Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Retroactive Backstory

Honor + Intrigue uses a simple point based system for character creation. It works well and it can be made more flexible and balanced via optional rules. However, it assumes, one might even argue requires, that the player starts out with an initial character concept. Here's what the rules say on page 11.

Getting Started: Character Origin & Concept

To begin, imagine your character. Will you be playing a noble duelist or a cunning pirate? A brave musketeer or a master spy? Perhaps you would like to base your character on one you’ve seen in a movie or in a book. If you need some help coming up with an idea, here are some questions that can get you going in the right direction:

Where is the character from? Generally, characters in this game will be from some European country, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The GM may have a country that the game is based in, which may affect your decision for your character. For more information, see Gazetteer of the 17th Century World, page 133.
What does your character “do”? What is the character good at? Try to think of three things that stand out. This will make it easier to figure out your Careers and Combat Abilities later.
How would you describe the character’s appearance and personality?
Does the character have any serious problems in life? A hero with some sort of Flaw is more interesting.
Once you envision the character you want to play, it is time to determine the character’s attributes. You should assign the numbers in a manner that you think fits your character’s personality and physical ability.
Here's the example of character creation that appears on page 19.
Example: Evan is making a character. He envisions a brash young Spanish swashbuckling nobleman, whom he names “Don Francisco Antonio de la Vega”. He envisions Francisco as athletic and dashing, but not especially strong and allots his Qualities as Might 0, Daring 2, Savvy 1, and Flair 1. He sees Francisco as a very capable swordsman with a solid defense and a distaste for firearms. He assigns his Combat Abilities as Brawl 0, Melee 3, Ranged -1, Defense 2. Now Evan thinks about Francisco’s Careers. He was born a Noble, and as most young Spanish noblemen, he was taught the sword. This skill served him well when he attended the university, as it was full of other young noblemen eager to duel at the drop of a hat. In his studies, Don Francisco excelled in poetry and began publishing his works to some acclaim. His Careers are Noble 1, Duelist 0, Scholar 1, Poet (Artist) 2.
With his points assigned, he decides to choose some Boons and Flaws. First, he decides to bring up Francisco’s Flair by taking the “Beguiling” Boon, raising it to 2. Next, he decides that Francisco should be trained in the Spanish dueling style. Lastly, he decides that the “Artistic” Boon would make his talent as a writer even more apparent. Moving onto Flaws, Evan chooses “City Dweller” as Don Francisco has little experience with outdoor survival. Finally, to make the character especially interesting, he decides to take the “Tragic Fate” Flaw, thinking that it is befitting the concept of a character who is both a swaggering duelist and an artist. After all, the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
Looking over his character sheet, Evan gives Francisco 10 Lifeblood (the 10 + 0 Might), 5 Fortune (3 + 2 Flair), and 3 Advantage (the standard amount). Francisco now needs to flesh out his back-story with a Motivation. He decides that Francisco is motivated by Truth, which can be a dangerous thing when it contradicts authority! He then decides on some basic equipment. He uses his Careers as a guide, and makes five quick picks: he has a fine horse (Noble), a good rapier (Duelist), a few books (Scholar), some quills and parchment (Poet), and lastly thinks that a dagger would be appropriate, just in case.
Lastly, Evan writes down the favored Maneuvers of the Spanish Style and decides that Don Francisco has mastered the “Riposte” Maneuver. This way in combat, Evan can look at his sheet and see the Maneuvers he’s most likely to use. He also makes a note that when using the Spanish dueling style, he can spend a Fortune Point for +2 Defense against hand to hand attacks. With that, Don Francisco Antonio de la Vega is ready to step into 17th Century Madrid.
Note that Evan starts out by envisioning “a brash young Spanish swashbuckling nobleman who is athletic and dashing, but not especially strong. He sees Francisco as a very capable swordsman with a solid defense and a distaste for firearms. He was born a Noble, and as most young Spanish noblemen, he was taught the sword. This skill served him well when he attended the university, as it was full of other young noblemen eager to duel at the drop of a hat. In his studies, Don Francisco excelled in poetry and began publishing his works to some acclaim."
This isn't a huge amount of backstory, but it is a fairly clear character concept. Which is great if the player wants to start with a character concept. But sometimes players don't want that. And some players struggle with creating an initial concept. One of the virtues of old D&D was that you didn't need to create a backstory for your character. What determined who your character is (and for all intents and purposes who he or she was) was what your character did in play.
This had method has several advantages.

  1. It is faster than character creation methods that require a backstory.
  2. It is accessible to players who don't come to the table wanting to play a specific character like Conan, Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, or Dr Van Helsing or even a specific archetype.
  3. It allows room for the character's personality to evolve both to fit what the player does and to fit with the group the character is with.
It is not my intent in this post to argue the pros and cons of having or needing to have a character backstory. I merely observe that not having a backstory has some advantages for some players in some circumstances.

