Wielding Character Backstories for Epic Campaigns

Common advice out there is for player characters to have backstories to help the GM. But how, exactly, are we to leverage this information? This week, I’ll share a few ways I do this, starting today with….

Part 1. Free (or Not) Hirelings

Rather than whack every capitalized noun over time from PC backgrounds, I instead view all such NPCs as a bench of helpers and assistants. Ala old school hirelings and followers.

Let the PCs send their friends, relatives, and acquaintances on missions and perform mundane work that we now don’t have to spend game time on.

Some players will inevitably want to turn their network of contacts into a revenue stream. I think that’s great! If they can create a method for their crew to generate income, I’ll support that.

In either case, contacts or interns employees, these agents turn into plot hooks for you. This is a smarter GM Move than whacking NPCs from character backstories. Dead NPCs make difficult Plot Factories.

(A Plot Factory, in my lingo, is a piece of your story or setting that generates Plot Hooks, Adventure Seeds, and Encounters Seeds automatically and effortlessly whenever you need.)

When we let players wield their contacts for boons, we explain to them Newton’s third law. Then we sit back and wait, honeytrap set. When players sieze the chance to put their network to work, we apply our normal GMing procedures to transform this gameplay into encounters and adventures.

For example, when character agents attempt to achieve an outcome, we can turn that into a dice roll. Then we can apply partial and Fail Forward style outcomes should we beat the PC’s test.

When Bartram Bloodbrewer gains a youthful follower seeking martial training, he asks the boy to go into the forest nearby and gather mushrooms for Bartram’s tea.

I ask Jochen, Bartram’s player, to apply whatever skill and attribute he thinks suitable and to roll for the boy. I set the TDL (Target Difficulty Level) to easy. Bartram rolls an easy success and the boy returns with mushrooms.

Evil Johnn would whack the NPC and build a 5 Room Dungeon for Bartram’s inevitable vengeance quest. But Good Johnn leaves the NPC alone — this time — and instead has the boy become a 1d6 Plot Factory each time he gets Bartram’s fungi:

  1. Report a strange thing he saw
  2. Get lost and require a rescue
  3. Discover a hidden 5 Room Room Dungeon
  4. Find a trinket
  5. Bring back unusual mushrooms for Bartram to investigate
  6. Return with news about a Grim Portent

Every time Bartram must re-up his shrooms, I get another opportunity to introduce an adventure or encounter seed. Thus, a Plot Factory.

Instead of Character Backstories, maybe it’s more like Character Gardens.

Part II: Mining Character Backgrounds For Plot Threads

Wielding Character Backstories for Epic Campaigns, Part II. Read Part I here.

In my lingo, I call plot threads Loops, and my plot multi-threading methodology Loopy Planning (check out RPT #488 from 2009).

Loops can be Open or Closed. A closed Loop is no longer in play. It’s been resolved. An Open Loop is a question that hasn’t been answered yet. Open Loops in my campaigns are often dramatic questions.

By my weird way of thinking, a Loop isn’t a Loop until it’s closed. If start point and end point don’t connect (the dramatic question has not been answered) then you’ve just got a line on your hands. And I call that the Timeline.

Therefore, a Loop’s “instinct” or “drive” is to constantly seek closure. End meets beginning. Resolution. And a perfect energy we want for our campaigns.

We want to open stories (encounters, 5 Room Dungeons, adventures) with hooks, then close them with great finales.

And character backstories can be full of such hooks.

Here’s an example for Sylvio Rashan, a friendly halfling rogue:

Has a heart as big as his appetite for adventure. Hails from the verdant hills of the countryside. Unlike his brothers, Sylvio hated farming and was drawn to the city. Falling upon hard times, he learned he had a knack for burglary. He went on a spree and was about to complete his greatest heist yet when…(he meets the party).

That’s a typical backstory we get from players. Not one capitalized noun in the whole blinking thing. Bah!

Some players will give you long scrolls of delicious details, but most will give you a stark summary that’s part personality description and part explaining why he’s a murder hobo orphan.

Yet, within this tiny desert of text we can mine the sands of the PC’s before-time and dig up many hook treasures:

  • What’s his “greatest heist yet” about? It’s fair play to create details players do not provide. We can make this an entire adventure for the party, perhaps even the Party Unification Event.
  • Brothers you say? And a farm? I’m picturing a dozen NPCs at that location, maybe more. And each has their own life’s story playing out….
  • And what booty, exactly, did his bygone burgles beget? What became of his purloined plunder?
  • Create a simple victims generator and a chance for them to meet with, or get a lead about, Sylvio.

