Back in 1955, Lawrence Olivier appeared in a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. His performance was so iconic that it defined how both the character and the historical figure would be seen for generations to come. By the time the 1980s rolled around, people in British theatre started to realise that they were going to have to start pushing back against the 50s epics lest they lose the characters forever. If every rendition of Richard III turns into an imitation of Lawrence Olivier, why bother going to see a live performance?
For their 1984 performance of Richard III, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought in an actor named Anthony Sher and gave him carte blanche to re-think the character from scratch. Years late, Sher would write a (thoroughly excellent) book entitled Year of the King describing his efforts to create a new Richard III. According to the book, Sher went out and researched different types of deformity before hitting on the idea of Richard as a huge tic-like spider. Working with choreographers and artists, Sher devised not just a look and a style of movement but an array of physical tics and movements so jarring that his time on stage ended with months of physiotherapy. Even before the first rehearsals or attempts at workshopping, Sher had already worked out what his Richard would sound like, what he would look like, and what he would wear. The process took months and the amount of creativity and preparation that went into the role absolutely beggar belief.
And yet, the amount of preparation that Sher put into his Richard III pales into insignificance when compared to the amount of preparation that James D’Amato invites us to put into our RPG characters. There’s over-preparation and then there’s the levels of preparation encouraged by The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide.
A while ago, I reviewed D’Amato’s The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide and while I recognised that some of the exercises and ideas might help to contribute to people becoming better participants in RPG sessions, I was also somewhat taken aback by how poorly the book was structured and how poorly D’Amato articulated his ideas. At the time, I assumed this was because the first book in the series had been successful and the second book turned out to be a poorly-written attempt to recapture that success. Sadly, it turns out that the first book in the series is also incredibly poorly structured and articulated.
The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide is a series of one hundred exercises and writing prompts designed to help you flesh out the details of your characters’ backstories. The book itself is split into three chapters reflecting different power levels (humble beginnings, veteran heroes, myths and legends) but these are really only vague guidelines. There is no additional structure beyond that and no real thought appears to have been put into which kinds of questions might be more important than others. For example, the first exercise in the book presents you with a series of random tables you can use to come up with a fantasy-style idiom. The seventh one invites you to wonder what kinds of people your characters might choose to engage with on an online dating site.
If these exercises seem random and whimsical to the point of being useless, then you pretty much have my opinion of most of the exercises in this book…
Part of the problem is that there are no real instructions on how to engage with any of the exercises in this book. If you were to work your way through all of the exercises in this book then you would not just be over-prepared, you would be burdened by a character that was effectively unplayable. It’s all very well asking people to think about who picked up the trash in their characters’ neighbourhood when they were kids or which type of online dating service they’d choose to use, but how do either of those pieces of information feed into actual play?
Reading this book, I was reminded of the period when my gaming group decided that all of their characters needed elaborate backstories and so every character-sheet would come with pages and pages of poorly-written descriptive fluff explaining why the character was strong, why they were smart, and how they learned to play the fucking kazoo. We did this for a while until we realised that none of those pages of backstory ever found their way into play. If anything, they would often serve to hold us back as every single creative decision we made at the table would be checked against the written background in order to ensure that it all made sense and that we were playing our roles properly.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a neat little book called Existentialism is a Humanism. In it, he tries to get across the fundamental ideas of existential philosophy. In the book Sartre says:
Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards
This is often boiled down to the maxims ‘to be is to do’ or ‘existence precedes essence’ meaning that identity is not something that determines our actions but something that emerges from our actions. In other words, we are born free and we define our essence by virtue of making decisions. There is no ‘real me’ beyond the accumulated weight of my actions. I am not just free to act according to my conscience, I am radically free to define my identity.
I first encountered Sartre a number of years after I started gaming and his vision of identity really struck a chord with me because of my experiences at the gaming table: Rather than spending hours coming up with an elaborate backstory that then constrains your creativity, give yourself a couple of starting points and see where the game takes you.
My favourite example of this process involves an anthropomorphic fox swordsman I created for a friend’s game. I started out inspired by the fables of La Fontaine and had this vision of a poetic, noble swordsman who happened to be a fox but once I sat down to play the character, I found myself really enjoying the idea of the character lapsing back into foxiness. So, a character who started out as a romantic and poetic swordsman soon wound up rooting through people’s garbage, humping their sofa cushions and running away at the first sign of danger. Nothing in this book would have helped me create that character… in fact, the contents of this book would have prevented me from creating him as I would have been so focussed on elaborating the original concept and bringing the character’s elaborate backstory into play that I would have forgotten the joy of spontaneous creativity and just letting the muses guide me.
Now obviously, there is nothing wrong with front-loading your creativity. After all, Anthony Sher was a world-famous actor and author who was knighted for his services to theatre while I am a gormless chuckle-fuck with an anonymous blog. However, while there are a wide variety of approaches, techniques, and traditions designed to help performers prepare their roles, I always assumed that my post-existential approach to characterisation was a lot closer to improvisation than the type of stuff done by Sher. Indeed, what is improvisation if not reacting in the spur of the moment to other people’s creative decisions? One of the weird things about this book is that James D’Amato is someone who is trained in the art of improvisation. So why is he advocating that we front-load all of our characterisation by coming up with huge backstories?
One answer to this question is that he kind of isn’t… as with The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide, D’Amato isn’t great at structuring his ideas and so there’s really no attempt to tell you how to get the most out of this book.
Where this book comes in useful is when you’ve come up with a character concept and want to flesh out a few of the details to make it feel a bit less generic. For example, I will be playing D&D5 at some point in the near future and I came up with the idea of an urban barbarian, someone who is both prone to fits of rage and generally an outsider to ‘civilised’ behaviour. The justification I came up for this was that the character basically grew up as an orphan who was forced to fend for themselves and so never learned how to behave around other people. Flicking through The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide, I see that page 36 has a section entitled “Orphan Details” and there are a number of prompts I can use to flesh out that idea: What happened to my character’s parents? Did they have a physical object they kept with them at all times? Was there maybe another person who featured prominently in the character’s youth? What was the character’s relationship to that person? What did they look like? This isn’t complicated stuff but it’s the kind of questions that help move you beyond the bare bones of a concept to something less generic.
While none of the exercises are going to be useful all the time and some of them don’t seem useful at all, The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide is a useful set of writing prompts that you can flick through whenever you want to put a bit more meat on your character’s bones. Despite the back cover’s protestations, the book does skew towards the fantastical and in particular the kind of banter-y whimsical semi-comedic Fantasy that is currently in vogue in the worlds of actual play podcasts and fantasy literature. There’s nothing serious, dark or transgressive about any of these exercises so if you’re looking for inspiration for a horror game then I most definitely would not recommend this book.
The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide may not be a terrible book but it strikes me as a little bit expensive given how useful it is most likely to be. If you are content to pay $15 for a book containing writing prompts that might occasionally be useful in character creation then this product is certainly that but I suspect that (in most cases) this book will wind up finding its way either onto a dusty shelf or into a box to be dropped off at the charity shop. It’s not that I can’t imagine using a book to help me improve my character creation, it’s just that this book is not useful enough to be worth holding on to.