Best Missed 2010: Let the PCs Back Story be the Campaign Story

Continuing to look back at 2010 I found one of Geekken’s first articles about letting your story be based on the PC’s back stories. My first instinct was that it wouldn’t work; mostly because I didn’t want to give up creative control of my story. But the more I thought about it the more sense it made. No player could avoid being hooked into a story they wrote. I later expanded on this idea to include all my players in the world and back story creation process and have had amazing success! I have to thank Ken for the foundation of my new world building style. Enjoy his article and feel free to leave and feedback, it’s always appreciated.

Let the PCs Back Story be the Campaign Story

-by Geekken

I recently kicked off a new campaign. I make it a standard that every character bring at least a paragraph bio to the table. I like this as it gives me a sketch of who they are, their motivations, and a little background that can serve as fodder for adventures. I’ve always found this a useful tool in planning out a campaign. Some times however it can put a slight kink in my adventure plans, and I’ve learned to embrace it.

Currently two of my players have thought out some interesting concepts on their past. One is a fugitive, and the other provided a really detailed back story. They both put a lot of effort into their character concepts. As a DM I feel it’s an imperative to make sure those details and ideas somehow get wrapped up into the current campaign.

I’ve found that incorporating the player’s history and back story into the current game really makes the players personally invested in the game world. Sure having that old mentor from their past ask for help is always a great plot hook. But have that mentor later murdered at the hands of your main villain? Now you’ve got a player chomping at the bit to take that evil guy down. Sure your group might try to ‘do the right thing’ and save the world, but when they have family, friends, and their homes at stake, well then you’ve got a party that is set on enduring a lot of hardship to ensure good triumphs.

This can be immensely difficult though, especially if you’ve sketched out your plots and adventures before hand. So here are some tips to help put elements of the player’s back story into the campaign story:

Keep bio details to a minimum – When your players sit down and spill out their life story, ask to modify it a bit. Work with them and try to keep core elements in the bio, but the details at a minimum. Eventually they will be answered later as you play, with points of the current campaign filling in the gaps.

If a player says his village was destroyed by goblins and he struck out to seek vengeance. Work to modify it a bit so that his village was raided by some evil humanoid group, but the player doesn’t know the responsible party. He‘s still out to find revenge, but he also has this additional task of finding out who (or what) did it. Now as a DM you’ve got an additional angle for a plot hook. It doesn’t just have to be stopping the raiders directly. It can also now be a clue to find out more information on the responsible villains. The added bonus is that things are flexible enough you aren’t stuck with using goblins, but can replace it with those evil cultists of Torog in your campaign.

Initially set the elements of their past – Another way is to exert greater control over the player’s background. At the start of the campaign, generate a list of points that each character shares in their past. It could be they are all share a home town, a common mentor, served in the same company in a war, etc. The key is that they all have a history with each other and know key NPCs for the campaign. A great example can be found at Return to Northmoor where they used this information to flesh out plot details of the entire campaign.

This is a solid approach as all the characters have some common history with each other. They have established relationships with NPCs and important locales in the game. The characters hold a strong bond with the campaign story, and it’s easy for the DM to get the group personally invested in it. The downside is that it requires a lot of initial thought, and some players may not have a good feel for their character at the start. Not to mention some players might feel pigeon-holed and being forced to adopt a background.

Make it periphery to the main story – This is cheating a little, but a way to give a nod to an interesting player background without having to make massive changes to the campaign story. You might have a player that has an interesting idea, but you find it is not something that can easily fit into your campaign adventure. It might be that a particular villain or past issue is something that won’t work with your current story plans.

It’s okay not to have that player’s back story be part of the main campaign arc. However, you are doing a huge disservice to the player if you ignore it completely. An excellent work around is to make it a side adventure. A series of short one/two shot adventures to help address the character’s past.

This can work for the DM by giving some ideas for an adventure or two off the tracks of the main story. Having a little breather from the major plot allows players to wrap their heads around different challenges. Not to mention the boon to that one player, who stood with the party for all the trials key to them, despite his lack of personal investment. Now that player gets a little ‘me’ time, tackling threats to people and places near and dear to his character.

These are a few suggestions. I really hope fellow DMs try to reward players that think up a cool and interesting background, by making elements of their history part of the campaign story. If the player is going to take the time to put something together that is creative and interesting, then you as a DM should acknowledge their efforts. So what other tricks folks use to incorporate their players into the big campaign story?

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.

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About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
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