The perils of preludes
It is now standard practice before starting a game in Oxford for the referee to spend every evening for a fortnight playing some gaming history with one of the players. The aim of trying to flesh out a character's history is as old as the hobby, and the concept of doing so through play is scarcely an original one either. As with so many unwritten ideas, this one was codified by the game Vampire: The Masquerade, and seems to be standard practice with Vampire games, perhaps because every Vampire character has been murdered and that murder seems worth documenting in each case.
You think you're so special...
A one-on-one prelude tends to focus attention on the character's dark past. This is not necessarily the most helpful thing to do. Granted, it will create secrets, hidden motivations, weak spots and epiphanies. These can be very powerful, and if the aim is to introvert, then go right ahead. Solo preludes highlight what makes characters different: but is this what should be admired? I am reminded of a conversation with Al Halsby, for whom the quirkiness of Oxford role players was explained the fact that their success was measured by how effectively they differentiated their characters. If success is measured by differentiation, then I feel we've missed the point.
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?
Let's take as read that the aim is to move the focus away from the character's inner life and towards her relationships with other characters. An easy way to do this is to run preludes with multiple characters. A five player game would have had five solo preludes under the old model - running five sessions with different combinations of pairs and trios sets up prior understandings between the characters,. Preludes are more public knowledge, and events that happened in a prelude are more likely to be discussed in the main game if there are several witnesses to start a conversation.
A montage of short scenes - perhaps briefer than a second, perhaps a few minutes long - is a common cinematic technique for describing a prolonged period in a short space of time.
Other ways to access the past
If the aim is to unlock the secrets of the character's past, then a prelude is not the only way to do it.
Postcards from the Edge
Let each player write a set of post-card sized stories about their past: the first time they got into a fight, the last time they met their nemesis, or the sad day when they were left standing in Gare du Nord by the love of their life.
Stories and reminiscences
It's no bad thing to get characters to tell stories about themselves in game. If the stories are about shared experiences, then there is potential for disagreement about what exactly happened - and an air of subjectivity does no game any harm at all.
A piece of gaming history can always be inserted after the game has started in real time; you may wish to allow other players to be spectators.
The long-running campaign
The most obvious way of all to root the game in the past is to have a long-standing campaign. I have set seven campaigns - some of which have run for months or even years - in the world of Legend. I can appreciate that many referees prefer to run campaigns in different genres, but I am willing to sacrifice the privilege to gain a campaign with a rich history.
Who controls the past?
Conventionally, the referee controls the gaming present; there is no strong tradition as to whether it is the player or the referee who determines the character's past. There is no reason to presume a special merit in either approach; generating the past of each character could be a collaboration (and one which may involve other players).
My aim in writing this piece has been to attack a few conventions - the prelude is very useful in limited circumstances, but once the whole issue is given some thought, other tools emerge. If I have encouraged you to think for yourself about the best way of sketching out a character's past, then I have succeeded in what I set out to do.
1 A critical analysis of the merits and flaws of this argument is left as an exercise for the diligent student.
2 Particularly useful is the prelude to introduce a new character to an established group. By running some encounters to represent previous interactions between the newcomer and established members of the group, the newcomer's place becomes better defined.
3 I have heard that Dom Camus ran a very elaborate set of preludes: solos first, then group preludes with increasing numbers. Perhaps unlikely to be worthwhile unless there is a very specific purpose in mind. Dom always has a very specific purpose in mind...
4 Mark Wigoder-Daniels seems to have originated this idea.
5 This is a lovely little idea from Frazer Payne.