64
\$\begingroup\$

As a GM I have a rule where I write a players background for the player in a way that will affect them badly if they say the are amnesiacs in order to get out of writing a backstory. I tend to require at least half a page as background (I estimate at least 200 words) and if they make an interesting background, I let them have a magic item left by their grandparents or start with extra experience or bonuses due to their background.

So far it has been fun mocking them with it saying they owe money to a dragon or that they used to sleep with the city lord's daughter but one of my players voiced a complaint saying what I was doing was bullying. I told him that he should have heeded my warnings and written a backstory but it raised doubts within me. In any case my question is should I continue the way I am or should I let players ignore the backstory aspect of the game?

Note: I have been using their backgrounds as plot hooks having the dragon ask for a favor and the daughter in question blackmailing the group into fetching something she wanted.

\$\endgroup\$

11 Answers 11

191
+500
\$\begingroup\$

You should cut that out.

You've basically answered the question yourself in describing the situation to us: You have a requirement that characters have a backstory. If they don't bring a backstory, you write a “sadistic” backstory that “affects them badly” and “mock” them with it, and a player has confronted you that they feel bullied. (This is all your own words.) I am relieved you listened to your own alarm bells and asked us. You are being abusive towards your players and need to stop.

Now there's a possibility this is a miscommunication or an English-second-language issue — others have brought up similar concerns and edited the question accordingly — but at minimum I think we can agree that what's happening here is you have players unable to meet part of the requirements at the start of the game, and you're holding this over their head ongoingly in a way that will compromise their enjoyment of the game, and someone's brought up serious concern about it.

At the very least the punishment you're exerting can and should be replaced with supportive measures assisting these players in engaging in the parts of the game you feel they need to engage in. Worse, what you're doing exacerbates the problem you're trying to resolve (I'll get to that shortly).

Managing differences

Each individual has ways they enjoy playing the game, right? Your method of enjoying the game involves players having backstories. Some players' fun doesn't come from having a pre-written backstory, or they find it difficult creating one.

If you want those players in your game anyway, they need your and the group's assistance and support in onboarding into the game process. This means working with them in a way compatible with their playstyle to get what you need out of their backstory defined when you need it. And I emphasize working with them — you should work in their best interests, in good faith, to produce backstory details you're both happy with. They need your support to help them give you the details you need.

They may not be able to produce everything you need right at the start. Some players like myself have a general idea of a backstory and characterisation, but need to actually start playing to work out the rest — we improvise and flesh out our character as we go, rather than doing it all at once at the start. Work with what you can get.

If there's an up-front rule, you need to find an implementation of it that doesn't feel like bullying to anyone. If someone's feeling bullied, that indicates an implementation malfunction, and that we need to step back and fix something if we value their participation in the group at all — even if we felt it was ostensibly advertised or forewarned. (If we don't value their participation we need to politely disinvite them instead of keeping them around in this state.) A player feeling bullied is a social breakdown state, and we need to revise and correct what's going on, including revising what rules might've lead us there. Your group may be able to help you identify how to better implement this rule, but I suggest the above is a solid start — replace the punishing backstory completely with benevolent exploration together.

Aggressive punishments doesn't solve this

What you're doing is aggressively, or passive-aggressively, abusing your players in-game to punish them for not doing something you wanted them to do. In-game retribution doesn't solve out-of-game issues: you need to talk with these people and give them benevolent support, as in the previous section.

Levelling punishment like this is generally seen as abusiveness and bullying. Trying to resolve out-of-game problems with in-game aggression is a pervasive anti-pattern in our hobby. It creates resentment and anger, it means the targeted party isn't having fun, and it sets back your ability to have a fun game where everyone is contributing meaningfully. What good is that for anyone!?

Ironically, like I said, this anti-pattern actually exacerbates the situation. Abusing your players leads to abused gamer syndrome. Abused gamers don't get invested in their characters or the game world, because their character and the world are being leveraged as a means of abuse, and non-investment is their single best defence against that abuse. Since they cannot get invested in their characters or the world, they also don't generally create backstories (let alone detailed ones), because that requires exercising emotional investment they can't afford to have. This makes them more inclined to play amnesiacs or whatnot, and to ignore the backstory you've given them as much as possible. An uninvested player is un-inclined to portray detailed characterization of their characters in any way. Given the backstory you've created to punish the player, why would they want to get at all invested in this character and portray them, if this character sucks and is being used against them?

