I'm a new DM playing with a group of 5 new players. (We're playing D&D 4e but more general answers are acceptable.) So far we have done 3 sessions, where we've mainly focussed on learning the mechanics and how (non-) combat encounters, skill checks, etc., work. We haven't done much roleplaying yet—they spent a bit of time in a tavern.

So most talk is OOC. I want to start encouraging a bit more roleplaying. I thought a good place to start was to get them to think of a background and/or something they would like to accomplish. 2 of them already thought about it a little bit, but the other 3 not at all.

Now, I could ask them to think of a background story before next session, but I'm curious if there are fun ways to incorporate this into the game. They are in the middle of a dungeon now, and I was thinking of putting in a trap that releases a gas which puts them in a dreamworld, where they see their possible future, or a door with a demon head in it that asks them to tell him about their past before he opens the door.

What are some effective ways you've tried to make your players think about their backgrounds (preferably while in the middle of a dungeon)?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good question! So good, it may have already been answered. Are the answers to this question sufficient for you? If not, you'd do well to link it in your question and explain what's different about what you're asking, so we can be sure to actually help with our answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Sep 7, 2013 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've edited this question a little. List questions are not on topic on RPG.SE, so answers that are "here's one specific implementation" are not good. Please answer the more general case. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, the difference between this question and rpg.stackexchange.com/q/22504/4398 is that this one is asking about IN GAME experiences to get players to expand on their characters' background. Answers about "here's questionnaires I like to send my players" should be on that question (or another appropriate one, check the background tag) instead. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 21:21

7 Answers 7


One good way to get players thinking about their backstories is to pose each of them one question. For example, in my current campaign, all of my players had to tell me the answer to the question, "What one thing does your character wish for above all else?" Other good questions are, "What one thing does your character regret more than anything?", "Who would your character sacrifice his own life to save?", "How far would your character go to avoid death?", etc.

The thing all these questions have in common is that they make the character make a choice. Characters are defined by their choices more than any event or set of events in their backstories, so in order to encourage roleplaying, you need to force the characters to make difficult choices.

Note that the players don't necessarily have to tell each other these answers. In fact, you almost always see far more interesting RP when the players don't all know each others' stories already. Once the stories are out there, players often forget about them, stop playing to them, etc. They've been revealed; they're no longer interesting or relevant.

Instead, find ways to draw out characters' backgrounds and players' roleplaying bit by bit, over the course of multiple sessions. For example, instead of just dropping everyone's backstories into one session with a single trap or set of traps, you could have a door guardian who asks each character one of the choice-based questions above. The character then must decide how much to reveal - after all, if his answer to "how far would you go to avoid death?" is "become a lich if I have to", the character may not want to say that out loud in front of the party's paladin. He'll have to find a way to answer the question honestly enough for the guardian to allow him to pass, while still not giving away anything he doesn't want known - and I have years and years of experience that show that when characters know just a little information about a fellow party member, they will want more. And once that happens, you as DM can just sit back and watch the roleplay.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually make those questions a part of the character sheet upon character creation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 11:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Vorac Yeah, I vary the questions depending on the campaign setting and goal, but they're incredibly helpful for clarifying characters and motivations. \$\endgroup\$
    – thatgirldm
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 19:07

You may try the trap idea with the following twist:

The group finds a door that blocks their advance in the dungeon. It has a lock for each member of the group, which cannot be picked or broken open. The door also has several engravings, depicting a fearsome monster, and a mysterious text:

Five locks in the door, Five minds in front of it. Five memories must be forsaken to open it.

When one of the players touches the door, ask him or her about her past, wait for his response, and then whisk the group away to what looks like a perfect, dream-like replica of the moment of the past that the player just described. They are like ghosts, and cannot interact with their surroundings, only observe. Make the player continue the story and guide the group through his or her memory.

At any point you consider appropriate, the idyllic moment is interrupted by a monster, exactly the same monster that is depicted in the door, that starts doing something to alter the course of events, deviating it from what the player remembers, always in a nasty and very undesirable way. The players should understand that the monster is not part of the memory, and that it can,and should, be fought and killed. The fight develops normally, with the following caveat: The monster will use every chance it gets to finish his work, and whenever he succeeds in advancing it (by harming someone or something important for the memory owner, as an example) the owner of the memory suffers backlash psychic damage (tailored to the lethality you wish for the adventure).

When the dust settles, the group is returned in front of the door, and one of the locks has been removed. The fight that has just happened, and its consequences, are all fading from their memories like a dream in the morning: The wounds they sustained during the combat are gone, and the powers expended are back. Even the dead are not dead anymore, although you may want to make an exception with characters that die due the backlash damage, making them stay dead, or if you think that is too much, impose them a penalty that will remain until the door is open.

