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I like my players to have a firm idea of their characters' backstories, and I like the idea of being able to draw on these (NPCs from the past showing up unexpectedly, etc.). However, in our next campaign the PCs will be exploring uncharted seas and previously undiscovered islands far, far away from home.

How can I weave in elements of the PCs' backstories in these far-flung and exotic locations where no one they know has ever ventured?

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    \$\begingroup\$ When you say "that noone they know will have ever ventured too before," how literal did you mean that to be? Because if it is truly and totally impossible for your players' backstories to relate to their coming adventures in any way, then the only possible answer to this question must be "This is, by definition, impossible. Give up now." \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Apr 9 '18 at 11:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why must it be "no one they know will have ever ventured?" After all, Star Trek often brought in the familiar to the strange with crashed or defunct starships and crew in exotic locales after passing through wormholes, dimensional rifts, temporal rifts, etc. It was a common trope of each series, and this would serve to create ties to PC backstories. \$\endgroup\$ – Tenryu Apr 9 '18 at 11:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're right, it's not inconcievable that a relative lost at sea could turn up, through some quirk of fate, shipwrecked on a distant island. However, repeating a relatively similar development for multiple players would rather cheapen it. That's why I added this particular emphasis to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Apr 9 '18 at 12:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ How alien these exotic locations are? Is any chance something there would be familiar for PCs? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Apr 9 '18 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor I know why you ask, but I feel like answering you straddles the boarder between clarifying my question and actually providing a partial answer to it and I don't have any intention of submitting an answer myself. These locations will be very alien, but there may nonetheless be a few points of familiarity - none of them recent. Examples might include things that remind the characters of ancient legends, recognisable deities that here are known by different names, ruins of ancient civilisations similar to ruins from their own continent etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Apr 9 '18 at 17:59
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Use aspects that relate to the backstory rather that direct references to the backstory

I find that backstories are generally driven by events, personal trauma, people and objects. What you need is to push some aspect of these to the place they're visiting that each character can relate to or can use to resolve some aspect of their back story that moves/develops their character on.

Personal Trauma/Events

This can be a tricky one, and it may go over the characters head if it's too subtle or a car-crash trauma if it's too obvious; the way I've often used this is to use mirroring, presenting the character with a situation that mirrors some traumatic aspect of their history so they can relate and grow from it. Here you are fitting in a part of their history in an abstract but relatable way and that helps the character grow.

For example; when Bob the Wizard was but a young apprentice their master was kidnapped and ransomed by a Half-Orc Bandit, Bob didn't manage to get the money together to pay the ransom and never saw their master again.
Now there's two ways to do this; 1) The master turns up, but this doesn't help resolve Bob's childhood trauma, or 2) Bob meets a young boy/maid/apprentice/soldier whose master/father figure/etc has been kidnapped and a mini-plot around it helps Bob resolve some of his mental issues about losing his master by helping someone else do the same.

People and objects

This is harder; you either need to drop in an NPC (A younger sibling decides to stowaway on the ship with the Character to try and emulate them) but this is heavy handed and as you've said - only so many NPCs can pop up in exotic location - or some aspect or aid/history that the NPC needs sorting out can be resolved whilst in the exotic location - a cure for a long time disease, finding out about a rare book that the NPC would like; the important part is the NPC doesn't need to be there themselves, but some aspect of what either reminds the Character about them or something that they need/want can be bound into it and turned into a mini-plot; the book can be hard to find or bargain for, the disease requires a plant that grows inside a volcano.
Similarly with objects. If Amy the Shieldmaiden is carrying the sacred shield of her order, she could find a lost piece of info about her order, find a way to improve her shield with some kind of new material or spell.

