There are only two questions tagged with backstory so far, both are closed. Is this tag useful, do we really need it? We have background and backstory at the moment, I guess they do intersect. For me, background looks like the 5e thing, despite 5e isn't mentioned in the tag description. Should we merge these two? Or clarify the difference in the tag description? How exactly?
We should just merge them
Why? Because we tag for topics and they are basically the same topic. There's some mild differences between what the terms can mean in RPGs and in adjacent mediums, but considering that both tags have only 73 questions between them, splitting that hair is not practically useful to our needs.
(I also suspect that this literary/writing division may be inapplicable to RPGs, seeing as the writer of a PC’s background/story often has no way to know at the time of writing them which parts of it are background information by that literary definition and which parts become future-plot-tied backstory in that literary definition.)
Other ways of splitting them don't serve any need we have either:
One for mechanics and one for actual story? No:
Do some games mechanise back(ground|story)? Yes, many! Fate, Burning Wheel, Traveller, Warhammer 1e — to name a few that aren't D&D 5e without even trying hard. Does that mean we need one tag for background mechanics questions and one tag for background… not-mechanical questions? Not really. They are all about background in their particular RPG and situational context, which is enough to accurately tag a question.
One for D&D Background and one for everything else? No:
One gorilla in the room throwing sand into the air and obscuring things is that D&D 4th and 5th editions anointed the term Background as a mechanised technical term. That doesn't at all mean that we should define background to be either exclusively about background-mechanics, nor as exclusively for D&D meanings of “background”.
We have a long-standing precedent of not allowing any one game, and especially not the biggest among them, to snag a generic term for use as the name of a tag that means something game-exclusive. Defining background as “for questions about the Background mechanics in D&D” would be going against that well-reasoned precedent for no real gain.
Similarly, we don't tend to create pairs of tags for the mechanical and non-mechanical sides of the same topic — we usually just use the one tag and let the question itself describe the specific problem the user has in that topic area.
We should just merge them so that we have one tag. We don't need two tags that mean approximately the same thing, especially when the names don't clearly funnel uninitiated question-askers into using them correctly. For the positive phrasing of that argument, one tag will serve our question labelling needs just fine without causing confusion or inaccuracy.
As for which to keep — if we not doing any renaming (but see below) — we should keep background. It has the pedigree, being created in the first year of the site and used steadily since then. The only reason backstory seems to have been created was due to it being a natural synonym, and the creator not finding the background tag first. As far as I can tell, the only reason the split persisted and it wasn't quickly made a synonym, is because an impression that background was focused on D&D 5e had somehow grown up around that tag, I think simply due to the explosion in D&D 5e questions within the tag making it appear at a glance to be a D&D-focused tag.
The background tag is even defined, since 2014, to cover “backstory” explicitly (emphasis mine):
A background is the origin of a character before they are created and appear in play. Also called backstory or character history. Usually most relevant to player characters.
So we can just step back a little bit, recognise that backstory was destined from creation to be synonymed to background, and today should be useful for helping people find background, and merge them together.
(This is simple to do with a few clicks in the mod tools.)
Additionally, we should help people use it right by renaming it to character-background
Much like death (not a tag currently), there's the potential for background to be misinterpreted from its name. It's supposed to be for character backgrounds but currently has a few questions in it that should be tagged instead with metaplot or campaign-development (one even should be sanity instead!). We can avoid that by, like we did with “death”, making it clear that it's about character backgrounds: character-background.
(This is also simple to do with mod tools.)
They are... somewhat distinct but usually interchangeable:
This is most often the (untold) history of the character, explaining why they are an adventure. Usually, their family was slaughtered by orcs, but there may be better stories.
This can be synonymous to back[ground ]story, but it also could be a game mechanic or the unplayed world at large, then being synonymous with backdrop. In the later use, it comes from theatre/film. For examples of game mechanical terms:
- WoD has a distinct set of benefitial items, that are classed as Background and appear as such on the sheets. They are named, because they happen to be in the background and only get pulled to if needed or because they are justified from the backstory/ground of the character. Two random ones that appear in almost all subgames: Resources, Allies.
- Pathfinder has a set of tables that allows to roll up a Background from various elements that make one qualify for traits (~1/2 Feat) in .
- DnD 5th Edition has Background packages, that grant predefined alterations to the sheet.
- In Mechwarrior/Battletech RPG, generating the background story is synonymous to wading your way throgh the life path system.
...it features a unique character creation system [life path] that generates game abilities and background story at the same time.3rd Ed Backcover
- redesign background to be a thing that is but system independant and should be used when the game calls some mechanic (or way to derivate a mechanic from) is called this way, such as the recent magus one.
- Rebrand Backstory as background-story, which applies to questions about making, working with or expanding the history of a character. Like "how to write a background story"
- Filter the existing background for background-story