Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How do you use character backstories?

I am currently fortunate enough to be playing in a couple White Wolf games. The World of Darkness system is actually what initially inspired me to create Othercity so needless to say I've always been a fan. There are many pros and cons about World of Darkness games, but one of the things I love most about it is creating the characters.

While Dungeons & Dragons obviously has the character optimization aspect to character creation, I find that in World of Darkness the depth of your character's history and motivation are much more important. Anyone who knows me knows I love writing up character backgrounds.

Below is the character history of the current Mage character I'm running. The GM is using the old World of Darkness rules, so this fine chap belongs to the Celestial Chorus. This background could work just as well for a Hunter campaign - which is probably why I wrote it like I did. (I secretly love Hunter - don't tell anyone!)

While I wrote up the history, I got to thinking about character histories in general. I've played in plenty of games - D&D, White Wolf, and many more. Some DM/GM's love getting backstories from their players, some require it, and some don't care either way. Obviously when you're running a published adventure it's hard to incorporate backstory points for your players unless they've specifically worked with you to tie their background into future events along the quest line or main NPC's.

To the GM's and DM's out there, do you ask for character histories? If so, how do you utilize them in your game? And from a player standpoint, do you players out there enjoy writing stories? Even if they can't be used in gameplay, does it help you play your character, or is it usually not worth the effort. Give me your thoughts!

And now, for your reading pleasure - the backstory of Father Orion McDonnough - an Irish Priest and member of the Celestial Chorus.

- - -

Father McDonnough's History

The dreams started... well, the dreams never really "started". Saying that something starts implies that there was a point in time prior to which there was an absence of whatever began, making it's presence then known... Father McDonnough lifted his pen from the journal in pause, glancing at the fresh entry. Why do I overcomplicate even the simplest explanations...

I suppose nothing's really simple anymore. I miss simple.

- - -

Orion had always been a man of vision, in more ways then one. Born in Dublin, February 2nd in 1957, Orion McDonnough grew up under the caring but strict eye of his mother. His father committed suicide when the boy was three for reasons at the time unknown. The dreams told him though - long before Orion was old enough to fully understand what they were telling him. His father sought the easy way out - put under pressure by a group of men who had a score to settle with him based on the unforgiven actions of his father - Orion's grandfather - a former member of the IRA.

Tortured by the loss of her husband, Aileen McDonnough was driven into the arms of another man - the Good Lord. Orion's life became that of a proper Irish Catholic man, and the years of worship flew by (along with his fair share of rugby games). At the age of 23, he graduated with high honors from Saint Patrick's College - the foremost seminary in Ireland. Six years later, Orion had finished his schooling, earning a doctorate of religion. His dreams were peaceful then.

Over the next 10 years, Father McDonnough followed his dreams, and they brought him success in all he attempted. After founding his own church in Cork, Orion's primary achievement was establishing the Quiet Grace Orphanage. Giving 20 children a home, and over 300 good Catholics a church. The dreams were peaceful then.

Until that night...

- - -

Father McDonnough awoke with a start. He shivered. His body was covered in a cold sweat. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. The priest looked down on his notebook where he'd scrawled the few lines about dreams. He took up his pen again and wrote two words. They strayed off the lines and angeled sharply up the page. A nightmare? Before he knew what he was doing, the pen fell to the floor and Orion bolted for the door.

Fleeing out of the cathedral, McDonnough ran through the streets like a madman. No car to speak of - a worldly possession he never saw use for until now - the bottom of his long coat swung around his knees. His priestly garb was not made for running, but he hadn't the time to change.

A pair of headlights.

Waving his arms madly for the car to slow, McDonnough silently thanked the Father that it was a woman of his own congregation. "Father McDonnough?"

"No time child, you must take me to tha orphanage! Immediately!"

The car sped through the night, and as they drove he prayed. His prayers opened into visions. Visions of darkness and... blood. He could hear the screams.

"Father, are you alright?" McDonnough opened his eyes to the questioning woman. "Father, yer - yer'eyes." The priest reached a hand up to his face. He was crying. Crimson tears. The car had stopped.

