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Me and some friends are organizing a DW game right now with most of us being completely new to tabletop RPG (including me, the GM) and I think I made a mistake while we were establishing their bonds.

Right so, we have a friend that tends to pick Ranger/Archer in every RPG we play together (specially because she likes to have a wolf as animal companion) but she didn't confirm if she was going to play with us until someone had chosen and built their Ranger (coincidentally, he chose a wolf as companion). She then proceeded to build a Thief and decided to "have a disagreement" with said Ranger as a bond.

While building this bond they started to link pretty much all of their background around it, which was fun for both of them and helped build a lot of the initial world. She decided that her parents died to him and he decided that it was because of bad management (her parents were nobles with lands) of the village he grew up at that eventually brought death to people he loved.

THIS is when things got complicated. I asked why her parents would neglect to help his village but neither her nor him came to an idea on it that clicked for them, until I suggested that it could be motivated by race as he is an Elf and she is a Changeling. They both agreed to it at first but after I described some things that her parents did while managing their lands (like deforesting, blocking rivers etc.) she seemed a bit sad about the fact that their parents sounded like villains. She agreed to it but she REALLY gets into her characters and we could feel that she was sad about it.

I then told her that they weren't all that bad people as everyone living in her city was happy, their servants were treated like family and they never tried to teach their own racism into her etc. The ranger even said that they weren't bad per se to them (like tyrants), just didn't care.

So, my question is, did I made a mistake here while trying to build? And should player's parents and their actions/personality be something decided entirely by them?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Remember you don't need to have all the answers from the start. PCs have limited perspective, you could simply not know why the problem occured. \$\endgroup\$
    – user77842
    Aug 5 at 3:56

3 Answers 3

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The rulebook says:

Take some time to discuss the bonds and let the GM ask questions about them as they come up. You’ll want to go back and forth and make sure everyone is happy and comfortable with how the bonds have come out. Leave space to discover what each one might mean in play, too: don’t pre-determine everything at the start.

This suggests two things:

  1. The GM can ask questions, but the rules don't let the GM just dictate the player's background.

    So, you could have reasonably said: "What sort of things did her parents do while managing their lands? Was it, like, deforesting, or blocking rivers?" – but you probably shouldn't have said: "Okay, and your parents were deforesting and blocking rivers."

  2. It's okay to leave parts of the background to discover in play. If you discovered that not all players were happy with a given development, you can just leave it to be specified later.

    For example, you might say: "Okay, so maybe there was a rumor that her parents were deforesting and blocking rivers? But she thinks that couldn't be true – the parents she knows wouldn't do something like that."

    And then you have a conflict, where both characters believe the thing their player said, and perhaps somewhere down the line the Truth Can Be Revealed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, that makes a lot of sense. I'll talk to them to see if they prefer to leave her parent's reason blank for now and they may come to it during the game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ohto Ai
    Aug 4 at 16:30
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Bonds are about the future, not the past.

Specifically, they're about the future where the person who wrote the bond decides that the bond has resolved, marks XP, and writes another one. Maybe it's progressed beyond its definition. Maybe it's no longer relevant and being replaced by another concern. But without some kind of idea how the bond might be used or tested, that future's never going to happen.

When you ask about a bond, you should be thinking about its future, and you should be open with your players that you're thinking about the future - they're the ones who get paid for playing the bond out, after all. Asking about its future is how you get the information you can use.

Keep the idea of future-facing bonds ticking over in your brain, because the question of how much you the GM should be defining is much broader and also quite important.

How Much You The GM Should Be Defining

As far as character creation goes, you've actually got a lot of control over how narrowly or how broadly you're willing to define acceptable player backstories. "You're all siblings who set out to make your separate ways in the world, being called back to Great-Aunt Teresa's estate in your hometown for the reading of her will." to "You're a company of freebooters in Dis, the parasite city at the nexus of realities. You came together by chance and can be literally anyone from literally anywhere." (Nonetheless, always be willing to take some player pushback on this, especially with narrow backstories - can I be a cousin? sure. can I be adopted? heck yeah.)

