Written by | Posted September 8, 2015 – 9:51 pm Descent and Ascent

It didn’t take long to get from Thunder Bluff to the Echo Isles – Ankona took advantage of a wyvern so she could think and plan before getting to her destination. She had information to confirm with the spirits – was Gromnor dead? Was he really in the northern part of the Eastern Kingdoms, somewhere […]

filed under Ask Anna, Feature, Roleplay
Ask Anna: Lore Characters in Backstory?
comment 11 Written by on June 2, 2010 – 8:48 am

I’m back! My computer is still running a little on the gimpy side – I’m short some bad RAM and will be hopefully replacing it soon, but the new power supply made all the other problems go away, so YAY. I’m quite sure I can play WoW again too, but raiding might be a little much – we’ll see.

Anslym, from Totem Tossing, sent me an email (during the whole computer fiasco) with a couple of really excellent Ask Anna questions. I’ll be tackling them this week, since I think the answers are useful for other people as well.

He writes:

Dear Anna,

In my What-up weekly post I was mentioning about writing some stories involving my characters.  A reader suggested that I visit your site and take a look around.  Once I read a few of your posts and some of your character back stories . . . I was hooked!  I thought I would ask you a few questions.

First, can I involve major lore characters?  An example would be if Tyrande Whisperwind could send me on a misson?

{redacted for later posts}

Excellent question, and one that comes up frequently. The major lore figures are big and important in the greater WoW storyline, so it’s only natural to want to include them in our own stories.

However, this is fraught with some roleplaying red flags, because it can be used as a reason to not develop your character, or to “force” your character’s importance on other players. In short, you can do it but you have to be really super careful about it.

If you just need your character to go on a mission for the Elvish army, create a “dummy” NPC  as your character’s commanding officer – He/She can have a bit of personality and maybe a few quirks, but you won’t have to add any more depth. It’s a fun way to create a little snippet character without having to develop him/her. That way, you still have the “Elven Army” story and key back story element without implying that your character is SO important and SO special that Tyrande herself would send your character on a SPECIAL MISSION.

Basically, it can be done, but it’s VERY hard to do it well without coming off like you’re trying to make your character sound special and important by “name dropping” in their backstory – and you can have the same effect with a non-lore NPC in most cases.

Another thing you could do to avoid this (and this relates to the creation of a stand-in NPC) is to relate your character to an event, rather than to a person. There were lots and lots and LOTS of elves that served in the War of the Shifting Sands and then again at Mount Hyjal.

Fitting your elven character into those stories is relatively easy, and easy for other people to believe. Then, with your stand-in NPC, you create a little bit of the structure of the elven army, without having to say your character was special enough to go on a secret mission personally ordered by the leader of the army. (You can kind of think of it this way: if your character was around and Tyrande had enough of a relationship to trust him/her with a secret mission, your character would probably get mentioned in the lore itself!)

Finally, if you still really want to have a major lore character interaction in your character’s backstory, make it an impersonal one.

The lore characters are Important People – think of them like celebrities or high ranking executives/officers/politicians. They can be really important to a lot of people that they barely know. While your character might really admire and respect a faction leader, their personal relationships are already pretty well set up in the established lore. So keep things impersonal, like the relationship you might have with a celebrity, or someone many ranks higher than you at work – they might (at most) know your character’s name, if you’ve done something spectacularly noteworthy in the past, but they’re not likely to be your character’s best friend or someone they’d trust explicitly, etc.

I hope that gives you some guidance on the subject!

If you guys have any other suggestions, feel free to leave them in comments. I’ll get to the rest of your questions at another date; if I tried to answer them all at once, this would be a pretty confusing (and novel-length) post.

Good luck, and happy writing!


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11 Responses to “Ask Anna: Lore Characters in Backstory?”

  1. My first instinct in response to “Could Tyrande send me on a mission?” was “Doesn’t she do that all the time?” If a lore character is sending people on quests on a frequent basis, and the mission is of the average, “Go talk to Archdruid Butthead” or “Go report in to Such-and-So” type, it seems pretty well in keeping with the game mechanics. I hadn’t considered the “Ye’re me best soldier, so go an’ do a bunch o’ important whanots fer MAGNI BRONZEBEARD! After which we’ll ‘ave a boar-roast an’ trade stout recipes.” type of interaction, which does seem more dubious.

    I kind of love the idea of characters in-game looking on major lore characters like celebrities. Ovistine is the World’s Biggest Muradin Bronzebeard Fangirl — it’s probably better for everyone that she didn’t end up in ICC, because she’d probably fall off the boat due to sheer OMGOMGOMGOMGness. And Nancie would pretty much do anything Varian Wrynn wanted her to, whether asked directly, asked via second-or-third-or-fourth-in-command, or whether there’s a rumor that says he thinks everyone should be wearing purple shirts to distinguish them from the Horde. (“Ovi! Can ye stitch me a purple shirt? Um, one wi’ all th’ right number o’ holes an’ none extra, please.”)

