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So I'm starting a new campaign for an existing gaming group soon, and I'd like to actually incorporate character backgrounds that the players will be creating (eventually). These aren't epic-novels or anything, usually just a paragraph or two of fairly basic background information.

Obviously, I can read through them all and try to write a plotline that incorporates everything, but is there a better way to handle that? I'd rather avoid having creating one adventure for each character, but at the same time I'd like to make the backgrounds actually part of an integrated story.

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5 Answers 5

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What I have done when I running games that don't have this built in is to introduce the concept of tags. In other games, they're called different things, and it's a fairly common technique, though perhaps presented in a different manner.

Each PC when writing his background, tags it with the most important parts of the background from his perspective. These tags are short (less than 5 words) descriptions of what makes that part important. In some cases, I've given each PC a limit of tags; in more open ended (especially diceless) games, I've not really placed a hard limit. But either way, you end up with an open-ended precis of the character background.

Tags are whatever you want to make them. A bit like aspects in Fate Core, i.e. An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to.

So if the wizard used his abilities on the streets for pay, he might tag that part of his background with Wizard for Hire and perhaps I learned on the streets and Friends in low places.

Once I have these, I use them in a few ways:

  1. Each tag can be used once by the PC in game to expand the background around some action that he is doing.
  2. I can use tags when writing up the campaign to make sure that I hit on those areas that are most important.
  3. I can use tags in game to expand the background or fill in blank areas related to the person's background.

When writing up the adventure, the GM might see the Wizard for Hire, and get the idea that Cortana is the Wizard's rival in the academy and looked down on him for selling his skills and is trying to get him thrown out by framing him. He's just a mercenary after all, so anyone would believe that he killed the councilman for pay.

When running down hints on the charges leveled against him and their origins, the wizard might say "I have friends in low places- Gerard used to run with me and stayed around when I changed circumstances. If anyone knows how I might have been framed, he would."

You can also use them to infer things just by their presence. For example, when playing, the GM might look at the "I learned on the streets," and since that's a major part of the background- the streets know him also, and a gutter snipe that recognized him from when he lived there might approach him because of that with a key piece of information.

By using them in this way, I focus on what's most important to the PCs, and make it relevant to them as protagonists.

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Find the interesting or salient points of each background story and put them in your campaign / adventure. These could be people, places, or things. If it makes sense, the same person, place, or thing could be matched to more than one PC's background info point, or points from multiple PC backgrounds could be combined into a single setting. For instance, the tavern where PC #1 used to frequent to pick up the ladies could feature as the meeting place for the party and some particular NPC. That particular NPC might be a person from PC #2's background. And so on.

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As discussed in the comments on your question, there are two broad ways to answer this question. The equally broad answer to both is to examine how ensemble cast stories in TV, movie, and book series handle character backstories. Then decide which of the two methods you want to use.

Option 1: Integrate all the characters' backstories into a single overarching plot

In this version, all the characters' backstories are somehow tied together into a single storyline. This is generally very difficult to do unless you and your players specifically plan for it. Otherwise, it ends up feeling like a series of (often very contrived) coincidences that happen to somehow tie all the characters together. This may not be a bad thing, depending on the genre you're going for - it works well in suspense, horror, and/or mystery, where the focus of the story is the suspense or mystery surrounding the characters' connected histories. (I believe this is how Lost worked, though I haven't watched more than the first two seasons so I'm not sure.) In your standard fantasy or sci-fi story, however, it's likely to just feel awkward or forced.

If you want to go this route, and you don't want the focus of the story to be the players discovering all the ways they're unexpectedly connected, then plan character connections in advance with your players. Make sure that each character has some link to one or more of the other characters, and work with the players to craft backstories that both suit your end goal and have hooks you can exploit to get there.

Option 2: Each character's backstory is integrated into the broader story, but not necessarily at the same time.

This is what you most often see in ensemble cast stories. For example, in both the Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the main characters' backstories all play important roles at some point or another, but not all at the same time, and not all for the same plotline. Han Solo's history with Jabba, for example, has nothing to do with the end goal of stopping Darth Vader and the Empire, but it still has a major effect on the overall story, since Luke and Leia have to spend time and resources rescuing him. Likewise, in PotC, Jack Sparrow's history with Davy Jones has no tangible effect in the first movie, but drives the plot of the second. Will Turner's relationship with his father Bootstrap drives the story of the first movie, as it's his blood needed for the curse, but comes back in the second and third movies to be relevant in smaller ways that aren't tied directly to the main goal.

To achieve a similar effect in an RPG, find little ways to weave in parts of the characters' backstories here and there. Drop small hints and teasers of various characters' backstories early on, but don't push it (perhaps an enemy they've killed, as he dies, says to the paladin, "Just... like... your father"). The players may or may not pursue these small hints; follow their lead. If they do, great - you can now send them on a quest to find out how the villain knew the paladin's father. If they don't pursue the hints, then open up one of the hints into a full-blown plot that's tied closely to the players' current goals.


In a game I recently finished, we had a bard, a rogue, a swordmage, and a pair of assassin twins. The bard's story drove the plot at first, as she sought a better home for her people - but this meant going on a quest for which she needed the rogue's family's resources. The assassin twins joined the group on a mission to kill the bard (a mission drawn from their own backstory), but scuttled those plans when they discovered they actually kind of liked her. The swordmage had an on-again off-again side quest to become ruler of his clan and protect his village; this became plot-relevant later in the game when we needed an army and the swordmage was able to summon his clan to our assistance.