We mined all that from a handful of dryer-than-salt statements clawed into the back of a dirty napkin by a .5mm mechanical pencil.

All those ideas are Open Loops because the player did not tell us their fate.

Thus, their fate is in our hands. We mine for any fact or detail that’s still alive or an active agent in the campaign. With even the tiniest breath of life, any hook can turn into incredible adventure!

So, look to character backstories as launch pads for plot hooks and mines filled with Open Loops and adventure ideas.

Part III: PC Backstory Alchemy

Mine character backstories — even the shortest of ones — for hooks with which to seed your encounters, 5 Room Dungeons, and adventures.

Mine them for proper nouns, then for general and inferred mentions of any NPCs. Those NPCs will often have plots, or get assigned to plots, that you can exploit.

Next, mine for plot threads — Open Loops in my lingo. Extract facts and details to use as hooks and seeds.

(For the backstory on what “mining” is, check out RPT#0499, Turning Coal into Diamonds – How to Mine Backstories To Create Killer Campaigns.)

Today, let’s root out another, perhaps unexpected, category of information from character backgrounds: decisions.

We should always have our antennae up and listening for player character decisions. Both in-game and in the past. These decisions are often moral choices. And while I’m not a fan of running Dogmas & Doctrines, a moral choice gives us fantastic opportunity for storytelling!

Here’s a typical anemic PC background we’d receive from a player:

Sylvio Rashan, a friendly halfling rogue, has a heart as big as his appetite for adventure. Hails from the verdant hills of the countryside. Unlike his brothers, Sylvio hated farming and was drawn to the city. Falling upon hard times, he learned he had a knack for burglary. He went on a spree and was about to complete his greatest heist yet when…(he meets the party).

Our friend Sylvio made a couple of very interesting choices before he teamed up with the other PCs:

  • Left his family and chose to leave
  • Left the farming life and chose the city
  • Become a burglar and chose to steal from people

I’m not here to judge Sylvio. But in terms of mining decisions, the player has given us several gifts here, probably without realizing it.

When we spot an interesting character decision, regardless of whether it’s past or present, we should take an immediate note.

Between sessions, we review each decision and ask this question:

How could the butterfly ripples of this decision amplify into stormy story moments in our campaign?

Even minor choices can expand into, compound, and ignite major situations. And players will love discovering how their PCs have personal connections to situations in your campaign. (Sidenote: this is often a great Room III: Setback or Complication moment for 5 Room Dungeons!)

For example, let’s say Sylvio’s parents come to the city. They have a legal matter to bring before the Baron. So they visit their son while in town.

We’ll keep a protective bubble around the parents. We don’t want to attack them, kidnap them, harm them, or make the player feel penalized for giving us these meagre bread crumbs in their PC’s backstory.

Instead, we’ll curate a moment when Sylvio’s parents discover his recent past life as a burglar and confront him. What happens now? Let’s game to find out!

Sylvio could feel guilty and change his ways. Perhaps the player adopts a new moral code for their PC.

Sylvio could defend his actions and estrange himself further with his family.

The parents might feel obligated to pay back each of Sylvio’s victims. This might result in Sylvio’s guilt made public (and a broke Sylvio).

Such an encounter offers amazing potential depth of roleplay and storytelling.

And if we’re running more of a Hack & Slash or dungeon crawl type campaign, we can use this encounter as Room Guardian to kick off a new adventure. Perhaps Sylvio must recover stolen goods to avoid prison or at the behest of his parents, and each steal-back

I’d love to be at the table when the party discovers their mission is recovering MacGuffins that Sylvio stole in the first place!

Every character decision represents a potential hook to encounters, 5 Room Dungeons, and adventures. And when we leverage player choices this way, the game becomes deeper and more absorbing because players will realize they’ve become the architects of gameplay.

Part IV: Book Suggestions

Here are a couple of books on my GM bookshelf I recommend if you’d like to get deeper into character backstories:

This concludes our Wielding Character Backstories for Epic Campaigns three-part series on mining character backstories for campaign seeds and hooks. You can catch Parts I and II here. I’ll be adding today’s Part III to that page soon, as well.

Have more fun at every game!

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