I haven’t blogged about MUSHing in ages, but a discussion at MU Soapbox was brought up as we were talking about potential CG changes on Blood of Dragons. It concerned whether games should ask for backgrounds or not before letting a character go IC, and the general consensus seemed to be that this is a horrible thing to do (much like anything else that keeps you from logging onto a game and being IC within 5 minutes).
Now, no one can deny that MUSHing is very much a niche hobby today and that it competes with an otherwise rather fast-paced gaming world that offers a lot of near-instant gratification. So, yes, there needs to be quick routes onto a game, such as pre-generated characters. But doing away with any form of background altogether seems like something that would only work for a very limited range of settings where it is enough to say that if you don’t mention any extraordinary events in your background, you’re assumed to have had a normal life up until the start of play. If the setting in question is one where it can be assumed that most players will have a somewhat similar understanding of what a “normal life” would entail, then yes, it works.
That rules out most non-modern day settings (and probably quite a few modern day settings too, depending on location, supernatural elements, etc). After 10 years of running Blood of Dragons, with a background as a mandatory part of CG, we’ve seen that at least 50% of players would come out of CG with some very odd notions about what a “normal life” would have been like for their characters, had we not been able to give them feedback on their write-ups. So, yes, the background is a little bit of a “test”, to see if the player has a concept in mind that will work on our particular game.
I know that some players prefer to “discover” their characters through roleplay and find it hard to settle on too many details before they start playing. While I am the total opposite myself, I know that creativity works differently for everyone. Some plan, some go with the flow. But the approach of seeing where the story takes you is also something that only works in particular settings/genres. Is your game set in a modern-day city where players can arrive IC as they start play, with no ties to anyone? Then that approach can be perfect. There are other scenarios that work too, but they tend to have in common that characters are unconnected to each other and that they can be fresh arrivals from distant places. As soon as your character needs to be worked into a network of other characters, you need to have at least some sense of the character’s past.
When it comes to Blood of Dragons, the setup of the game is such that I would say backgrounds of some kind are indispensable. The setting is not one where we can assume that all or even most players know what “normal” would be for their characters, so they do need some guidance from staff on their concepts (even if they don’t think they do). The kind of characters available (members of noble houses) also rule out concepts such as the mysterious loner with no ties to anyone else. Additionally, CGed characters become part of the stable of pre-gens once abandoned by their initial player, which means that any background or concept needs to be written so that another player—not just the person creating the character—can understand and work with it.
What I have been considering for a while, however, is trying to find a middle ground between a more detailed background (which doesn’t work so well on some types of characters, especially younger ones) and a concept sketch that presents the type of character the player has in mind and includes any key background events, while avoiding a traditional linear writeup. Given that we’ve also introduced an “Events” system that allows players to record significant events by date, any such details can already be migrated out of the background. It might be that moving to more of a concept sketch would both allow more flexibility in how characters are setup and actually prove more useful in helping inexperienced players come up with a playable concept without spending time on padding out a background needlessly.