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I am about three months real time (about 4 years game time) into the campaign and they have completed the main quest line. They are really enjoying the new side quests I have for them, and the world as they know it is about to go to war. I want to bring some of their bios into the game, but cannot figure out how to do this without taking control of their pasts. My fear is I'll have to take control of their past teachers or maybe a sibling and I won't do it right, What is a better way to include their past and their bios without taking control of the characters from it?

I want to include their past, the people they once knew, the loved ones they grew up with, without controlling them directly. I want to be able to make use of their bios without controlling anyone from their past.

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One trivial answer is to kill off everyone. No matter who it is - if they're mentioned in a backstory, they're now dead in some way or another. Expect lots of mourning. –  Bobson Jun 30 at 15:53
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It's possible you're worrying for no reason. Players I know are hungry for the GM to use their background material. Have you asked your players how they feel about you controlling NPCs that they created? –  SevenSidedDie Jun 30 at 16:10
    
I have made hints at it, and they have accused me of misusing the information before. It was something like how their bio mentioned that they had always taken birds back to their nest, and when they were given a quest to give a baby dragon back to its home, she wanted to tell the parents how to take care of it. It raised a huge argument that ended with the ending of the play session. –  AngelicProgrammer Jun 30 at 16:35
    
Is it possible to let the players control these NPCs and you just make sure they don't abuse the control? Won't work if you're planning a betrayal but for minor interactions it could work –  Romojr50 Jun 30 at 16:44

4 Answers 4

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are actually a few solutions, but nearly all of them will touch upon a subject of ownership. I'll try to list a few steps that can help you feel comfortable with their past.

Talk to your players.

Privately or publicly, whichever works, unless they are not sharing they backstories. Probe and ask until you have an idea about how much they care about their backstory, how deeply it affects them as players. You are saying that until now none of them provided you with such. That hints towards your players not caring deeply about this sort of things. Sure, they might now - and that you need to find out.

Establish ownership

Even if just for yourself.

You are the owner of the world. If a backstory of one of the PCs describe a major event that nullifies the whole premise of war, would you go with it? Probably not.

Remember that you can amend backstories. Anything that would spoil your world in that 15 pages of bio? Talk to the player, explain what breaks your setting.

Do you consider backstory characters, like said teachers, families etc. NPCs or PCs henchmen? If latter, then you are effectively equipping them with a herd of supporters that the PC has mind control over. How would you establish a fratricidal feud against one of the PCs if said brother is controlled by your player?

Proceed with common sense and moderation

Your players are consenting adults, no pun intended. They are aware that during the war peaceful villages burn and it's not a GM's sadistic vendetta if it happens to their village.

Try to establish key characters, the ones that "drive" your PCs. They are the ones that you need to treat carefully. Ask your players a few generic questions about "What would your [significant character] do?". When handling those characters adhere to that, with exceptions (see next paragraph). The rest of the characters are going to have an impact on the PCs, but will most likely not break them.

Follow Situation-disturbance-resolution scheme

It's alright to drive PC's brother crazy and make him fratricidal, because he feels that PC abandoned his family (where in fact the PC was just late to the scene). Unless it's completely unreasonable, try to accomodate backstory NPCs into the story as major NPC (that you frequently act out) only if you change them in a way that represents the new status quo. That way you will be safe from acting them out wrong, but still be able to create a interesting situations

Stick and carrot

This gives you a great opportunity, especially if a player is attached to his backstory. My bet is on the PCs trying to "restore order" and "fix" the situation. This disturbance is actually much more compelling for the player that usual carrot. Ever tried to take away your archer's favourite bow? Ever threatened paladin with frown from his deity? Try, but don't go over. The idea is not that they have to lose everything. Threaten, make them uncertain. Make them consider their backstory going away without explicitly making it happen. News are the village has been pillaged. Beloved teacher once again drafted into the army and sent to the front. Brother sends a message that he deserted, now hiding. Make that something present, make the players consider that things at home are not going well, without actually executing their past. They don't care? You can play with those NPCs as much as you want. They do? Even better, take advantage.