In that game, none of our backstories were directly related to the overarching plot, which involved stopping Lolth from taking over the world. But all of us had times - sometimes just a moment or two, sometimes a full side quest - when our backstories were extremely relevant to what we were doing at that moment. This isn't a "one adventure per character" setup - you can weave parts of multiple characters' histories into the same plotline, addressing this pair of characters here and that trio of characters there. If your fighter is from a family of merchants, allow him to use his contacts to advance a plot related to goods or travel. If your bard and your wizard are from the same city, set a plotline in that city and weave in their families. When they come back to that city later, have their favorite (or least favorite) NPCs greet them. And so on.

Your characters live in the world of your game. As such, bits and pieces of their histories will naturally become relevant as they move through the various plotlines - but not all at once, and not necessarily to drive the main story.

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Situation plus a loaded question or two

I like to start with a set situation - "The king is dead. 3 heirs vie for the throne. How are you involved in this?" Then I ask a few loaded questions - "One of the heirs is directly responsible for your sister nearly dying. Who and why?" These aren't set in stone - a player might completely object, but it gives us a starting point and usually gives me motivations to work with.

Improvising, not planning specific events

The PCs have motivations, now I make NPCs with motivations too. Then I just use the NPC motivations to drive what happens next. I don't prep a lot of "what should happen" or branching options - maybe the PCs come up with a very reasonable argument/angle and turn an enemy into an ally, etc.

Simply by focusing on the NPCs who interact with the player's situations the most, it naturally brings their backstories into play. Have their family/mentors/friends be helpful, not just kidnap material. Then they'll WANT to interact with them more and keep them around.

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Its difficult to actually say "how to" on such a broad and subjective subject, so I want to try to answer the question the other way around - "how not to".

  • First of all, dont use short meaningless background. Ive had a lot of players for whom creating their background story was just a chore, and trying to tie those "stories" to my capmpaigns was a pain and ultimately a failure. If a player makes up a story "My village was attacked by orcs, Im the sole survivor, and a wanderer and mercenary ever since", you might try to introduce the orc warboss who lead that raid, but from my experience, that serves nothing. If the player isnt emotionally invested in his story, using it useless.

  • Dont kill your PC's family and dont destroy his home. Many players avoid introducing any kind of things their characters are attached to, as for many GMs that just a weak spot to be used. Players know that their beloved Grandma will be alwyas attacked/kidnapped/killed by the GameMaster, they know their home will be burnt to the ground and their wives raped. Thats why they avoid making those part of their character. Dont do that! Allow your players to introduce such background details and DONT you dare destroy them. If your team's rogue steals a ring somewhere, describe it as "one your wife would love to have". Maybe the player wont sell it, but send it as a gift for his wife! Make a quest for the team's warrior to return to his village every once in a while, give out some of the earned goods, build a new barn and buy two new horses for his stable. Make him feel safe there, let the team patch up and heal their wounds undisturbed. Such things will encourage the players to flesh out their characters. You dont have to mix their backgrounds with the main plot - use them as a background!

  • Dont let the players make stories without people other that their character. Many players write their background stories CV-style. They dont want to tell a story but to explain where their character acquired all their awesome gear and learnt all those stunning skillsets. Those CV stories usually consist mostly of "Ive been there, done that" sentences. Make the players put at least some NPC in their stories! You worked as an accountant? Where? Tell me about your boss. You were a mercenary? For whom and where you fought? Who was your superior? Did you have a drill instructor you particlarly liked/disliked? Did you make some war friendships during that time? With whom? What was he like? Such player-provided NPC could lend a helping hand to the team, show up with some news from time to time, ocassionaly they may need the players help. Just remember to stick to the second rule and dont go on a killing spree.

  • Dont allow for characters without motivation. Have the player make up backround stories that clearly define their characters motivation. Ive had many players who said "well, my character travels/looks for adventures cause he'd always been an outcast/always did that/has a restless spirit." Boring! The motivation does not always have to have a dramatic cause. Maybe the team knights father was a real lord, and our character wanted to make a name for his own, not living off his father's renown? Or maybe his father was useless and laughed at, let his family name lose all respect? Those could be also small scale motivations. A character's family may have been poor, so now he has a weird manner of eating whenever and as much as possible. This is small, but a skillfull GM can use it to make some interesting twists, scenes or details. Having the motivations for characters makes creating a story so much easier. Characters dont go to purge the Evils Den just because a farmer their dont care about asked them to. Maybe its one of the players dream to resurrect the gallant and chivalrious knight in todays grim and selfish reality? All this can be found in good backround stories.

That would be it, at least from the top of my head right now. Maybe Ill add some later, but I think those are some good pointers for a start. The thing is, its hard to tel how to use a story without knowing that particular story, so I focused on having good stories. Once you have them, ideas will pop to your head themselves!

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"Dont kill your PC's family and dont destroy his home": I disagree. I would rather say: do this only sparingly, and where it makes sense in the story. If you kill off every PC dependent, it's a tired trick, and a source of player frustration. If you do it once, it can make a story arc. You also have to judge the maturity of your players when deciding whether or not to do this. (In an old Shadowrun game, I used this trick just once - to establish a personal vendetta between the PCs and the main villain.) –  RMorrisey May 12 '13 at 14:38

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