Friday, October 20, 2017

Why So Many Sad Backstories?

I was browsing through my feed the other day when I saw a screenshot from Tumblr. I'm sure some of the rest of you have seen it, but in case you haven't, it looks like this.

And there we come to today's topic.
I'm sure we all had a chuckle over this, because let's face it, who doesn't have a story or two about a group of hardened murderhobos each trying to out-grim each other? On the other hand, it makes a good point, and one that I think is worth thinking about.

In short, why are so many of us trying to be fantasy Batman?

Imitating The Classics

Real talk for a moment, here. Tragic heroes are easy. Do you know why? Because we have so many damn good examples of them in our pop culture (and especially in the nerdier parts of it). The go-to example is Batman, with the classic dead parents and revenge on crime story. But we also have characters like Wolverine (a wandering amnesiac with intense PTSD trying to fight the impulses you have when you're a living weapon), Luke Cage (a wrongly-convicted man experimented on in prison trying to clear his name), Jessica Jones (disillusioned heroine and abuse survivor just trying to make her way in the world), etc.

Even outside of comics we have characters like Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus, and others whose stories are often tragedies full of rage, blood, and tragic fates they cannot escape.

Seriously, Greek tragedies are 90's comics with more dick jokes.
But you know what we don't see a lot of in stories that aren't expressly aimed at kids? Heroes that have their lives together. Characters who have a good support network, who have no reasons to scour the world looking for vengeance, and who are doing just fine. Maybe they could use a little more coin in their pockets, or they'd like to live in a better part of the city, but they don't have deep-seeded darkness putting the pedal to the metal. Usually they're participating in the campaign because they want to help, because it's their job, or sometimes just because it's the right thing to do.

I know, yawn-o-rama, right?

I mean, who is that bard, being all light-hearted, curious, and sending a portion of his earnings home to his parents? Where does this paladin get off in using his martial skill and divine power to try to lift up the downtrodden because it's the right thing to do? And what's with this enchanter, having a positive relationship with his tutors, and working a respectable job as a diplomat?

All right, all right, serious time now.

I'll be the first to admit that grimdark (or at least tragic) character backstories are compelling. I came up with a whole list of popular characters off the top of my head, and there are dozens more I didn't include. With that said, though, it's easy to get stuck in a rut where all you ever do is play people who've been kicked into the dirt, and forced to eat gravel until they prove they're tough enough to be adventurers. But that's not a requirement... it's just a thing we've done because it's tradition. And, a lot of the time, because we're lazy.

Who You Calling Lazy?!

It's a simple fact that a lot of players don't want to reach too far into a character's backstory before they debut in the first session. That's why, so often, we see characters with dead parents, and no extended family. Because it acts as dual motivation, and means we don't have to mess about with who their family is. We also tend to conflate surviving awful things with being strong characters, but just because you have a character who has overcome negative events, that doesn't make them any deeper or more mature as concepts.

What I can say for foregoing the traditional murdered family/orphaned/survivor of war/tortured by trolls backstory is that when you set the grimdark spark aside, you've got to work a lot harder. It's also important to remember that "not sad" doesn't require everything to be rainbows and sunflowers. It's just not blood and tears.

Need an example or two? Merrilin Briggs is the oldest daughter of Lord Cauthorn Briggs and his second wife Katherine. She showed magical talent at a young age, and her father made sure she received proper instruction in the arts magica. Her mother, ever a society woman, also insisted that Merrilin be schooled in the classic past times of a lady. Fireballs of a morning, needlepoint and dancing of an evening. When threats beset her father's lands, the Lady Briggs is there to drive them back. Her father is proud of her, but both he and his wife worry for her safety. Her mother often wishes she would marry, much to Merrilin's annoyance, but she tries not to let it ruin their relationship.

Or how about Reginald "The Lightning" Carpenter? A boy from one of the rural areas, he grew up tending orchards. He was always the regional favorite in competitions of martial skill, though, and his speed and tirelessness earned him his nickname. He even fought a bout when the local Baron was in attendance, and the nobleman gifted Reginald with a fine rapier as a prize for his display of skill. When his younger siblings were old enough to mind the orchards, Reginald enlisted in the militia, hoping to make better use of his skills. A charismatic leader, he and his men repelled several groups of bandits, and rescued kidnapped travelers who were being held for ransom. Accepting accolades and promotions, it is his intention to find a stead for his family to live on where the only trees they tend are those they want to, rather than those they have to.

