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During my first campaign as a player, I had a issue with my DM regarding the background I gave to my character. It was my first time creating a background for my character, and I loved doing it so much that my backstory became quite big. (I gave my DM a short summary to make his life easier.)

While I loved creating a backstory, I wasn't too comfortable with going all in with roleplaying. For this reason, I added a piece in my backstory where my character was cursed, couldn't remember where he was from, and he was now wandering around looking for answers. I just wasn't ready to dive straight into roleplaying this backstory and wanted to learn RP step by step.

A couple sessions after I handed over my backstory, my DM briefly mentioned his dislike towards my backstory. He did this in a single comment, away from all the other players, which went along the lines of "Who gives their character amnesia, what kind of person does that?" At that time I didn't know how to respond, and not too long after that we stopped playing anyway, but the comment still makes me wonder if it really is a bad thing to do.

So, is giving your character amnesia about their backstory a bad thing to do to your DM? Or is it something just my DM had issues with?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like the true question beneath this is actually about the DM... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 21 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS for me the question is more about the experience others have with situation like this (Backstory etiquette so to speak?). I didn't see any harm in the amnesia thing when I made it, but in practice the backstory is a collaborative effort i see thanks the answers. This didn't cross my newbie mind at the time. \$\endgroup\$ – Jordi Jan 21 at 14:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast & Jordi; This was not meant as a slight against the question, I just think that the DM's response is unhelpful, and therefore that the DM's unhelpful response is a significant aspect of the question. If the DM gave more constructive feedback, then this question would be very different, possibly off-topic, but as it is, I think the unhelpful response from this particular DM makes this an on-topic question. That's all... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Jan 21 at 15:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the question is fine as is. This is a thing people do, and have done. It can clearly be answered on the basis of hard experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Jan 21 at 18:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this question seems mostly fine. While "bad" might be subjective, here it's being used to essentially ask "Does/will this cause problems?" or "What problems might this cause?" If people are worried about a lack of clarity, it might be better to rephrase the question to ask this directly. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 22 at 3:40
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If you don't work with your DM on your back story ...

... anything you do with your background and backstory can create difficulty at the table, since a PC needs to fit into the game world.

If you work with your DM on your back story ....

... and the two of you together come up with amnesia as part of why your character is adventuring / questing, then it's a fine idea and your whole table will hopefully embrace the character's unique situation. (PS: I like writing long back stories, but also know how to do one in a paragraph or less)

To answer your question: it would appear that your DM didn't care for this. I'd recommend that on your next character, adopt a collaborative approach with your DM when putting together your background and your back story.

Best practice

I have found in the 5+ years of playing D&D 5th edition that when a DM and a player collaborate on the background and backstory of a character, things work out best.
Caveat: this may be less applicable to someone who plays exclusively in Adventurer's League games. (When I am able to access my roll20 game, where I DM, I'll C&P my backstory/background guidance for my players)
(Second FWIW: amnesia as a plot device is not uncommon in fantasy fiction. Michael Scot Rohan's series (Winter of the World, first novel was Anvil of Ice) is a good example of that, as was Planescape: Torment (AD&D 2e CRPG).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, thanks for the tip of the collaborative approach! I'll try to apply this to the games I GM as well now :) \$\endgroup\$ – Jordi Jan 21 at 15:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Completely agree with all points (from experience). I've found that it's best to tailor my approach based on what I think the DM's motivation is. A response like that has usually been because I caught them off guard or they're having an off day. A quick explanation leading to collaboration helps there. I've had my share of DM's with "My Story" syndrome, though. While these can still be fun to play, I've had to quell my creative side a bit to keep everyone happy. \$\endgroup\$ – Starshine Jan 23 at 16:25
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"Who does that?"

Uh... practically everyone? Amnesia and the search for who you used to be is a very common background for a heroic character in literature, movies, and games. It's literally the main plot conceit of Knights of the Old Republic, Planescape Torment, The Bourne Identity, and Dark City, among many others, and it shows up all the time in tabletop RPGs.

