How much backstory is too much backstory? Especially in OSR games, where characters are likely to die at low levels?
I had been kicking around a proposal like "six words per level of experience", but an amusing idea occurred to me this morning.
Senryu is a form of Japanese poetry with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables (er... technically morae, but trying to write english within mora counts that tight is not practical), typically about people and their vices (vs haiku, which are about nature and must include a season-word and a cutting-word). They're pretty easy to put together and give you enough room to tell a little story that explains why you're adventuring without going into too much detail:
Orcs killed my parents
Shoulders that once pulled a plow
now carry plate mail
Chased too much elf tail
Washed out of wizard college
Student loans comes due
On long pilgrimage
Red-nosed cleric lost his way
Time to pay the tab
Won fast ship at cards
Dumped hot goods, now owe crime lord
When in doubt, shoot first
Rightful king of dwarves
Dragon haunts my father's halls
I will get what's mine.
Our lands disputed,
King turned 'gainst us, brother slain,
I sailed for far shores
One nice property of these, I think, is that it would get really hard to fit proper nouns with relations into them. If you take a backstory senryu as canon, it might tell you that somewhere in the setting there are marauding orcs, a wizard college, a crime lord, or a dragon under the mountain, but it doesn't try to shove them into any particular place. As a DM, it would be easy to link these up to any particular band of orcs, wizard college, crime lord, or fallen hold that you might already have planned.
And they're quick and fun to come up with, which makes them a relatively good fit for characters who might be short-lived.