Good GMs Borrow, Great GMs Steal #3: Skilled Backstories
Skilled Backstories: What are they?
Several games use this mechanism, including two I’ve already covered: STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game and the Fate system games like Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, Fate Core, and more. What I refer to as a “skilled backstory” is the mechanical coupling of your character’s backstory with the skills that you use in some way (for Fate this is via Aspects, while for STALKER it’s via skills, for instance). Traditionally the association is a skill or two for early life, a skill or two for your teenage years, and a skill or two you’ve picked up since then, but the exact matching of time period to number of skills varies (and that’s a good thing for us!).
A Skilled Backstory mechanism creates a forced link between a character’s backstory and their skills – where did they learn to be a doctor? A priest? A martial arts expert?
Skilled Backstories: Why should you use them?
Often times in the modern conception of a narrative-based PC-centric RPG, the GM will lack the proper kind of entities to grab on to in order to create a dramatic situation that can spin you all off into hours of improvised fun. Traditionally this is solved by creating a backstory for the characters – a way to ground them in the reality of the world by giving them a past that can be called upon for adventure fodder. This particular method of creating a backstory based on the skills you want, or choosing skills based on the backstory you want, gives this kind of purchase for the GM to grab on to.
Furthermore, it also helps to resolve the “dropped into the world fully formed from the head of Zeus” problem that tends to afflict RPG characters. By showing how they arrived where they are today you have one of the more useful kinds of backstories – one that is relatively concise and to the point.
- Grounds the characters in reality. You know how they got where they are.
- Provides hooks for the GM to grab and use in crafting adventures. If you learn a skill chances are it was through contact with society in some way and not navel-gazing, which means whatever part of society the character contacted can show up for an encore performance.
- Provides an opportunity for guest-starring or drawback implementation, as per the first two posts of this series.
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
This rule is pretty short and sweet – a couple of sentences saying where you got to be so darn proficient at something in trade for giving your character a history that the GM can use is the very definition of an affirmative to rules 2 and 3. In many cases, when running a PC-centric narrative RPG, this idea of locking the characters’ skills to their backstories works really well. I definitely recommend giving it a go if that’s the kind of game you want to run but the system you use doesn’t have an equivalent system available.