If your DM doesn't like amnesia backstories, that's fine -- I don't see what's wrong with it, but everyone is entitled to their opinion -- but there's nothing inherently wrong with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As well as, well, Amnesia (the Dark Descent). \$\endgroup\$ – Abion47 Jan 21 at 23:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's also standard practice for when the DM makes unreasonable demands as to length of backstory for characters. "I dunno, my character has amnesia." \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Jan 22 at 13:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the GURPS ruleset, it's a disadvantage in the book you can apply to your character. I've played with it and had a lot of fun. But it does make for more work on the GM's part (they become responsible for filling in the parts your character doesn't remember), so you need their buy-in or it doesn't work. \$\endgroup\$ – Seth R Jan 22 at 14:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a GM I'd absolutely love it if a player gave his PC amnesia. The only rule would be that I get to decide what they forgot :-) \$\endgroup\$ – GrandmasterB Jan 23 at 7:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd give the DM some pointer about his backstory if he wanted (just a frame of reference where he can fill in the details) but that's about it, amnesia would just remember that your character doesn't remember it. \$\endgroup\$ – rasmus91 Jan 23 at 10:29
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It is OK if you and your DM are okay with it

Backstories are personal. Heck, roleplaying is personal. What's allowable, workable, usable, and/or fun is going be 100% up to the player and the DM to agree on. We can't tell you if it's good or bad for you or your table, but if your DM has an issue with it, then there's an issue with it.

It doesn't mean they're right, it means they have an opinion and it's up to the two of you to work it out.

Creating backstory vs developing your character

I was just having a similar conversation in our main chat here about backstory creation and I actually personally prefer to have less backstory at this point so that I can develop my character as I play them. In a way, that's similar to 'amnesia' because I simply don't really have a full backstory. I may have a couple of events or something to help start my character development, but how folks develop their characters is very much a personal thing - and a personal thing that you should do with your DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your great answer, a good insight that creating a backstory should be something collaborative. Sadly I could only select one answer to this question :c \$\endgroup\$ – Jordi Jan 21 at 15:02
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Giving your PC amnesia is an amazing idea1

(1) and so are most ideas as long as both the player and the GM like them.

So, is giving your character amnesia about their backstory a bad thing to do to your DM?

Amnesia has been used as a narrative tool countless times in movies, books, TV shows, etc. for excellent reasons: They introduce mystery and (most times) lead to twists.

Or is it something just my DM had an issue with?

Based on their reactions it's clear that they have an issue with it. Not liking a certain trope, however, is certainly their right. If your GM feels like they cannot work with it then you should come up with something else. However...

How to convince your GM that amnesia is a good idea

Before totally dismissing amnesia you can try to convince your GM that this is a good idea. You mentioned that you wrote an extensive backstory about your character. What if you gave your GM the creative freedom to change some bits of your story without you knowing what exactly? Then, your PC's personal quest (that would run parallel to the main quest) would be to rediscover their past with potential dire sequences.dramatic music

Of course, this is not everyone's cup of tea. As a player, I have given certain creative freedom of my PCs to my GM twice (I left one part/scene of the story a mystery and ask them to use it however they want) and the results were amazing. But maybe you wouldn't like your story to be altered, or maybe your GM doesn't feel comfortable taking this kind of responsibility.

Ask your GM why they don't like it

Unfortunately, you haven't given us any details on how the discussion proceeded. Did your GM explain why they don't like the idea? If not, ask them about it and then ask them if they would entertain the idea of running such a trope, and if yes, under what circumstances.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ooh, thanks for the link. Good read. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 21 at 16:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sadly, the one line was the only comment in the discussion. Not sure if it really was a discussion, but i just got that thrown at me. Nothing I can do about it now since the group broke up, but definetly good advice for any future readers. \$\endgroup\$ – Jordi Jan 21 at 16:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jordi I'm sorry that your group broke up. I wanted to comment on the following part in my answer but it wasn't part of your question: Personally, I believe that your ex-GM's response was unnecessarily aggressive. Don't let this take you down though, you will find another group soon! \$\endgroup\$ – Aventinus Jan 21 at 16:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ The advice about letting the GM change parts is a great idea. In fact, I'd go one step further and say "since I don't remember, here is a suggested backstory," and discover your own backstory along with the party. The GM can reference things from your writing, or completely and utterly surprise you. \$\endgroup\$ – Cort Ammon Jan 22 at 0:33
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This is strictly dependent on the GM/Player pair

It's a bad idea if either the player or the GM are not interested. It can be a great idea if both are interested.