  2. I agree with Ovi. Major lore characters frequently send us out on missions. My characters have interacted with major lore characters quite frequently in-game, and I see no need to pretend otherwise by inventing NPC go-betweens for that, so I see no need to do any differently when considering backstory, as long as the role of the important lore character is fairly consistant with the in-game examples. There’s a great deal of difference between “Tyrande sent my character on a mission once” and “Tyrande considered my character to be her most trusted lieutenant.”
    As for the notion that “name-dropping” the lore characters comes across as a cheap ploy to sound important, I have to disagree. Unless they’re claiming a personal relationship with the lore character, it just comes across as part of the setting. “Tyrande sent you on a mission? Cool, she sent me on one, too, once.” For a real-life analogy, I’m sure the president talks to countless individuals, and while he probably doesn’t remember all of them, I bet most of them remember him.
    My characters’ views on the important lore characters is pretty variable. I like the celebrity analogy (and again, plenty of nobodies have had significant encounters with celebrities). Corise is pretty irreverent in general, so she’s fairly casual about the big names; yeah, she’s served under Varian Wrynn, and he’s just as much of an ass in person as you’d imagine. Lakena has a quiet respect for Tyrande and a somewhat less quiet distaste for Staghelm, based both on her limited interactions with them and her general impressions of their actions as known by Kaldorei society. Do any of my characters really know the major lore characters? No, but they know enough to form opinions.

    By Corise on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply
  3. (And, of course, those opinions may or may not be justified.)

    By Corise on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply
  4. I admit to coming at this from a slightly different angle, as a veteran tabletop roleplayer of many years long duration and also as the writer of tabletop gaming supplements and, thus, the creator of a massive crapload of NPCs over the course of my career. My thought? NPCs exist to be interacted with and, in fact, that’s really their only function in every game, including the World of Warcraft: your story is about you and the Very Important NPCs are there for window-dressing at best. Also: NPCs may be Important People but they are also, well, *people.* They *will* have connections to those around them, and this is only to be expected. Frequently, I treat this as a function of roleplaying the rep grind, wherin you might start out as a nobody peon but, eventually, you do get to be known for your competence and reliability. There’s also something to be said, as Teuthida points out, for making the standard function of in-game NPCs (quest giving/ending, pardoning you as you present yourself all blue and glowy with doom, making proclamations about your profound badassery) part of the roleplaying experience — they do, after all, *give people stuff to do every day.*

    Also: I do not think it necessary to keep all PC/NPC interactions at the “impersonal” level. My death knight has, as part of his backstory, a teacher/student relationship with Alexandros Mograine, who sponsored him when he was seeking entry into the Order of the Silver Hand as a novice, one of several such students. He wasn’t a “star” pupil — in fact, his teacher’s aggressiveness rubbed off mostly in his aggressive refusal to give up on lost healing causes, as he ultimately went the holy healer in plate route — but the relationship was important to him, both living and undead, and continues to have an impact on the way he thinks and behaves even now, as he is loath to do anything to dishonor the memory of the man his mentor used to be. Well-written and thought-out relationships with NPCs can enrich and humanize both characters involved, as well as embroidering your character’s personal background with appropriately Lore-colored details.

    By Nagaina on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply
  5. Agreed with most of the above comments, and in a similar vein to Nagaina’s comment above about Mograine, I note that it’s highly likely that EVERY gnome in the game (wait, not every; every gnome who came out of the Gnomeregan disaster, more to the point) probably has some memory involving Mekkatorque. They were all right in the thick of it then, and it’s unlikely that any strict heirarchies were around. (Heck, the gnomes aren’t fond of them even in peacetime.) The idea of Mekkatorque having spent a quiet moment to pick you up in the midst of disaster makes sense; he probably did that for a lot of gnomes.

    By Sean Riley on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply
  6. I like it when “lore” characters show up in regular RP, though it’s best done in very small doses. Nagaina makes a really good point that stuff that’s written into the world is there to be played with (this is my guiding philosophy when running D&D games, at that).

    Canonically, our characters DO interact closely with them–you fight side-by-side with Jaina/Sylvanas and Muradin/Saurfang in the Icecrown dungeons, you charge into the Battle for the Undercity right alongside Thrall or Varian, you’re right there with Brann through a whole giant series of events in the Storm Peaks and Ulduar, and if you’re a Death Knight, Arthas personally guides you through your introductory quests. Not to mention that, if you did all the quests in the Plaguelands, YOU are the reason Tirion Fordring is leading the charge against Icecrown.

    ‘course, trouble is figuring everyone else into account, and if you’re in big group RP, you have abstractify (note: not really a word) those happenings.
    But still, putting big-name NPCs in your background, if done right, can give you a nice anchor–the trick is just not overdoing it.

    Lansiron, my Rogue, regularly takes orders directly from Jaina Proudmoore and Tirion Fordring, but he’s not their personal kill-stuff guy. My Death Knight, Norvallen, was at one point a direct subordinate of Prince Keleseth…and was part of the same “graduating class” in Dalaran that also had Jaina and Kael’thas.

