The Backstory Reversal Maneuvre

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0786

I previously cautioned you against writing too much campaign backstory because I have wound up on game day more than once with a lot of words in my GM binder and no game plan. However, here’s a way to have both.

I do love a good backstory. It’s like testing new shoes around the store for awhile before carrying them out in the box with you. Once confident of fit and comfort, you can continue on your journey.

For example, these are often your first tentative steps in the villain’s boots. You also get to explore new locations likely to host future encounters. And drop in named magic items and other rewards to get the PCs sprinting towards your hooks.

Writing your backstory is a pleasant way to meet your campaign.

My favourite format is to write it from the point of view of old adventurers long ago tangling with the villain or birthing the villain.

I might start at the 10,000 foot level with a god war, or in the case of my Seven Cities campaign long ago, the birth of the universe. But soon I’ll journey into details about who the bad guy is and what they did to bring so much pain to the world, or what the world did to them that they must reflect back in anguish.

Factions emerge. Allies, neutrals, and enemies manoeuvre for advantage or survival.

From villain actions and faction counter-actions, mysterious places birth. Home bases and lairs, battle sites, and places of betrayal become myths fuelling future adventure locales.

Enter now the names of legend. Those of humble origin the PCs hear about who long ago explored these places, encountered the terrible dangers, and walked out laden with gold, magic, incredible tales, and a few scars.

Seen through the eyes of these rogues and heroes, your backstory gets to the natural level of detail you need to plan your game. As these people trod through the realm, what did they see, what did they discover, what did they encounter? What were the great dangers? And what were the great rewards?

These questions make you dream, think, and create at the level you need to have material ready for your players to run into. By putting boots on the ground in your backstory, you create a path for the PCs to travel as well.

Because once you are done your backstory, file off the dates and turn it into the plot for your campaign.

Take the story you just wrote, and use it as a skeleton for your campaign plan!

The scene where the disgraced wizard flees and starts creating her revenge army? The PCs cause that. The time when generals clash in the strange jungles of the new continent, the PCs are there. The bizarre sunken citadel the old heroes explored to learn the names of the old gods who could save the land — those are the player characters doing that. Create your backstory, then flip it over to use as your diabolical plot. Walking around in your history helps you imagine what happened. Then you box up those ideas and head into game night ready to start your next game mastering journey.