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Normally, the player creates every aspect of their character, but what if the campaign requires the player characters' backstories to have certain elements? Like for example in the computer game Baldur's Gate II, players get to make their own character for the most part, but the character cannot have known his real father because part of the campaign is discovering who he is.

Is it considered bad form to create a campaign that requires PCs to have certain elements, instead of a campaign that could suit any type of character a player might wish to create? Can you only allow people to play characters that fit that requirement? If it's allowed, what are the pros and cons of this approach?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This looks like a great topic for a discussion forum. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 9 '17 at 0:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Edited slightly. This is answerable; this is just a noob wondering if something's possible or not, it doesn't have to be an opinion-based discussion to answer that. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Sep 9 '17 at 0:14
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That's the great thing about D&D - everything's allowed. Yes, this is allowed and pretty common. People run campaigns where "you all have amnesia," "you are all trapped in Ravenloft," "you are all noble siblings," "you are all elves..." This is a basic DM technique. The constraints can be based on your game world - "In this world there are no tieflings and halflings are dino-riding cannibals" - or on the campaign - "you will all be in the palace court of a crazy usurper queen."

In fact, I would venture to say more experienced DMs start to gravitate away from the 'grab bag' approach to campaign formation because of the inherent problems there (lack of working together, lack of aligned goals, PC conflict) and even if they don't provide a constraint, expect the PCs to come up with some commonality to keep the group together before they start. In fact, many newer RPGs have specific mechanics built in to build such links to the setting and/or other players interactively during character generation.

The pro is that you get to create a more customized experience; instead of people "always playing the dwarf" or "meeting in a bar" you can set up some deeper story hooks.

The con is that players like choice and agency, and can get annoyed when told they "can't play a tiefling" or whatever. Sometimes this turns into a negotiation of what's constrained vs what's allowed (see also The Gamers: Dorkness Rising on a streaming service near you), and it's obviously driven by whether you can afford for a player who won't buy into the premise to not play in the campaign or not.

Many published campaigns impose some kind of constraint to keep the adventure within bounds of the published material. Home campaigns can impose limits or be freeform sandboxes, as the DM and players want.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you want to address 'in media res' type stories/modules like the A1-4 series Slavers of the UnderCity from 1e? That seems to fit the "this is your situation, go!" but may not fit your answer as well as I think it might. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 9 '17 at 0:50
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Yes, according to the DMG.

The DMG (kind of) assumes that you will place requirements and limitations on character creation. For example, it suggests that you give a handout that includes (DMG 26)

Any restrictions or new options for character creation, such as new or prohibited races.

On the same page, DMs are told to be accommodating with their backstory requirements:

Even if you want all the characters to have grown up in the starting town, consider allowing a recent arrival or a transplant if the player's story is convincing enough. Suggest alterations to a character's story so it better fits your world, or weave the first threads of your campaign into that story.

So the direct question is yes, the system allows DMs to have some control over the players' backstories.

The main pro is cohesiveness

I have played and DM'ed in games where restrictions were imposed, and in ones that were not. The main benefit to DM control of backstory is that it allows the DM to be much more flexible in where the game starts. For example, having all the characters be part of a military or mercenary group opens up certain plot threads, and having all the characters have some ties to the main antagonist helps set up the campaign.

For characters, it really cuts down on time where the characters warily get to know each other (see: almost every superhero team-up), and allows the group to dive into the action. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your personal taste.

The main con is regretting your restrictions

In one game we've played, the DM restricted the class and race options pretty significantly. He later mentioned that he regretted putting such strict restrictions on us. Likewise, you might find that you've painted yourself into a corner with the backstory that you've required.

Honestly, though, if you have player buy-in, I don't think there are any significant cons to this approach. As the DMG quote above states, you can probably shoehorn most of the characters your players want to play into your predetermined backstory.

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