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DM of the Rings CIII:
A Brief History of You

By Shamus
on Monday May 21, 2007
Filed under:
DM of the Rings


Aragorn really ought to read his own backstory.

Only in the context of an RPG is it possible for someone to need the Cliff Notes version of their own biography.

Comments (116)

1 2

  1. The_Shadows says:



  2. Evrae says:


    You should have tryed to simplify it some more like bite-size.

    step1 – go here

    step2 – kill bad guys

    step3 – Repeate steps 1 & 2

  3. vindoq says:

    France is watching you !

  4. Steve the DM says:

    Well, at least there was a back story even if the player didn’t read it. I’ve had players give me history of amnesia and they didn’t remember. I’ve made up their history now…MWWAAAHHAHAHAHAHa!

    • Arkanabar says:

      IIRC, amnesia is a gargantuan disad in GURPS, something like -60 points. If a player ever decides to play an amnesiac (or, God save her, if she claims to be an orphan), that just means that *I* get to be the one to fill the backstory and ancestry with as many plot hooks as I want! And they can be as EVIL as I want! Mua ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa!! I get evil tingles all over just thinking about it!!

  5. Susano says:

    I can sum up Aragon’s player in two words: “Bored now.”

  6. Scarlet Knight says:

    “I’m a leader?”

    Yeah, we’re surprised, too.

    “Can’t I send a squire or something?”

    Lad’s got a point; what good is it to be King if you have do dangerous things yourself?

  7. Rolld20 says:

    Man, I hate it when the GM decids to give phat plot to someone who doesn’t appreciate it.
    Meanwhile, the method actor who’s come up with an interesting backstory about love and betrayal gets: “Oh, yeah, do a Gather Information check- Ok, you hear that the nemesis you swore to hunt down, died. He, like, fell off a horse and broke his neck. So did your fiancee. So, you go back to the inn, right?”
    Gee, thanks Dr.Kevorkian. Remind me not to ask about my remaining family. :p

    • Moridin says:

      Well, to be fair, using a backstory like that makes the other PCs more or less sidekicks unless the nemesis is doing other, less personal evils as well. “Ok, so he’s hunting down his nemesis for the sake of love. What will WE do meanwhile?”

      • WJS says:

        Um, help their friend? That is if the GM decides to use the story as the root of a sidequest. Alternatively, he might crop up in the main quest à la Count Rugen, or perhaps that aspect of the character won’t get resolution during the course of the game. You don’t always get closure in real life, after all.

  8. orcbane says:

    You know, I think this comic has ruined LotR for me. I haven’t watched any of them since I started reading, but I think when I do watch them again, I’ll see Aragorn as a dense piece of plywood, Legolas as an overexcited preteen, and Gimli as a scoffing pro. This is horrible!

    But your comic is awesome!

  9. Woerlan says:

    Never give players like this pre-generated characters with story backgrounds. Just let them be the hacking meatshields that they aspire to be and let the NPCs steal the real glory.

    Great comic. ^_^

    • johanna says:

      “Oh you mean the 20 page backstory? I didn’t get around to that JUST YET” If he hasn’t even read by now, he never will. I can’t believe he said just yet, as if he was ever planning to read it. 20 pages? Come on, it isn’t even that long!!!

  10. Charles says:

    >> You know, I think this comic has ruined LotR for me.

    Actually, it didn’t affect me too badly when I was watching them recently. The only point where it really popped into my head was when the innkeeper at the Prancing Pony failed to say “You lot stay in character!”

  11. Parzival says:

    Could there be anyone less king-like than the player behind Aragorn?

    “I’m a leader?”

    Surprising as it may seem, yes.

    One wonders why the DM assigned this character to this particular player. But then, Legolass’s player would have been worse:

    “I’m a king? Cool! Have I got a castle?”

    “No. You live in exile.”

    “Got it. And there’s an avenging army ready to come to my aid.”

    “Not as such. There is a group of rangers, but they’re largely scattered about the Northlands, knocking off the occasional troll or rabid wolf, and you have no real way to summon them.”

