Backstory in RPGs

Consider two hypothetical RPGs. The first follows the adventures of a young man with an inexplicable talent for convincing people to follow him around in single-file. The hero himself is a pre-rendered character, coming complete with gender, name, appearance, backstory, skills, accessories, kung-fu grip, etc, to the point where the player’s role in the story is limited to indicating which onion monster should die first, usually going by which one happens to look at him funny. The hero and his friends travel around the world trying to find the man who burned down the hero’s home village. He goes to the Imperial city, where he follows a lead to TheMerchantCity, where he takes a ship to ThePortCity, and then heads to TheMountainCity to rescue some guy. This bumbling path eventually leads to the Evil Overlord, who burns villages on a regular basis because he gets cold easily. He’s also the hero’s brother. The overlord is summarily killed; cue the J-Pop and the credits.

Our other hypothetical game, however, has a much more liberal approach to characterization and story. The player can decide who their hero is, up to and including “An amorphous blob of flesh”. Once the player has created his blob, he’s given a quick endgame goal and booted out into the game to do whatever he wants, because a blob might not be keen on following most typical plot points. Many optional side-quests occur, not many of which relate to each other within the game. The hero winds up meeting the Evil Overlord by accident, who turns out to be just some guy. He dies; end game.

The key difference between these two games is that the first had the main character’s personality in mind before the title screen. That design decision leads to diverging schools of thought in story structure and gameplay.

The “established hero” option has a few advantages in terms of story. A story that has pre-established the personality of the protagonist can have a character arc over the course of the story, which is logistically impossible for a game that tries to plan for every possible personality. A story can’t have a sociopathic hero gradually gain the capacity to feel pity if the player has already designed him to be Mr. Rogers. This conundrum can extend to plot-related events too: if the only way to get into the Evil Overlord’s Absurdly Tall Tower is to become grand champion of the Overlord’s annual hitting-each-other-with-pointy-objects tournament, the Mr. Rogers character would probably experience more than a bit of hesitation. By treating the protagonist like any other character in the story, an RPG can plot out the story with whatever twists it feels like without worrying about the guy on the other side of the screen.

This applies to gameplay as well as story. If the main character is established as a fighter, instead of letting the player choose between the holy triumvirate of fighter/mage/thief that has dominated RPGs ever since Gary Gygax decided that strategy games weren’t cutting it, the game can focus on providing interesting challenges for the warrior without worrying that the mage and thief might cry and go home because they weren’t getting any attention.

However, the “amorphous blob” approach has its own advantages, chief among them being that beloved buzzword of the RPG community, immersion. While an established character can have a stronger personality than a player created one, he’s still just that- an established character. He’s a known factor, without any blanks for the player to fill in for himself. The established hero is always going to make the same choices; the amorphous blob, in theory, can make whatever choice that the player thinks the blob should. In practice, no game has offered total freedom in choice, most instead going by the second great triumvirate of the RPG community, “idealistic/balanced/pragmatic”, usually simplified as “good/neutral/evil” (and usually demonstrated as “I’ll do whatever you ask/I’ll do it for a comically small sum of money/Tell me the names of all of your relatives so I may kill them too”). But even this typical choice can have a great impact if handled well and presented with variety: a “good” opinion on one thing, a “neutral” on another, etc. Your character can make the exact same decisions you would, or it could have an entirely foreign personality, but the constant shaping of that character can be a much more immersive experience than watching an established hero make his own decisions.

And, as with established characters, an amorphous blob’s advantages in the story department carry over to gameplay. Since the player is supposed to come up with their own backstory (which, oddly enough, never seems to involve leveling up before the game has started), the player is usually required to decide what abilities their character has. It can be as simple as picking a class, or it can be as complex as deciding which out of a variety of skills their character will use. If it’s the latter, some of these skills will need to go hand in hand for a successful character- just try and use a Pickpocketing skill without a Sneaking skill, I dare you- but they otherwise can be mixed however the player likes for their preferred playstyle.

The amorphous blob and the established character are just two extremes on a sliding scale, though. Recent WRPGs seem to be taking a middle ground approach: pre-determining parts of the character, but leaving others for the player to blob up on his own. The “Good/Neutral/Evil” triumvirate typically comes into play with renewed strength here: the character’s backstory is solid enough to establish that he wants to rescue one of his friends, and it’s also solid enough to establish that he’s not insane enough to do it by storming the Absurdly Tall Tower dressed as a roast ham, but that still leaves a lot of leeway for things like method and morality. Do you gas the lower levels of the tower, endangering the baby kittens that the overlord inexplicably lets his troops keep, or do you just prepare for a heavier fight? Do you find the right angle to go in guns blazing, sneak in the back door, or try to pass yourself off as an anachronistic Pizza delivery man?