By Wes Cantrell
In my last article, A Modest Guide to Backstory, I talked about creating backstories from the player perspective. This time I want to focus on more of the Game Master aspects of incorporating character backstories into games.. Often times with premade dungeons or even ones built by from scratch, the focus is set solely on the task at hand, no effort is made to help players reflect on who they were or how they got there. There is nothing wrong with an old school dungeon crawl, or just hacking and slashing your way to loot and glory. One of the major aspects of epic fantasy centers around character growth — who they were, what they are striving for, and where they end up. Often times, all three are highly intertwined.
Character development should rest mainly on the shoulders of the players. It’s their character. They are the ones who decide their character’s moods, personality, often time their alignments, what actions they take, or don’t take in response to a situation. However, as a Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM), the storytelling aspects, the weaving of plot points, and narrative pacing are placed on you.
Once again, there is nothing that states you have to do this. For some groups, players or games it’s entirely inappropriate or unfeasible for character backstories to be involved. Some games have you build the backstory as part of character creation, such as the Year Zero Engine use by the RPG Tales of the Loop. GMs who do this though should view hooks within backstories like seeds to water and grow within the story. If you are interested in this aspect of GMing, read on.
As a DM, I never require my players to write giant backstories, I often do at least request some basics. Even a player completely uninterested in backstory should be able to answer a few basic questions:
- “What is your family like?”
- “What are the values of your town”
- “How are you received in your hometown?”
- “Why did you leave?”
Well, those aren’t set in stone and for some settings might not be appropriate. Having some generic questions for your players to answer can help you weave their stories into your own narrative and help bring players into your world, instead of just part of the game. Once you have these base facts, you can work on missions tailored to highlight the story of your characters, giving them each a moment in the spotlight.
Here’s a quick example. Let’s say your party is going up against a dark wizard who is terrorizing the countryside. Instead of having him wait for the heroes to come to him after a series of events, maybe the villain, who obviously didn’t get to their position by passively waiting for things to happen, makes a preemptive strike, raiding the hometown of one of your heroes and kidnaps their childhood sweetheart, or favorite younger sibling. Maybe the villain strikes down a beloved father and that sets the hero on a path to vengeance.
Raising the tension levels, giving the players something to fight for beyond the loot leads to more satisfying story conclusions. You should definitely reward characters with appropriate treasures and gold, but giving them the satisfaction of beating an especially heinous antagonist is what fuels stories and callbacks. Developing villains can be a bit tough sometimes so I’ll go into more detail about building long-running antagonists in a future article.
Weaving Backstories into Your Games
As a GM, it can be daunting to try and incorporate so many backstories into a campaign when you have your own plots going. I would encourage you to try and work in a mission or two that helps develop the story of each character. Even the tragic rogue characters who inevitably hide in the shadows and lurk in the corners trying to appear mysterious can benefit from character development.
The dark, brooding character with the mysterious past is a long-standing tradition, but when done right, the reveal can be satisfying and intriguing. Think Angel from Buffy or Snape from Harry Potter. Giving that brooding anti-hero or player a reason to be dark and brooding tends to let your players get into character more and start making choices more in line with what that character might actually do.
There are benefits to a character with an unknown childhood, being drawn into the adventure when pieces of their true heritage start dropping. An orphan bastard turning out to be the true king of the realm is a favorite trope in fantasy, but I encourage new and unique ideas to give players their own twist. Maybe that supposedly orphaned character isn’t the heir to the kingdom but is, in fact, the child of the main villain, and of course, it’s up to them to bring their progenitor’s reign of chaos.
It’s hard to find a story that hasn’t already been done as I’m sure my last few examples immediately bring to mind many storylines to the most popular franchises today. Remember those franchises are popular because of those twists, of finding out who the characters are, and there’s no reason to not bring that into your own games. If Roleplaying games were inspired by Lord of the Rings, then we should remember that in Lord of the Rings, it’s not just doing a quest.It’s about the characters on the quest, their friendships, their bonds, their backstories, and of course, the journey.
Character Story Plot Twists
Another exciting GM tool at your disposal is the character story plot twist. Take what a player presents you, what you know of the player, where they think their character is going and then turn it on its head producing an unexpected backstory the player might not have realized was a potential. Having a character story plot twist be part of the overarching campaign can be particularly impactful. I alluded to this in my last article but felt it would fit for a deep dive here better.
Here is another example. My regular gaming group was playing a Star Wars Saga campaign set in the Old Republic about 1000 years before the original trilogy. In this campaign, one of the characters was a Jedi orphan named Marcus who was left at a jedi academy.
The story goes that his father, also a Jedi, had dropped the baby off and went off to save the galaxy or some such thing, whatever it is Jedi are supposed to do. Over the course of the campaign, which mainly revolved around us trying to stop a top-secret sith conspiracy to replace jedi masters with cloned dark side versions, we eventually met Marcus’ “mother” who , along with her son, fell to the dark side and where behind the whole thing. We learned that the father tried to rescue his son but found him too far gone, but discovered the clone baby Marcus, and rescued him before the same evil fate could befall him.
Kind of turns the whole “farm boy with a destiny” trope on its head when it turns out there are dozens of you and you aren’t as unique as you thought you were. This, of course, lead to a big identity crisis for the character who simply expected to find out about his parents. Kind of turns the tables when you find out you never even had parents,and the harrowing fact that your mother and the original “you”are evil darksiders.
Many RPG systems these days incorporate the idea of character bonds or “trust points.” These bonds can be used in-game by players to help another character during their rolls. Tales from the Loop, Night’s Black Agents, Bubblegumshoe, Hellcats and Hockey Sticks all incorporate mechanics like this.
I feel if it does not break the system, there is no reason to not include these character ties into other games. For D&D, it could be an inspiration point when two players assist each other due to a shared back story. GURPS, Rifts, Savage World are all systems modular enough to easily import character story based benefits into a game to help encourage role-playing and social interactions.
For Star Wars Saga, it could be granting an additional Force Point to a character for finding out that the Sith Lord is their father to help them in their quest, or realizing they are a Clone but are still an individual like their companions. This can help make players want to dive into creating their own stories, and excited to role-play their characters to find out who they are.
A good story, the best stories, don’t just tell us who the characters are but also tell us a little bit about who we are. In Pen and Paper RPGs the medium allows for players, and GMs, to find out a bit more about who they are as a person, to explore different sides of themselves they might not usually think about in their day to day lives. Encouraging story building in your games can help give a more complete tale.
It also helps you as the Game Master to figure out what to do. Often times I find that Game Masters who only have a few sessions in mind run into a problem of figuring out what to do when players want to keep on with a character they’ve just rolled up. Having their back stories to fall back on allows you to use the player’s creativity to fuel your own and help break that writer’s block.