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As a GM, I really enjoy those moments when I can tie-in one of my PC's backstories to the greater narrative, either through a choice NPC from one of their backstories or by having a PC development arc.

The only problem is, I usually don't have many PCs with good backstories. Like, one of them likes to go super detailed and create almost novels describing their life until when they meet the other PCs and the rest of them give me bare-bones backgrounds that cover how they were born, maybe how they became the class they chose, and then why they are at the location I chose to start the campaign at (a festival, a bar, etc.).

So how do I either help the other PCs generate more fleshed-out backgrounds or incentive them to try harder?

Assume we're talking about one of the many game systems that do not specifically mechanize or dictate creation of character backgrounds.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It is fine to use system-agnostic to mean "you know, for most games" even in cases where a subset of games have a different approach. We all know 80+% of RPGs do not specifically mechanize or dictate creation of character backgrounds and those are the ones he's asking about. I've added that clause to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 27 '17 at 2:51

13 Answers 13

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Give them the narrative and have them tie themselves in

It looks like the reason you want more detailed backstories is so that you can incorporate them into your own overarching plot. However, simply telling a player "make a backstory" without guidance will make it difficult for you to do that, and it often leaves players with writer's block.

I have had some success by giving the players a specific prompt. For example, in my latest campaign, I told my players, "Your character just died. Come up with a reason why your character is at level XX, and how they got killed." The campaign then started with all of them being resurrected together. This allows you to weave those motivations into the story more easily. Some examples could be:

  • The four of you have run afoul of the thieve's guild. Why?
  • The wizard university has selected each of you from birth for wizard training. How did your parents react? Why did you fail out?
  • Your have been traveling for a long time in mithril mining country, and has stopped at this tavern. Why?"

As with most creative writing, imposing some limitations and giving some prompts goes a long way toward spurring creativity and prevents wild flights of fancy that are hard to work with.

Backstories are living documents

You don't have to limit backstory generation to the beginning of a campaign. Instead, choose certain points and sessions where your players can inject their own backstory. For instance, my players recently entered a new city. I told them that their characters had been there before, and knew some people. I asked them to give me a list of potential contacts their characters might have in that city, and to describe their relationships. I then pick and choose a few of those contacts and edit them for plot purposes, and to reflect the passage of time.

By constantly adding to backstories, characters feel like they are more integrated into the world. Indeed, this is how fiction usually handles backstory. You don't get an infodump of backstory every time a new character is introduced--the backstory is revealed in bits and pieces as it becomes relevant. Moreover, this results in more fully fleshed out characters, as players can continually refine and sometimes redefine their characters' history throughout the campaign.

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There are good simple techniques that can tie characters to the story and each other. The two I try to incorporate in just about every game I run could be called Motivations and Connections.

Motivations: Have an important start to your campaign: "There is a mysterious tower at the top of a mountain in the middle of a dying town." Then ask: "Why is your character specifically interested in this tower?" This lets you start in media res instead of running a "questgiver in a tavern" scene, and invites players to invent a reason their characters are tied to the story.

Even if you want to start with a low-key festival or bar scene, you can still use this technique. The motivation question can start off mysterious: "One year ago, each of you were chased through the forest by wolves; what important thing did you sacrifice to survive?" When one of the festivalgoers turns out to be a werewolf, each character suddenly has a connection to the story.

You can even use this to guide your worldbuilding: "When you were young you had an imaginary friend; what were they like?" The characters' imaginary friends could show up as strange spirits or stylized as the logos of important corporations.

Connections: This is a simplified version of a mechanic from Fiasco. Have the players establish background connections with at least two other player characters, ideally in a ring. PC A could be PC B's parole officer, B could be the drug dealer for C, C could have been the EMT that saved D's life, and D was the high school teacher that inspired A to go into her career. This provides connections between the characters that tie them to the world and each other.

If you want the PCs to be relative strangers, you could have the connections be looser: shared goals (promoting freedom or punishing the wicked), background similarities (both from a small town or both born in poverty), or even where the players want their characters to end up later in the campaign (comrades in bloody battle, tumultuous lovers, grudging allies).

And write the connections down somewhere visible. That way, people can be reminded of them and consult them as roleplaying touchstones.

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There are a great many ways to achieve this, however, one thing to realize is:

Not all players will cooperate with this

For various reasons, some just won't. Some players will think this is mostly your job. Some players have serious difficulties designing characters up front-- if they put too much detail in before they are played, it no longer feels organic. Or put another way, some players not only dislike your pre-gen characters, they often dislike their own pre-gen characters. And hey, some players are just flat out too busy to do it.

Recognize these players and, basically, respect them.

That said, while there are many approaches, here are two I have had good success with:

Info packets and questionnaires

Unless you are playing in a well-established world or a completely wide open world, your players need some background information in order to be able fit themselves in to it. That's the info packet. Whether it's a few ages of text, or you talking at the for half an hour, or a Q&A session doesn't matter much. But give them something to work with.