Now, both of these characters may have problems (Merrilin's penchant for boots and bandoliers may be hard to leave in the field, causing friction when she's at home, for instance), but those problems aren't horrible, or tragic. They're just the sorts of things we all deal with. They also have hobbies, goals, wants, and needs.

Those are the things that get them out in the field, and tie them into the campaign.

Try Nightmare Mode... You Might Like It

To reiterate, there is nothing wrong with characters who have sad, grim backstories full of loss and murder. There are even some games, like White Wolf's World of Darkness setting, or Shadow of The Demon Lord, that are tailor-made for those kinds of characters. However, if that is the only kind of PC you're playing, I'd recommend branching out to try something different. Even if it's just for a palate cleanser.

And remember... just because you don't have anything terrible under your belt when you start, that doesn't mean you can fight monsters for 15 levels without risking becoming one.

That's all for this week's Fluff post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some of you out there. If you want to see more of my game-related work, check out my Gamers archive. I'm adding a few new pieces every month, so there's always something new over there. If you want to keep up with all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some change into my tip cup. $1 a month is all I ask, and in exchange I'll send a load of gaming swag your way as a thank you!


  1. I've had some fun with characters like these. A happy / non-sad back story doesn't have to be a boring or dull one, either, although even that can be a palate cleanser now and then.

    I've played a mercenary with dead parents who didn't die a tragic death; he started the campaign in his 30s, his parents had him when they were older, and they died of natural causes before the game began.

    I'm currently playing a woman who has no idea where her parents are. NO tragic backstory; they're wandering merchants, when she was of age she left them to pursue strong drink and hot guys. She's not terribly attached to them, but she doesn't hate them or anything. Her only sort-of attachment is to her partner in crime, a card sharp and con man who occasionally runs cons with her.

  2. There is another reason for tragic backstory, no social connections lone wolf characters. They are less subject to emotional blackmail by the GM. One too many GM horror stories about threatening/abusing the significant others of PCs are footing around out there for people to feel safe with their characters being other than alone in the world.

  3. This needs to get spread far and wide. The dead-family, barely-escaped, only-survivor-of-unspeakable-horror characters are so common that it's hard to find someone who doesn't have it. Looking forward to making my next character constantly send hand-drawn postcards home to the family.

  4. I think that it's important to redefine this on the scale of the Monomyth. A character who has had a "tragedy" has already been in the "Belly of the Whale" and there is no going back for them.

    A character who has had "bad things happen" is someone who blithely took that as a "call to adventure" and on the "First Threshold", because they saw regular life as too constrictive. They had bad things happen to them, but nobody thought of those things as something that couldn't be overcome with hard work and a normal life. These are the characters who still have the potential of settling down.

    Ideally, you have a mix of these characters. This leads to contrast and contrast leads to comradery. Those who have already been in the Belly of the Whale feel uncomfortable with the idea of settling down before their quest is completed, while those who are still on the First Threshold are blithely enjoying a life of liberty as an end in and of itself, whether they rationally experience it as such or not.

  5. I have a homebrew character who is an animated stuffed toy. She has no family, because she's outlived every one of them. But she decided that she didn't want to stay around the area her family lived in, because there are so many songs and stories to learn about, and to share with others, and she'd been given her owner's blessing, so she set out centuries ago to learn and share. She did come home once, and that was to pay her respects to her original owner, and to make sure their descendants would be alright without her.

  6. I'm a guy who's out to make some quick money, so that I can buy an Inn, a Farm, a Lumber Mill, by level 3 or 4, I've made 2,000-4,000 gp, my goals have been met, thank you. Campaign over. Thanks guys, this dangerous life really isn't for me, I'm retiring.

    And then what???

    1. And then you understand that if you make characters with such easy to achieve goals that you'll need to invent new reasons to stay involved with the game. Which is why you should have more strings to your bow than immediate profit.

      Do you want to rise above your station as a commoner? Travel the world to see legendary sights for yourself? Uncover ancient lore? Or just keep your two dumbass friends alive, because they will deliver any dungeon just for the right to say they did it?

