might not be the best idea.  For starters, most of his background arose from roleplaying with other characters.  It wasn't the typical "run it by the GM" stuff, rather he roleplayed telling other characters about it.  Part of my group's Social Contract (never explicitly stated; I started this game before I started visiting the Forge) is that so-called "retconning" is a big no-no.  So I'm kind of backed into a corner.  

I *could* sit him down and talk to him about it.  My impression is that he'd probably get defensive and try to avoid the issue.  Players in this group have a belief that character concepts are sacrosanct and that the GM should tailor the game to the characters and not vice-versa.  I've disabused them of that notion to an extent but I'd say of the five players this guy is the one clinging the most to the idea.  Maybe I could get through to him eventually - but frankly it's not worth it at this point.  The game will be played out in another two months or so - with bi-weekly sessions and a break over the holidays that's only another four sessions.  I've managed to superficially engage him in the plot somewhat with a bit of a kludgy, hackneyed series of Bangs that are nonetheless piquing his interest (the character is having disturbing dreams and also has seen the face of the man he murdered after finding his beloved killed in crowds.  It's a psychic coven intent on recruiting him first fucking with him; their goal is to force a psychotic episode on him at which point they sweep in and reassemble his personality to one that will be more likely to work with toward their agenda.  If you've read the Illuminatus! think of what the Illuminati tried to do to Saul and you've got the right idea).  

Really with this post (and I'm sure I didn't make it clear enough) I was looking for some insight into *why* this occured.  Your earlier reply (and Ralph's) were awesome in helping me understand why players make these kitchen-sink backgrounds.  Also the experience with Fading Suns has given me some real insight into making the Social Contract explicit and also going into the game with a clear idea of what our Creative Agenda is.  

JD
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: December 09, 2003, 01:56:14 PM »

Hi Jeff,

Well, you know best what you want to do with the game. All of the following should be read as a bit of a vent on my part, and in no way an accusation or a recommendation for you.

Here's how I'd paraphrase your position:

"He wins. His tactics beat my tactics. So now I'll just settle for four more sessions of play that will be more frustrating and time-consuming than they have to be. Oh well, four sessions isn't very many, and two months of my time isn't worth all that much."

Me, I'd look at the situation and your statement "I'm kind of backed into a corner" very differently. No corner's involved, because breaking Social Contract with me means that it's broken - in terms of how much "give" I have to give. No one messes with my fun-time. No one elicits major creative commitment from me and others, and then sabotages it. No one gets to sit in with us and not pull his or her weight. Here I am, playing Fading Suns, having looked forward to enjoying this setting and its many neat features for frigging years, and I have to allocate any of that energy to this? The band would simply stop inviting him in a heartbeat, specifically for the purpose of getting the most out of those four sessions, in those two months.

None of the above is presented to tell you what you should do. It's merely a vent, perhaps a look into my head, just food for thought.

Best,
Ron
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jeffd
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« Reply #12 on: December 09, 2003, 03:00:54 PM »

Hey Ron,

Honestly I'd normally be inclined to agree with you - a lot of time that's exactly how I approach most of my entertainment time (if I'm not having fun then I need to go do something else).  In this case there are other social considerations that would make just booting him from the band more trouble than it's worth; he's a good friend of Jen's (my girlfriend) and kicking him out would cause flak there.  So now I'm in a balancing act - if I just booted him from the game I'd get a lot of flack from her.  

Like I said, I seem to have gotten him at least somewhat engaged with a few bangs that did manage to hook into his largely resolved history.  We'll see how it goes.  

Thanks for the interest though, I do appreciate it.

JD
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John Kim
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« Reply #13 on: December 09, 2003, 11:42:47 PM »

Quote from: jeffd
 Players in this group have a belief that character concepts are sacrosanct and that the GM should tailor the game to the characters and not vice-versa.  I've disabused them of that notion to an extent but I'd say of the five players this guy is the one clinging the most to the idea.  Maybe I could get through to him eventually - but frankly it's not worth it at this point.  

Well, if he is very different in taste than the other players, then maybe you really are incompatible and should part ways.  On the other hand, your last post suggests that you aren't comfortable with that.  So I gather you're still looking for alternatives.  

I'm curious about this last part, since it makes it sound like you're dragging the group away from a style that is closer to Jaxom's player, towards a style which you prefer.  I can see that causing meta-game conflict between you two.  A few disclaimers: I know very little about Fading Suns.  Also, I tend to follow a character-sacrosanct-and-should-be-tailored-to style myself.  I know I wouldn't like being "disabused of the notion" of my commonly preferred style.  

If this is the case, then resolving the clash may call for some compromise between you.  You try a little tailoring to sacrosanct character, and he tries to engage more with your style (I'm not sure what it is, by the way).  

Quote from: jeffd
And yeah, the other problem is that I'm really engaging the other players with their backgrounds, facing them with their issues and forcing them to deal with it... but since this guy has no really usable background he ends up just being a flunkey.  "Hrm we need someone to do this miscellaneous task, where's Jaxom?"

OK, it sounds like you're a little stuck here.  Whatever else he is, Jaxom doesn't seem to lack for issues.  I'm working from fairly little information here, but I would tend to throw Jaxom into a protector role.  For example, he might find out about someone who is threatening Lady Jieza on the basis of her psychic qualities.  What does he do with the information?  That would play to his issue of failing to protect his lover.  My main point is that issues are moral -- they are internal to the character.  Hitting a character's issues doesn't require that a character or entity from his past resurfaces.  It's a handy dramatic device, but it isn't required.  

Quote from: jeffd
I've managed to superficially engage him in the plot somewhat with a bit of a kludgy, hackneyed series of Bangs that are nonetheless piquing his interest (the character is having disturbing dreams and also has seen the face of the man he murdered after finding his beloved killed in crowds.  It's a psychic coven intent on recruiting him first fucking with him; their goal is to force a psychotic episode on him at which point they sweep in and reassemble his personality to one that will be more likely to work with toward their agenda.  If you've read the Illuminatus! think of what the Illuminati tried to do to Saul and you've got the right idea).  

Well, if my guess on the style clash is right, then I think this might be a questionable move.  Here you (as the coven) are trying to manipulate and control the player (as Jaxom).  Personally, I would tend to let him find out about the coven and what they are trying early.  This puts him in a position of power and choice, which is often better for issues.  Then again, I suspect I have a different GMing approach than you.
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