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My players have trouble creating deep backstories for the characters. I have decided to go with that, but provide opportunities in-game for filling out the gaps. I'm considering leading some flashbacks, which I have never done and have no idea how to do. I would also want those stories to have real impact on the game (so that the players feel the story is important).

How do I go about stimulating the players to tell and expand and play out the back stories of the characters?

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+1. Very nice question indeed. See a similar question I asked a while ago but different in scope so no duplicate here. –  Sardathrion Sep 18 '12 at 7:50
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You don't need deep backstories to have a good or intriguing character! For instance: Spoony's character, Tandem the Bard, the greatest swordsman in the world (that's it). He begins telling Tandem's story at 5:40 in this video, and it goes for seven minutes and is completely worth it. –  Jonathan Hobbs Sep 18 '12 at 11:03
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The best way to make sure your players invest in character backgrounds is, in my experience, to actually use those backgrounds, and reward players that provide them. Players will not do something they don't consider worth doing.

The rewards vary from group to group. If you haven't done so already, I suggest taking notes of what kind of thing is the most interesting for each of your players: some look for a cool story, some look for roleplaying experiences and personal drama, some look for power-ups, some look for ways to do cool stuff with their characters they can brag about later, some look for some fun while not being at the center of attention. Remember, each of these is perfectly fine and everyone has a different way of having fun. It's alright if someone only cares about his kill count, as long as he's happy playing and the rest of the group is cool with him; and for the love of everything, don't "reward" such a player with a deep intricate story arc centering on him. Give him a bigger axe instead.

The next step is to actually use that information during the game. If your character values the story, have his background be a central part of a story arc. If he values his shiny magical items, make sure a powerful magic item comes up from his background and that he needs to investigate and make use of his personal story to gain it. And so on, and so forth.

This can, of course, be kind of like a dog that eats his own tail, with the DM not being able to use backgrounds for his story since his players do not have any background, and the PCs not providing background info since the DM does not reward them. However, there are three tricks to avoid that situation. First, you can talk to your players. Seriously, mature players will easily abide to your request. Second, if your players have similar interests (not that uncommon), even just one character's background "paying off" will entice the others to follow in the next campaign. And thirdly, you can offer actual, practical advantages for backgrounds in the first few adventures / campaigns you have with your group: for instance, you could give extra starting money, or a clue to an enigma, a powerful NPC's help, or even just a Good Player Cookie to "bank in" later in the adventure for some extra benefit in a certain situation. Heck, depending on your players even actual cookies could be good.

Remember, you don't need a GOOD background to start: if you have even just a vague short background story, like "I was hit and have amnesia, but I have a strange feeling I might be the son of the emperor" is enough to start providing those rewards that will make sure the rest of the players will put more effort in their backgrounds. Just make sure to reward better backgrounds with better rewards - even when the rewards themselves are incomparable, the amount of time a smile stays on the player's face afterwards is a good indicator of how "good" a reward is.

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Rather than building a big back-story during character creation, you could ask questions of the players as they come up in play and then utilize the answers.

When they make a skill roll, ask who taught them that skill. When they cast a spell, ask them if their master taught them that spell or if they stole it from their master's spellbook when they weren't looking. When they don't trust an NPC, ask if they remind them of someone from their past who betrayed them.

Take down notes as they answer and make sure their answers have meaning. NPC's could ask questions, from a merchant having tea with the PC wanting to know what their parents did as a trade or a child wanting to know what kind of games they played as children in the lands where they grew up but don't be afraid to ask as a DM to the player. If they don't have an answer right away, ask them to think about it and come back to it. Don't let the questions stop play or cause bottlenecks that lead to pressure.

The most important part, as noted above is that the answers have meaning and effect play and become part of the world.

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I'm going to take the liberty of assuming that your players are creating their characters in isolation from one another, and therefore simply end up slapping mechanics together without any thought of why the character is what he/she is.

I would suggest that your first session of the game actually be a character creation session. Don't think of character creation as something you do before play. Think of it as just the first part of play. Have the players create their characters together, with you guiding them along. Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Feel free to make them leading questions, even.

  • "Where did you learn to fight like that?"
  • "Who taught your magic?"
  • "What did you do before you were an adventurer?"
  • "What was the last adventure that you two had together?"
  • "That lute you carry. Who owned it before you?"
  • "Your from the same place. You must have mutual friends."
  • Etc.

Point is, you want your players to think about their characters as more than just their mechanics. Find interesting tidbits about the characters and poke at them until they yield interesting ideas. Ideally, doing this in a group setting will allow all your players to bounce ideas off of each other, coming up with more interesting details than they would on their own.

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I suspect that players who have problems with that think of the characters they play too much as tools or avatars of themselves, and not as characters different from themselves.

The first step would be to point this out to the players and explain that in the interest of a more exciting game experience they should try to flesh out their characters.

In order to get the ideas gowing, it can help to give the players a list of questions to think about:

  • Where and how did the character grow up? Why and how did they leave their home?
  • Does the character have living relatives? If yes, how is their relationship? If no, how did they die?
  • Has the character had romantic relationships, and how did they turn out?
  • What's the character's goal in life, what does he dream of achieving?
  • What is the character's greatest fear and where does it stem from?
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Anime is a good source of inspiration for this. Because of the length of a show, they can (and do) delve into the back stories of many of the secondary characters. Generally, the story has an impact on the current story arc but not always. A character form their back story comes and seek revenge/help/interacts and flashbacks occur. Those can help flesh the story, giving it a feel of information is delivered when it is needed to understand the story. The alternative to this is foreshadowing where that information is already there but maybe masked or seem irrelevant. So, you can look at anime like Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (both seasons), Cowboy bebop, and Fullmetal Alchemist -- to name but a few good ones and see how they do it.

In general, doing flashbacks within a RPG, keep in mind:

  • Make sure your players know and understand what key plot points you wish to have in the flashback. For example, Bob dies killed by Kate.
  • Make sure the players can introduce interesting story elements at this stage into the plot. For example, Kate is revealed to be $PlayerOne's sister. Note that this means that you may have to re-write large chunks of the plot.
  • The players are not there to win. They are there to build a more interesting story. They "win" in the game, not the flashback. For example, Kate will escape alive, maybe saved by her brother?
  • The flashback has to be short. You are distracting from the main story line. The point of the flashback is to add information to the main story, not tell its own story.
  • As a referee, say yes. Take on-board things that the players come up with.
  • As a player, stay true to the thematic content of the main story. Try to enhance it rather than try to gain power from the flashback.
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