So, I am occasionally asked what it is that I will allow in a PC backstory. This usually comes when I have folks who want to create an incredible backstory that involves several NPCs and a whole long tragic story of blood, revenge, and destruction.
First, I allow that. I allow a lot of stuff. My hard and fast rules come into play in certain situations:
1 – The classes are the classes.
2 – The races are the races.
3 – The places are the places; you can create a village or a hamlet or a steading in any of the existing locations, but you can’t create a new kingdom or ream or town or city.
4 – The state of the world at the start of a campaign is the state of the world you have to work with; you can’t add in a war or similar major event that affects the existing upper level stuff. There is a reason I left all the Villages an smaller places “empty” — that’s where we play, and as we play, the world will change and be changed by your characters far more than any storyline or grand plans that I have (well, unless you fail, of course.).
5 – What you create will be used in the game. I love backstories. Careful attention to the way I describe the classes, and the options in Character and Background, will reveal that I put some effort into providing prompts for those who may not be familiar with it, but are also useful for those who are.
What I don’t generally do or deal with is backstories that are about the PC directly — what I do like to do is to bring back the folks from your past and involve them in your present life — folks who have a good chance of doing so. The people you trained with — your teacher, your classmates, your family members — they are the ones that things will happen to, and it will be up to you to ride to the rescue.
Part of the reason I do that is so that someone doesn’t have to create a dark, brooding backstory that is filled with angst and tragicomedy. You can create a person who had a wonderful life — or whose perspective on their life is that it was wonderful — prior to moving forward. It also allows me to involve the PC in the Now, not the past, for the stories we tell are the stories of the now, and of the future, not the stories of the past — what has come before has come, and even if it isn’t done with you quite yet, when it does come it will come in the now, and be that way.
Another big factor to consider is that while you can describe what happened, you cannot describe why it happened. Your character only knows what they know — everything else is from the perspective of an NPC, and NPCs are my characters. So motivation (the why and the how) are mine, while the what and the when are your yours (and you get to name them, lol, because you get the who, but remember that shady folks like to hide their true identities).
One of the reasons I insist on collaborative character creation is that it allows everyone to more or less guide their PCs to “fit” together, and allows us to talk about the things we want for them. It also gives me the chance to do it with a everyone at once, because I am usually willing to work with folks and guide them and help them along — though I will no longer create that backstory for you, lol.