Last September Ten Foot Polemic had an interesting post on a d100 Retroactive Backstory Table. Initially I had hoped that this would be a method I could use to allow character creation without the need to first envision a character concept. I don't think it will do that, but I do think it may be interesting for other reasons. Here's what James Young says about his idea.

The basic idea is that every time you level up, you roll 1d100 on the Backstory table. Each has a hopefully-inspirational fragment of backstory and two potential outcomes. So if you roll a 1, the DM tells you "You got into a confrontation with a bully who was way tougher than you. Did you fight or flee?"

Now the trick here is that the other players at the table decide what your character must have done, based on how your character's been acting in the game thus far. Debate is allowed and encouraged, as is swapping examples of supporting evidence, in this case probably times you stood and fought versus times you turned and ran.

The others come to an agreement or vote or whatever, then you make up a story of what actually happened. Who was the bully? Why did you do what you did?

The story can be as detailed or as sparse as you want, no pressure. 
James observes that
Which is great and all, but making up the story about How Your Character Got Here is actually really fun! So this retroactive backstory is meant to be a sort of best-of-both-worlds approach. You get quick char gen, but as your character levels up you get to flesh out more backstory.
This also has the neat effect of making your character's personal story grow backwards as well as forwards, and means you sort of learn more about them as you play them. Plus from the DM's side of the table, you can tie current campaign events into backstory you just found out about.
For me, faster character generation and a backstory that grows during play are desirable goals.

Now if I want to adapt something like this to H+I I first need to have a better sense for how significant the bonuses are in the RPG system that James is using. I believe he is using a house ruled version of Legends of the Flame Princess which itself is more or less a D&D inspired level and class based game. That's not exactly a good fit with games like H+I or BoL that do not use increasing hit points (Lifeblood in H+I terms).

Here's a link to his table. You should take a look at it before proceeding. 

Here's what James says about the special abilities. 
As for the special abilities, many of them are based around my house rules, so you might need to change some of the specifics for your own thing.
Generally they either give you a little stat or skill bump, grant you some sort of conditional bonus, or give you a gimmick you can use once per session. Nothing's meant to be particularly powerful on its own, but some of the once-per-session ones are a bit wacky.

Analysis of James' table 

Qualities, Combat Abilities, and Careers are not very granular. Theoretically scores range from a low of either -1 or 0 to a high of 5 or even 6 with certain boons. However, in actual play* the really high scores just haven't come up. For most of the PCs their highest stat is a 3. There are two PCs who each have one stat at 4. So the highest effective range across all characters and all attributes is from -1 to 4 (6 steps) and for most attributes the range is -1 to 3 (5 steps) or 0 to 3 (4 steps). Compare that to the stat range for games like D&D, Runequest, or Call of Cthulhu where the range for stats is typically  3-18 (16 steps) or in WEG's Star Wars D6 where the range for humans is 2D6 to 4D6 (7 steps). Many aliens have a wider range with 10 or even 13 steps being not too uncommon and skills have a much wider range. Starting humans range from 2D to 6D (16 steps) for skills and it would not be unreasonable for experienced PCs to have skill ranges of 22 steps.** 

So without detailed comparison and analysis I'm guessing some tweaking may be needed to adapt the table for H+I or BoL. 

To get a better sense of what the bonus/penalty effect of the various backstories, I did a frequency count on the effects in James' table. I must admit that my categories are arbitrary and that some effects span more than a single category.

Once per session 36
+ 1 Bonus to STR, INT, WIS, CON, DEX, CHA 30
+1 skill 12
+1 (+2) to hit 10
+1 to action or efffect 10
Adjust AC: 10
Healing Bonuses 10
Link to Another Character 10
+1/+2 Reactions 8
Condition Based Bonus 8
Auto Success 5
+1 (+2) Saving rolls 4
Gain 1HD condition 4
Do Overs 4
Morale or Behavior Effects 4
Damage for Damage 4
Protect Others possibly at Your Expense 4
Experience Point Bonus 3
Gain Friend or Contact 3
Doubling Effects 3
Fleeing Effects 3
Protect Yourself at the Expense of Others 3
Game Date, year, real year bonus 2
Once per round 2
Religious Bonus 2
Carousing Bonus 2
Climbing/ Falling Effects 2
Good for Bad 2

Just from this count and the lesser granularity of H+I stats I can see it is going to take some effort to convert James' table to something for H+I. This will require some more thought before I post a conversion or adaptation.
* To put this in context, as of February 4, 2017 we have played H+I for 4.5 hears with 240 sessions (usually 3.5 hours) of play. No PC has been in every session, but 3 have been in about 2/3 of the sessions and the top 3 PCs have earned approximately 160 Advancement Points each. Which in H+I is a lot of APs. 

** Scores range in 1/3 D steps, so for humans the steps are 2D, 2D+1, 2D+2, 3D, 3D+1, 3D+2, 4D.

1 comment:

  1. This is a VERY interesting idea. I'd love to see what you make of it.