Further, dictating the nature of a player character is often seen as a thing DMs should not do in D&D: they have control over absolutely everything else in the world, but players generally expect to maintain their sovereignty over defining and expressing their characters how they wish (it's the only thing the player's granted direct control over). If something you're doing as a DM undermines the player's agency to do that, it may be seen as unwelcome. I don't know to what extent your backstories are doing that, but if it is “a lot” you need to step that back and give those players back control.

Help your players have fun or don't invite them

Basically, don't do stuff you could describe as sadistic or make things awful — unless it's genuinely in the spirit of helping your players have fun. (As in, what they consider to be fun.)

When someone tells you what you're doing is bullying, take that seriously as a sign you need to change what you're doing. You've done this here; thank you.

If you don't think you can seriously facilitate people in good faith who don't produce backstories for their characters, and instead think you'll be using these abusive responses against them... don't invite those people to your game. Just have a hard requirement that they either have a backstory or aren't allowed in. Nobody deserves that level of abuse and you're better off sparing them from it.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 14 '17 at 0:23
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +500 for the first line, an upvote for the rest =) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 21 '17 at 20:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ This made me think of simply helping them create a random backstory on the fly - This would require some level of skill, but there are a ton of tables in the 5e core rulebooks that would help give you all the bones of a backstory (plus good inspiration for the rest of it) for that system, and I imagine many other systems have similar tools... \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Sep 3 '18 at 1:53
43
\$\begingroup\$

"No backstory" is often better than "amnesia backstory".

There are many different players, and they are all different, but a category of players tend to prefer having their character fleshed by the adventure they play with the others, and not written in advance in their backstory. Games like Dungeon World are addressed to them.

If you let them the opportunity not to write anything they would interpret this as "I am starting as a normal person, who will become someone", not as "My past is so dark and twisted that I preferred to forget it".

As a GM I let those players go with no backstory at all, and encourage them to improvise flashbacks during the game (à la Dungeon World). For example after succeeding a check to identify a spell I ask them if they have already seen it before.

For some campaigns it is necessary that PCs start with a precise and detailed backstory. In that case you shouldn't accept at all the lazy amnesia excuse: it is unfair for those who made the effort to write a real one and very rarely yield to interesting characters.

About the "bullying" part

If a PC does something stupid in game and then get punished it is fair, and will be accepted.

If a player writes in his backstory that the PC did something stupid, it means they are ready to accept the consequences of this (and may even be disappointed if the PC easily escapes those consequences).

If the backstory is blank and then in the middle of the game a punishment occurs, you can't expect that it will be seen as fair. If you do that to only one player then it is bullying.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ I once used the approach you call "fleshing out the character background by the adventure." The party came across a siege engine. My character was a 2e fighter, former border patrol. I declared that my character could operate the siege engine -- but only under an artillerist's direction. (We had no artillerists.) \$\endgroup\$ – Codes with Hammer Dec 11 '17 at 21:44
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ There's definitely a case to make for leaving room in a character's backstory for later improvisation. \$\endgroup\$ – bgvaughan Dec 12 '17 at 17:25
25
\$\begingroup\$

It does not break the rules, but it is a terrible implementation of an otherwise good practice

This is a three part answer that depends on what I perceive as a common practice, my observations of player psychology, and how your approach gets in the way.

First, a common practice (which I employ with success, but which is in no way original to me) is to request or even require a certain minimal amount of up-front effort on the part of the players in terms of character background. This can be done free form, in the form of little short stories or vignettes, as filling out GM questionnaires, or many other variants.

My preferred method as a GM is the long 20 or 30 question survey where I ask for at least 10 questions to be answered and may give positive feedback in the form of a small mechanical bonus for going above and beyond the call-- answering 20 of the 30, say. I make this transparent and above-board because I don't like surprising players in this regard.