I have done this, but as a GM rather than a player. I had designed a setting where it would be highly beneficial to have at least one character with directly-plot-related amnesia. I could, in theory, have made it work with all the players having amnesia-- in some respects it would have worked better; in other respects, not as much.

I pitched the idea to the players: I got one (maybe two?) vehement refusals to consider the idea, at least for their characters. The one I remember clearly was not so much a trust issue (I hope) so much as that player loved creating their own backgrounds and felt like they would be getting robbed of that experience.

I got one enthusiastic expression of interest. This player told me at the time that this was great because they were just too busy to put the amount of effort in on a character... but, they had some conditions. (I would not make them the secret bad guy, I would not put them in a situation where they were doing something gross like accidentally romancing a family members, etc, etc. I of course agreed to this conditions.)

The remainder were sort of, "Meh, I'll take one for the team if you really need this for your game, but I'm not excited about it."

If someone approached me in a different game and said they wanted to play an amnesiac character, then unless there was something about the game or setting that made this hard to handle, I would certainly allow it, but only after talking to the player to make it clear that they really are giving me permission to create their own hidden backstory, and also to find out if they have any lines they don't want crossed or buttons they don't want pushed.

And if I had the chance to play under a GM I knew and trusted, and they asked me to play an amnesiac, I'd probably do it. (I probably wouldn't suggest it, because I also enjoy coming up with backgrounds for my characters.)

Who does this?

  1. Players who don't like coming up with backgrounds or are just too busy in their day to day lives to come up with backgrounds.

  2. Players that trust their GM. Like, really really really trust their GM.

I've never seen a GM react negatively to this, but one possible reason why is that they took it as a slight to the background of their world. ("What, my world is boring and you don't care enough to make a character background?") That seems excessively touchy to me, but it's possible. They may also have taken it as a sign of disinterest in the game as a whole.

If you put this to a GM as an expression of trust, and also point out that this gives them a way to hook your character into any background plot that he or she thinks is not getting enough emphasis and that you promise to hold up your end by caring about this and investigating this... that may change their considerations.

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No, it's actually pretty common!

Characters with amnesia can be really fun and mysterious to be around (from a player perspective) depending on how they're done. A well-rounded amnesiac who's able to role play well is great in my opinion, but I do have a little advice if you choose to go down that route!

  1. Something one of my friends did that I didn't find fun as a player was have an amnesiac character who was a murder hobo. Please don't be a murder hobo. I know that seems like a given, but having a bloodthirsty character with severe amnesia was torturous for the whole party and the dm. It got so bad we began plotting to kill his character as a party just so he'd be forced to make a new one. When those two elements are combined, the amnesia and loss of morals this character had just sounded to us like a weak excuse to kill people. That's probably why we didn't like him for a long time.

  2. Don't be afraid to work with the dm. Amnesiac characters can be, in my opinion, a little bit more high-risk in the unpredictable category compared to regular players - and thus deserve a little special attention. Make sure the dm is well informed about your character so that they know what to expect and can help shape more situations/encounters/role play moments for you!

  3. Don't be afraid to get creative with why a character has amnesia either. Everyone has heard the whole "I was in an accident that killed my whole family" trope, and there are people who've tried to link amnesia to that too and it doesn't have the impact they want because of how common that kind of incident is. Try finding something else that could explain it other than a freak accident. Your idea of a curse wasn't bad though, it's a decent alternative!

I hope that whatever you end up doing, you have fun with your character! Just remember to be considerate of those you're playing with.

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