There is a concept in some forms of roleplaying that hasn’t really had a name. It’s where a single player creates a magnificent back story which doesn’t actually enter play. A few years ago on Story Games, this idea was described as “Doll Housing”.
The basic idea states that a player creates an elaborate “doll-house” for their character background. A unique snowflake of intricacy, carefully linked into everything it means to “BE” this character. But in many cases, this is such a carefully crafted and delicate thing, that they don’t allow other players to play with it.
There lies the problem.
Roleplaying is about portraying a role, if your backstory isn’t going to come into play through your portrayal of the role, why have it? I’ve played with hundreds of people in live-roleplaying contexts over the years, and I’ve seen my fair share of players who come to their role with no background thoughts what-so-ever, I’ve seen just as many elaborate backstories that just don’t enter play at all… characters with backgrounds as elite assassins, but who fumble and fail once the character actually starts interacting with the outside world… characters who are master courtiers possessed of cunning and deft in the world of intrigue, but who possess the diplomacy and tact of your stereotypical orc once they are actually played.
In a tabletop game, a player is concealing their “dollhouse” from a couple of other people on the table. Over time they might “open a dollhouse window” to allow another player to peer into their carefully constructed world, some players might even allow a little access to other characters, as long as they don’t “move the furniture too much” and disrupt the intricate backstory. In a LARP game, players are concealing their dollhouse from a dozen or more other players. Unless the “dollhouse” has been created by a group of players to share their backstories, it’s generally a pretty selfish way to play a game.
Don’t get me wrong, I used to love reading these as a LARP campaign GM. It was fascinating when a player would do something in game, something that just didn’t make sense to most of the players but which made perfect sense in the context of their backstory. But more often than not, players would create these backstories purely to justify why their character had some quirky power that wasn’t normally associated with their character type. I’ve read thirty page histories, just to discover how a “formerly psychic werewolf-kinfolk now embraced by the Tremere vampires” could justify possessing the shapeshifting discipline of Protean without being linked to the Gangrel clan.
Histories in game should be far more than justifications, they should provide impetus and direction to characters. That’s one of the places where linking characters to stories becomes an advantage. Setting up a game like this, I’d throw in a dozen key storylines for players to link to (let’s say half as many background storylines as there are players). If a player wants to write a background for their character, they might offer a single paragraph of narrative for each storyline they want to link to. If a player has a bunch of points to throw into a character (to make them enter play at a more prestigious/experienced level), they might add in a paragraph for each of the occupations they’ve passed through on the way to reaching their current position… No more than a page in total (maybe two pages in the case of really experienced characters). I'm thinking of writing something like this formally into the rules, but maybe it might be better as a sidebar.
The point is that characters only come into their own once they start interacting with others. Dollhousing is great if you want to share your backstory with a variety of people, otherwise it’s just window dressing with no real effect. A character’s true story begins the moment they enter play.
Besides, who want to write a 30 page story for a character who dies five minutes into the game?