One of my player's character is searching for a long-lost brother whom he never knew. Who is ultimately responsible for how this NPC is written into the story?

I realize that I am the DM, and therefor am the one doing the actual writing - but, as the NPC ties directly into my player's character, I feel as though he deserves some say. Despite the fact that his character never personally knew the NPC, completing his lifelong quest of reuniting with his brother only to find that he's evil, very powerful, has a family, etc... will have an effect on the character's personality, and will truly be a large event in the PC's life.

Should I hand the responsibility of writing the whole NPC over to the player, write it all myself, or a bit of both?


7 Answers 7


This is fundamentally a question of playstyle

In differing styles players have jurisdiction over differing amounts and kinds of fictional material. In some styles, it would be completely inappropriate for you to determine any aspect of the PC's brother's character. In others, it would be completely inappropriate for the player to decide that his character even has a brother or any aspect of that character, should they exist.

Most of the time, there's some sort of balance between player and GM authority on most issues. As a matter of playstyle, groups might resort to the rules, out-of-game social hierarchies and methods of discrimination, shouting matches, open discussion and compromise, or any manner of other methods to determine the nature of the game world when there is a dispute of some kind.

Your asking this question makes it clear that your group hasn't yet formed a position within this question's scope for the purposes of your game. That's not a bad thing-- playstyle is often most meaningfully developed during play. That said, you have correctly identified this as an area of concern: your player has invested a lot in their PC's attachment to the brother, and if it goes 'wrong' people may well be upset. The solution here is to talk about what you guys want as a group regarding fictional authority over PC backstory relationships as well as PC backstory relations. You don't need to specifically voice your plans with the group regarding the brother turning out to be the BBEG or whatever you want to later be a reveal; discuss the stance of the group in a general sense, for example by asking "Is it okay for me to keep information about important characters secret from you in order to reveal it later" and "How much control over your brother should I have". Ultimately, figuring out how you want to deal with this will be a formative process for your group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. Other answers have assumed there is a definite 'right' way of doing this, but there really, really isn't. It can vary hugely from table to table, even within the same system. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ This needs more upvotes. Had I been in Icyfire's game and he made the NPC from my background story abscond with my gold, I would've been rather upset. Similarly, your player may be upset if you turn his NPC brother into an evil king. Then again he might not; check with him! You don't need to give him specifics, but just ask him for as many details as he can/wants to come up with and/or anything specific he would prefer you not do with his NPC brother. \$\endgroup\$
    – Doktor J
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 22:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ My concern about this answer is that it doesn't really answer from experience--what the GM and players believe will work is often different from how it works out in practice, but this answer doesn't address how such issues have played out ingame. Also, in my defense, absconding with the gold was totally in line with the way that NPC was presented to me... \$\endgroup\$
    – Icyfire
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 6:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire I have no experience with how, after deciding upon the playstyle conventions of their particular group for this particular game and with respect to this particular issue, those specific decisions worked out in-play. If you have experience with that I suggest you add it to your answer. I am not going to post about how things work in the various playstyles I do have experience with because such information would detract from, rather than add to, my answer. I am unsure why you feel the need to defend yourself to me-- I never said your playstyle was wrong. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 6:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Icyfire To clarify-- the way you do things seems reasonable. It addresses and solves this problem. However, there are many other ways of doing things that are also reasonable, and also solve the problem. The correct course of action here is not to adopt a course of action that worked for someone else as if that were the only good way to do things-- that way may not work in the group's playstyle at all! Rather, the correct course of action is to formulate a way that works for them, based off of the needs and desires of the group. Without more info on playstyle that's really all I can say \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 6:16

Have your PC write the character's background, but you write the NPC in-game.

I've been grappling with the same issue in my games, and the system I've settled on is having the player write their character's background with the NPC, and give me detailed character traits for the NPC. They can also give suggestions for how the NPC will act during the game.

With this information, I will add some details and perhaps modify things a bit. I also modify things about the NPC so that they can better fit into the setting or the plot. In the game itself, I play the NPC according to what I have planned. Of course, your players' appetite for modifications will vary significantly; you should talk to them about their appetite for changes. Then again, you could also use significant modifications to telegraph important plot points, such as demonic possession or blackmail.

For example, I had a player playing a rogue give me the information about one of his criminal contacts in a city. The player wrote the contact's personality, occupation, and their interactions thus far (mostly the rogue entrusting a large amount of gold to the contact). For the game, I had the contact embezzle the gold and sell the player out, in order to create an adventure hook.