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and remember it is not the stick and the stick :) Throw some good stuff at them too so they dont regret giving you character backgrounds –  Duncan Jun 30 at 20:10
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I would emphasize, in eimyr's answer, that those supporting characters' role in forming back story has already come and gone. If they've changed since the players have gone adventuring, well, people change. Figuring out how they have responded to unseen events is your role as a DM, so you definitely shouldn't be afraid to do it. –  AndrewK Jul 1 at 0:42

The PCs have given you their character biographies, but they won't have given you all the individual biographies of all the people they mentioned (teachers, family members, etc.).

Use the information you do have and fill in the gaps

Every name, place, event and situation mentioned in those biographies is a potential hook for you.

For example if a PC mentions that they have a sister called "Maria Breakheart", they probably won't have told you that, after the PC left home and went to the university of adventurers, Maria fell in love with a travelling wizard called Koja Drake. The reason the PC hasn't heard from his sister for three months is because she's gone gallivanting off with Koja. What the PC also forgot to mention (because they had no idea until you tell them) was that Koja is actually a double agent working for the PC's mortal enemy! Even I didn't see that coming.

You wouldn't have to take control of Maria to make an interesting quest for your group that revolves around her.

Granted, you would be making several assumptions above, but queries like "but Maria is too sensible to run off with a stranger!" could be answered with "Ah! Well Koja, the devious fiend, used a powerful charm spell on her. I hope your will is up to the task." Increase use of dominate / charm / illusion magic during quest

Even if the group manages to rescue Maria from Koja, you can gloss over having to role-play the conversation. Use an in-game montage to explain that Maria thanks the group and gives everyone a staff discount at the local bookstore.

Speak to your players

It's never a bad idea to speak to your players in advance of RPing one of their characters. If they'd rather you didn't use a particular character (unlikely), or want to give you tips on how to RP them (more likely), then you can use that to help. It's good to talk.

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This. When I give a DM my back-story, we hash out facts and they get veto power. Anything I don't put in they are free to use against me (in the name of interesting drama). –  Pulsehead Jun 30 at 17:32

Provide your players with a list of questions:

  • Who was your character's favorite teacher?
  • Why were they your character's favorite teacher?
  • Does your charachter have any siblings?
  • Are they close?

etc.

Direct the questions towards the ways you want to use them in the story, and use the answers to play them as NPCs. You might even want to think about using the questions and answers to fully create the NPCs as well.

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I have that already, I have a 15 page bio for each character and their family and their teachers and their life in the village they were from. I gave exp for a deep bio that includes all the questions listed above. –  AngelicProgrammer Jun 30 at 15:12
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@AngelicProgrammer Hmm, then I'm not understanding the question. If you have all that info, in what way are you worried about controlling the character's past? Answer me by editing your question :) –  GMNoob Jun 30 at 15:14

Houses of the Blooded has a system for establishing true things in the setting. The mechanic is called Style, and it's technically the core mechanic upon which the entire game runs. However, I see a way for it to be incorporated into your setting.

It's based on some basic improv techniques, where you never say 'no', you always say 'yes, and...'.

At the beginning of the game, every player receives a certain amount of Style. If I were playing, I could establish that my PC and another PC are cousins by giving that player a Style point. If the player, for whatever reason, doesn't want that to happen, she simply refuses the Style and we are not cousins. I could potentially offer her more Style if I wanted to. The GM can also offer Style - I once offered Style to players willing to start the game by waking up in a compromising situation.

Style is then used for a variety of other mechanical purposes, but I doubt those would be helpful in this context. Instead, try implementing a stripped down version of Style, where players can spend a point to get a minor bonus on a roll or make a social encounter go a little easier.

It seems as though your players are reluctant to surrender narrative control, and the Style system lets them retain that - they are free to accept or refuse Style as they wish, and tailor their personal backstories as they feel is fitting.

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How does this apply to the GM being the one reluctant to control their already-written backstory NPCs? –  SevenSidedDie Jul 1 at 23:38
    
Mostly thinking that if the GM is reluctant to control their backstory and is worried about getting negative feedback or resistance from players, then spreading creative control around might be a good middle ground solution. –  TeraBat Jul 3 at 0:26

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