A constant refrain of my D&D group is
# N O B A C K S T O R Y
However, there seems to have been some confusion among the n00bs in the group over what that means. I don’t mean that I want PCs to be pawns, thin interfaces between the game and the player.
In fact, in my games, I want players to play characters that are human, have strong desires, and pursue them.
In other words, I’m looking for dramatic play. And dungeons.
When I’m talking about “backstory,” I’m talking about players who write up paragraphs about what their character did before play started. That’s fine I guess, as long as you understand you are reasonably likely to be dissolved / eaten alive / crushed / crisped in the first ten minutes.
I also don’t want to be told backstory. “Well, Daniel, my character is from the Sarathi wastes, where she was the seventh daughter of” zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
I want to see things.
I want to see things happen, now, in the fictional present. If we get a flashback, I want it framed right now, giving meaning to things that are happening right now, and leading to further action right now.
So we don’t want backstory, but we do want story that’s more than a hoped-for byproduct of picaresque play by folks who aren’t giving much thought to their toons beyond a silly name.
And it’s generally pretty difficult to create a dramatically interesting character in five minutes so you can get back to playing after your last one got impaled by a dire goat.
Forestory is just like backstory, except it hasn’t happened yet. It’s aspirational backstory. And it imposes no structural overhead on the game; the ref doesn’t have to change anything about how the game is run. You only have to:
- think of some stuff you want to see PCs do in your campaign that you don’t think they’ll do on their own
- write up a list of it
- print it out
- offer it to the players and explain it
Here’s the explanation:
Forestories are situations you want to find your character in. Choose as many as you’re interested in, whenever you want. At any appropriate time, say you want to activate your forestory, and tell everyone what it is. The ref will work with you to make it happen, and we’ll see where things go from there.
Sample (very truncated) forestory list:
- I finally find the guy that killed my father. (unique)
- I’m smitten with someone at the tavern.
- I drink myself into oblivion and wake up in jail next to a prophet.
- I have a vision from my god telling me to do something terrible.
- I try to bond with someone in my party.
- I wake the party with my nightmares and tell them what caused them if they ask.
- The skull knight has followed me even here. (unique)
- I finally have a chance to meet the Grand Dragoon Artorias!!!! (unique)
example of play
R: you return to town.
P: I’m going to activate one of my forestories: “I finally find the guy that killed my father.”
R: Sure, that’ll work. [improvising, as this is the first the ref or anyone has heard of this] You lock eyes with him right as you’re passing through the gate; he’s one of the guards.
P: Does he recognize me?
R: Of course. What do you do?
why this is better
In the example above, I think it’s apparent that framing this implicit character arc as forestory is superior than framing it as backstory. If framed as backstory, we (or, really, just the player) would know that her PC was hunting down the guy that murdered her father, but there’s no clear way to bring that into play.
Of course, “a good DM will . . .”, “good players will . . .”, yadda yadda. But a lot of DMs and players aren’t “good,” and good DMs aren’t good each time; so what’s wrong with a minimal amount of seed content + structure to level things up a bit?
And of course, should things get out of hand, forestory activations are subject, as everything else, to ref veto.
next level options
You can tag some option as unique, meaning they can only be taken once.
You can make special forestory lists that are specific to races, classes, dungeons, towns, specific towns, areas within towns.
You can make a ton of specific forestories and group them by category: bonds, visions, etc.
You can make more general forestories and keep the number small.
You can limit the number of forestory activations per downtime (and possibly provide a reward for activation).