After that, rinse and repeat. When the last lock is gone, so are the engravings on the door, and they may continue their adventure.


Good question - a lot of folks concentrate on out of game activities (questionnaires, character background writeups) to generate character backstory (often referred to as Design At Start, or DAS), but it can be very effective to instead do in-game activities that drive Design In Play, or DIP - see also What are the advantages and disadvantages of develop in play (DIP) compared to develop at the start (DAS) character generation?

There are basically two approaches to this. One is forcing the player to narrate with an in-game excuse. "You're dreaming about your mother, what does she look like?" is the classical implementation of this. You can use a "sleep inducing trap" like you mention, or just talk to them about their normal dreams while they normally sleep (or not quite normally, if there's Dreamlands or nightmare spells or whatever in play).

The other is in game inquiries about background. Sure, in a Gygaxian world that can be all "demon heads" doing the Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail bit, but more typically this can come from NPCs. Potential employers asking for background reasons ("Next of kin?"), friendly NPCs just chatting them up... Yes, this even works in a dungeon, assuming everything in a dungeon isn't a killbot. "Why should I trust you? Have you ever kept your word to a creature like me?"

Be careful with having too much of it be mechanistic (traps and puzzles) though. What you're trying to do is get them over the hump to where they have development conversations not just with NPCs but also with each other. Some of the biggest "character reveals" in my games have been just when BSing over the campfire. I remember one group that had been together for quite some time, and in camp the older wizard guy made an offhand reference to "his wife" and the rest of the group was thunderstruck - they had no idea he was married - he sure didn't seem like the marrying type and had never mentioned her before, and certainly hadn't seen her in years! It revealed whole depths of his character they hadn't seen before.

A lot of this can be generated just by giving them time. Trying to get out character development in combat rounds is hard. When they hole up to rest and heal, don't just have them up their hit points and zap forward to the next day. Slow down the pace, describe some of the feel of being holed up in a weird dungeon room with God knows what outside and that it's hard to sleep, and say "What do you talk about over your rations?" It's OK to prime the pump with demon dreams or whatever, but the key to getting sustained background development and roleplay is by giving people to talk to (PCs, NPCs) and the slack time where it can come in to create discussions besides the "I'm exercising my CHA skills to GET SOMETHING OUT OF SOMEBODY" type.

Also, having even just one player in your pocket here can make a world of difference - if they are bothering to ask other PCs "Hey, why did you do that?" or "How did you get to be a follower of Pelor in the first place?" or whatever.


Don't try to force it

In my groups, some of the players like to really immerse themselves in the story and the world, while others prefer mechanics and combat tactics, and yet others mainly join to have a good time with friends. The first group does enjoy inventing and writing down elaborate backstories for their characters. However, the other two most likely don't.

So I think you should do what is most fun for the group, which might not necessarily be what you think is right.

One example I've experienced was a campaign where Campaign Wiki activity (writing backstory, writing stories for in-between adventures) was rewarded with XP. In another campaign, by writing enough wiki stuff, my mage was able to learn additional spells. Don't do that.

My experience with these systems was very bad. While I generally like writing backstories and developing my characters, giving a mechanical reward made it feel like work. My optimizer-self wanted me to get the additional stuff, so I did it, but it wasn't fun.

Based on these experiences, I think the best way to reward players and encourage investment into story and background is to integrate the stuff they do into the campaign.

A good way for that is giving them soft benefits such as additional contacts in a city, an old friend that can procure weapons at reduced price, or knows a lot about the local noble families, etc...This benefits the whole party - the other players will be happy about it, not envious, and the player who did put in the extra time to write a cool story will get positive feedback from you (the GM) as well as the other players.


In past games that I've run (I've used this in D&D 3.x and Savage Worlds) I've used what I term Character Developments (CDs). These are short, one-sentence questions that the players should answer (typically) as their character. After every game session I assign a new prompt, and those players who do the CD get a small XP bonus at the beginning of the next session. I try to keep the bonus small enough that it's not overpowering compared to not getting it, but large enough if one person does all of the CDs and another person does none, there will be an obvious advantage by the end of the campaign for the person who responded. Responses should typically come out to one or two paragraphs.

Although I do not make the CDs a requirement, I try to be very clear that there are two very important reasons to do the CDs:

  1. These are a fantastic way to get to know your character better, and when the players get into a new situation, they'll have more experience to draw on to determine how their character would react.

