This post is, yes, me trying to convince you to check out my latest RPG project, the Isle of Joy over on Kickstarter right now. However, since I’m not used to selling my stuff, I am going wrap the sales pitch in
bacon some short essays on actionable related to RPGs. Maybe they’ll be things most GMs have figured out for themselves, maybe not, but I’d like to share what I got from the experience of designing and playtesting the book.
Today, I’m going to talk a little about backstory, especially the difficulties in establishing a mysterious backstory.
One of the neatest teaching tools for GMs that I’ve seen is How to Host a Dungeon. The reason I like it is because it foregrounds the history of the dungeon, as the player gores through that history, detailing phases of its development over time and figuring out what traces from each phase of its history remain. What it essentially does is ask the GM to think of the dungeon as a character with a backstory. Of course, parts of that backstory—if not the majority of it—will remain a mystery to the players as their characters traverse the dungeon, but clues and hints to that past are much easier to strew around the place if the dungeon’s designer has an idea in mind a backstory for the dungeon (or other adventure locale).
That said, I think mysteries are more important than backstories themselves, and that some mysteries shouldn’t be fully solvable.
One of my favorite examples of this is the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. That’s strange, because honestly I don’t care for a lot of Henry James’ writing—not the stuff I’ve tried, anyway—but The Turn of the Screw is an astounding novella. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen one of the film adaptations. It was clearly the inspiration for The Others (the 2001), but it’s been adapted many times for the stage and screen. The story is about a governess—a live-in- tutor/nanny—who, alone with some children in an isolated manor, comes to believe the children are haunted by ghosts of dead past members of the household staff. Are they haunted, or has she just lost her mind?
When I was a student in a gothic literature class, my instructor asked us to write an essay about that either/or question: whether the ghosts were real, or the governess was mad. That seemed like an absurd question, to me. The Turn of the Screw is carefully constructed to balance on the blade of that knife: it’s impossible to claim either of these things with any certainty. Rather, the point of the novella is the uncertainty itself: maybe the ghosts were real, or maybe the governess was mad, or maybe both were “true” within the world of the story… but the reader cannot be sure based on the text alone. I didn’t realize, when I submitted my essay arguing this, that it was the dominant argument by literary critics from about the 1980s on: it just seemed evident from how it was written that the ambiguity and the impossibility of solving that central mystery was the entire point of the book.
Often, in fantasy RPGs, we know the Readers’ Digest version of the backstory of an adventure locale, especially if it’s somewhat prosaic: a keep in the hills has been overrun by orcs; the tomb of an ancient lord that is guarded by the undead; a wizard or saint cursed the wicked tower and the curse continues to this day; the ancient, primeval forest in which wild and fey beings rule and always have ruled since the dawn of time. The history may or may not matter much, but if it does the players can often easily work out the basics if they need to.
I was going for something different with Isle of Joy: I was trying to pull a Turn of the Screw with the backstory itself. What would happen if the backstory was simultaneously: impossible to boil down completely to the prosaic level, but seemingly (and increasingly) important to players whose characters visit the Isle?
As I say, I was trying to pull a Turn of the Screw. One big difference is that James set up the unsolvable as a dichotomy: is the governess mad, or are the ghosts real? I was trying instead to strew around clues to hint at the backstory in my mind, without distributing enough for a definitive picture to be assembled from it. Players, if they stitched together some guesses at the Isle’s history, would have to creatively engage with the clues provided: to some degree they’d have to make up the story for themselves, but they would also feel compelled to do so by the clues and by everything else they encountered on the Isle. What’s more, I wanted it to be this way for the GM, too: I hoped the GM would assemble their own story about how and why the Isle ended up how it is, which would inform how they ran the game. I wanted it to be possible that different groups would come up with somewhat different versions of the same story, too, like how versions of folktales vary from culture to culture.
It turns out this is pretty challenging, especially when you’re writing an RPG adventure. For one thing, unlike in a literary text—where you can have an unreliable narrator—the text of the adventure needs to be definitive. There either is a doorway, or there isn’t; there either is a ghost in the room, or there isn’t, or at least there’s a percentage chance of it being there. Also, you have the experience of players working against you to some degree: it’s not often that players are necessarily presented with a strong motivation to work out events from some ancient era they can never know definitively about. However, it’s pretty tricky to give suggestive clues that don’t also point toward a specific story: beyond the first few, things start to fit together and then you have a puzzle with pieces missing, rather than an invitation to co-create a story, and in the end I settled for a more modest effect: that most groups would probably come up with the same basic sense of what the backstory, but it would take them a while to arrive there, and that a certain amount of it would remain forever guesses and unconfirmed assumptions.
Another compromise I found was necessary was to include a version of the Isle’s backstory—or a possible version of it, anyway—in an appendix. Realistically, some GMs tend to want to be given enough to work with that prep doesn’t feel like homework, let alone an exercise in rumination over a literary text. (Not all of us have the luxury to ruminate over an adventure text and its implications, as I—a busy dad with too many hobbies on top of full-time work—know this very well.) That said, I think you’re better off ruminating and not reading the optional backstory summary—or maybe taking it as a potentially-unfounded rumor among one of the Isle’s factions. Instead of relying on the backstory I’ve reluctantly provided, I recommend listening to your players and enjoying the way they assemble the adventure’s clues into a sort of historical narrative. Most groups will probably arrive at the same rough big picture, but you may be surprised at how some of the details diverge, or how the emphases vary. One way to think about this is to consider it a dual emergent story: one emerging from the events that unfold in the present-day of the game on the Isle, and the other that the players assemble for themselves about why the Isle is the way it is, and how it got that way.
As for perfectly ambiguous backstory, it’s definitely possible in an RPG, but I am not sure whether a backstory can be at once compelling, ambiguous, and abundantly supported. Once you abundantly support the backstory by introducing a certain number of hints and clues, the ambiguity diminishes. If you don’t, it never attains the status of a compelling mystery for players. If you want it to be very ambiguious, you need to support it less abundantly, and risk it being less compelling. It’s a kind of spider chart deal, where you can have up to 100 points split between those features, and you’re always going to be striking a compromise, I think.
Anyway, if that sounds interesting to you, please check out Isle of Joy on Kickstarter. There’s still around three days left in the campaign as I write this, so it’s ending soon, but we’re sailing ever-closer to unlocking another stretch goal at the moment: an added appendix of rules for underwater adventuring in the aquatic regions surrounding the Isle!