TLDR: People are usually used to resolve or advance backstory, but aspects and ideas that relate abstractly or partially to their backstory can be used to push and develop backstory as well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Use aspects that relate to the backstory rather that direct references to the backstory THIS. Makes their adventures in new lands relate to the theme of their backstory, to their personal arc. What does this milestone mean in their journey? Don't worry if there's no aesthetic or direct connections to their past. Usually it's even better if they know nothing about it, that's an actual part of the monomyth. Wonder how the aftermath of this voyage to stranger lands will affect the backstory when (and if) they return. \$\endgroup\$ – xDaizu Apr 10 '18 at 15:51
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Ask for a travel-friendly backstory

I actually just kicked off a campaign where a requirement was that my players' backstories revolve around the idea that they were being chased in some way. The idea was that they had got so desperate to escape their past that they were willing to make a deal with a god, and that deal and its fallout is the actual plot.

One of my players chose to play a warlock and be chased by demon hunters who knew he had made a pact. The other is a skilled golem killer who accidentally stumbled into an espionage plot and got himself framed as the guilty party, and is now being hunted for high treason.

The important thing here is that their pasts explain the need for people to travel to find them. Because I asked for backstories that could travel with them, I now have a plethora of characters from their past that I can dredge up whenever I see fit.

It doesn't just have to be about chasing

There's more ways to interpret that need than just being chased; perhaps an old friend wants to join them again (and can show up for a session or two, be hopelessly underleveled and need to be sent home) or tales of the party have spread and someone who lost touch a while ago is vaguely in the area and decides to seek them out. Maybe they're the only one that can do X and people will travel for that skill.

The trick is simply to put the onus of the issue on your players, not on you. Explain that you want their backstories to be relevant and push for plot hooks you can use. Let them decide what direction they want to take things.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Another example is that instead of your character being chased, perhaps your character was doing the chasing (You're a bounty hunter, a debt collector, an archaeologist, etc who is traveling to track a person or thing - the person/thing you are trying to find could come up, as could others who also want to find them, thus pulling your backstory with you). \$\endgroup\$ – Doc Apr 9 '18 at 18:08
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Nobody venturing there before doesn't mean nobody will venture there after. However once somebody has opened the path, you can simply have their backstory catch up to them. Mapping and exploration takes time, and there are a lot possible reasons why somebody would follow a nephew/cousin/friend/guild member to uncharted lands. They could be running from something (after all, is there a better place to disappear than the unknown seas?), they could be looking for treasure or trade (new markets and untouched jungle cities full of gold, or just lost artifacts), or they could simply try to imitate the success of the PCs (because who doesn't like mooching off a successful relative?).

It might not be feasible to pull something like this in the first few In-Game weeks/months, but depending on their backstory people can show up for a multitude of reasons, all connected to the PCs in some way (even if not, your players will assume they are). This gives you some nice themes to play around with (trusting in NPCs, exporting conflict far from the homeland, fleeing criminals, exploiting nature, basebuilding, etc.), even if the number of backstory NPCs will be limited.

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Use Trinkets

Player's handbook P.159 specifically suggests that new characters might have a trinket, "a simple item lightly touched by mystery". Several of these imply strange, distant places:

  • "A gold coin minted in an unknown land"
  • "A diary written in a language you don’t know"
  • "The deed for a parcel of land in a realm unknown to you"
  • "An indecipherable treasure map"
  • "An iron holy symbol devoted to an unknown god"

The backstory could be as simple as their parent/mentor leaving them a strange object when they died, and their investigations have pointed them towards the area of your campaign; or they could invent something more complicated. If a player wants to use this, you could let them choose a trinket, or have them roll on a restricted list of items (perhaps including some you invent yourself).

It might seem contrived and samey if every player does this, but combined with other ideas on this page you can have lot of plot hooks to choose from.

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Have the backstory be the why, and maybe the how. Also give them a reason to go home.

Example 1: A relative has been poisoned with some exotic poison and the character accepted the voyage to faroffdistantland because it brings them closer to being able to find the antidote.

Example 2: In an earlier adventure I defeated some cultists from the cultofabeingfromfaraway and I have ventured to faroffdistantland to complete my quest to rid the world of this cult and the being from far away as bidden by the lord of my order to whom I have vowed always to serve.

This way you can give some motivations to the character for being there and for returning to the world even if they find Eldorado and become kings of the city of gold.