This is similar to what you're doing, but it's strictly positive feedback/reward based.

Second, my observation on player psychology is that in any given group (unless selected specifically on this basis) you're likely to get players that just can't or won't do this. Some players are actually busy outside of the game and don't have a lot of time to dedicate to this. Jobs, school requirements, family obligations, etc can eat up a lot of time. Since some players take more naturally to this sort of creative effort than others, waving this off saying, "It's only a few hundred words!" isn't a good defense.

Aside from that, though, some players are just not good at this although they may otherwise be fine players. Some players aren't (or don't feel) that creative, or don't feel right adding their backgrounds into your campaign, or can't get a character to mesh well with actions they have not played through.

You will not change these players. You will only annoy these players by trying.

(Occasionally I wonder if even my policy is problematic as the inverse of this-- rewarding only some players due to their natures or situations. I console myself by keeping the advantages small.)

Third, these interact in very bad ways if you push it too far. If you add negative feedback/penalty motivations to this mix, what you often end up doing is punishing the players for something outside their ability to affect. If they do not have the time, do not enjoy the activity, do not feel comfortable or confident in the activity, or cannot get it to work for them, punishment doesn't solve any underlying problem. It just makes people feel worse and makes the game less fun for them.

And I think you know this. I checked the edits. "Sadistic" is your word choice. So is "mocking." So is "having fun" in the context of that mockery. Your player accurately summarizes this behavior as bullying. Falling back on your house rules as a defense means only that you have formalized the bullying in an attempt to shift the blame, it does not change the underlying dynamic.

If you find yourself asking whether it is okay to rely on sadism, mockery and bullying in the pursuit of fun, I submit that the answer is a resounding "No!" and that the remedy goes beyond dropping this policy and includes an actual apology.


Update: The phrasing of the question has changed from "sadistic" to "punitive." The first and second points of my answer still stand. The third point is largely intact, although perhaps dialed down in intensity.

I believe the social dynamics still stand, and that punitive mockery still amounts to bullying. It may be fun for you, and possibly for spectators (i.e., players who have done the writing.) It is highly unlikely to be fun for the targets and may actually be squirmingly embarrassing for spectators who simply haven't said anything.

I still consider it a bad implementation of a good practice.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ This is all good, but, in particular, +1 for [S]ome players are just not good at this although they may otherwise be fine players. A DM shouldn't even want folks to write if those folks don't want to write; the results can be shockingly bad and embarrassing for everyone. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Dec 11 '17 at 21:33
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Some people really prefer to be team players, and are happy to stick to more or less stock character types, supporting the more outgoing role-players and just enjoying participating in the story. \$\endgroup\$ – bgvaughan Dec 12 '17 at 17:32
12
\$\begingroup\$

As an alternative to making your players write a backstory you could role-play it instead. Have the players meet in a tavern or other such meeting place and get them to role play their introductions. This would allow those players that aren't as good at creative writing an avenue to develop a background and story and is a great way to encourage role playing.

If your players and you have the time you could make these one on one sessions where you present individual PC's with challenges or encounters to help you both develop a backstory.

As a final idea you could always let fate decide and use tables and dice rolling to determine a PC's backstory. This can be particularly fun if your players enjoy the challenge of role playing characteristics they would not normally pick for themselves.

Forcing a backstory on someone and using it as a punishment is never going to get the results you really want.

\$\endgroup\$
11
\$\begingroup\$

No because that's "punching down", but let me explain further the term.

For players who don't want to provide a backstory, I suggest to instead play it as improv where they can suggest details and you can suggest details on the fly. Now there are generally a few rules about improv, but they basically condense down to

  1. Don't "punch down" - When you are in a position of power, belittling those below you is "punching down" because you are much freer to hurt them than they are you. It's one of the reasons insult comedy is so tricky. Do it where the victim isn't laughing with you and you're just a bully with a microphone.
  2. Don't say no - This is a tricky one, on both sides, but basically, never directly contradict the other person. It kills the energy and turns it into an argument. Instead, say things like "yes, but..." and run with it.
  3. Don't interrupt - Probably the hardest one for most people. Unless someone is obviously fillibustering, let them finish their thought.

