While driving along the other day, I had one of those Eureka moments while thinking about the next game I’m going to run. As I started to think about what kinds of characters would fit well into the story, I reminisced about the theme games I tried to run to give the characters some unifying elements. They’d worked adequately, but all of my players have generally wanted to have unique and varied backgrounds. While thinking about this, it struck me how well you could write a campaign that the players would love if you had their characters to design the campaign around. Since the reverse is more often true, I started to speculate on how you could achieve good in-game hooks to the characters backstories and came up with a process that just might work.
1. Write up a list of backstory elements that will fit into the campaign that you are going to run. Keep them very general and add questions that the players can grab onto.
Your character ventured into a cave near their village and defeated a monster there. What was the monster? What made it terrifying to the village? How did you defeat it? Did it leave you marked in any way?
Your character trained at a magic school and had some hand in an illegal summoning. What did you summon? Was it inherently good or evil? Did you get in trouble for it?
Your character was a member of a nation’s army, but is no longer. Why did you leave? What was your specialty? What was your rank? What was the name of your best friend during that time?
Your character was put on trial for something. What were you put on trial for? What was the verdict? Did you serve time? Did you escape? Is there currently a bounty on your head?
Your character witnessed the death of loved ones and was unable to stop it. What one detail were you able to make out about the person who did it? What weapon did they use? How long ago was it? When was the last time you woke up with a nightmare about it?
2. Offer these up to the players before character creation, encouraging them to integrate the generalities of the hook into their character’s backstory and provide you with the details. Ask them to fill in the blanks. Write more than you’ll need so that players can find one that fits with their character concept. If players are reluctant, grant some bonus such as XP or an extra ability, power, or skill if they incorporate these seeds.
3. Take the players details that were built around your generality and work the details into the campaign. Since you have written them up in such a way that they will fit into your campaign, the players’ details will fit nicely and you can make it a more personal game. The ideas may also spark creativity in the players, adding in details and unique elements where they may not have normally.
5. Profit – Watch as the players get excited when their backstory elements come into play, and revel in the fact that you didn’t have to completely veer from your original ideas because the characters are so far off of the course of what you had imagined. The general of the BBEG’s armies could be the one-eyed man who murdered a PCs loved ones, creating an instant drama and connection. The character who chose to be part of a nation’s army could have left the corrupt army of the BBEG, but their friend is still in the army and it creates a conflict when they later meet.
Giving your players some purposefully crafted seeds to incorporate into their backstory can create a strong, intertwined story that the players will be incredibly immersed in. I tend to be malleable about the types of characters I play, so having some elements to build off of would give me plenty of backstory fodder to be creative with. If I saw the Game Master make use of those elements in my backstory as an integral part of the game, I’d be hooked. But what do you think? Would you pick up a Game Master’s backstory seeds if this idea were presented to you as player?