How to Create Interactive Backstories – 3 Fun PC Creation Mini-Games
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #673
Collaborative Backstory Building
From Christopher Sniezak
The adventure gaming genre tends to push us towards a model of being in the thick of action, killing monsters, taking their things, and escaping into a world where the consequences of our actions are only meaningful as far as the players at the table are concerned. We don’t really need to worry about where our characters came from, who is important to them, or what they believe in. It’s fun. It’s beer and pretzels. It’s us playing with our friends.
Now let’s suppose you’re looking for something a little more than that. You want to play in a game where characters, players, and you do care about things. A play space where character actions make sense within the larger world.
One of the best ways to start down that path is with character backstories.
However, we have experienced or read horror stories of players bringing awful, twenty page unedited histories. Another reason we groan when we hear backstories is because it feels like homework. “Go write me a two page history of your character. Make sure there’s sections on your early life, teenage years, and those few years after you turned twenty before you started adventuring. Get some stuff in about your parents and a mentor. Oh, and don’t forget some kind of bad guy I may or may not use since I already know what’s going on in this campaign and I’m not telling you about it because that would ruin the game.”
The solution is for GM and player to make backstories together, in collaboration. This way, you get what you need for your campaign, and the player feels like their time is not being wasted and that your campaign is going to be personal and cool.
Here are the things I think make backstories important to the game:
- The conflict
- The people, places, and ideals important to the character
- Asking why
When something players create shows up in play that creates instant buy-in and excitement for your game. They made a thing that exists in the game so now they feel more ownership of the game and will work towards making the game successful. It’s a great way to build trust between you and your players.
Any backstory providing conflict gives the GM more material to use in the game and more ways to prompt characters to action. If a character’s backstory includes a magical curse where every evening as the sun sets a demonic entity invades their mind for a few minutes and can control or influence their actions, or make deals for information, then the GM has a vehicle for delivering information and prompting that character or others to action.
This should probably turn into an important area of play in the future of the campaign. Now that’s just one character. If you have four or five in your group then you’re spoiled for material.
If it seems overwhelming don’t worry. I’ll show you some ways to narrow it down in a bit and how to take different conflicts and combine them.
People, Places, Ideals
Discovering the people, places, and ideals of the character will also give you more material to work with. And the ideals will give players a way to make decisions aside from the more nebulous alignment. If a character is lawful neutral, that’s a pretty broad descriptor. But if the characters ideal is “Learning reveals the Truth” now you have a bit more of an idea of what’s important to the character and how they will approach being lawful neutral. A clever GM might even find a way to put those two things into conflict.
So how can you take the theory and apply it at your table? Here are two games to help you and the players at your table flesh out their character backstories and help give them some inter party connections.
The Backstory Creation Game
To play the Backstory Creation Game you’ll need a way to record notes. I prefer index cards. I also use this chart with lists of generalized conflicts, ideals, and people:
|6||Curse||Seeking Balance||Spouse or lover|
|9||An Item||Thrill Seeker||Extra-Dimensional Entity|
Decide who goes first and have them pick one of the items off one of the lists for their character.
Then follow up with some of these questions:
- Conflict – Ask them to define the conflict. What started it? Why is it important to their character’s life to this point?
- Ideal – Ask why their character follows that ideal? What pushed them to believe in this ideal so strongly? How is it a pillar of their character?
- People – Ask who is this person? Why is the person relevant to the character? How is this person relevant to the character? What kind of relationship do these characters have?
Feel free as the GM to expand on these questions until you have a feel for that part of the character’s backstory.
After each player has chosen one each player now picks a column they haven’t chosen from and rolls a 10 sided die. If they roll the same as another player’s choice that player, or the GM, can ask them to roll again. Once they have one ask the appropriate questions from above. Do this until each player has their second item.
For the last part of each character’s backstory, the rest of the group chooses one of the items from the list they haven’t selected from yet, and then the GM asks questions until that aspect of the backstory is fleshed out the same as the previous two items.
At each level the player to the left and right of the current player defining their character item can optionally ask a single question concerning the item they’d like to know more about.