    “But you said I was in exile? That means my kingdom is just waiting for me to return, right?”

    “Well, there are complications.”

    “Complications? Like what?”

    “The ruling steward isn’t all that keen on handing the crown over. He knows about you, and thinks you’re a second rate glory hog descended from the wrong son. He wants his son Boromir on the throne.”

    “But Boromir’s dead!”

    “Yes. He died bringing *you* back home. And you arrived too late to save him.”

    “Oops. That probably won’t impress the steward, will it?”

    “Hardly. And he’s got another son.”

    “Dang. But the people want me, right?”

    “The people might support you, but right now they’re under seige by an evil horde that outnumbers them about 100 to 1, so there’s nothing they can do to help you.”

    “This campaign sucks.”

  12. “Look, just tell me who I need to stab.”

    The scary thing is, one of my players (a chronic Blaster Wizard) has come very close to comments like this during longish role-playing times.

  13. LethalSpoon says:

    Evrae, thank you. That was the best link I’ve seen this week. Granted, it’s only Monday, but still. Thank you.

  14. Aaron says:

    In the 7th Sea game one of my players created a Scandinavian (yes I probably spelled that wrong) type character whose entire purpose was summed up by the player quite quickly:

    “I hit things.”

    Thankfully I never built any plot points around that character.

    As usual Shamus, I bow to your Screencap-fu. Teach us master! That last shot of Aragorn is absolutly priceless for the story. Awesome strip!

  15. Haviland says:

    I could have done with a GM to explain all this stuff to me last time I read the books. And the first, come to that.

    Let’s face it, without the copious backstory, LOTR would be about 200 pages long.

  16. Keldin says:

    Another fine example of Role Playing vs. Roll Playing. The nuances of story are lost on someone itching to score a few critical hits and level up.

  17. Raved Thrad says:

    The expressions on Stonergorn’s face are priceless! “I’m a WHAT? So what have I been doing scrounging for loot from dead orcs all this time?” Clueless and surprised are a very good combination!

  18. mortellan says:

    Aragorn should be elated. Normally a player gets overjoyed when first discovering they are royalty. Then depression sets in when it turns out to be hard work.;)

  19. Saelwen says:

    Loved it. Again. :D Though the one before this one will haunt me for the rest of my life… Pure brilliance.

    PS. That “First” thing on YouTube is really brilliant :P

  20. -Chipper says:

    “Only in the context of an RPG is it possible for someone to need the Cliff Notes version of their own biography.”

    THAT’S the sort of soda-spewing goodness I come here for! Now, where’s the windex for my monitor?

  21. Isoyami says:

    Awesome comic, heheh. Agreed, the last screen-cap of Aragorn is awesome.

    I can just hear ol’ Viggo going: “Buh?” *blink*

    If he would just wait for two more sentences, the DM could finish explaining the quest to him. ROFL.

    Besides, I thought he *WANTED* to go dungeon crawling and get some more EXP instead of hanging out with the horsef–er Eomer and the old wizard Sourman? ;)

  22. Dan Hemmens says:

    I sometimes wonder if I am the only person reading this comic who is, ninety percent of the time, on the side of the players.

    A lot of people have talked about the “nuances of the story” being lost on a “roll-player” or somesuch.

    I, on the other hand, see a jerk of a DM who’s more interested in his prewritten scenario than he is in actually making any attempt to keep his players interested.

    I have a pet theory that the reason so many D&D PCs care about nothing but looking for inns and brothels is that those are the only sorts of character goals they can actually get the DM to grant them once in a while.

  23. AndiN says:

    Oh, I love this! “Just tell me who to stab” — priceless!

    Really needed this laugh today. Thanks!

  24. Thiago says:

    Well, no matter how much I try to make really elegant backstories for my characters, in the end I am the guy calculating how much to Power Attack as I have unwilllingly memorized every AC in the Monster Manual.

    Sometimes you just gotta stab stuff in the face.

