file2771298748906While 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.

file0005897948793. 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.

4. ?????

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.


file0001083128843Giving 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?

22 replies
  1. randite
    randite says:

    I certainly would jump at the opportunity. I think this is a solid way to get characters into the plotlines and make them a living part of the game-world, right off the bat. It could also be used as tool to tie the PCs together, always a good thing.

    A GM would probably profit from presenting more of these backstory elements than are needed. Players love choices and if you only write up one per character, invariably one player wont like any of them.

    Also, this ties into something I’ve been thinking about lately. When I was young and my groups had a ton of time on our hands to play and talk about playing and think about playing, it used be pretty normal for us to create characters before the DM created his game idea. (It was all 2nd Ed AD&D, all the time back then.) The DM’d keep things general. Like: I wanna run something Planescape or I wanna run a setting where everything’s normal but elves are violent, cannibal savages or I’m thinking a city based game. We’d create some characters (or at least exhaustively detail our concept to the GM). Later, he’d come back in a couple days or weeks with with a campaign written for our characters.
    It’s only recently that I’ve sort of realized that isn’t typical. The GM comes up with an idea for a game. Pitches it to the players. Characters are created based off the pitch.

    We normally run games with characters rolled to a GM’s pitch now, but I find it odd that I can’t think of any other groups I’ve played with, RPG Blogs, RPG Manuals, etc. that have presented that idea. Anyhoozle, rant terminated.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      A GM would probably profit from presenting more of these backstory elements than are needed. Players love choices and if you only write up one per character, invariably one player wont like any of them.

      Absolutely. I’ve got a list of about 12 that I’m going to use in my next game. I only expect 3 or 4 players, but I’ve covered a lot of bases with the hooks so that they could have some choice.

  2. shortymonster
    shortymonster says:

    It’s not that normal for me to run games where I don’t think up the concept fully before first contact with the players, and then ask them to create characters once they already have a basic idea of what type of game I’m going to be running. This is down mainly to the fact that I run games for a large society of gamers, but like Randite, it wasn’t always like that.

    My next campaign is already brewing in my head, but I won’t know who may players are until a week before the game character creation. I’m doing something a bit different next time though, and will be letting the players have a weeks gaming before they create characters, as per the idea below, so who knows, this could work if I pitch it right.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I’ve done something like that in reverse. I gave the players a session with different characters to fill in pieces of the story they’d missed. They made up new characters for that session and I threw in some NPCs as well. They played their secondary characters and the NPCs in turn while solving puzzles in a race against other teams. Then then secondary characters got to fight the NPCs and won. Then, to be devious, I grabbed the secondary characters that they had min-maxed and used those to fight the PCs. It would be interesting to use NPCs before character creation, so they got a feel for the game.

  3. Nex
    Nex says:

    It’s a good idea. I especially like step 4.
    A problem I see is keeping the period of time short between character creation and the first game session.
    Any suggestions on this?

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Step 4 was the hardest to write.

      How I’m thinking of doing it is presenting them the ideas and making the first session a less plot integral one. A meeting with the other players that ends with a big event to catalyze them and lead to the deeper plot. That will give me time to flesh in their details onto my templated NPCs and plot points.

  4. mcmanlypants
    mcmanlypants says:

    I also like this idea and am trying something sort of similar with some pre-gen characters I’m making:

    I’ve volunteered to run a Call of Cthulhu one-shot for my group, none of whom have played it or used BRP, and to make it easier on them I’ve volunteered to bring a stack of pre-generated characters. I invited them to make requests regarding their characters and half the players did so (all along the lines of, for instance, “Make me a professor of Chemistry who’s maybe a little too suave for his own good,” which I found very helpful without being restrictive) while half the players asked to be surprised. I then used a CoC character generation utility called Byakhee to whip up a stack of characters.

    For each one I’ve made a nameplate with a period-appropriate portrait. I’m also generating a one-paragraph fill-in-the-blank background summary, a la Mad Libs. The first few minutes of the session will be me asking them to generate a list of entries, filling them in and then handing them around. I think it’ll be fun and it will also be efficient. It lets people experience a mix of playing a concept already interesting to them – if they had a preference to begin with – and being surprised.

    In parallel, I am going to leave some of the storyline undefined and, when they’re done generating their fill-in-the-blank backgrounds, I’ll borrow a few terms and use them to round out details of the Big Bad’s motivation.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      That sounds awesome. I like one-shots because they let me get in the head of a character but not be too attached to them. I’m less reluctant to explore in unusual ways when I’ve spent a lot of time on a character, so your approach of mixed player input and pregens sounds perfect. I’d love to hear more about how the game goes.

    • Roxysteve
      Roxysteve says:

      I’m finding the concept of a Call of Cthulhu character generator a little boggling – doing the gen by hand takes about four minutes thanks to the fact that there are no interdependencies or prerequisites involved.

      I find it useful for convention games to leave a few points unallocated to skills so the players can have the comfy feeling they have some say in how their characters build out. I let them spend the points at any time, so skills can be had at need. The idea has been popular with those who’ve had a go.

      I love your background ideas, mcmanlypants

      • mcmanlypants
        mcmanlypants says:

        Any system is easy if one already knows it. It’s my first time out with BRP, also, and I needed a bunch of characters in a relative hurry. Byakhee definitely enabled that.

        • Roxysteve
          Roxysteve says:

          Sorry, received tone was unintended. My fault entirely.

          I wasn’t suggesting I was surprised you used the character generator, I was astounded that someone went to the trouble of writing one.

          I use a spreadsheet myself to pre-roll characteristics so new players can just pick a set of rolls (and consequences arising like SAN, HP, skill points etc) to shortcut the process of chargen in an ongoing game. I print it out and just hand over three sheets of possibilities to the new player, telling them to pick one and join in when they’re done moving the stuff to the sheet and picking skills from the book.

