Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Secret Backstories and Mysterious Characters

A well-developed backstory is often a critical part of creating a role-playing character. By no means necessary, a backstory can provide a foundation, some core tenets, for your character and allows you to ground yourself in his/her motives and behaviour. It allows you to understand how that character may make decisions and evolve as the story unfolds.

We have discussed character-making before, but today I'd like to discuss a specific type of character backstory, the secret one.
Dallas Kasaboski

Sometimes, it can be fun to include secret elements into the history of your character. These elements allow you to think one way, but act another, and they can provide interesting plot points and challenges later. Maybe your character ran away from home, and the DM may have your party deal with that later. Maybe you're a long-lost prince and that could provide an interesting twist on your adventure. Whatever the case may be, I have noticed that people sometimes like to create backstories with elements hidden from the other players.

But I have also noticed that this can cause problems at the table if not handled properly. If your elements never come to light, then what is the point of having them? If you behave oddly because of something from your past and your fellow players never know about it, they may just think you're being strange with no context.

Communication is essential amongst players and DMs but does this preclude a secret backstory? Not at all, and we will use a couple of examples here to demonstrate how to more effectively make use of this device.

Example #1: Strider

I'm quite certain you're all aware of Strider, from The Lord of the Rings. But, in an effort to avoid spoilers, I'll dance around it a bit.

When we first meet Strider, he is a very mysterious character. Sitting in the corner of The Prancing Pony inn, he is surrounded by smoke and shadows. Strider isn't even his real name, just the only alias by which he is known. He agrees to help the hobbits, understanding the danger they face, but his true history and intentions remain unclear. He is scary, dangerous, but a loyal ally. It is revealed much later that he is more than a simple ranger, and this becomes a major part of the trilogy.

I have seen people try to create and play a "Strider-like" character. The mysterious past, the ambiguous loyalty, it is quite common in D&D circles. However, I have seen this character concept create the wrong kind of tension and confusion, either because the player acts suspiciously, or because the player fidgets with the paradox of both wanting and not wanting to reveal the motivations behind their behaviour.

So, how do we do this properly? Well, let's look at Strider. The character is introduced by someone else, someone who seems aware of the goings-on in the area, but admits no one knows much about the mysterious ranger. Later, Strider shows up when the hobbits are in danger, knowing much more about Frodo's mission than he really should. Seeing no alternative, the hobbits decide to trust him.

Bits and pieces of Strider's backstory become more clear later in the story, and are almost always expressed/shared by characters other than Strider himself. While the monologue about one's past is a time-honoured technique, I kind of like the slow, piecemeal, unveiling of his backstory. His motivations become more clear and when you finally connect the dots, things become really interesting.

So, talk with your DM. Have a cool, mysterious introduction, if you wish. Perhaps have your DM bring up elements of your backstory at specific times from specific non-playing characters. Probably the most important, underlying point, is to be an active member of the party. Too often, people mistake "mysterious" for aloofness, and in a game where party cohesion is important and essential, your standoff-ness is really doing your party a detriment. Work with your party, slowly reveal your history, always act according to your character, but be willing to bend and compromise for your party. Strider did not want to become more involved with the mission of the One Ring. He wanted no attention drawn to himself, but he did what he thought was right and what he had to do to protect the hobbits, and eventually, his backstory was revealed and he realized he had to become more involved. 

Example #2

Sometimes, your backstory, your intentions, are not exactly pure. I have seen this type of character a few times, where the character's motivations actually go against the party. Whether selfish, evil, or misaligned, such a character can also be made and played well, it's just tricky.

I once played in a Lovecraftian campaign, a modern tale about mysterious legends and creatures of unfathomable monstrosity. Rather than know each other for some time, our characters came together separately, out of desperation, and had to work together to uncover and stop the threat before us. 

One of our characters was a radio host, whose uncle had been an archaeologist. His uncle has stumbled upon some knowledge concerning the coming threat, and the character had studied his work. During the campaign, he was very useful to the party. His knowledge of Latin helped us uncover and translate information about cultists, those working to bring about the apocalypse. Working together, we made our way to the summoning door and were ready to fight off the cultists. 

And at the most critical moment, the character threw open the sealed doors, unleashing Cthulhu upon the world, driving us instantly and completely insane, killing us all! Our DM demanded our character sheets, which he promptly ripped in half, and the players were all stunned, upset, and shocked.

It turns out the player had worked with the DM to bring about the players' downfall. His unique knowledge of Latin allowed him to read the manuscripts which, instead of being vague cultist propaganda, were actually manuals for summoning the Old One. In fact, the cultists we had encountered were no such thing, they were actually people trying to stop the apocalypse but we were mislead by assumptions, our trust in the character, and low skill checks at opportune moments.

Now, I would not exactly recommend playing this type of character. I believe D&D works best when all of the players are working together, and while characters can and should argue, they shouldn't actively work against each other. A good game of D&D usually doesn't conclude by a total party wipe, complete with betrayal at the table. However, despite all the emotions involved, I thought it was brilliantly done. Sure, one of our players kept her torn character sheet as a bitter reminder, but in the end, we all remained friends and look back at the experience with a laugh.

This method was successful because the player and DM had worked things out in advance. The player was true to character the entire time, leaving hints which, in retrospect, were obvious, and while the character had plenty to hide, he still worked alongside the party. He wasn't aloof, or hard to deal with, and he didn't act suspiciously. In the end, the betrayal was just as amusing as it was shocking, and in retrospect, it was very well executed. (And so were our characters, I guess)

So there you have it, two examples of how to play a character with a mysterious past, or mysterious motives. Remember, D&D is a game best played together, so if you want to be mysterious, make sure to be an active party member. And if you want your secret past to have greatest effect, talk to your DM, and work out a plan for how your story will unfold.

Thanks for reading!

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