  25. Oh, I just watched the First! video.

    Pure genius!

    (but I would have put in a few more burps ;) )

  26. Wraithshadow says:

    >>I sometimes wonder if I am the only person reading this comic who is, >>ninety percent of the time, on the side of the players.

    Possibly. I tend not to be on anyone’s side. There’s not really a right side or wrong side here- you’ve got a group of players who want to hit things, sleep with NPCs, and get rewarded for it, and a DM who has a massive storyline that brooks no interference from its heroes. This is both a ‘what not to do when running a campaign’ and a ‘what to expect when running a campaign.’ Doesn’t matter which side you’re on, you’ll know what you shouldn’t do, and what everyone else is likely to do.

    Saves on the therapy bills.

  27. randomlinenoise says:

    I sympathize more with the players than the GM, although dealing with players who are resolutely opposed to paying attention to backstory has my sympathy too, since it happens even to us non-railroaders

  28. Downtym says:

    “Look, just tell me who I need to stab.”

    …I’ve said that. Out loud. During a game. In perfect seriousness. Aragorn, I feel your pain, man.

  29. brassbaboon says:

    Dan H:

    You’re not the only one who takes the players’ side here. Obviously this whole cartoon is supposed to be offering caricatures of all the characters, including the DM. That’s where the humor comes from.

    But treating this as if this were a real-world campaign, I almost always come down on the side of the players. People are busy. Expecting people to read a 20 page backstory is obviously just asking for trouble. I know, I’ve been there.

    What I do now is usually provide a few pages of backstory, and mostly that covers things like the date and season of the year, the country and political system of the country the party is starting in, a general discussion of the major cities, the dominant religions and any significant event coming up (such as a Royal Visit, for example). Then I try to summarize the events from each session and provide additional backstory in those notes as the campaign evolves. Those notes usually are a page or two long.

    And I would guess that 2 of the 4 players in my campaign actually make it a point to read those notes. After sixteen sessions, those notes have grown pretty copious though, and I can’t imagine anyone actually reading through them from the start.

    Somebody early on in these comments said something like “If you want to create a world, write a book. If you want to play a game, play a game.” There’s some wisdom in those words.

  30. Scarlet Knight says:

    Gilbert & Sullivan time!

    Gimli: “How do we know you're the king?”
    Aragorn: “Well, I've got a royal birthmark on me bum right here!”
    All: “Ewww!”
    Legolas: “Dude, you sure that's a birthmark?”

    *All sing*

    “Everything is a source of fun
    Nobody’s safe, for we care for none
    This campaign's a joke since day one
    Three pc's who rule!”

  31. Isoyami says:

    I think Aragorn’s player missed (or passed up) a perfect Python opportunity.

    DM: “You’re really the hidden King of the Numenorians!”

    Aragorn: “King of the ‘oo?”

    DM: “The Numenorians!”

    Aragorn: ” ‘Oo are the Numenorians?”

    DM: “…”

    DM: “GAAAAH!”

  32. Melfina the Blue says:

    I now must bow down to the Scarlet Knight as I have failed my willpower roll. Sigh. Gilbert and Sullivan meet RPGing. Now all we need is a pirate king.

  33. Morte says:

    Another cracker Shamus…thanks.

  34. bobniborg says:

    HAHA, you give a complex plot with background and details and then they dont know what is going on. You just hack and slash and they say they are bored of hacking and slashing… ah, the memories.

  35. Manwe says:

    Still waiting for our intrepid players to realize:

    1) They have to go through a dungeon.
    2) They can’t kill anything.
    3) They can’t loot anything.

    Can’t wait to see how Shamus presents this.

  36. Christian Groff says:

    Yay, a new chapter of DM of the Rings! ^_^ This strip is going a bit slow now, due to the fact that this part of the series is really really boring. (That’s sort of why I don’t like Tolkien’s Fellowship – it’s lots and lots of boring description with little action. The Hobbit was the only book I read of his works, and even then I skipped some stuff.)