Long story short, don't belittle people without a background, but honor that they're putting their trust in you. And encourage them to take notes, or else yours will be the ones taking precedence on a background detail they didn't write down and didn't remember.

Incidentally, it is good that you're using their invented background to add hooks. The trick is, of course, to do it without making them the butt of the joke as a penalty for not having their background in place.

\$\endgroup\$
11
\$\begingroup\$

Preface: written on my tablet without access to reference material. Typoes likely.

GURPS has a rule for this:

It's called secret disadvantage: you, as the player, elect to give the gm up to 50 BP to play with (D&D equivalent of about 2 feats) that they get to use to pick other advantages and disadvantages for you (and they add GM have limits and restrictions on how far they can push this) and craft some story elements to go with it.

As a player, that counts as a disadvantage (similar to being blind, weak-willed, or gluttonous) and can spend those 50 points buying more advantages, stat or skill points (as a PC's BP limit is fairly restrictive), but without knowing what crippling flaw they have.

What you've been doing amounts to giving the player flaws with no return currency with which to buy perks and gifting perks to everyone else to boot ("grandpa left you this +2 foaming sword!"). Talk about getting a stick (instead of a carrot) and the short end of it at that!

As an example from a GURPS game I was in once, because of the options the GM had outlined (everyone was to start with amnesia--or historyless children--for plot reasons), I elected to take the amnesia and secret disadvantage. Gave the GM a hefty chunk of points (50 out of 75 I could allocate towards flaws) as I thought it would be interesting. I don't remember everything I ended up with, but one of the perks the GM gave to me was Unaging: my character became effectively immortal. The downsides were also quite stiff as a result (remember, I have him 50 points of flaws to play with: immorality gave him MORE!), I may in fact still not know the full extent of those flaws, but I also ended with one of the other PCs as my daughter ("dependent" flaw).

The GM knew exactly what buttons he could press that would drive the story forward, give me some thrills, but also where not to go: that is, what would have been to much and made things unfun again. If he was uncertain about something, he had ways of asking to find out what my boundaries were. Not that I remember explicitly what he asked, but we had a conversation about ideas before he went crafting. Things I had already looked at that I didn't like because it didn't fit my idea of who my character was.

That game got rebooted twice (character rebuilt the times), and both times I kept the secret disadvantage because what the GM had created had fit so well with what I'd wanted, although the PC-daughter got extracted and added separate as it was no longer secret and something new put in its place. The current "version" has gone up in power significantly and his secrets have likewise grown. I know one of the new hidden perks, but not the downsides yet. My character is unkillable (Unkillable 3, specifically: the highest version possible in GURPS, no matter what, the character's body with regrow and life will return...its just a matter of when). I quiver in fear and delight over what flaws he picked to offset that. Only thing I know for sure is that my character is/was worshiped as a god while he was dead (you better believe I'm going to capitalize on that for every penny). Oh, and called a litch by the one npc who saw him revive.

And in any case, the events that unfolded the first (third?) time around have cemented themselves into my character's identity, even when I recreate him for other places and games. Having a daughter (and the circumstances) were too good not to keep.

Point is, you can do what you've been doing, but you need to keep in mind that the player is electing to take a flaw (and a big one!) So you need to give them some candy in return (and as D&D doesn't really have rules for disadvantages, the net outcome should be positive). Don't be vindictive, make it fun.

Maybe that mayor's daughter is actually a past lover who comes bearing salvation just when the party needs it most, rather than her father's wrath. And don't be afraid to take the player aside and discuss things to make sure they're OK with your plans before springing it on everyone. You don't need to tell them all the details, but you want them on your side when the time comes. "Oh, no, my character would be gay, can it be the mayor's son instead?" Deal struck. It's still a surprise, but now they've got a hand in how it turns out, you've given them agency and gotten them invested in their character and the world.

\$\endgroup\$
10
+500
\$\begingroup\$

Whether or not it is "okay" to be sadistic, it's probably not your best option. If your players don't all do their character backgrounds, (or even if they do,) instead of spiting them, maybe consider an alternative to character backgrounds that is not only easier for them, but more useful for you: Take a step back, consider what you use backstories for, and see if there are more direct ways to get those things.