McDonnough was inside in moments - the orphanage was as silent as a grave. He ran through the shadows - passing door after door. The man didn't stop to open a single one, he knew the children were already dead. But there was life still here... lingering. Reaching the last door on the hall, McDonnough through the door open. "Tha power of- uuf!" A heavy fist laid into McDonnough's stomach - and the man felt power like he'd never felt before as the simple attack sent him flying to the wall of the hallway behind him. He struggled to stand, but a simple gaze from his attacker froze the priest in fear. The man was dressed in ragged jeans, oil-stained and torn. A long black trenchcoat hung from his shoulders, and blond hair was slicked back along his pale scalp. He wore no shirt - wearing nothing beneath the coat but the carving of a pentagram in his chest. His face was sharp and angled - and a baseball bat was strapped to his back. His teeth were hidden... in the throat of a child. Soon enough, he let the girl's corpse fall - broken and drained.

Slowly the man licked his fingers and spoke softly as if to himself, but McDonnough knew he was speaking loud enough for him to hear. "Tha thing about kids is, you cannae have just one. Not after a long night when yer real thirsty. They just donnae have enough of it innem... But I must say, iss'tha freshest you'll find. They're kind of like... espressos. Good things, small packages and all that." The man slinked towards him. "Have nae tried preacher in a'while though. Mebee a little dessert is..." The man locked eyes with McDonnough. The priest felt as if the man was peeling back layers of his very soul. "Interestin'..." the man commented. "On second thought, at tha end of tha day, any man can say 'e killed one and twenty people, but only a truly special man can say 'e killed twenty, and left one man to live with it all." He grinned at McDonnough as he backed away down the hall towards the exit. "Besides, yer kind stings goin' down anyway." A light chuckle amongst the shadows, and then he was gone.

- - -

For five years, the dreams didn't come. McDonnough felt alone. As if he'd failed. As if he'd been abandoned by God. He never forgot that night. Many lesser men would have given up everything, but McDonnough stuck with his church and helped the community move through the tragedy. He told no one of what he'd truly seen that night. The woman who'd drove him was dead in her car as he left. No one knew he'd even beem there. "A tragedy" they called it. "The Silent Grace Murders" - one of the Ireland's unsolved mysteries. McDonnough always knew it wasn't just a man he'd seen that night. It was a demon of some kind. Explaining such to anyone would be fruitless though... he knew this. And so, he kept silent.

It wasn't until his mother died that the dreams began again. Five years after that terrifying night, Aileen McDonnough went quietly in her sleep. That night, the dreams began again. The following morning, McDonnough followed them, and in the spring of 2001 booked a plane to America.

McDonnough got a job at the Blessed Path Church in [Insert town approx. hour away from main city] unnaturally fast. The head priest, Father Gilroy, hired him on the spot. He was a strong-willed man who McDonnough admired. In private, the two shared many conversations about the Catholic church. Gilroy spoke of a unity between many faiths - an idea of peace between all religions that he was passionate about. Gilroy had many strange theories and thoughts, but his sermons were simple and true to the Catholic faith. All in all, he was a very strange man. McDonnough looked to him for guidance, and Gilroy offered it in lessons and knowledge. The man was a mentor to him (in ways McDonnough didn't even know at the time), and helped him adjust to life in America. The job was stable, enlightening, and far away from the darkness of home. However, the shadows could never quite leave the priest alone. After two years of employment, the next chapter of McDonnough's life began yet again with a single night.

- - -

It was late - an hour or so past midnight - but McDonnough was still at the church. Going over some last minute paperwork for the charity race that coming weekend, McDonnough snapped his attention away from the paper-scattered table as he heard movement in the Nave. McDonnough never agreed with the head priest's desire to keep the church open all night, but the man insisted that a House of God must never close to those who need it.

Making his way into the Nave, McDonnough's eyes snapped to the man climbing the steps up to the Lectern. The man was dressed in a dark business suit and was well kept. Reaching the top, the man reached out to a polished gold-plated cross and reached out - as if to take it - smudging the metal with the oils from his hand. McDonnough relaxed a little. "May I help you?"

"Ah, yes." The man suddenly noticed McDonnough and placed the cross back - taking a few steps down the stairs. "I am looking for Father Gilroy. I was under the impression..." the man looked at Orion's outfit, "that he was the only Priest at this church."

"The name's Father McDonnough, I am Father Gilroy's assistant." McDonnough walked up the staircase past the stranger, absentmindedly pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket to polish the cross once more. "Father Kilroy is not in tonight... I don't believe he ever is at such an hour. You should be able to find him here most days before six." McDonnough placed the polished cross down on the altar once more - inspecting it as he heard the stranger's weight shift behind him.

