When I ran my first 7th Sea campaign I introduced each adventure with a short piece of fiction. This was often a cut scene that gave the players a little metagame knowledge as to the focus of the adventure. For those of you unfamiliar with 7th Sea, it was a swashbuckling RPG based on a fictional world that strongly resembled 17th century Europe lightly flavored with magic.
One PC in the campaign was Thora. She was the daughter of (in real-world terms) an English noble and a Viking. In her backstory, she’d rejected the refined upbringing of her mother and idolized her often-absent pirate father. During one adventure, I hinted that her mother was coming to visit her. Thora’s player, of course, was delighted. She knew that her mother despised the life choices she’d made and she couldn’t wait for the arguments to begin.
When I wrote the “cut scene” for the following adventure, I wrote it from Thora’s mom’s point of view as she traveled to meet her daughter. One revelation was that Thora’s father was abusive to her mother and that she hid it from Thora because she knew how much she idolized her father. There were other revelations as well, but suffice it to say that the cut scene essentially turned Thora’s assumptions about her parents on their head.
At the time, I didn’t see a problem with the cut scene because it didn’t invalidate the player’s version of Thora’s backstory. I just added a hidden layer to it. My purpose was to encourage roleplaying scenes where Thora and her mother began to mend fences. However, when I showed it to another player prior to the session, he cautioned me against using it unless I showed it to Thora’s player first and cleared it.
As it turned out, he was correct. Thora’s player was not happy with the scene, because she felt it did invalidate her backstory. She wanted dad to be the good guy and mom to be the bad guy and felt that my scene diminished her character. Unfortunately, I had little time to prepare something else, so I excised the cut scene and watered down the confrontation. Unsurprisingly, the resulting mother-daughter scenes fell completely flat.
So today’s hot button is this: Where do you draw the line? When is it no longer okay to add elements to a PC’s background during play? (note: this presumes that there is no prior agreement to cover this).
Bonus question: If you found yourself under the circumstances of my anecdote, would your reaction be closer to “cool!” or “no way!”?