When everyone is done, the characters will have conflicts, people in their lives they have connections to, and ideals based on previous experiences. This gives PCs a little more meat on the bone. It will also have been done as a group activity, so all players know the characters’ backstories and will have some investment in them. And when this backstory stuff comes up in the game – because part of the point is to build up a bunch of material to use later – everyone will know something important is happening, which creates more engagement.
This is a progressive idea a lot of players might be uncomfortable with because of how much control they’re giving up in creating their character’s backstories, conflicts, and personalities in some cases. If your group isn’t interested in trying this, then you can use the charts as inspiration for coming up with NPC backstories or as a randomizer for elements to use as inspiration.
The questions from the conflict, idea, and people part of the backstory creation game will help you and the players understand what is important to the character and create a cast of NPCs and game hooks you can use to keep play moving when it slows down.
Now let’s take a look at another little game you can tack onto this to give the game group a little cohesion.
The Left Right Game
This game creates history between the PCs. It works great for fantasy adventure gaming when you don’t want to just go with “You meet in a tavern all looking for adventure.”
Once you’ve finished character creation, and maybe even done the Backstory Creation Game, you can ask this:
“Everyone, look to your left. How did your character meet their character? Think about it for a moment.”
Once they’ve had a moment to think about it, pick someone to start and have them tell the story. The player to the left doesn’t have a say in how they met. They can only listen. The GM and the other players can make suggestions and ask questions of the storyteller, but the player to the left can’t.
To help this be effective: ask questions about where story takes place and what other people are involved. Bring in backstory material already created, build on what is being said, and help to keep it within the game’s setting and the tone you want. As GM you can always ask the storyteller to try another way, explain why their story isn’t quite fitting, and provide some suggestions for how it could fit.
Once everyone has finished telling their story of how they met the character on the left say this:
“Everyone look to your right. What terrible situation did your character help their character out of?”
Once again give them a moment and then have someone else start to tell the story of how they got the person on their right out of a really tough spot. The player to the right has no say, but the rest of the group can make suggestions and ask questions of the storyteller and as the GM help this part along like the first part.
When everyone has had a chance to be the storyteller for left and right, each character will have history where they’ve already been involved in with all least two other PCs. Now you have some party backstory, and if you’ve been taking notes there should be even more material you can use in your campaign going forward.
In the Left Right Game, I push the idea of asking questions and gave some generic ones. Here are some more you could use to pull things out of the players about their characters:
- What ideal does your character believe in above all others and why?
- What was a defining moment in your character’s life?
- If your character has an alignment take a look at it. What events have made them like that to this point in their life?
- If I asked your character what was the worst day in their life what would they say?
- Who is the most important person in the character’s life and why? The character can’t choose themselves.
- What possession does your character treasure most and why?
- Who are your character’s friends and why do they hang out with them?
- Where does your character go when they aren’t adventuring or doing their job and why do they go there?
- Who is your character’s oldest friend and where are they now?
- Tell me about the people who raised your character.
- Has your character ever had to make a hard choice and if so what was it?
- Is where your character grew up important to them? Why or why not?
- Who taught your character to be what they are and what are they doing now?
- Do you have a rival? If so who are they, how did they become your rival, and why are they still your rival?
- What did you spend the formative days of your youth doing and dreaming about?
If you’d like to give players some input to the campaign but wish to put them within the campaign world, here are some leading questions where you can insert your campaigns pieces in place of the quotations:
- How did “person or organization” negatively affect your character’s life?
- When the “event” occurred what happened to your character and the people or places they cared about?
- Your character explored “Location” when they were younger. What “person, place, or thing” did they see there and did anything happen to them as a result?
- “Person” looked out for you when you were younger. What kind of a relationship did you have with them?
- “Person” taught your character to be what they are. How did they die?
These last five questions are just some examples of leading questions you can use as a GM to put the characters at the center of the campaign and give the players things to latch onto because they get to create part of the games play space.
Every ending is just a beginning, and in finishing the creation of these backstories you can begin what us gamers consider the main play of the game armed with material to prompt, prod, and incite the characters and players to action during play. I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and any feedback on it would be appreciated. Now go play some great games.
