In an upcoming game I have an NPC whom I've picked from a previous game. The NPC in question has already had an interesting background, and was evolved from the endgame state to suit the new campaign better. As of current, this NPC has a backstory, history of meaningful interaction with players of the previous game, changes and developments in the time between and its own reason to be in the new campaign. I do consider both campaigns happening in the same timeline, even though after a 2-3 year timeskip and in a different location.

The problem is, none of my current players participated in the previous campaign. How can I best capitalise on the wealth of background available to me in a way that will bring the most entertainment to the group? I am reluctant to kill my darlings and just treat the NPC as any other new one, so when you estimate the optimal Gross Entertainment Product™ include my own joy of working with this favourite NPC as well.

  • \$\begingroup\$ First and foremost, are you sure you should do this? Usually a game is a story about PCs, not NPCs. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 3 '18 at 7:52

Make his backstory relevant to the plot

What is the role of this NPC in your new campaign? If the answer is something like "given what happened in the previous one, this NPC should logically be present" then it is not enough and you should either remove it from the spotlight or find better reasons as the players won't really care about this previous campaign they didn't even play. We are looking here for narrative reasons like "he will fill the role of the old hermit" or "it will be X's nemesis".

I am not telling you to force the NPC in this role independently of the evolution of the campaign, but just to have an idea of why the NPC will make the campaign better, or you will be way better just not including them.

Now you can think about how to present the backstory as facts that give an advantage to PCs from knowing them. Does it bring keys on how to progress, like the weakness to fire of a foe or the crack addiction of someone they have to bargain with, or the mention of a lost city where they can find some secondary McGuffins ? If it contains such information it is easy to make parts of the backstory told either by the NPC (as an ally, to help them achieve their goals) or by something else (someone wrote a biography about them, or an information dealer spied him because they looked suspicious). As they are looking for useful information the players will pay more attention.

So you search the library for the plans of Castle Doom? You don't find the plans, but there is in one book a chapter about an adventurer who apparently managed to escape its dungeons. He was Imprisoned because...

"Ya see this scar? 'cause of Enpeasea. What (burps), y'on't know the famous Enpeasea? 'Can't 'liev it, she's most terrible bandit 'round here. Robbed even the relic of Santa Robert, Disguy know teh full story and 'll tell ya I ain't lyin'."

No, I know we are working together but I can't let you have my ring, even just for a minute. It was a gift for a dear friend I lost during the Plague. I couldn't heal him but I can respect his vow that I will look after his ring.

Anyway you should probably not throw all the full backstory at once unless at some point the players ask for the full story. Proceed by small bits, it tastes better like that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ FYI, the raison d'etre for the NPC is to function as a stakeholder of one of the game primary issues, urging PCs to action. I like the advice re: relevance of the backstory. I have one issue though, what would you recommend when I don't really know what the story is going to be like, since the plot is player-driven? \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Dec 14 '17 at 15:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ "he will urge the players to action by insisting on the importance of the danger" for example is a valid role. He may use parts of his backstory as illustrations of how dangerous it is if he already went into a similar situation. However if the players don't need to be convinced that the threat is serious, then your NPC don't really need to do anything and I don't thing you should force its presence in your campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Dec 14 '17 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ In support of Anne Aunyme's answer (+1 btw), I usually try to craft scenarios by listing the major players and the conflict, as well as the likely spectrum of results from best to worst. If this NPC holdover is a major stakeholder in the scenario, then they should be present for the campaign. But given that this campaign is defined as player-driven, if you want/need the Players to interact with NPC or learn relevant plot points from NPC, you absolutely have to make sure there's a hook (or three) for the players to grab on to. \$\endgroup\$ – smiley trashbag Dec 19 '17 at 21:20

I find that making the NPC part of the new PCs's backgrounds works every time. Maybe not all the PCs, but a few. Especially if one of those PC has a negative view of the character and the rest have positive (or neutral) ones. It allows for many shades of grey to happen within the game, thus making it richer.

Otherwise, there are the usual dropping names and events into lore either in books or whatever you setting has to part take of knowledge. Wanted posters are great at leading PCs to make assumptions about said NPC. It does not have to be passive lore either as having other NPCs talk about said NPC and be over heard by the PCs is a good way to introduce hints. To be honest, this mimics how you learn about people in real life: books, TV, the Internet, your friends, etc …

Another thing that works well is to have a guest player turn up for one session. Ask one of your previous player to come round for one session and give them a brief to talk about said NPC. That way, you get another person's point of view which is always fun.

While I do not think you would make that mistake be careful that the NPC does not becoming the focus of the game instead of the PCs…

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