This seems to work pretty well for me. It sort of simulates running into long-lost acquaintances or friends--after all, things change while you're away, and people might have different perspectives on things that happened. Plus, if you let the player write everything, it kind of ruins any surprises, right?

What's important is that you still have final say over the character, but the player can make significant, material contributions to who the NPC is. Allowing your player to control the NPC during the campaign is akin to having 2 DMs, with all of the attendant issues.


Just about every game I've ever been in (player and GM), players deliberately wrote open-ended hooks into their characters' backstories like this in the hope that the GM would integrate them into the story and at some point surprise the players with plot related to their backstory. Not every such hook can come up (at least not in a short or medium length campaign), but when they do it's a great way to add emotional depth to a story and share meaningful parts of your character's history with the group.

As an example, one of my absolute favourite gaming experiences came when I wrote up a character who's backstory included having been in a car accident that put his daughter in a coma; he later bargained with a reality altering demigod to change history so that it didn't happen, and the new history had my character and his daughter escape unscathed while the driver of the other car now died in the accident. That was years-old backstory at the start of the game. Many months of real world time later, the GM ran a "side story" where we played new characters he wrote up for us. It turned out the new character I was playing was the other driver I had "killed" in writing my character's traumatic backstory (and the whole side-story was a vision that the regular characters were experiencing). Suddenly I knew and cared about the life I had unknowingly traded for my daughter's, which sparked a whole side-quest to atone for it. Much pathos. I had no idea that such a thing would happen, but I wrote details like that into my backstory specifically so that if the GM thought of something cool they could use it.

The fact that the player wrote that their character never actually knew they brother which they're searching for suggests to me that the player is thinking this way; that they are deliberately giving you freedom to decide what the brother is actually like, so that you can integrate this quest into your storylines in whatever way you think best.

Since this is pretty conventional in my gaming circle, I'd probably just take my idea and run with it if I was the GM. But there's a way to be sure: ask the player what their intent was in writing that bit of backstory.

Are they really giving you a plot hook to see if it inspires you to write story related to their character? If so you can do whatever you think would be most interesting (preferably in a way that is interesting for the other players too, so you get everyone invested), and not tell the player so it will be a surprise (although perhaps not a surprise that it's coming now).

Do they have specific ideas about where they want that story to go, or what they want the brother to be like? If so you should definitely have a chat with the player about what those ideas are so you can work with them, but it should be a discussion; you (presumably) know more about where you're planning to take the game than the player does, and don't feel obligated to write in anything and everything your player demands (especially since you're the one who's going to have to act out the NPC).

Or was it just intended for a bit of backstory colour, and they don't actually want it to come up in game at all? Again, it's your game to run, not the player's, but you usually don't really want to put a lot of effort into making a story that ties in your players' backstory only to find out they don't actually want to explore that at all (can be especially problematic since they might feel that their character should want to explore it, even if the player doesn't, so you might not get an accurate read on that just by observing how they play).


Mostly DM's purview, for this instance

Because the player's character has not met this NPC and thus has no means to relate their character to them, the burden of this NPC's creation is pretty much up to you. You might want to take some of the player character's physical features, but personality, motivations, loves, hates, etc. are all pretty much in your domain as the DM. Because your goal is to use this character as substantial plot hook, I think you might lose a lot of your reveal and the OOG fun by including the player in the discussion.

For your information, though, if the character was a brother that the player character was familiar with, then it makes sense to discuss the character's creation with the player. The reason being is that it helps to project a similar world view. For example, if the NPC has a fear of rats the player's character knows that this NPC was bitten by one as a child and thus the player does as well.


Personally I prefer to write my own characters' backgrounds but check with the DM on any parts that may refer to the lore (setting, politics, history, etc) of his game. I also try to avoid tying the DM's hands as far as plots go. So in the case of the missing brother I would ask the DM if he's comfortable with me continuing the quest as part of his game... if Yes, I might include something like "the last trace of him I heard was he had booked passage to freeport. I have just arrived in the city and am eager to resume my search." Assumes you got the city you would start in from the DM.