For instance, you say you take plot hooks from the backstories. Maybe go to your players and tell them "Instead of writing a generic 'backstory', I just want you to make a list of 1-3 things that happened in your character's past that might come back to bite them in the future." Could be your players who shrink from the task of writing half a page of fiction have no problem compiling a short list like that. Not only is it less writing, but it's clear to them what you intend to do with the stuff they give you.

Or if you want to use backstories to tie the characters into the setting: Give each player a short questionnaire that has questions like "Where were you on the Night of Trembling Stars?" "How did your family escape the army of Yidok when it swept across the Eastern kingdoms?" "Do you support Me'er Glurtanth, or the Lady Eriserissera as ruler of the city?" These are easier to answer both because they're shorter, and because they work as inspirational prompts. They also communicate information to the players about the setting and ensure they have some common cultural touchstones going into the game: "Wow, you were in the Blessed City on the Night of Trembling Stars? Did you see the procession of the gods up close? I was mucking out the sheep pen on my family farm that night, I didn't see anything!"

Even if you want to use character backgrounds to flesh out who their characters are as people: "What's your character's biggest fault or vice?" "What's your character's biggest regret?" "Who was the most inspirational person in your character's life growing up?" Or look at the questions in the lower-left corner of page 110 of the 3.5e PH. Customize it based on what stuff you think will be most interesting or relevant for your game.

You can even make like Dungeon World and ask them specific questions to set up how they know each other and why they stick together: "Which party member do you owe a life debt to?" "Which party member is a distant relative of yours?" "Which party member seems suspicious, so you'll want to keep an eye on them?" "Which party member fought with you against the Yidok Army?"

Not only does this approach ensure that you get exactly what you wanted to get from the players, but it also helps the players understand what they're giving you, as well. "Write a character backstory" is a pretty vague request. What should be in it? What is the DM going to do with it? How do you make sure the stuff you write will be relevant to the game? The answers to these questions might seem obvious to you, but they might not be obvious to your players - or worse yet, the players might think they know the "obvious" answers, but have something totally different in mind.

On top of all that, for many people, writing a half-page of freeform fiction is at best a chore and at worst downright scary: "You mean I have to do creative writing and then show it to all my friends?" Mocking those players when they can't face down that fear won't do anyone any good. Give them an easier alternative instead.

\$\endgroup\$
9
\$\begingroup\$

Amnesia only affects the PC (not the player)

Let me get out of the way that is bullying. That said, were I to require backgrounds for all of my characters, Amnesia isn't really an excuse to not have a background. The player (and DM) can totally know the history without the PC knowing it. D&D isn't very good as a "play to find out" system... Though to be fair, I'd lay even odds that if the player writes the back story they don't know they'll probably do worse things to their own character than a DM ever would.

That said there are other systems out there that can handle a situation where the player doesn't know any more than their character and you play to find out what happens... Though in something like Dungeon World likely the DM also wouldn't know.

\$\endgroup\$
3
\$\begingroup\$

If you self-describe what you are doing as punitive, you are approaching the player/GM interaction the wrong way, and you already know it.

On amnesia:

There is an explicit Negative Quality in Shadowrun 4 and 5 for amnesia, and it comes in two flavors:

Surface Loss: The lite flavor gives the GM control over what and who they know, where they came from, and how they got to the party. The GM is explicitly encouraged to make it interesting.

Full Deletion: The heavy flavor gives the character a blank sheet. The GM built the entire character and the player has to discover everything about them from who they are to what they can physically do.

It's a trade off for the player, choosing amnesia puts more points into character generation, and knowingly puts them at the mercy of the GM.

So, I guess what I mean to say is, if they get a reward, you tell them in advance, and you make it interesting, not punitive, you're fine.

