# "Backstory" vs. "background" — what is the difference?

There are only two questions tagged with so far, both are closed. Is this tag useful, do we really need it? We have and at the moment, I guess they do intersect. For me, 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?

• Is the tag causing a problem?
– BESW
Jul 2 '18 at 12:03
• @BESW what kind of problem can be caused by a tag? Jul 2 '18 at 12:04
• @enkryptor Being a meta tag, failing to describe anything on topic (which is so unusual it rarely comes up), being so omnipresent that almost all site questions would have it (like "rules"), and some other stuff. It's a fairly high bar for a tag to cause a problem. Jul 2 '18 at 12:21
• Having a personal distaste for the term backstory (despite it's frequent common use), I'd like backstory to become just another synonym for background… unless there should be specific [character-background] tag. Jul 2 '18 at 12:46
• @HeyICanChan For D&D 5e, at least, I read background to mean something specific to 5e (I think) that gives you a few extra proficiencies and languages, whereas backstory is purely a character's history, so to me they are distinctly different terms. That's just my perspective as a 5e player (I believe you're more familiar with 4e, which I don't know anything about) Jul 2 '18 at 15:14
• @NathanS (Actually, 3.5 is my jam, and in it background and backstory are mechanically absent.) I'm sure background is used mechanically across several systems… as well as in real life where I think it's more common to ask, "So what's your background in engineering?" than it is to ask, "Do you have any engineering experience in your backstory?" :-) That said, I still prefer background to backstory, as—to me, anyway—I think everybody has the former but only fictional characters have the latter. I'm not dismissing your point, though! That it's a mechanic is a thing to consider. Jul 2 '18 at 15:25
• @HeyICanChan Ah, 3.5, sorry. But still I'm glad I mentioned it if it's not a thing in 3.5 either. Yes, I agree that in real world conversations, backstory doesn't really make any sense. But background does have mechanical implication in 5e, at least, hence why I'd still describe a character's backstory as such (although in-game narrative, a character can certainaly ask another character about their "background serving in the church" or whatever, to better resemble real life conversations). Jul 2 '18 at 15:29
• @HeyICanChan It might also be worth noting that the space on the 5e character sheet uses both terms background and backstory, consistent with how I've described their use in 5e (on sheet 1 near the class and race, and sheet 2 under the appearance box, respectively, in case anyone wants to take a look). Jul 2 '18 at 15:30
• @doppelgreener I've asked, what kind of problem could be caused by a tag. "Being a meta tag" is not a problem being caused by a tag. At least for me, "being a meta tag" describes the tag itself, a property of this tag, not a problem caused by it. Jul 2 '18 at 23:03
• This is similar to Magus in that background is used very differently in different games. rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8044/… Jul 3 '18 at 6:33

# 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 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 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.

# Merging

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 . It has the pedigree, being created in the first year of the site and used steadily since then. The only reason seems to have been created was due to it being a natural synonym, and the creator not finding the 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 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 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 was destined from creation to be synonymed to , and today should be useful for helping people find , 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 (not a tag currently), there's the potential for 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 or (one even should be instead!). We can avoid that by, like we did with “death”, making it clear that it's about character backgrounds: .

(This is also simple to do with mod tools.)

• I like all of this answer. Plus if we did create a D&D specific background tag (if it needed one for some reason), we'd follow namespacing precedent to call it [dnd-backgrounds] or [dnd-5e-backgrounds]. Jul 4 '18 at 17:36
• Careful: In renaming to character background, all those mechanics that are named background could fall out of the scope of the question. like the Backgrounds in WoD usually are better described as assets the character has, than what the character is. I propose instead [background-story] Jul 4 '18 at 18:12
• If name compatibility is an issue -- and that's valid to bring up, they're not called character backgrounds a lot of the time -- then I'd rather just have [background] (with [backstory] as a synonym so people writing that can find the right tag). If we get serious confusion over whether it's character background or something else background, we can handle that when it starts happening enough to warrant doing something. Jul 4 '18 at 18:18
• I don't understand the gorilla joke :( Jul 4 '18 at 19:25
• @Trish Tags are by subject. If WoD backgrounds aren’t character backgrounds they shouldn’t have the tag anyway no matter what the tag is named (see its description/definition); if they are, then they should have it regardless of name. Jul 4 '18 at 20:42
• @enkryptor I added a link. It’s a play on two idioms: “800 pound gorilla” and “the elephant in the room”. Jul 4 '18 at 20:45
• I agree with merging the two as well.
– V2Blast StaffMod
Jul 5 '18 at 7:20

They are... somewhat distinct but usually interchangeable:

## Backstory

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.

## Background

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

# Solution?

3 steps:

1. redesign 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.
2. Rebrand Backstory as , which applies to questions about making, working with or expanding the history of a character. Like "how to write a background story"
3. Filter the existing for
• The problem I see with this is that it’s inaccurate: some games don’t have a background mechanic but do have a mechanic for background story. (Fate is one high-profile example.) Declaring the word “background” mechanical and “story” to not be is a false division, unless we want to ignore many games (we don’t want to). Jul 4 '18 at 16:03
• @SevenSidedDie reworked the solution some to accomodate it: Background for whenever it is not a story? Jul 4 '18 at 16:40
• I don't think that's a useful hair for us to split in our tagging system. I've written up an answer of my own crystallising and expanding on these thoughts. Jul 4 '18 at 17:27