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My players have recently expressed a desire to have more of their backstories incorporated into the plot but also they have brought up in their request a different game by another DM that we were all players in. That game was entirely centred around PCs' backstories and goals and they all disliked it because (and these are their quotes) “it felt artificial, like everything that goes on in the world revolves around us and like there were no other forces throughout the world setting things into motion”.

In case this is relevant, we are playing D&D 5e and the campaign is Rime of the Frostmaiden, with some content added or expanded on. I have already been trying to include their backstories, albeit in very minor ways and mostly just for flavour, without any meaningful connection to the story. What are some ways of including the PCs’ backstories and goals in such a way that they tie to the story and feel significant but without making it feel “like it’s all just about them”?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have they already determined their backstories? Perhaps they could choose them with some guidance that would tie them together more naturally. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Nov 16, 2022 at 0:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mary Yes, they've chosen the backstories, this is mid-game \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 16, 2022 at 9:05

3 Answers 3

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Craft backstories that let the player drive, and prepare a rewarding resolution

A practial way that has worked well for me is to have backstories that let the player actively pursue them (or not), instead of the entire world turning around them. Ideally, their backstories also tie in to a specific location, faction or episode of the campaign.

This way they will not be in the spotlight all the time, but they can make the backstory matter when they want, you can feed into it, and when that section of the adventure comes around, they will be able to resolve some of those threads, both achieving closure, and freeing them from being entirely defined by their backstory.

A classical example is a character searching for a lost person or item. In one campaign, one of my players had a barbarian who was questing to find her lost father. This always gave them something to do, asking around if someone had seen the father, but it was pro-active by the player. And from time to time, they would meet someone who had. Eventually, they caught up on the high seas, where he was the captain of a pirate longship that was in the process of assaulting the party, and after cessation of hostilities and a happy family reunion (with lots of mead, of course) that backstory arc was closed and they had a new ally faction.

Another example is a character with a goal, in our current campaign, one of the players is a cleric of Selune, and we know that somewhere in the bowels of the huge dungeon we are exploring, there is a temple to Shah, and his mission is to find and destroy it. This is not something that hogs the plot, but every now and then he finds some information that will help him with the big task. And when we reach the temple, he will have closure.

These have served us well in allowing the DM to tie the character into the world, without dominating the game. A backstory where the character is the chosen one that will save the world is much more problematic, for example if the character either dies early on, or even more so if the player loses interest in the character and wants to play another one.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 bonus of this approach is that if a character dies/leaves then it doesn't break the entire plot - it's entirely up to the remaining and/or new characters whether they choose to pursue the departed character's quest to honour their memory or just let it slide. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 18, 2022 at 3:27
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Think hook, not fish.

The simplest way to do this is to incorporate backstory details into your "adventure hook". Instead of the meat of the adventure (the fish, so to speak) centering on the character's back stories, leverage backstory details at the beginning of a story arc as a way to lead the player characters into the story, without making the story really about those backstory details. There are lots of ways to do this, and as long as the character's backstory isn't immediately adjacent to the story, it's easy enough to do.

Backstory characters as quest givers.

This is an easy and simple way to work character backstory into adventure hooks: have an NPC from the characters past serve as a quest giver, patron, or employer to the party. This gives a point of reference for a character to relate the primary content of the story to their history, while keeping some distance between the story and the backstory.

Make backstory conflict a symptom of the larger scale problems.

This one will bring the backstory a bit closer to the main story, at least in the beginning. Backstories typically feature some kind of conflict, and we can leverage that conflict to lead us into the larger scale problems we are typically trying to solve as adventurers. Instead of focusing the story on solving a character's backstory problems, make those problems into a small scale symptom of whatever large scale conflict is going on. This is the approach taken in the introduction to Rime of the Frostmaiden, where it lays out some suggested character hooks. For example:

Background Character Hook
Entertainer You came to Icewind Dale three years ago seeking inspiration for a new song or poem, drawn by tales of the land’s harsh beauty and the legendary exploits of Drizzt Do’Urden. Since then, Auril the Frostmaiden has cast an evil spell over the dale, preventing you from returning home.
Guild Artisan You came to Icewind Dale to start a business. Your shop was doing well until Auril the Frostmaiden cast her evil spell to banish the sun. Now, businesses throughout Ten-Towns are suffering, yours included. To avoid hardship, you might need to supplement your income.

Alternatively, you might make resolving some conflict from a character's backstory into a first quest, where information is then revealed that leads the party down the path to the main quest, the main story arc.

Use these hooks as chapter connectors.

All of the published adventures have chapters, and it is likely your story does to. The overarching conflict is broken down into smaller stories that eventually culminate into the final resolution. New chapters in your story will often leave room for incorporating new adventure hooks, and so you can use hooks to connect the chapters of your story. Instead of jumping right in to chapter 4 after finishing chapter 3, you can give the party a break from solving the world's problems with a backstory related side quest...that leads them into the larger conflict of chapter 4.

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1. This works short term but leaves people feeling dissatisfied for reasons they struggle to put into words. Meaningful addition of player content into overarching world is not limited to quest givers having a different hat. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Nov 15, 2022 at 21:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user2754 instead of just having backstory as quest-giver. Would adding a small quest epilogue related to the backstory make this answer better? Or weave the backstory character inside the quest. Say as a guide or a helpful NPC. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Nov 16, 2022 at 12:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I realize the two things I mention would be things I'd assume to be there. Even if they are not explicitely said \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Nov 16, 2022 at 12:59
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There are a few steps I take that are not all about them, but add some personal connection to the world.

Have helpful NPCs be related to their backstory

Often when they seek someone out for help with a quest or adventure I'll make them connected to their backstory. If someone is a noble who rejected their house to adventure say, I might have a noble cousin who knows a lot about werewolves as a contact, so they can reflect on whether it was a good idea giving up nobility- they can see the pros and cons of staying as a noble, and help their cousin rise or fall in the world.

I've found this often helps add some emotional connection for players. You can overdo it, and if everyone is a relative it looks silly, but I make sure to include one or two connections each session and it's fine. For characters who are very charismatic in familiar locations I can make more connections, since they would know everyone.

Have an enemy or friend trigger a fear of the PCs.

Often they'll have something like they hate religion, or magic, or rich people, or poor people, or any of a variety of groups. It can be fun to set up an encounter to play off that. You either have an enemy who is satisfying to kill as the embodiment of their fear, or an ally who is helpful who embodies whatever faction.

You need to balance this carefully- if they hate the group too much they may disrupt your campaign. I have had players go berserk against someone who was meant to be an ally.

Interconnect organizations they're in to major quests

If they are a part of major organizations I often make them interact with players on quests. For example, if they're a part of the church, when they raid a goblin fortress they might be joined by paladins of said church. That's a chance for them to see their organization changing the world, interacting, and making choices.

It's important to establish alternative goals- perhaps the church is trying to suppress worship of a goblin deity, or hide some dark secret like that their god had a child with the goblin deity. If their goal is looting the dungeon and take loot away from them then the players may start to hate having a backstory which isn't good. Having an organization the player hates can work for competing for loot.

How regularly you do this depends on how widespread the organizations are and the types of quests.

Have a unique skill or favoured situation for a PC

Suppose a PC has some obscure skill like pottery. Once every few sessions you can include something related to it. The dungeon has some rare valuable pottery. An NPC is absurdly into pottery and likes people who relate. There's some sort of trap that can only be solved with detailed knowledge of pottery types.

If you do this too often it looks silly, but it can be a rare treat for obscure skills.

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