Hook, Line, and Sinker!


Role Players fall into one of two categories: the kind that give some thought to the lives their characters had before the campaign started, and those that don’t. Those that don’t have given the GM a blank slate, which of course tells me that I can feel free to populate that person’s past with whatever I feel like laying on them. I’m not saying you should have that PC’s twin brother who can mind control said PC without a die roll show up at the start of every session and take over the PC’s actions every session. That gets old rather quickly. (Believe me, I know. I had one of those GMs) What I’m saying is that when you want the PCs to consider actually doing some incredibly risky or stupid things, and for some strange reason this time they aren’t, you should feel free to up the ante by imperiling  an aged relative, former lover, or beloved pet that the player didn’t know their character had until you mentioned it during the session. This, if you have even semi-decent players, can add some spice to the session!

It can also ensure that you receive a back-story from said player at the top of the next session.

Then you have the players who provide you with some background information. This can be in the form of a list of people the character is related to, a short blurb about some memorable moment in their life, or a 1,000 page thesis on the character’s motivations. Some players are kind enough to actually bait those back-story hooks for you. Others are sure to tell you how they have no relatives, lived their entire life in a dark tunnel, and have never met anyone before the campaign started; or alternately give you every last detail about every person their character has ever met, including the doctor who slapped their butt at birth, and what all of these people’s motivations are. I have no doubt that those others have mind controlling twin brothers in their pasts. The thing to remember here is a key element of any story: Point of View.

It is important to let your players know, up front, that the events detailed in their back-stories are the events as seen through the eyes of their characters. They can feel free to give you motives for these events, but unless the character performed the actions those are possible motives. The character can’t possibly know what the actual motives for actions they didn’t perform were unless they happened to have been Awakened on the Mastigos Path at the time of the action.

Let’s take for example one of the characters in my Mage campaign. Let’s call him, oh, I don’t know… how about Damien. Yes, let’s call him Damien. Damien’s back-story says that somebody stabbed him in the chest in the middle of a New York City street late one evening. This near death experience caused his soul to Awaken. Damien is now determined to use his new found abilities to  find out who tried to kill him, and why they left this odd looking brass knife sticking out of his rib cage. As GM, I’m perfectly fine with this element of his story. As a matter of fact, having read his story, I can come up with any number of people who might have been inspired to attempt to stab him to death. All the same, I caution him that the events in his history are described as they were seen through Damien’s eyes. It’s always possible that things are not quite as they appeared to Damien. Damien’s player actually seems happy about this (he didn’t know me very well back then), and tells me to go ahead.

This was his second mistake. (Joining the campaign happened first.)

I now have a free hand to decide that the stabbing was… an accident? Maybe there was some parasite on his chest that he couldn’t see because he wasn’t a Mage at the time. Maybe this unknown assailant was trying to save him! Maybe it was a case of mistaken identity. Poor Damien really isn’t some twisted Fae creature trying to hunt down poor innocent Changelings, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time! Maybe someone thought it was time for Damien to Wake Up!

I can take what he thought was a case of someone trying to kill him, and totally twist it into something he never suspected – as long as it makes sense to the rest of the back-story. If it doesn’t make sense you’re cheating. In the context of the other events in this character’s story, and in the rest of the campaign world, does this motive make sense? If yes, go with it! Blow minds! You’ll be glad you did.

Mages Make Me Cry

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Posted on July 1, 2011, in Gaming, Mage Awakening, MtAw, RPG, White Wolf, WoD, World of Darkness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. As a player, I always try to give the GM a few juicy background hooks. When the moment comes that this backstory hits me in the face, I cry a little–tears of joy. And horror. There’s a lot of horror there, too.

    I have two different GM mindsets. One: if I get a background or very little background, I scour it for hooks or for where I can fill in hooks. I think my favorite instance of this ever was when Butterwell the Baker’s background came into play in my Changeling campaign. The player had explained how he had been a little boy who loved cookies and was stolen away by the Fae through an oven. Years later children are going missing. This leads everyone to a gingerbread castle in Arcadia, ruled over by Granny Ginger, who turns out to be Butterwell’s old Keeper. Chaos ensues, and I bask in it.

    Then there’s the Dramatic Roleplaying tournament. Since I write up all the character bios for that, it’s an exercise in writing from the character’s PoV. Case in point: Wyverly and Edgar from the final round at the first RetCon (TheRetcon.Com).

    Edgar’s backstory detailed his epic romance with Wyverly, and how her father had broken them apart.

    Wyverly’s backstory detailed her experiences with that crazy stalker Edward, and how she begged her father to break off their pre-arranged marriage, and how her father agreed and now sends her everywhere with a bodyguard.

    With the two of them (and the bodyguard) and a new potential husband for Wyverly all in the same room, hilarity ensued.

    Background can be just as important to the story as what happens after you sit down and start rolling dice.

    • As a player in that Changeling campaign, I would be remiss if I did not point out my brilliant plan to push Granny Ginger into her own oven. You know… like Hansel and Gretel did!

      Except of course that this particular oven lead directly to a bakeshop near home…as per Butterwell’s Backstory (which the rest of us did not know)… we’re pretty good at bringing the chaos!

      • It *was* a beautiful plan. As was the plan to put Butterwell to sleep while you discussed said plan because he might be enthralled to Granny Ginger. The looks on your faces when he started crawling into the oven to get back to the real world when you had “finished her off” by pushing her into said oven–I will always treasure them.

      • I’m sure you will! Just as I will always treasure your reaction to the message Damien’s Ex-Wife left for you. Post Cognition FTW!

  2. I never feel I do a good enough job on character backstories. I either give too much or too little it seems.

    Of course, all of this makes me fear what will happen to Arrow. Not too much of my life’s story has come up in game. One big detail did but that is between certain parties and not everyone else. And there is also the interesting things I do when no one else is around (Get your minds out of the gutter :P).

    I fully expect something to come back and haunt me… jobs done in my past connected to the magical world but from before I was awakened, my status as token Silver Ladder for the group considering the SL’s history, interestingly stupid things I’ve done in game involving my “work”, and so on.

    Not to mention the wonderful out-of-game discussions we’ve had that wouldn’t necessarily be from my character’s original background but could be tied to it simply because I brought it up.

    So many things to worry about now.

    • Not too much of your back-story has come up in the game… yet. Don’t forget that Arrow has only been in the campaign world for about a week of game time. Don’t worry (or should I say “worry a lot”?), your back-story is just fine, and it will not be neglected!

      As for Arrow’s current work related activities… It’s been a pleasure doing business with you!

  3. Yeah arrow has been a very busy boy previously. I see many headaches ahead. Lol. But that’s what makes it fun. A different scary combo was drew and myself. Once ended in jim’s bullet ridden body being thrown to zombies after we shot each other up and got tired of hurting each other in vick’s asylum game. That didn’t end so well for us either. I was caught and killed. Drew’s character realized he started the zombiepocolypse and offed himself. Ahhhh good times.
    This time have an interesting backstory which I don’t think will end very well for let’s say most. Oh well more fun for Vick. Lol

  1. Pingback: @#$% ACANTHUS! « Mage Mistress

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