Otherwise... In my skim through the answers I didn't see this option, and it surprised me: Make them roll for it. Easy, simple, you get a backstory to use and they get into the game more quickly. Any negative outcomes can be blamed on luck.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! The question is about D&D 3.5, but this answer exclusively references rules from Shadowrun. While examples from other games can sometimes be relevant on this kind of "GMing tips" question, this answer would be improved by addressing the game the querent is actually playing, and expanding on how your example here relates to it. \$\endgroup\$ – A_S00 Dec 14 '17 at 0:24
2
\$\begingroup\$

Yes and no:

While the general sentiment seems to lean towards this not being an OK practice and I can agree with that, I'd like to add a few point of my own:

The players are forewarned. They were told to create a backstory and thus they have the option of challenging that premise before play starts or elect to play with another GM. As much as the GM needs to respect the players, the players need to respect the GM.

Be very clear. If you plan on implementing the stick more than the carrot this needs to be properly stated at the onset. You have to be very very clear about this before start of play. As in: "If you don't provide me with a background before we play there will be consequences and some of them may be dire."

I would also recommend telling the players to let you know if they have problems coming up with a background and that you're happy to work one out with them as a sounding board.

Also give incentives. Let them know that a good background starts at one level higher and with better gear. (Or whatever system works for you, but be clear and up front about it.)

Finally, listen to your players. If you explain this system to them and they reject it. Maybe it's time to try something new.

\$\endgroup\$
1
\$\begingroup\$

Depends on how you wrap it

Of course, it is bad just to punish a player whose behaviour you dislike through targeting them without even telling that you dislike it and naming the consequences. But if consequences are listed, like something along the lines of: "I request this and this from you. If you don't do it, consequences are...", it might can turn out good.

For example, one Russian LARP about Harry Potter, done in series of games, had a lot of players who wanted their characters to be trained by Voldemort himself or at least by Bellatrix Lestrange and capable of using the Dark Magic, which is actually a very powerful, but very rare thing in the setting. It is written on the web-site of said LARP that if you want such a backstory, Voldemort will basically own you and have a right to do anything to you and give you any orders he wishes. You will not be a Mary Sue wielding powerful spells just because you have wrote this in your backstory, you will be a slave, albeit a powerful one. The player can either accept such a deal or decline it.

The potential consequences might be truly sadistic as well, which means that GM may derive pleasure from a player who accepted such a deal suffering, but at least the player was given a choice. If they don't enjoy the experience, they can reenter the game with a new character, doing the things requested by GM this time. For example, your GM told you that they don't want to see monster races in the PC party, but you are allowed to make a monster character. Then you face a lot of social problems, for example, people are afraid of you, townwatch attacks you on sight, etc. But you can always make a new character who isn't a monster.

And two more things worth noting:

  • One of the consequences could be "...then you don't play with us until you fix the issue". For example, I always require that PCs at least have a player name. if they are so lazy that they don't even want to find an in-character name, I am very happy to lose them as players. Of course, they can get help if they ask for it, but some players just don't want to bother.
  • You might serve this to your players not as a punishment for not meeting the requirements, but rather as a reward for meeting them. For example, don't say "If your backstory is bad, you don't get access to [some in-game mechanics]", but rather "If your backstory is good, you can get access to [mechanic 1], [mechanic 2] or [mechanic 3], depending on what sounds reasonable".

So, in your case it is a good idea to say something like: "I want every character to have a backstory. I need it because [your personal reasons to request backstories]. If you don't provide a backstory, you will face the following consequences: [a list of them]. If you want your character to have forgotten everything, you better still right a backstory that you will remember as a player, but not as a character. People don't lose their memory without reasons, and if you don't make them up, I will invent those reasons, and trust me, this will be something that you won't like.

When a player has already confronted you about feeling like being bullied, don't just continue the way you are currently playing. Have a discussion and find what would be OK for all of you. Would your player prefer to fix the issue (missing backstory), would you like to allow them to play without one, or would you ike to stop playing together.

All in all, it depends on your goal. If you just want to make people suffer, stop being a GM right now until you reconsider what playing a game is. If you want to fix problems, just do it the way it works.

Good luck.


*"Good" means "I have enjoyed playing with them and have seen others enjoying it".

\$\endgroup\$

protected by doppelgreener Dec 15 '17 at 12:32

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.