Monster Backstories

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0805

In response to my skyfall challenge a few weeks ago, I received a great email from RPT reader Roger B about a wyvern foe from his campaign:


I started a campaign a number of years ago where a wyvern in the area was a challenge for the local communities.

It normally flew high and only came down now and again to snatch a farmer’s sheep or goat.

Once in awhile, it would make a pass over a merchant wagon or group of travelers on the road to the city and scare the mess out of them. While it never attacked a human directly, it did take a few pets when the opportunity arose.

A sorcerer was rumored to have hit it in the wing with some kind of blast spell, since it had a hole in the left wing, but that had been there as long as anyone could remember.

When the PCs were low level, the wyvern was a threat and it kept the characters watchful. Very watchful.

Once they got to the point where they were pretty sure they could kill it, the players were used to seeing it in the sky and (I think) liked the continuity of it being there. They always seemed too busy to want to hunt it down and kill it.

It’s About Connecting Game Pieces

Cool story, thanks Roger.

One thing that caught my eye was the backstory. A sorcerer is rumoured to have blasted the creature and that’s where the wing-hole came from.

A nice bit of lore. A nice little story.

And a perfect way to tie game elements together!

In past Musings I’ve whacked you over the head with advice about connecting as many dots as possible. Ensure each game piece relates to at least one other.

It’s world building, in a way.

For example, let’s say the sorcerer is in your campaign. He’s going to be important to the plot at some point, but he’s a Story Orphan right now. An island with no connections to anything else in your game.

Typically, the barkeep will drop the right hook at the right time when you are ready for the PCs to encounter the sorcerer. Or even more directly, you’ll have the party encounter him without preamble.

That’s not satisfying from a storytelling point of view. There’s no chance to build up curiosity in the players about this NPC. There’s no chance to tease details so when the PCs do encounter this blaster, they are afraid, or tense, or insanely curious based on how you’ve positioned your teasers.

And Roger’s monster lore is the perfect vehicle to start doing this in your campaign today:

How To Connect Two Game Pieces

Step 1. Pick an NPC who will be important to your story in the next couple of sessions.

Step 2. Then pick a famous monster.

Step 3. Now create a one sentence story of how the NPC and monster collided one time, and what the effects were.

Step 4. Drop this story into your game as news, rumours, clues, or gossip.

You Can Connect Anything

Your campaign might not have any famous monsters. (Note to selves: add famous monsters to campaign.)

In that case, you could use anything notable. NPCs, magic items, locations.

PC: “Why is this placed called One-Hand Jack’s?”

Jack: “Did I tell ye the story of how, in me piratin’ days, I barely escaped wit’ me life while bein’ chased by a kraken?”

PC: “Haha, no. Let’s see your hands. Sorry to cut you off, but I think I can see where this is going.”

Jack: “Ye know nothin’, whippersnapper! Cause since that day they also be callin’ the kraken One-Eye. Har, har, har!”

Now you’ve sewn the seeds for curiosity and future encounter build-up. If the PCs ask about the kraken, Jack can give them all kinds of terrifying details. And next time someone in the party suggests building a raft to get to the island to save a few gold pieces, your players will think twice.

In addition, Jack now has a bit of backstory. He’s interesting. To me, at least. A pirate? Sole survivor of a kraken attack? Does that mean there’s a sunken pirate ship around? What if Jack harbours a secret dream to recover its treasures some day?

A Simple Hack For Fixing Story Orphans

Story Orphans give you an opportunity to tighten up your adventures, flesh out your world, and give players more great details to think about.

I don’t know if there’s an official definition for the term, but I use Story Orphan to mean an NPC, location, item, or plot hook that has no connection to anything else.

For example, let’s say you create a cool magic sword. You give it a name, create game rules for it, and even sketch it out. But that’s it.

Eyebiter is now a Story Orphan because the weapon has no connections to any person, place, thing, or event in your campaign. Which makes it boring. And it will not engage your players’ curiosity and imagination until you drop it on them. So you miss out on some juicy storytelling opportunities there.

Therefore, you want to add connections to Eyebiter. You want to link it to at least one other campaign game piece, such as…a famous monster!

Good news is, there’s a couple of new features in the web app of Campaign Logger to help you find Story Orphans.

Step 1: View All Tags

There’s a new Tag Listings selector called All Tags. Choose this to view all tagged items in your campaign. This will now let you see all the people, places, items, plots, and more, all at once, with everything linked to all their respective Log Entries:

For example, I have a tag in my Murder Hobos campaign for the PC druid Belenos. I click on his linked tag and I now get every Log Entry with his name mentioned in it.

This keeps all your campaign details highly organized without any effort just one click away.

Once you’ve got all your tags on the screen, the second new feature comes into play. Beside each tag now is a tag counter. The counter tells you how many times that tag — or game piece — has been mentioned in your Campaign Log:

Man, look at all those Story Orphans I have in my Murder Hobos campaign. I never knew!

You now have an instant triage and matchmaker tool in your GM Toolbox!

Look for all tags with just 1 counts. These are Story Orphans. They are lonely. They need connections.

Connect these Story Orphans with famous monsters. Or, better yet, connect your Story Orphans with each other! When you create a relationship between two Story Orphans, you fix two Story Orphans at the same time. A monster of a storytelling crit.