Characters' Real and False Memories

The "Past Life = Present Life" Approach
In most roleplaying systems players are encouraged to write long and elaborate background stories for their characters, thus to be able to better sink into their role. The general thought behind that approach is, that a character is a kind of logical equation, whose present life is a direct result of its past life. It could be presented like this:

  • Past life = Present life
Orcs killed Govan's parents (Past life) = Therefore Govan hates orcs (Present life).

The "Past life = Present life" approach's use of False Memory
Govan's background story says, that his parents were killed by orcs, yet the player, who plays the character called Govan, has never actually played Govan through the childhood story where Govan's parents' were killed by orcs. Govan's memories of his parents being killed by orcs are therefore so to speak "false memories", in the sense, that they have never been played through in actual game sessions. Only the events, which the character Govan has lived through during actual game sessions, can be said to be the character's "real memories". This is because these events are the only events, which the player has actually played through with the character Govan.

  • The character's background story = the character's "false memory"
  • The character's experiences during actual game sessions = the character's "real memory"
I have now and then put forward the opinion that "The less background you start with the better." What I mean is, that it is better for a new character to have as few false memories as possible. To explain better why I think so I find it appropriate to turn to John Donne's Meditation XVII for a moment:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
John Donne - Meditation XVII

No character is an island
Normally no character is an island. It is very rare that a roleplaying session takes place between one player and one game master only. Normally there will be 2 to 5+ players per game master. This means, that all the individual characters have to find their own place and identity within the group. Yet, that is quite difficult to do, when you follow the "Past Life = Present Life" approach to background story. This is because the "Past Life = Present Life" approach encourages the players to each write their own unique background story, which is of great importance to the way their character should be played. When you then sit down together with for example 5 creative individuals, who each have their own unique and important background story, then the following will normally happen: The players realize, that they cannot play their character in the group the way it was meant to. This is because the group forces the character to compromise so much with its background story, that either the background story must be abandoned or else the character itself must be abandoned. A third solution would of course be, that one character killed all the other characters so that only one background story existed (i.e. his/her own), yet that is a very weak solution, which obviously also defeats the basic idea of roleplaying together.

Yet, why do the false memories of the "Past Life = Present Life" approach to background story lead us into such a conflict between the individual character and the group? To understand this matter in depth I find it enlightening to turn to the following passage from Soeren Kierkegaard's diary:

It is quite true what Philosophy says, that Life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying, that it must be lived forwards. This sentence, the more it is thought through, leaves us with the conclusion, that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible, precisely because I at no moment can find complete quiet to take the position: backwards.
-The Diary of Soeren Kierkegaard.
The Journal 20. Novbr. 1842 - 1844 March no. 164

Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards
The real problem of the "Past Life = Present Life" approach to background story seems to be found in its basic, rational premiss of understanding life forwards, which leads the character to live its life backwards. Let us take an example to illustrate this:

The character Govan, whose parents were killed by orcs, suddenly spares the life of an orc. The game master stops the game session and claims with good reason, that Govan's player is acting out of character. Govan would never spare the life of an orc, since his parents were killed by orcs.

In this example the gamemaster was more interested in how Govan should have acted according to his background story, instead in how Govan actually did act. The gamemaster thus allows Govan's false memories to take precedence over his real memories.

Because the gamemaster followed the "Past Life = Present Life" approach, he thought, that Govan's life could be understood forwards. The gamemaster knew Govan's background story and from that background story he was convinced, that he could move forward through Govan's life until he reached the present situation and in the situation predict how Govan would and should act. When Govan acted differently the gamemaster interrupted and made clear to Govan's player, that he was acting out of character. Thus by understanding Govan's life forwards, Govan is forced to live his life backwards, since the Govan character never will be able to do anything, which has not already been described within the framework of his background story. In other words, if the "Past Life = Present Life" approach to background story is followed, then the character's story is already over even before it has begun. It is over the moment the background story has been written.

False memories "on the fly" in support of real memories
To avoid these problems it is advisable to start new characters with as little background story as possible. Instead invent the background story of a character "on the fly" to support and strengthen and character's depth in a given situation. In other words, play the character's life forwards, while you "on the fly" create the its past life (i.e. background story) backwards. The past life of a character should be sought formed in a way, which makes the character more interesting to play in the present group and in the present events. That way the untold part of a character's life becomes a creative room which slowly and indefinitely can be filled with interesting material according to the actual adventures, which the character undertakes. This kind of background story written "on the fly" is just as much to be called false memories as any other kind of background story written for characters. Yet, this type of false memory supports the real memories of the character instead of working against them.

Wilbur (whose background story says nothing about orcs) and his group encounters an orc camp. Wilbur sniffs the air and exclaims: "There is a vile smell of orcs in the air. My hatred for these creatures runs too deep for us to pass them by in peace."

In the example Wilbur's player allows his character to respond directly to the adventure at hand. He uses the adventure to add depth to the character Wilbur. This is done by placing something in Wilbur's past, which makes him hate orcs. He makes it uncertain what it is. Later in the adventure Wilbur's player feels inclined to explain more about Wilbur's hatred for orcs in order to deepen the meaning of what Wilbur is lucky enough to accomplish during the orc adventure:

Example continued:
During the orc adventure the group confronts a large and ferocious Orc captain, who is the leader of the camp. Wilbur is lucky enough to slay the orc captain. As the captain falls he exclaims: "Vengeance I swore by my father's sword the day your kind slew my sister. Let this death of a prominent orc be the first of many to follow!".

What is the difference then between Govan's pre-written orc background story and Wilbur's "on the fly" orc background story? The difference is, that Govan's orc background story controls Govan, while Wilbur is in control of his orc background story. It is as simple and yet as complicated as that.

I would like to end this with a quote from Lord British aka Richard Garriott's interview with Game Spy (May 6, 2004) about Tabula Rasa:

"Player empowerment is also a hallmark in character development. Players only get to choose their name and sex when they start the game. Everything else, including their appearance, is randomized when the game starts. Garriott explained that this came from the annoying habit of MMOs (and RPGs in general) to force players to make important life decisions before they even know anything about the world. Tabula Rasa introduces players to the world in stages, and any player can choose to follow any path at any time. While there are no "classes" as such, players can choose to follow one of three paths, (the body, mind, or spirit) acquiring a variety of skills, abilities and weapons along the way."
Source: Game Spy (May 6, 2004)