    But a lot of people could also be said to have been in those same positions, PC, NPC or otherwise, and it interferes with nothing. To me, it helps to anchor the RP characters as residents of Azeroth just like the ones who’s names we all know, even if their own personal legends are but side-dishes to the main course.

  7. Building a bit on what Nagaina said, the main function of NPCs is for interaction with the PCs. Pretty much every NPC in the game, by virtue of being in the game, is a lore figure. All that really means is they are Official Blizzard NPCs and little more. As Jenal, the poor night elf shoveling all the Un’Goro soil that gets brought in by adventurers, teaches us “the world needs ditch-diggers, too.” Not everyone gets to be the baddest of the badasses.

    The main problem with basing major portions of your own lore on Blizzard’s NPCs is that you are not the one writing them and thus could run in to trouble should Big Blue decide that NPC no longer needs to exist and does away with them or moves them or any number of things. What happens when Blizzard states, unequivocally that Elling Trias was actually unable to father any children and his son, Ben Trias, is actually the son of his brother, David Trias, whom he sired before he died to the undead plague? Kinda blows a great big hole in your “secret illegitimate son of Elling Trias backstory. For that reason, you want to avoid basing large portions of your own story around any Official NPC.

    If you must use an Official NPC, your best bet is to keep things at arm’s length, so a change in the Official Lore doesn’t completely destroy your story. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is the comparative strata of your character and the NPC. Your character is much more likely to interact with, say Topper McNabb, the vagrant and beggar, in a more significant manner than they would with Varian Wrynn. Sure, Varian talks to people all day and gives out quests, but like Corise mentions, he’s a busy guy and probably isn’t going to remember Random Mage #376 that he sent on a mission to find out more about Nathanos Blightcaller or Faceless Warrior #4392 who reported his findings about Defias activity in Westfall and Stormwind City. So, given that the game has us interacting with the major (non)players on a regular basis, it’s not a huge stretch for any given character to have interacted with one in the past. Just be sure to remember that you are one of a faceless mass of adventurers and mercenaries and they are one bright, shining star in the heavens of the WoW universe and act appropriately.

    And in defense of my own abuse of Mathias Shaw, do as I say, not as I do. 😀 Also, Shaw has the position of an authority figure and NPC rather than a central character. It’s when the NPCs transition from the NPC role and to a main character in the story that you start treading dangerous waters.

    Largely, I believe Anna gives the advice she does in this case because there are soooooo many people who tend to fall into the “Thall and Jaina’s lovechild” trap, to make their character awesome by association rather than by good storytelling. So, really if you can’t avoid doing that, just stay away from the major NPCs entirely. Otherwise, NPCs are not sacrosanct and are not untouchable gods to whom we must stand in awe. By all means, use them, but in all things, moderation.

  8. @Khol (and everyone else) – excellent advice. Khol is right in that I reacted to the question on so much overexposure to the “Uther’s secret younger brother” types. All your examples of NPC interaction are fantastic, and would be utterly both believable and easy to use in RP with other people that interacted with those same NPCs.

    Good job on picking up the stuff I missed – that’s why I love you guys 😀

  9. The above solutions are great, but I still feel that for a backstory of a NEW character you have to be extra careful. Yes the L80 hero of the realm is sometimes sent by the faction leaders personally, but a L1 kid just barely out of his or her apprenticeship? Not likely. Perhaps the assignment is signed by the leader, but you get it from a sub-commander.

    !!!! Warning DRAGON AGE SPOILER !!!!

    Take Zevran from Dragon Age for example. The first time you see him he is presented to Loghain, but he barely speaks and Loghain barely looks at him. He is beneath his notice not just because he’s an assasin, Loghain is simply not interested in who does the job as long as a certain loose end is removed. Zevran’s assignment came from his superiors back in Antivia and they were hired by Loghain’s lackey Howe. No real direct contact between the Lore characters here. Later on (depending on how you play) you might get a moment where they meet again and then Zevran directly reports his failure. Pretty much the only moment Loghain even acnowledges his existance and by then you are at endgame level.

    By Tsani on Jun 3, 2010 | Reply
  10. This is something I’ve struggled with myself: When I started RPing Ringo back in 2004, I used Warcraft III as a springboard, with Ringo having previously worked for Feranor Steeltoe (as one of the anonymous riflemen from that level), his parents being part of the troops at the Battle of Mount Hyjal and his brothers were stranded in Northrend along with Muradin’s edition.

    Not quite like being Arthas’ secret love child, but still, connections to major lore characters and potentially cheesy.

    I worked to de-cheese it all in a series of stories, but it’s still something I wrestle with, after the fact. (EDIT: It appears the version with the links to said stories got zapped by the spam filter. If you’re interested, they’re Ringo’s bio on the front page — click on his metallic name — “Fathers Day,” “Echoes of Lordaeron” and “Shores of Northrend.”)

    If I had to do it over again, I’d just have made him part of a long line of mountaineers and left it at that.

  11. @Tsani: Not every level one character is a young kid, though. True, the text from starting quests tends to slant in that direction, but it’s just as possible to RP a grizzled veteran from the start as it is to RP a fresh-faced recruit.

    By Corise on Jun 3, 2010 | Reply

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