Brief Word From Johnn
Longest Game Session?
What has been your longest GMing marathon?
Mine was when running a single player campaign for my friend Eric. We played in his basement and gamed for 44 out of 48 hours. It started Friday night with the Lost Cavern of Tsojcanth. Then we plundered the Against the Giants series until we couldn’t stay awake anymore. Four hours later, we were up again taking it to the drow.
We chewed through a lot of battles and a lot villains. I supposed we saved the world from the evil armies of giants, mind flayers, and drow, but the loot was worth it. 😉
I’ve had games run almost as long on a couple of occasions. Three summers ago we had a D&D marathon in my friend Jeff’s basement go two days. And in high school I had some epic weekend games. But my Giants Hackathon record will likely stand as my personal best.
Get some gaming in this week!
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Ten Sword & Sorcery NPCs Back on The Road of Recovery
From Eric Fabiaschi
There are those warriors and adventurers the PCs will encounter who through circumstances not of their own doing have been knocked off the pedestal of life and society. Only after years of hard work, circumstances, and mere chance are they now on the road to a higher station of living. These souls can be villains or patrons for parties of adventurers.
Here are 1d10 NPCs to bedevil and challenge your PCs in your old school campaigns.
Once a lord of a minor land and wizard of considerable power, this man of no small means was displaced by a palace rebellion. But through his considerable resources and skills in treachery he has clawed his way back. Now he has need of adventurers to recover many relics of legends and mythology.
An elven mage of considerable power and might brought low by a demon of the seventh dark. Now he seeks to regain his lands and holdings with the help of adventurers. He has some gold and seeks to rob NPCs to build his fortune.
Lauthagot the Wise
He once sought the darkest secrets of the many universes and planes as a wizard king and slaver. Now he has been brought low by a malicious spell of his brother, a fellow wizard. His black soul is imprisoned in a tower of glass and steel, his intelligence a mere echo of his former self. He seeks adventurers to help him recover his mind and soul.
Gorotulaugual The Slaver
This former warlord has been brought low in the sight of man and clan alike. He takes villages and towns to fill out his ranks and base needs for profit. He seeks adventurers to help him in his evil work and dark pursuits.
Drduthathalr The Desperate
This barbarian warlord seeks adventures for quests and to open up new markets for his products of dark and vile magic. He has vaults of stolen dwarven treasures and seeks to turn these for a quick profit. The dwarves pursue his wretched hide but he is always one step ahead of their warriors.
An ancient prince who burned and buried the cities and kingdoms under his charge due to the curse of ancient wand. An ancient god of evil and horror owns his soul and only a group of adventurers can recover it from the underground dungeon that holds the gem where it rests. He is dangerous and crass without his soul. His whims are fickle and malicious.
Kalaval Worm Rot
A dire and dark necromancer who was one of the true heroes of the realm. But through a series of vile adventures he became a necromancer trying to find the souls of his family in the darkness of the afterworld. Now he seeks adventurers to help him recover the relics and artifacts that hold the pieces of their souls. He is a master of slaughter and dark magic.
Fammegororo The Dire
A warrior who has served both tyrants and kings aplenty and has now lost his fortunes. He seeks riches in dungeons and ruins through the lands. He hires adventurers to take the risks for a cut of the riches. He has been known to betray certain adventurers and freebooters if the mood takes him.
A demon princess of the darkness and fires of ancient Hades. She was ageless and remorseless beyond compare until her dark husband lusted for another. He cursed her to human form on Earth. She now works among humankind to gather black and dark magics to return to her true place in the underworld. She employs adventurers to gather the items she needs to open the doors to the dark dimension and return to the glory of her demonic existence. She pays in gold and favors but has been known to murder when the turn comes to her.
A former guardian of light and a paladin of the order of Seventh Glory of Shel. He fell in love with the wrong priestess of his god and was defrocked. He turned to the land of shadow’s cause. Now he works with parties of adventurers to gather together enough treasure to carve out his own minor empire and strike back at his former noble masters. He uses a combination of theft, kidnapping, and murder to achieve his aims and does not leave loose ends.