    Evrae’s video was funny(even if I didn’t see it all – stupid video takes forever and a day to load) – that guy was spamming to get the first post, putting “first” on his handle. If I saw his post, I’d delete it and plant a firebomb on his connection to teach him a lesson. >_

  37. Caitlin says:

    Haviland Says: Let's face it, without the copious backstory, LOTR would be about 200 pages long.

    And 190 of those pages would be describing the scenery. Heck the actual Frodo/Gollum fight that ended up destroying the ring took less than one page in the book.

    Great comic as always Shamus. You always find the best expressions for these characters. The last frame is perfect.

  38. moonglum says:

    Keldin, you miss the point compleatly. this is an example of playign a game 9aragons player) vrs. being a slightly moble plotted plant(the gms story). If you have no say in your charicters background, and cna basicly have no major impact on the story lien you can not be roleplaying. In none of these strips have the players been an issue, this has been a case of conductor style GM’ing.

  39. Fickle says:

    TWENTY PAGES? Man, I’d hate to see Legolas’ player being given anything like that. He’d make paper airplanes out of the lot.

  40. Marty says:

    Somebody needs to write a complex regular expression to filter out useless “First!” posts.

  41. javelin98 says:

    Viggo has the perfect range of expressions for a player running a typical meat-shield. Awesome.

  42. First time poster here.

    Regarding the issue of whether the comic favors the DM or the players, I’d argue that at the beginning the comic the DM is clearly favored, whereas lately the DM has been coming up short and the players seem more put-upon. Whether this is conscious or not I can’t say, but I’d guess this section of the story just lends itself better to making fun of plot holes and such.

    In a larger sense, it’s clear that LOTR is just not a very good thing to try to _play_, at least in its current incarnation. The plot is way too convoluted, there are too many side-quests, et cetera. That’s why it’s a book, and not a D&D campaign.

    I’m not sure there are any prewritten stories that would really work as a campaign without serious modification. A D&D story generally has a half-dozen people or so running around solving problems with no clear single protagonist — this is not really the model for fiction, as there’s little room for individual action.

    Personally, I always thought the best campaigns had an overarching plot but left considerable flexibility in how to get there — making things too convoluted just makes stuff _way_ to subtle for a fun game to get through. But that’s just me, and I haven’t played since graduating high school.

  43. Nogard Codesmith says:

    The flip side of players who dont follow/remember backstory or the plot in general is the the GM who provides no opportunity for role-playing and simply acts as the AI of what boils down to be an analog video game.

  44. Joshua says:

    “And 190 of those pages would be describing the scenery. Heck the actual Frodo/Gollum fight that ended up destroying the ring took less than one page in the book.”

    Yep, and I remember the “Epic” battle of Minas Tirith that included the Rohirrim coming to the rescue, Theoden’s death, and Eowyn’s triumph was about a whole page and a half.

    “Regarding the issue of whether the comic favors the DM or the players, I'd argue that at the beginning the comic the DM is clearly favored, whereas lately the DM has been coming up short and the players seem more put-upon.”

    I believe the purpose of the comic has morphed back and forth through its course. Originally it was supposed to be a dig against power-gamer players, but has since evolved into a slam on railroad-DMing, the odd choices Peter Jackson made in the movie, and even flaws in the original story. Shamus goes for whatever will give a good joke.

  45. theonlymegumegu says:

    I do believe this is why I prefer to come up w/ my background with the DM’s assistance (to fit it into their game world).

  46. Attorney At Chaos says:

    Let me add in one side that so far has not been mentioned. Players who read the background and act on it while the DM and other players do not.

    Back when TSR set up their RPGA competition dungeons (the same dungeons played in many places, players could win points of some sort for how well they did, etc.) I sampled a few – and then forever after stayed away from them.

    It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had at least let the players (who were doing part of the rating) know what the background of the other players were. But they didn’t. The ones I played in wound up PENALIZING good roleplaying.

