The Fine Line Between Concept and Back -Story

I believe I may have a problem distinguishing the difference between Concept and Back-Story.
At what point in your character conception do you draw the line and say now you’re crossing into a back-story instead of a background concept.

To me, every protagonist and antagonist requires a solid backdrop do we know where he is coming from (his baseline) that’s how you build great storylines and how you write great beliefs. But then, I tend to over complicate things.

In Burning Wheel:

Concept is one sentence.

Back story is how you describe your lifepaths and relationships to the other players.


I’m not sure what you mean by these terms. Concept, to me, is the brief blurb version of a character. “Renegade Knight” or “Shopkeeper who’s secretly a cultist” would be the concept. Backstory is the whole idea of the character and his or her life up to the moment the game begins. In other games, it’s traditional for GMs to bemoan getting two lines that say nothing or fifteen pages of purple prose.

BW actually has a really solid system for this. There’s no secret.

If it’s a belief, instinct, or trait, if it’s in your relationships, reputations, or affiliations, if it’s property or gear you own, or if it’s obvious from your lifepaths, it’s in your backstory. Otherwise? It’s not important. You don’t need a backstory to pore over looking for the hooks. The BITs give the GM all the giant flags for what really matters to the player about the character’s backstory. And anything not in all that stuff the player has declared, by leaving it out, irrelevant.

Some other stuff may come out in play, either as declarations of color or from use of wises. But that’s not what matters.

I would also say that leads to other lifepath settings play a big role, but again this can be detailed in play. A wizard from the College of Magic who became a rogue wizard or a dwarven axe bearer becoming an outcast drunk? There’s definitely a backstory there.

So the concept (vengeful rogue wizard, a pirate in search of a ship and crew, hobbit out on a walk about, ect.) are short synopsis about the character while a back story is a short history of the character or the story so far and stops before the actual game begins and touches on all of the characters lifepaths, bits, and relationships.
That’s pretty much what I do yet I had gotten the idea that I’m not supposed to write a backstory but rather let it all come out in play. (Don’t play before you play and all that.)

With BW, I’d argue, you often shouldn’t write a backstory. It should be apparent from what’s on the character sheet: BITs, LPs, the rest. That’s what the GM works with. You can write more, or have more in your head, but it doesn’t really count for anything. And I hold that it’s more likely to hinder you than harm you. Get your character straight, put it on the character sheet, and that’s it. Okay, sure, for some surprising LP combinations you should at least have an explanation for what happened to make a life like that, but don’t commit it to paper.

Why? Because it’s a recipe for trouble. You mention family, friends, enemies and allies you had in the past. Are they all relationships you bought? If not, you’ve got backstory-story dissonance. The same is true for any other discrepancies. You’re just opening up a can of worms. Let the sheet speak for itself.

“Playing before you play” in RPG wonk parlance is mostly the idea of deciding on a course of action before enacting a course of action, so I’m misusing it a bit. But what I mean is having the cool stuff in your past. If you’ve already achieved the awesome things, that’s boring. You’re not going to get to play them—they’re in the past! In a way, you’re aiming for boring so that backstory doesn’t overshadow story. More accurately, you’re aiming for backstory only interesting or important insofar as it informs play—which is why the BITs are the important part.

My strong and possibly contentious opinion is that the “and also everyone should write up character backgrounds” ritual is fairly bankrupt in pretty much any game ever:
“Players! Please give me a raw, vague infodump about your character. I will not explain to you how I intend to use the information, and you will not tell me how you would like me to use it. Ultimately, during the game, some warped versions of your backstory elements might become relevant if I deign to include them, and if you’re very, very lucky, I might even stumble upon a use for them that passingly resembles what you were originally interested in. Either way, all creative control over the idea will pass to me.”

As our group rotates gm-ing it’s important to know where the characters are coming from as well as their long term goals, which do not show well in bits as most beliefs we write tend to be short term immediate future goals (with perhaps some overshadowing of the long term).

As others have mentioned, your characters back story should be entirely captured on your character sheet, in their life paths, BITs, and skills. Anything that is not on your character sheet is intangible, and entirely up to the vagueries of chance whether or not it will ever come up in play. A while back, I was making a rogue enchantress/cult leader and I wanted to establish both that she had a history of grave robbing to obtain antecedents for her enchantments, and that she sometimes used “blood donations” from her cult in order to supercharge her magics; however, I didn’t have enough skill points left to open up both bloodletting and graveyard-wise. I ultimately decided to go with just graveywrd-wise, which ended up becoming a major part of her character, while the blood donations never really came up in play.

And answers to things like Steel and Health questions. You murdered someone in cold blood? Tell us about that?

I thought we were being encouraged to write short term achievable beliefs about the current situation, location, party member, or goal. Even then, those belifes (just like every instinct) begs the question of why? And all of those answers should be rooted in the backstory.