  7. Now we have the other group, the sane adventurers, who actually want to do good or do something constructive or improve themselves. We call them 'soldiers' in RL, after they've shot and killed about 2 or 3 people or seen 2 of 3 of the friends killed, they wind up in therapy over PTSD. The adventurer who reaches level 20 is a mass-murderer, devoid of any human complications over taking a life or multiple lives. They are a fully trained, fully operational, Death Star...

    Think about it, has anyone ever reached level 20+ in D&D without having killed at least 100+ sentient beings, dwarves, elves, humans, orcs, goblins, whatevers. Yeah, I didn't think so, either. At this point you are a fully operational sociopath, empathy is no longer there, that's really what makes level 20 characters.

    Their skills don't actually improve, they just no longer have 'the shakes' when it comes to killing others. They are cold blooded, murderers, who have seen enough blood spilled, that it no longer phases them.

    A level 1 fighter, is afraid for his life in a life or death fight against another one. A level 20 fighter, walks into a room, kills 4 people with one hand, and eats a sandwich with the other.

    Tell me if you disagree...

  8. It's a shorthand (and lazy) way of saying your character is functionally independent (and thus strong/smart/etc). I could buy the "they don't want family members to be used against them" but these orphans also don't have any friends or anyone who really helped them become who they are.

  9. This is outstanding! I've been banging this drum for awhile. What's wrong with a character coming from a loving, relativey well adjusted family??!! The "Batman" thematic can become very weary ...

  10. In thirty-five years of playing D&D, et. al. I am not sure how many characters I have made with dead parents and grim backstories, but I do remember that there are many with broken homes and single parents. That is a natural extension of my own life, I think. Aside from that, I often fill out details about the Character's family and background and provide that to the GM. It might come to nothing, but there are lots of options for npc encounters with familial ties.

  11. Despite the fact the first character I felt really proud of with its details and complexity... It had more then its fair share of tragedy. Yet I have created other characters with little or no tragedy or darkness. For example:

    Jonathon is a half elf who cares greatly about enjoying himself, even if there is risk involved, and has a love of a good story whether it be historical, or legend and folklore. He even enjoys learning the stories of those that he meets, and may go out of his way to learn about interesting folk that he encounters.

    He is intelligent and charismatic, having a gift for getting many to like him using his eloquence and charming speech. In some ways he is manipulative, and is not above playing with the emotions of others. Yet he is a man of his word, always keeping a promise, and will find himself unable to not get involved with those helpless in danger. He also has a great dislike for any that show rudeness, insults, or abuse towards another and will step in if needed.

    Born into a well-to-do family living in Waterdeep or other major city, Jonathon was taught in the ways of music and history by his parents while also being given a more general private education. Both his parents are well regarded in their city, his father an exceptionally skilled viol/vielle player, while his mother is a respected elven historian and teacher. From his youth the half elf gained a love of reading, having a curiosity that lead him to try many different things so as to find what he might be good at

    One such thing was learning the viol/vielle, as played by his father, being an instrument he struggled to learn when young but gained great skill in it, eventually, though determination and extra effort. In time his schooling would go beyond normal study but also learning the the history of other cultures. Yet Jonathon still hadn’t discovered his true path, which frustrated him and pushed the half eld to try new things.

    With this, he learned to use magic and from youth he studied what he could on it. Through such study he found he had an affinity for illusion magic and other more deceptive spells than in any other type, and found learning other magic more difficult.

    Jonathon gained understanding of his purpose during a family party that his parents had prepared him for so that he would act the way he should. While there, he noticed a girl about his age not enjoying herself.

    Introducing himself, Jonathon learned the girl was his cousin. Finding out she hadn’t wanted to go to the party, the young man decided he wanted to cheer her up and told her a story using his magic to create illustrations of sorts to bring the story to life. This cheered her up greatly, as well entertained others, and left him with a deep sense that he found finally discovered his destiny.

    As he grew up, Jonathon decided to leave his family and take to traveling the land. His curiosity and wanderlust bringing him to discover that which books couldn’t reveal. Yet before leaving, the half elf promised to write and he did so weekly, allowing his cousin and his family to know of his adventures.

    Gaining a desire to learn of some of the lands greatest adventurers and leaders, while seeking for that which had already passed, he set off far and wide. Ancient civilizations and cultures, forgotten lands and lost cities, mysterious artifacts and hidden lore. Jonathon will seek it all out with great passion and drive, growing into a storyteller and bard as time went on.