But, as you might suspect, when you define a narrow grouping of backstories, you're doing it because you have a plot structure in mind for those backstories to play into. Something in Great-Aunt Teresa's will is going to turn into the chaos of the first session, and your family history - not even necessarily with each other, but the rest of the family who are also there - will be an important component to the goings-on. Whereas in the Dis case, you the GM can open the first session with an odd job pointed in any possible direction, not following up on anybody's backstories necessarily but also not needing them in order to get the adventure going.

And that's really the key to how much of a player backstory you should be defining as the GM - how much do you need in order to get the adventure going?

The Principles At Work

To guide you here, there are two complementary principles: (from the list of GM principles, here on the repo) draw maps, leave blanks and ask questions and use the answers.

Draw maps, leave blanks is written to sound like it's just about physical maps: "When you draw a map don't try to make it complete. Leave room for the unknown. As you play you'll get more ideas and the players will give you inspiration to work with." But really, this applies to pretty much everything you're writing down for later use. Don't try to make it complete! Making it complete just fixes it in place, and it's anyone's guess if that fixed-in-place thing is going to apply wherever the players find themselves later. If you leave it blank, there's still no guarantee you will be able to bring it in, but you're working within the limits of possibility, which are much wider than the one thing you wrote down. But how do you know when to stop writing?

That's the job of the second principle: ask questions and use the answers. Or, contrarily, when you can't use the answers, or don't expect to, don't ask questions. It can be hard for a player to come up with answers to questions, especially when they're questions that player wasn't expecting to be asked. Don't make them do all that work just to throw it away! Before you ask a question to your players, first ask yourself: how am I going to use this? If you don't have an answer, then leave it unknown. It's fine to leave things unknown!

The principle also holds true for answers and details that you're providing yourself, that don't seem appropriate to ask anyone about -- well, other than yourself, of course.

...and how to work your principles.

You can see then, why in general it's much more acceptable for you to ask about a bond's future than it is about the past. The future is the part of the bond that will always see use. The past might also inform that, but especially once you've already asked for some detail from the past, judge for yourself if you really need more information to know how the bond's going to resolve.

This isn't to say you should never ask after the past! There are lots of other reasons you might want to use the past than just seeing how the bonds resolve. Asking bond questions is a chance to build out the rest of the world, too. If you're planning the first session to be set in, say, the violent chaos of people trying to fill the power vacuum left behind by a certain couple of landed nobles, the past's going to be a lot more important to that setting... but since you're playing there, it's also just as important to leave something unknown for play to determine.

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First of all: Make mistakes and be proud of them - it's how you learn.

As a GM you should not decide on a character's background, maybe with the exception of setting limits that your campaign needs, such as "everyone has to be from region X".

You did right by asking them first and only when they had no idea offering your own. You could have worded them differently, not as "ok, here's how it is" but more along the lines of "well, it could have been this maybe, or that" offering at least two alternatives for each decision, so that the players still have at least a choice to make.

It sounds like you got a bit too much drawn into an idea you had there and let it run wild, instead of giving the control back to the players after the initial suggestion ("make it about race") that they happily accepted. One of the difficult things about being a GM is knowing when to step back and just let something run its course. This happens during adventures as well - you know the NPC will do X that is vital to the story, but the characters are bantering about something, or investigating something totally irrelevant, and you feel the need to railroad them back to the plot - and yet you shouldn't. As long as they enjoy whatever they're doing, even if it is meaningless for the adventure, let it run.

Now if they get stuck and don't know what to do, that's when the GM needs to step up to move the story forward. That's what you did there, with your suggestions. But then you need to hand the reins to the players again. It's a bit like running combat - describe what the NPCs are doing, then let the players act. Same here: Give them an idea to get them "unstuck" and then let them continue on their own from there. If they are stuck again, help them out, but only as much as is needed.

Silence is terrible and most of us want to fill it. But around a gaming table, it's important to feel if that silence is uncomfortable and everyone is waiting for it to end, or if people are silent because they're thinking and their creative mind is coming up with something right now and shouldn't be interrupted.

All that comes with experience, so don't sweat it. For a first session, I think that was pretty good - your players ended up with backstories and a meaningful link, and what mistakes were made can always be worked around, fixed later or even retconned.

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