Then give them an idea what you're after. This originally comes from the Amber DRPG, but I've used the general idea countless times in different settings: I will come up with 20 or 30 questions of varying specificity, and ask each player to answer at least 10 or 15 of them for his or her character:

Where did your character learn to magic/fight/cleric/steal stuff? What do you love about your family? What embarrasses you about your family? Who was your greatest rival? What is your ambition?

Etc. And do feel free to send the answers back for more detail if they write just, "Bob McRival" for the rival question, or similar. They don't have to write a book, but I do ask for a paragraph-- two or three sentences-- on each one. I used to incentivize this mechanically (a stat point, some minor starting treasure) but these days I tend not to.

Joint Character Creation Sessions

Whenever possible, I like players to create their characters together rather than just with me. I don't think of this as something fully collaborative like the chancel-building of Nobilis or the Covenant-building of Ars Magica, but I try to get the players to riff or build off each others' ideas for backgrounds as well as just combat synergies.

And I will explicitly and very overtly try to get each character to know at least one or two others (depending on the size of the group) and to get some rough back story idea of how and why that's so.

If I do all of those things with moderately cooperative players, I usually get more than enough material to work with.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd recommend another approach to complement these - add to the background after the game is already running - this somewhat mitigates the issue with needing to play the character for a while 'to get to know him'. Also, these works even better if combined with a between-arcs character augmentation sessions, 'flashback' session (possibly giving control of some NPCs to the other players), or a brief in-play bragging/reminiscing scene to share a bit of "fresh" background. \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Feb 21 '17 at 15:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @G0BLiN this sounds like the kernel of a separate answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Feb 21 '17 at 17:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ fair enough, but it seems to me that this question (bordering on 'opinion based' as it is) already has several good answers, and overall too many answers. Your answer covers most of what I'd write anyway, my group uses both techniques you've described, and I liked the point you make about some players disliking or unavailable to create an extensive background beforehand on their own... At any rate, your answer, your choice :) \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Feb 22 '17 at 7:43
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Give them time:

A lot of players I know (me included) have had the experience that they need to "get to know" their characters during the first sessions and writing too much backstory before that might cage the char into something that doesn't feel right when the actual play starts. Because of that I like it better when I can start out with a narrower backstory and add to that later when I know who the character really is.

Example: When I first started playing LARP I wanted to play a barbarian PC. But during the first weekend I (and others) noticed that I played him as rhetorically capable during normal conversation but barbaric during combat so I came up with the following background after that: The pc was a squire to a knight but when he was only a short time away from becoming a knight himself he was cursed by some enemy to loose his intellect and become very fierce and aggressive every time he felt threatened. As reaction to that he started to pretend to be a barbarian because he felt that was saver for everyone as such a behaviour would be seen as less disrupting to a barbaric guy.

I had a lot of fun with this PC. Much more than I would have had if I had simply chosen to change his behaviour to that of a barbarian.

Alternative: If, after some sessions, they still can't come up with a more detailed story (or they don't want to) you can ask them if they are ok with you adding something to their story. If they are you can let some NPC appear during the campaign which they recognize as their childhood buddy/sibling/uncle and tie them into the story via this NPC.

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Describe the world the adventure is taking place with as many details as possible

Tell the players about the major cities, who lives there (races; how/who is rich/poor; criminality/security; if there is any discrimination/racism/hate between them), talk about how the economy is faring (golden age of prosperity/dark age of depression), talk about religion, if it plays a big role (extremist cultists/kind priests; how devoted the people are).

Tell them if there is any constant/big threat to the people and how the major cities/small villages are dealing with them .

Well, you get the idea, give them as many details as you can, this might give them some inspiration to write a more consistent background that you may even use for plot hooks.

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The way I get my players to write good backstories is to suggest some elements within them. I ask them to describe one event in childhood, in teens, and in their professional life to marked them in some way. At least a paragraph or more if they chose. Or I ask them to provide some locations with cast (a bar, a police precinct, a company, a band of mercenaries, whatnot) they have a connection to. I want three: one antagonistic, one neutral, and one friendly.

Then I use those to flesh out any plot I have so the tie-in is there from the start.

If those are not enough or the player gets stuck, I suggest they roll on one of the many random-encounters or life paths generators you can find. Sometimes, even a cyberpunk one works for fantasy as it is generally easy to modify things. After all, the mafia and the thief's guild are close enough to match.

For example, here is one I just made up:

Alkja is the leader of the Hawks, a bunch of mercenaries she inherited from her shortly deceased father Ajune. Ajnue was a natural born leader and master strategist. Alkja is a mighty warrior but currently lacks leadership skills and is far too impulsive for her own good. Huan and Velar, two of the older mercs in the group have offered their support to Alkja for now. The former is genuine in his help, the latter seeks an opportunity to take control if Alkja messes up. The rest, about a dozen, are good fighters. When my PC was a teen, he and Alkja dated. It was a stormy relationship and PC knows he messed up. How Alkja feels about it? Well, that's the question isn't it?…

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Turn backgrounds into a game! I recently read a great post where a GM uses the Fiasco game to set up characters and relationships. By creating custom sheets that are suited to your specific campaign, you can give your players some great connections to the world and some seed ideas to expand upon.

