I'm starting a campaign with a few of my friends pretty soon, and I'm going to be DMing. I wanted to find a way to really ground their characters into the world and get to know them, so I think I may start them all off separately (as in having them meet each each other after a short segment with their character exclusively).

I hope that by possibly doing this, I could let them each have a few minutes for everyone else in the party to get to know them and what kind of person their character is, and establish them as part of the world.

Is this a good idea, or should I be wary?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you DMed at all before? And for how long have you been playing? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented May 26, 2022 at 22:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have DMed before, but this is my first time DMing a full campaign. I've only done one-shots. I've been playing for around three years. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 26, 2022 at 22:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Note that you should generally only ask one question per post; in your case, none of your questions are necessarily dependent on the answer to the others. In addition, requests for idea generation generally aren't allowed here, as they're primarily opinion-based; there's no way to choose a single "best" answer, as all answers are equally valid. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented May 26, 2022 at 23:52
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Overall, I think if you focus on asking about the issue you're facing directly, then it'll make for a better question; if you clarify what goal/outcome you're trying to accomplish, the answers can explain the best way to do so (supported by experience or other evidence). In this case, you say you want to "really ground their characters into the world" – how will starting them separately will help do that? (And what do you mean by "starting them separately"? Do you mean individual 1-on-1 sessions, or do you just mean their characters don't know each other at the start of the campaign?) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented May 26, 2022 at 23:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be sure I answer the question you're asking: You're picturing this as happening as (part of) the first session of a traditional face-to-face game where all the players are present? (A virtual tabletop would be equivalent.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented May 27, 2022 at 2:18

5 Answers 5


It's probably fine

Not all players will want this. I've had players who didn't like "being in the spotlight" -- they preferred to tag along with the party and not make major decisions.

The usual problem with splitting the party is that the players whose characters aren't present will get bored. This is less of an issue if you're doing it at the start of the adventure and it's clear you're not going to make a habit of it.

You'll probably get a better result if you contact your group before the game and say: "Hello, we're going to introduce all your characters with spotlight scenes. Do you want me to do this for you? If so, what sort of scene should we do?" This will let them plan in advance.

In a campaign where I did this, I met with each player separately before the game to do their spotlight scene. It wasn't perfect, because I included a small amount of combat in each scene, and some characters were better able to handle that than others. I think your approach of not including combat will be better.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This was very helpful! Thank you! \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 27, 2022 at 3:10

Backstory spotlights are great

Giving your players an opportunity to play out some of their backstory is a brilliant way to really ground them into the world. The players I've done this with have consistently created characters with greater depth and become more involved in narrative I'm telling.

Consider waiting a bit

I don't believe that before the first session is the best time to run these spotlights however. My reason is that characters often change over the first few sessions after they join the table. Not because of in-game things like dying but because the ideas the player has before starting play don't always translate perfectly to the character they created.

Sometimes players want to change something mechanical about their character (e.g. stats, class/subclass, proficiencies), but more often they change things about the character personality or tweak details of the backstory to better suit the way they are actually playing them at the table.

Therefore my approach is to run these kind of spotlight sessions after the game has been going for a few sessions. This gives time for the players to finish forming the character, but not so much time that things brought up in the spotlight would have major consequences for the establish canon.

Running the spotlight

As for actually running these sessions you have a few options. These are equally valid whether you run before the first session or follow my advice above.

  1. One-on-one at the table.

    The approach you suggest where you play out a short scene in front of the rest of the group. I find this approach can limit the time you can spend in the individual scenes. It also can be stressful for the players that don't enjoy the spotlight, leading to less meaningful roleplay and character development.

  2. One-on-one privately.

    Get together with the players individually away from your usual sessions. This is a good approach and solves most of the issues with the first option, however it is a bit time commitment from the DM to organise and run so many sessions.

  3. One-on-one via text.

    This is my preferred option that I use with my players. Instead of the pressure of a scheduled time for this spotlight, I engage with the player asynchronously via text chat. I don't really care about the mechanics as this is a purely narrative character-building exercise. This gives them time to consider their answers and how their character would be shaped by this experience.

Picking the Scene

To have the appropriate narrative weight for these scenes, it's important to choose the right moment from a character's backstory to play out. It's tempting to just run the moments that lead up to them joining the party but in my experience that isn't always that compelling.

Instead I try to pick out the moments of highest tension from the backstory. A good default is the moment the character decides to become an adventurer or leaves home for the first time. Some example scenes I've run for my players:

  • My fey-foundling gnome player taking a brief journey into the feywild to retrieve an artefact (their weapon) as a favour to a friendly archfey. The scene ends when the archfey fails to make their rendezvous, leading the player to leave home and go out looking for them.
  • The fight where my blood domain cleric stepped in to save an innocent man, in the process killing for the first time and getting banished for use of forbidden blood magic.
  • My wizard player fleeing a burning library as the university that was his home is destroyed by unknown dark forces.