  2. As the GM, I'm putting work into creating the game every single week--I am already invested in the game. By taking some time in between sessions to develop their characters in this way, the players become more invested in the game as well.

I then try to set aside time for the players to read their CDs if they want to (although, to get the XP bonus, I always insisted that they share the CD with me). One of my favorite times to do this is while the characters are all sitting around the campfire--or something similar. This can also be a good way to handle the inevitable bathroom break: "Guys, I need to run to the restroom, maybe one of you wants to read their CD?"

Below is my list of CDs. Some of these are very general, and some of them are very specific.

  • Tell me a story you enjoyed as a child.
  • What is your greatest Fear?
  • Tell me a funny childhood story of yours.
  • Tell me a secret: What don't you want the other members of the party to know about you?
  • Tell me something you are afraid of (that is not your greatest fear).
  • If you were suddenly given 10,000,000gp, what would you do with it? What should you do with it?
  • Tell me about a pet peeve of yours.
  • Where did that scar come from? (or) Why did you get that tatoo? (or) Is there any special significance about that piece of jewelry?
  • What is something you are proud of?
  • Tell me three truths and a lie.
  • Tell me something you hate?
  • Tell me about your closest friend.
  • Tell me about your closest relative.
  • Tell me about your least favorite relative.
  • Tell me about a time when you were wronged.
  • What is something you feel guilty about?
  • What is the prettiest sight you've ever seen?
  • What is the ugliest sight you've ever seen?
  • If you could do any one thing that you haven't been able to do before, what would it be?
  • Tell me a story about a scary occurrence in your childhood.
  • Is there anybody you have ever been in love with (tell me about him / her)?
  • Tell me what you enjoy doing in your free time.
  • Tell me about a dream (or vision) (pleasant or nightmarish) you've had.
  • What do you keep in your pockets? (What would you keep in them if you don't have pockets?
  • Tell me about how your character came to be an adventurer.
  • Describe three NPCs who are role-models for your character. One of these NPCs must be alive, and one dead. The third NPC is up to you. Tell me about who you want to be.
  • Describe how your character wants to die. Do you want to die of old age, telling stories to your children? Do you want to die sacrificing yourself to defeat a great evil? etc.
  • Tell me three sayings and three curses.
  • Tell me about the time when so-and-so approached you to join his school. (This one is very specific to the game that I was running, but can be modified pretty easily.)

One way of getting your characters to make their characters deeper is to motivate them to do it. This can be done inside the dungeon as well as outside. You can use negative motivation (i.e. punishments) or positive motivation (i.e. prizes, gifts). Giving them less experience if they know nothing about the background of their characters is an example of out-of-dungeon punishment that will surely alienate your players. The trap that makes them think about their past if they do not want to be blocked for the rest of the adventure is an example of in-dungeon punishment.

Positive motivation usually works better than negative motivation. Here is an example of how in-dungeon positive motivation can be used easily in your game, adapted from Savage Worlds.

Every time the characters stop to rest (sleep, cure wounds, get new spells, etc) choose two characters to tell a story. These characters are usually chosen randomly, but you can do otherwise (maybe mixing always an extrovert player with an introvert player to make their life easier by imitation). The character then tells something to the other characters. It is important to stress that it is the character than speaks in first person, not the player in third person. This is basically role-playing those chats and stories that are told around the fire / dinner / etc. Savage Worlds calls these stories-within-the-story interludes.

There are four types of stories: tragedies (something bad that happened to you), victories (something bad that happened to you), loves (something or someone that gives meaning to your life), and desires (a goal or a quest that gives purpose to your life). One of the four is selected randomly for every interlude.

After the characters have finished their interlude, they receive some reward. In Savage Worlds, they receive a bennie (a dice re-roll). In DnD2 they could receive experience, in DnD3 they could gain a one-shot feat, etc.

The benefits of this systems is that it uses positive motivation rather than negative and it feels more like part of the game instead of a chore that the DM imposes on you.

Examples: That scene from Conan the Barbarian where he says that the best is "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women" is an example of a love interlude. The scene in LotR:TFotR where Frodo and Gandalf talk about Gollum, and Frodo says "It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance" could be seen as a desire interlude. In Jaws we have an example of a tragedy interlude.


Have your character dreaming an old memory by themselves while the other players are fighting, secretly in the dreaming players dream. Then have the player that is dreaming run into them.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.Stackexchange.com. We generally expect answers to be a little more fleshed out. Please look at the About and the Help center. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 12:21
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ That's an interesting adventure conceit, but I don't see how it encourages all the players to flesh out their PCs' backgrounds. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 18:32

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