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I usually start with a few character personality quirks and a few details and then develop the backstory through play. For some characters, an extensive backstory just flows out naturally. I think rewarding players by using elements from their characters' backstories is enough to encourage others to flesh theirs out, too, because it feels "cool" to have one's story woven into the game.

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I found that keeping background concise and simple helps. If the background is too complex, then you cannot adapt to the game. "No, I don't have a brother, my background said I only had sisters."

I have done something like this by asking each player to answer 3 of 5 questions:

  • What do you hate most and why
  • What do you love most and why
  • Who is the most important person in the world (other than you)
  • What is the most important event in your character's life
  • What do you like best about where you grew up

By answering 3/5, each player gives you good elements without creating an enormous baggage for the game. Doing this, players who are not as comfortable with creating background can only focus on small elements that can more easily be integrated into the campaign. "Biggs! I thought you were at the imperial academy..."

Hope that helps

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You mention that you are not using a system that supports backstories as important. If you want them to be important, I recommend you use a system that values them. Consider using something like FATE 2.0 with it's 'phases' system of char-gen, or other systems that encourage the development of backstory the way you'd like. Generally, systems designed to encourage backstory development have a more cohesive and integrated picture of what backstory should look like and the role it plays in the game, as compared to add-on subsystems for games that otherwise ignore it.

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There are implications in this question that concern me:

So how do I either help the other PCs generate more fleshed-out backgrounds or incentive them to try harder?

My concern is that the only reason you have given as to why this is a desirable thing is "I really enjoy those moments when I can tie-in one of my PC's backstories to the greater narrative". An RPG is not (entirely) about what you enjoy. Have you spoken to your players to see if this is something they enjoy or if they couldn't give a hoot about backstories, roleplaying & your narrative and see writing backstories as needless busywork at best or a chore to be avoided at worst?

Maybe you should!

After you have had this conversation you can work with those players who give a toss to tie their backstory into the plot and just let the others come along for the ride.

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Provide instructions, reward following them, and make sure your players understand everything

I played on a roleplaying Minecraft server for some time, and for a long time new players were required to write a story of their character. It was mainly used as a test of their narrative skills, because the community has seen a lot of people making completely same mistakes, so we wanted to fix things before they happen in roleplay. Here is what was used to make the backstories better.

  1. We used Google Forms to submit character stories. There was a big article about the world we were playing, link to that article was provided in the Google Form. The article had a passage saying something like this: "If you have read this paragraph, put (Strange phrase in russian) as an answer to (a seemingly stupd question in the Google Form)." This was needed to make sure that all players actually understand the world they are going to play in, those who failed to answer this question were rejected right away as they didn't even bother to read the world description. To make it short, always assure that your players understand the setting clearly.
  2. Have your characters answer a set ofmore or less specific questions, probably banning some "too common" or "too Mary Sue-esque" answers in advance. For example, in our community all characters with something like "My family was all slain by orcs, I was raised by a mentor who taught me everything he knew himself, blah-blah..." were rejected right away. Players were asked to make several interesting stories to tell when there is a moment of peace.
  3. Reward characters for providing details in their bio. For example, if a character has stated that his family has a heirloom, let him have it. Just don't overdo, for obvious reasons.
  4. Let characters "update" their backstories when they don't contradict things that are already going on/have already happened, develop them further.
  5. Incorporate details of characters' backstories into play, and let newcomers see that they are actually incorporated. Most GMs that I have seen just ignore the stories, more or less.
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As a player, one of the things that appeals to me about creating a back story is Control. Players like to have a sense of control over both their characters (i.e agency) and, to a certain extent, the world their characters are in.

(And when I used to GM, I loved it when players added interesting things to our shared world that I'd never have thought of myself.)

Coming up with a good backstory is a way of influencing some of the "facts" about that world. Whether that's just a little control, or a lot, depends on the game, the GM, and the quality of the story.

As a player, you get to just make stuff up (even in a game where that's not how things normally work) and if it's interesting or amusing or otherwise appealing to the GM in a non- game-destroying way, they'll take your story and run with it, incorporating some or all of it into the world. You can use it to establish details about your character, about various NPCs who now exist solely because you created them in your story, facts about the world or city you're in, an adventure idea you want to play, a thing you want to do, and so on.

It doesn't have to be a novel, or even extremely detailed, it just has to appeal to the GM and/or the other players - in fact, leaving obvious holes for the GM to fill in and put their own spin on it is a good way to get GM buy-in to your backstory.

Some of what you make up could just be things your character believes about the world - or themselves - that couldn't be further from the truth, but discovering the real truth could lead to some great gaming sessions.

So, to answer your question, make sure your players know that a good backstory can and will have some influence on the world....and don't just tell them, show them by doing it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer seems to mostly say "backstories are good," but doesn't really address the crux of the question, which is "how can I get my players to write good backstories?" \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Feb 21 '17 at 7:06

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