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If they are like me, they will create a tragic backstory and it'll be a situation where you can play upon things from their backstory.

Examples:

My character had their family killed by a packing of marauding goblins. Throw a bunch of goblins in front of them.

I was raised by the temple of _____ and I owe my life to them after my family was killed. Have a missionary form the temple of _____ be out somewhere and in danger

You're looking to do callbacks to things from their life without it being directly part of their life. It doesn't have to be their long lost great uncle out there who took car of them as a child but then mysteriously disappeared, it can be someone else who had a family member mysteriously disappear. Even if it isn't the exact same thing, you create the similarities and the bonds that the characters already have in their backstories. It creates a world that feels familiar and foreign to your players.

You can even do the twist on it, maybe it's a scenario that something is supposed to happen and everyone expects it, except your PC's because it's similar to something that happened in their life, it allows you to show how foreign something is to them and how different and exotic the world is. Don't over use that idea, but every once in a while to reminder the players that they aren't in Kansas anymore would be interesting twist on things.

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I've been dealing with this in a very long pirate campaign where the PCs have gone from the place they started out and have gone to unknown islands and now thousands of miles south. Here's how you keep their backplots in play.

First - make sure they know the conceit of the campaign before they start, so their backstory can take it into account. This puts the PCs into working on the problem instead of you. Maybe one of the PCs is an import from the lost islands and can serve as the party's guide (to that one island of 100 of course). Maybe one's magic teacher has a weird disease and the silver lotus that cures it is rumored to be out in the islands. Trap #1 of DMing is turning incorporating backplots and bringing parties together and all that into YOUR problem. Instead, turn it into the PLAYERS' problem. They actually like that better.

Second - remember backplot isn't about people, places, and things, it's about motivation. Sure, someone they know being there can be motivation. In my campaign, there's one bad guy with a price on his head who skedaddled on a ship out that direction that qualifies. Or having been there - one PC found traces of his father, also a pirate and adventurer, in one far-flung island dungeon. But maybe they just want you to go there - one PC is geased by a ghost to go out there and kill someone. Or, they have a skald on board who was charged by a Viking queen to go spread word of her prowess "as far in that cardinal direction as there are men." Some of the pirates are wanted men and don't mind going way away from where they're wanted. Some are ex-slaves that want to go far away from where they were slaves. And so on.

But third - motivation is also more general. Backplot is what makes characters what they are. Lust for gold. Daddy issues. Hopes and fears and so forth. Even if none of the "proper nouns" from their backstory show up, you should look beyond those to understand their underlying goals - wealth, conquest, fame, love, helping people, whatever. You can always work those in. The PC who was a refugee from a burned village, you don't have to bring in "the reavers who burned her village" - you can bring in other reavers burning other people's villages, works the same.

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Use background experiences to let characters be cool

Specifically, put in content that's designed to target weaknesses in a character's build, mechanically, but which a character could help with due to their backstory.

Examples:

  • One of your PCs might have grown up in a small fishing village as an apprentice woodcutter. Despite the fact that they lack proficiency in water vehicles, you can tell them that they recognize the discoloration in the water as similar to their hometown, where a dangerous reef was concealed off-shore. While they aren't any better at bypassing the reef, they get to be aware of the danger it presents and can try to convince the party to avoid sailing into treacherous waters unprepared.

  • One of your PCs might have been expelled from a class on the fundamentals of necromancy while studying in wizard school. Despite the fact they suck at both necromancy and melee combat in general, you might inform them that the monster they are facing appears to have been animated with the exact same mistakes that got them expelled from school, and it'll probably explode violently if someone bumps it in the kidney.

  • One of your PCs might have written a 5 part treatise on the ecology of the owlbear. Despite the fact they know nothing of magic, they might recognize a name on a centuries-old scroll discussing the finer points of transmutation as the legendary mad wizard some people think responsible for the beast's creation.

These work even better if, in addition to providing the targeted player a moment to shine, they are encouraged to draw another party member in as well to coordinate their abilities.

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