    Example: Player 1 is set up to have a built-in conflict with Player 2, with Player 3 supposed to be the Peacemaker. As Player 1 I act out the conflict. Player 2 does not – he totally ignores that aspect of his character. At the end of the game players ARE NOT TOLD about the conflicts in the background. I get marked DOWN for being a troublemaker, not being a team player, etc. Based on WHAT THEY KNEW this was reasonable – but why in the world could they not be told about the background before they gave their evaluations? I stuck around and insisted on seeing the writeups afterwards, but that was long after the evaluations. Player 2, of course, got good marks for being a “team player” even though he was violating the background to act that way.

    The other time it wasn’t built-in conflict that was kept secret, just attitude. My character was described as a happy-go-lucky person who always had a joke even in the most dire of situations. So that’s how I played him – joking, making puns, even if we in a tough fight. The other players were not informed of the character’s description, and as a player I was marked down by several because I “couldn’t keep my mind on the game as evidenced by too many jokes” and so on. If the other players could have been told of the background description it ought to have made a big difference – but they were not allowed to hear the description before making their evaluations.

    After those experiences I never played in another RPGA tournament. I played in lots of others (and won several), but never again in RPGA. They were penalizing roleplaying.

  47. General Ghoul says:

    38 Caitlin Says:
    May 21st, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    And 190 of those pages would be describing the scenery. Heck the actual Frodo/Gollum fight that ended up destroying the ring took less than one page in the book.

    Robert Jordan mastered this effect. 22 books to describe a trip around the block.

  48. anachronist says:

    The first couple of characters I created, I wrote copious backstories for them and put them on my web site for others t read. My second story was the most elaborate thing I ever wrote; more of a novelette.

    I learned not to do this anymore.

    While the two players who read my novelette all the way through really liked it, the DM balked. So I told him he needed to read only chapter 1 to get my character background. And that’s all he read. The other 3 players in our group didn’t bother. And we’re all pretty good role-players. We have no “roll” players in our group.

    My character, whom I spent months developing and writing about, lasted 1 session and the game ended. After that, nobody had any reason to read his story.

    This is just a game, a transient event. It isn’t something you have to study for a final exam in college. If the DM can’t be bothered to read over-long backstories for the characters in his game, it’s also reasonable that the players won’t be interested in a 20-page tome about the game.

    One of the players who read my story likes creating elaborate stories himself, and we enjoy reading each other’s work, but like me, he stopped writing for new characters. Another player (very experienced) who didn’t read my novelette told me he, too, started out writing pages of background about a character, but he doesn’t anymore. Neither do I; while I get pleasure writing them, I pour my soul into them and that’s a lot of work for what amounts to a wasted effort.

    Now, we all pretty much flesh out our characters in a couple of paragraphs, sort of like the example characters in the WoTC books.

    On the DM’s side, you’ll notice that most published campaigns aren’t accompanied by a copious backstory. Maybe a few paragraphs of introductory text to establish the setting, and the story unfolds as the game progresses. By the end, there may be pages of material, but not 20 pages for players to read right up front.

    The point is: brevity matters.

  49. Alasseo says:

    I can actually quote the character background I wrote for use in the L5R game I’m currently in from memory-

    “A falling feather
    drifting on the gentle breeze
    may rise the highest

    Clan weeps, fallen one
    honoured blade in wave-man’s hands
    drawn to dishonour”

    Originally this was meant to just be rather cool flavour text to have written on my banners, but as the campaign progressed, I and the GM realised that it was a sort of cyclical prophecy that showed up again and again throughout my family.
    I do sympathise with Aragorn’s player in this case; but to be honest, twenty pages, even with a narrow margin and an 8-point font is only thirty, maybe forty-five minutes’ worth of reading*. While that may be a bit much if the characters were pre-gen’d and assigned, if they had the choice of their characters then they should really have made the effort.
    Mind you, sometimes feel like I’d need a set of Cliff notes for my own biography…

    Still, the DM here could explain it in a much shorter fashion: “You- exiled king; last king cursed and killed in ambush; this his sword- you need this to get kingdom back. Also- kingdom under siege by a force you couldn’t beat even with the horsey-guys; you can win by going into that cave and getting the ghost army in there to help. They were cursed by your ancestor, and can break the curse by fighting for you”
    And the last sentence probably won’t even be needed, I’d lay odds that Aragormless would have stopped paying attention after hearing “you can win”.

    and @Scarlet Knight 31- So back to the original and the BBC radio plays then? They had some really silly singing, that would probably benefit from G&S-written music actually… Damn, now I want to see a LotR operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.