"It's not like Gilroy to miss a meeting like this. I don't suppose you'll mind if I leave a message do you?"

McDonnough felt the stairs behind him creak ever so gently. The man was walking towards him... slowly. Whatever this was, it wasn't good. As McDonnough's eyes gazed at the cross with some hope of guidance the priest noticed a peculiar thing. The man had no reflection. McDonnough was overwhelmed with one screaming thought. This man is no man. Grasping the cross with his hand, McDonnough spun in one quick movement. The man was two stairs down - with arm's reach. His mouth was pulled back in some sick grin - two large fangs jutting down from his top lip as his eyes tore into the priest's soul. McDonnough felt the same power being exerted over him as before, but this time he was ready.

Holding the cross out, McDonnough screamed at the demon. "LEAVE THIS PLACE. CHRIST COMPELS YOU. FLEE DEMON!"

For a moment, the beast almost smiled. The sort of pitying smile that one offers after hearing the same old joke for the hundredth time. But then the man recoiled. McDonnough heard the sound of sizzling - like grease on a frying pan - along with a snarl. The man fell backwards, stumbled to his feet, and fled.

- - -

McDonnough gave his letter of resignation to Father Gilroy the following morning, before packing up and moving once more. The church burned to the ground three days later. Father Gilroy died in the blaze.

Today, McDonnough owns and operates a small church in [city]. The church was built six years ago - and McDonnough came upon it immediately following Gilroy's death in it's final month of construction - thanks to of course, his dreams pointing him in that direction. He applied to work as the church's priest, and the job was given to him. He named it St. Elizabeth's Church, and has lived there ever since.

McDonnough has spent the last six years, in addition to establishing the church and himself as one of the main religious figures in [city], researching the circumstances surrounding the fire at Gilroy's church. The parallels McDonnough has been able to draw between the Quiet Grace Murders and the fire at Blessed Path have been shocking. The entire quest for answers has opened McDonnough's eyes to a world he was not ready to see.

Starting about one year ago, his dreams started becoming more vivid then ever. Powerful and frightening. The scales have been peeled away and McDonnough began to sense things he'd never been able to sense before. And it terrified him.

- - -

"And the glory,"

Why do I know exactly how many people are in this room? How did I count them all?

"And the power,"

I can feel every second. It just ticks away in my head. Pew number 7 has a small crack in it. WHY do I know this?!

"Forever and ever,"

A man, in the back row... isn't breathing. But I see him... smiling...



Flashman85 said...

I like that intro to your backstory. Reminds me of myself...

As you know, I'm big into having character backstories before starting a campaign... the only problem is that all too often my players never get around to it.

Honestly, I don't need a novella detailing a character's esoteric family history, shampoo preferences, etc.--in fact, I prefer not to have anything that long. If a player can highlight his or her character's personality, mission, motivations, and other things that I can directly use when plotting out a quest, it doesn't matter if the backstory is a paragraph or several pages (though it is a pleasure to read an actual story.

I can usually do without things that are above and beyond what I as a DM am likely to use or need to know to work with this character effectively (such as the name of his uncle twice removed's dog), unless it's entertainingly written. I want a backSTORY, not a FACTstory.

As a player, I love writing backstories. It's helpful to figure out in advance how I want to play my character; improv character development never goes in a direction I want to stick with for very long. I don't mind if my backstory never becomes a part of the campaign (because, let's face it, that ALWAYS involves a loved one getting captured and/or killed), but I like it when the GM at least acknowledges that they've read my backstory by throwing in a reference only I would get.

The best D&D campaign I ever threw was the Head Wizard quest, which I'm sure you remember, where two of my players' backstories filled in the gaps in the plot I was mapping out, so their histories helped to shape the entire quest, and there was a player investment there that I've rarely seen.

Storyteller said...

@Flashman85: You make a lot of great points. I've seen backstories on both ends of the spectrum - ones written just for the sake of having something on paper with virtually nothing to work from, and ones that only have a couple sentences worth reading while the rest is pure fluff.

Have you ever found opportunities to use backstories in a way that didn't have to do with capturing a family member or loved one?

Flashman85 said...

Well, there was this one time... Wait, no, I think their inn burned down or something. Oops.

Storyteller said...

Fire always works too :)