If the answer is no then I might conclude the backstory with "The last lead I had on my brother's whereabouts was (insert city name from GM) but after that trail went cold and I have not found a trace of him in months. At this point I have given up hope and expended my resources. I will need to set aside my singular focus and find a way to earn some money."

in either event I would RP social encounters and include showing vendors and NPCs a drawing or an illusion of him and asking about him in jails and among doctors, morticians, temples, and gravediggers when I went to a new city.

Handling it this way allows the GM to tell the story they intended and allows me to play the character I envisioned. Not only have I not tied my GM's hands and forced him to resolve my story line, I have given him a ton of plot hooks he can incorporate if he chooses to.

An example of a plot hook stemming from the search but unrelated to it might be; The local thieves guild or gang has had a problem with "law enforcement's" recent decision to use bounty hunters to track down some of their members. They've never seen or heard of the brother, but someone going door to door trying to find someone attracted their notice. They now want to know who you, your "brother" is, and why you are really looking for him.

Addition to be more directly related to the question.: As DM if you have decided you are going to focus on this quest I would collaborate with the player on any background knowledge the player character would have of his brother. How old was he when he left home? How long ago was it? What were the circumstances? Were there any contacts with the family since then? The further back in time the more I would follow the players lead but I would steer their knowledge in paths of ambiguity... "Yes, he did kill a tax collector by pounding his head in repeatedly with a skillet, but to be fair the tax collector was about to arrest our Father."

I would say the secret is, let the player feel like they have a little control about who the NPC was (my parents always bragged about how strong he was) but be prepared to modify the players description in ways that fit your narrative. You can make some of these adjustments with the players knowledge and some of them without the players knowledge.

For example if you ask my parents what I do for a living they would tell you "He's a computer guru who runs his own consulting company." If you ask my ex wife she would tell you "He's an unemployed hacker who gets the occasional odd job." - The truth is somewhere in between.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If I may clear things up - I was asking about who writes the background of the NPC. I have no doubt in my mind that I will be controlling the character (I find it that that is my role as DM). Sorry for the confusion. \$\endgroup\$
    – user32165
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 19:39

This trade-off is the "fine art of DMing" in a nutshell.

Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative story-telling game. So a good background hook should given enough to make the character interesting while providing the DM with lots of flavor for the adventure.

Ultimately the DM is responsible for "working it in" to their story line.


Who is ultimately responsible for how this NPC is written into the story?

This actually has a definitive answer (DMG p.4):


The Dungeon Master (DM) is the creative force behind a D&D game.

As an actor, the DM plays the roles of the monsters and supporting characters, breathing life into them.

So, the DM is "ultimately responsible"

However, it goes on to say:

You can also lean on the other players to help you with rules mastery and world-building.

So the DM is responsible for both designing this NPC and deciding how much of a role the other player(s) will have in it, if any. This is good because no matter how you do it you will be playing by the rules.

One last point: people change. Relationships (even familial ones) rest on shared experiences: when people who were close stop sharing experiences they drift apart. It is perfectly reasonable that a long-lost brother may not be the person you remember and that this works in the opposite direction too.

  • \$\begingroup\$ There is nothing wrong with this answer, and it cites the DMG authoritatively. I did not read into Dale's answer any implication that players have no input. Those who downvoted seem to have read something into this answer. Dale also alludes to the option for a collaborative effort in this passage: So the DM is responsible for both designing this NPC and deciding how much of a role the other player(s) will have in it, if any ... a given table will have a mix of inputs. (Ours provides options for PC's to draft up NPC's that the DM either accepts, adapts, or folds in as written. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer Please take a look at this meta and see if maybe you've (unintentionally) made that mistake. I have in the past done so; it can happen to any of us. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I don't think so, but it's possible. I downvoted this answer because I think it's wrong, not because of the purported lack of input in the DMG, but because I think it's fundamentally the wrong way to approach this. Basically, I think I'm right, my answer being that the OP needs to develop their own answer in concert with their group and fundamentally dependent upon and a component of their playstyle. This answer says 'the right answer is X', which must then be wrong (since X is not playstyle dependant). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast My (now deleted) comment was pointing out that 'X' doesn't even work-- there is no playstyle in which that particular solution works. It's possible, I suppose, that I am occluding a playstyle in making that statement but in that case I would basically just be wrong: my argument isn't that groups doing that are wrong but rather that they don't exist. I know it's what the DMG says, but my point is that what the DMG says: "The DM is the[, which means the only,] creative force behind a D&D game", is just not true. It contradicts nearly everything else in the rules \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 17:04

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