Each of these scenes set up important character motivations for my players. They also allowed me to plant specific information and details in these scene that weren't part of the backstory my players had written, setting up plot-hooks for later in the game.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Something that can sometimes work well for "One-on-one at the table" is if you allow the other players to take the roles of "supporting characters"/NPCs in the spotlighted player's intro scene. (For example, if the introductory scene is taking place in a bar, then the other players might take the role of the bartender or fellow bar patrons.) This gives the players something to do and a reason to pay attention to what's happening. Of course, this only works if the players are interested in this sort of thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented May 29, 2022 at 21:24

If a backstory was interesting, it would be the story

Frame challenge … obviously.

The best expositions are those that emerge through the game.

That can mean that the PCs are “blank slates” and that the point of the game is to see who these characters become and were not really interested in who they are.

It can also mean that the characters do have a history but that it gets shared (if it does) in the way that normal people share their past: through normal interaction. The guy at the party who insists on telling strangers their entire life story? That’s a creepy and boring guy to avoid.

You can also play characters who don’t know their own backstory. It can emerge through play or never emerge. It can be known to another player or made up later on.

Think about Star Wars A New Hope (and only that film):

R2-D2 and C-3PO are blank slates - they have no backstory. So is Luke in the context of this first adventure. They all have backstories that are revealed (indeed created) later.

Obi-Wan has a backstory: he’s a Jedi and he fought in Clone Wars with Luke’s father. And that is literally all there is in this adventure.

Han has a backstory: he owes someone nasty a lot of money. However, we don’t get that as an exposition dump - we get it through playing the scene with Greedo.


Fine In Theory

What you're specifically proposing is fine in theory, but in my experience it's of limited utility and much harder to pull off in practice than you might think.

But I want to be clear this is a specific reaction to your "Five minutes as a teaser," idea, and the big difficulty is the amount of time. Five minutes is just not, in my opinion, enough time to establish much of anything. I don't think it's enough to establish much of anything beyond the basics of a background, and it's going to be very hard to establish a real sense of personality in that time, because in RPGs, personality is established through interactions with the NPCs/world and through meaningful choices.

Can you, in five minutes, establish a character's background, establish some NPCs, set up a meaningful decision, and let them make and act on that decision?

Maybe. It's not impossible.

Can you do it four or five times in a row in the same session, without scripting? I'm skeptical.

Can you do that in a way that all puts them in the same scene together at the end? Now I'm really skeptical.

I've done things like this in table top RPGs, but very sparingly and only in nearly optimal conditions, like, "This PC has amnesia, and therefore no real backstory, and is going to crash onstage at the start of the game." And it still took me more than five minutes with that player.

The Tension Of The Clock

The tension of the clock is what you're really fighting, here, because the next thought for me would be, "Well... okay, more than five minutes then." But here's the thing-- that extra time gets multiplied by the number of PCs you have in your game. If you need half an hour each and you have four players, you've talked yourself into a session where all the players have a half an hour of inactivity at the beginning.

And God help you if the third player does something weird and unanticipated that keeps you from smoothly weaving all the players into the same scene at the end of them. If you're not pre-scripting the scene, that's a very real risk. And if you are, then... why are you playing through it?

It's not a bad idea in theory. But my experience is that, the way you've proposed it, the clock will be pulling you in opposite directions.

Adjacent ideas that I've tried or been part of include:

  • Running special one-shot mini adventures for players before the game starts. Took me about 2-3 hours each player (this was when we all had oceans of free time) and it loosened a lot of the constraints. But it didn't fulfill what I think you want the most-- establishing each PC in the minds of the other players. It only served to let the player develop the PC a little bit before the main game.

  • In the context of e-mail games (i.e., not 5e at all) I've found that starting the players off separately, in their own e-mail threads, can work very well. The benefit here is that, when I run e-mail games, everyone can read everyone else's thread, and they can run concurrently. Pacing and agency can still be a bit of a problem, but I've been doing this a long time and I'm confident of my ability to weave things together when I'm not on a deadline. But this is not 5e.


There is no big risk with this

I do not see any big risk in doing what you plan. It is pretty common during play that characters have screen time alone, no matter if it is the rogue scouting, the wizard scrying, or the cleric negotiating some healing potion acquisition with the local temple.

The main risk with one player playing while the others sit on the sidelines is that some may get bored if they are not involved. It need not be an issue, some players are fine with this. For example, in our group the others sometimes dial in to my 1-on-1 sessions with the DM we set to not waste gameday time on Arcance Eye. So check with your players.

A secondary issue is that some players are content to quietly go along with the party and not make too much of their character, so they may not be that much into this, and you may not get a colorful characterization out of it anyways. It may be better and more effective to just have them describe their character as is usually done. Again check with your players.

It is possible that you do this to introduce a common enemy to them that each of them experiences individually, and that gives them motivation to work together. I think that actually is a nifty idea, but it may be simpler to just do that narratively when you create their back story with them, or run a separate one-on-one session with each one.


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