    *for me, at least, but I do read very quickly

  50. Isoyami says:

    @General Ghoul (#48)

    Also, don’t forget Marcel Proust who wrote seven large books to describe a guy eating a piece of cake. Not nearly as copious, but still amusing. ;)

  51. Scarlet Knight says:

    For me, Gilbert and Sullivan (like Monty Python) always made the absurd fun. Which fits many D&D sessions.
    It’s a shame the movie didn’t have alot of shots of our trio with the corsairs; we could have had a G&S ball.

    We easily could have done a Python routine on the “How did YOU get to be king question:

    Legolas: How’d you become king, then?
    Aragorn: The Lord of Rivendell, his arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Anduril from inside my tent signifying that I, Aragorn, was to carry Anduril. THAT is why I am your king!
    Gimli: Listen. Strange half-elves distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. I mean, if I went ’round saying I was an emperor just because someone had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

  52. Lachie says:

    Spelt “Numenorean” wrong…

    “Hi.” Classic face! I imagine him saying it quickly like a Japanese person saying yes, “Hai.”

  53. Lachie says:

    Oops sorry that was the last comic…

  54. Salen says:

    Why is it the leader the one who’s always stabbing folks? Seriously, when does stabbing folks count as good leadership skills? *snicker*

    As any player knows though, backstory should always be given to a group one bit at a time, instead of all at once. D&D is for fun, not a history lesson.

  55. Balrog says:

    You put 2 p’s in up.

  56. Margaret says:

    When does he get to see what Arwen looks like?

  57. Medium Dave says:

    Wait, so the Ghost Army crushes all before them? We didn’t need the Horse Boys at all? Lets jst keep them and rush Mordor now!

    Honestly, ask your players if they had a stressful week. If they have give them someone to hit. When my people show up, sometimes they say, I just want to hit someone. Get that out of the way so you can roleplay and relax and get into the campaign for that session.

  58. Lukelightning says:

    I never bother with much of a backstory for characters. I am far more interested in where they are going as opposed to what happened to them. Plus it takes me a couple sessions to figure out the personality of my character.

  59. Roxysteve says:

    brassbaboon Says:
    But treating this as if this were a real-world campaign, I almost always come down on the side of the players. People are busy. Expecting people to read a 20 page backstory is obviously just asking for trouble. I know, I've been there.

    But then, the people who can’t be bothered to read the back story because of their incredibly busy lives (so busy they can afford to sit up all night rolling dice at Helms Deep) shouldn’t complain when the story doesn’t make sense. Both ways, can’t have it and all that.

    20 pages is too much, but what else could our DM of the Rings have done? He is critically underfunded in the observational skills department and suffers from Superdetailing Syndrome.

    But our star player, the one upon whom the story hinges, cannot stay focused for more than five words. He may very well have been the best choice the DmotR could have made from within the original group, but it was definitely a case of minimising the fall-out rather than choosing the best candidate.

    The meeting of these two architypes is what makes the strip at once so funny and so resonant with so many.

    We’ve all “been there”. Hopefully in smaller doses.


    PS It’s worth pointing out that the ultimate back-story campaign, M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne game, is still running after thirty years and more. Some people can summon the inner resources to do the backstory boogie it seems.

  60. cookiefleck says:

    I am a LOTR fan but not a gamer… love your website. Your wit and talent are amazing.

  61. Harlequin says:

    If LOTR were a real campaign, Aragorn would quit the game now that it’s become obvious he’s essential to it.

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