The newbie’s unavoidable trap beckons like the soft slither of Medusa’s serpents and the rustling of her elegant gown. How do I avoid her death gaze!
How much backstory do I give the protagonist? Gods that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson are, I’ve never been that fond of Fighting Fantasy’s ultra blank slate approach to the player’s character. As a player I like to step into some sort of avatar that has formed a place in the world, but I don’t want to end up with a story that feels like your pushing around chess pieces as opposed to being personally involved.
For my plot idea to work my main character HAS to be a practising thief and con artist with a disastrous early membership in the city’s priesthood. Am I even pushing my luck with this level of character formation? Should I lay down these facets quickly and move on?
The protagonist’s backstory feels like it could be part of an important revelation or twist (I’m at early planning stage). Could an interactive memory come into play? A passage where the protagonist reminisces but contains its own choice pathways? Has anyone tried that approach. I like the idea but I’m worried it could come across as a little indulgent or too meta.
I don’t have a problem with a set background. My own game has the player’s background be having a mother, father and younger brother who are killed prior to the story actually beginning (although you get to see the event at the beginning of the novel. You actually see it occur a couple of times in the game as you remember more details of that night.)
Just remember you can have a set background and still offer the player choice to alter it.
Using the facts you mentioned [Must be a thief/con-artist] and [must be a failed priest] you can offer choices around that.
Offer the player reasons why they failed as a priest and let them determine the kind of thief they are.
Example One; As a priest they are tricked by a visiting noble and saddles the church with a large debt that gives the noble religious power in the city. So they are kicked out and they turn to thievery to earn money to pay off the debt to free their former church.
Example Two; They are a successful priest but something occurs where they feel like they have failed and leave of their own will. But leaving the priesthood leaves them with a poor reputation so no-one will hire them anymore so they have to resort to thievery.
Also echoing what @Nocturnal_Stillness said. You can have a set background or other predefined features about your protagonist and still offer enough choices so that the players don’t feel confined/still enjoy playing as this particular character.
Stories like Samurai of Hyuga and Fallen Hero are popular and have a pretty concrete character background for the MCs.
IMO, it is completely fine to have a preset background, IF it does’t restrict the MC and their choices. Otherwise it becomes more a novel with railroaded choices rather than having a character you can mold to your liking. There have been tons of fantastic HGs with preset backgrounds though, so it can be done!
It helps to keep in mind that words can have a broad meaning.
Failing as a priest for example why did they fail? Was it through a mistake of their own doing? Was it someone else’s mistake that cost them their priesthood? Or did they leave because they only thought they had failed?
You can approach the same background from different angles to allow for players to create their character and also offers replayability.
Honestly, it depends on the story IMO. If part of a character’s backstory is relevant for a specific part of the story, then add it in for sure. Otherwise, I like to keep it as open as possible. A set backstory will rarely ever be a dealbreaker for me, but if I’m on the fence, backstory might push me one way or the other.
I feel most, if not all, stories have a set career for your character. Like Broadway: 1849, Hollywood Visionary, Death Collector, and Wayhaven Chronicles. They were all necessary for the plot to actually advance.
My own personal project also has a somewhat set backstory. Your character is dead, they’ve been chosen for something, and your spirit has overtaken an already living body.
The choice comes in when you give the player the ability to decide the how, the why, and the what.
When those questions are answered, that’s when things get really fun.
I share your perspective on playing as someone who is already established in their world. The suggestions for how to still give some choices to the player here are good ones, but I will also say that even in a much more established backstory, I would still slay provided the writing and story appealed to me.