          I also have a rather involved workbook for running off the more involved (but still easypeasy) Savage Worlds characters that can cope with half a dozen different settings (base, Fantasy, Slipstream, Deadlands, Space 1889, Necessary Evil, Realms of Cthulhu), but it is very function heavy since I wanted to make it without using macros and that means lots and lots of indirection, and no automation means you must know how to use the keyboard in the “open office” way. Works rather well for “suck it and see” chargen and I can run off a gang of Fast-Drawin’ Outlaws, a group of Intrepid Explorer Society types or a bunch of Doomed Investigators in about five minutes.

          I used my hour-plus-each-way commute to write the thing, and it has timesucked over fifty hours in design, implementation and rethinks because I are stoopid. Takes up a stunning amount of memory too. All those populated cells and VLOOKUPs (on VLOOKUPs(on VLOOKUPs)). Heh. It badly needs a rewrite but there isn’t that much [insert your bribe of choice] in the known universe.

          Not only that, I ended up buying two copies of each SW rule/setting book – one for use at the table and a PDF for quick reference while writing The Beast. *Then* I only just finished keying the list of hindrances/edges to the rulebook when PEG put out the Deluxe rules which changed the page numbers, darn their cotton socks!

          I’m thinking of doing a similar thing for Trail of Cthulhu, just for fun, but again, there’s a huge “why bother” factor with the GUMSHOE system which is very straightforward (once you’ve had a go, as you point out, though my own experience is that some systems have complex character gen processes that don’t get much easier with experience – which is why I usually steer clear of them).

          Dresden Files RPG. Now *there’s* a chargen that begs for the organizational help a computer can bring to the table, if only to sort out a skill pyramid that doesn’t nerf the character progression right after you’ve fallen in love with your wizard or werewolf or whatever you made. Such a simple system with such a complex gotcha hidden in the works (for the very best of reasons).

          • mcmanlypants
            mcmanlypants says:

            Oh, let me be clear, I wasn’t offended by your comment! Just noting why I was so grateful for one. The skills system does seem pretty easy but for the purposes of a one-shot I was more interested in developing an interesting story than learning their various “roll 2d6+6 for this stat and 3d6+3 for that and swing your partner round and round” at all. Like, zero interest in systems if someone else could automate it for me. I’m terrible at learning systems anyway, which is one reason why I’m such a fan of the Storyteller system for its divine simplicity (an assessment I realize is subjective and I readily admit there are probably people out there who hate it as being difficult to understand 🙂 ).

  5. gnomicgnosis
    gnomicgnosis says:

    i like this idea; i will definitely try it. it seems like a reversal of the dresden files rpg structure for developing characters and setting.

    one of my questions would be whether or not the characters feel railroaded in character creation and how that would affect the gameplay long term though. id love to hear the long term impact of character creation done this way!

    another question i have for you as a gm: have you ever run a burning wheel game? the reason i ask is that character creation is dependent on lifepaths within races (if you use nonhuman race options; i never have and it has worked perfectly well) and in order to determine a particular attribute (steel), there are a series of questions that the gm asks the player such as ‘have you given birth’, ‘have you been tortured’, ‘have you seen combat in a war’ etc and it determines not only what experiences the character has had in the backstory, but also how hardened they are emotionally.

    burning wheel is, admittedly, a predominantly fantasy-based setting, so not all questions would apply to a drastically different setting. if youre running a fantasy game, i highly recommend the books!

    ok, enough worshipping of luke crane; thanks for the information! ill be sure to try this in my next character creation!

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I have not had a chance to play or GM Burning Wheel. I like it in concept, but my group doesn’t trend towards games of that path. Usually, they enjoy the crunch of a more mechanical system and fleshing out their characters without too much interference from the system. Now, it is totally different for one-shots. They’re more willing to try new things if they are going to be quick and won’t take too much time away from the backlog of campaigns that have been talked about but not yet run.

  6. Ben Phelps
    Ben Phelps says:

    One D&D campaign I played in, the DM asked us to write backstories, and said she would incorporate them into the homebrewed setting. When I gave her mine she said “That story is wonderful. I have no idea what to do with it,” tossed it behind her, and that was that. The campaign died out quickly, and I never saw a single element of my backstory included in any way. As the campaign had progressed, it turned out that the DM simply wasn’t that good of a DM. Her encounters were awful and unbalanced, her story played to maybe one character’s motivations at a time, and her grasp of the rules was not great, to be generous.

    I think that in some ways “do what you want and I’ll include it” is a bit of a trap, especially for new GMs. It sounds so good… but if you’ve already plotted your main arc, slotting in player stories can be tough. You run the risk of including it so that it feels like a less important “side quest”, or worse, a time waster. A skilled GM will find ways to incorporate the details seamlessly, and make the world more flavorful in the process. Maybe a player’s childhood friend became the Bandit King you were already planning on the group fighting during an economic downturn. Or the trail in the investigation concerning proliferating cursed items leads back to a character’s blacksmith uncle, who is under the thumb of the necromancer yet another character’s life is devoted to fighting (and since you’d already planned the cursed item/big bad story, you just slotted in the details the players gave).

    The suggestions in the article are great for new GMs looking for a primer on the technique incorporation. It would also work great for short campaigns which have a narrower focus anyway. Plus, it’s also great to have a bunch on hand to spark some player ideas. Good stuff.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Thanks. Your DM sounded like she was new to being a DM. I didn’t start out as a flexible GM by any means, but the more I played and watched players, the more I was willing to abandon my ideas in favor of their fun and what was happening at the table. I think that is a skill that comes with experience, but I’ve seen old school DMs who have no desire to “pander” to players.

      • Ben Phelps
        Ben Phelps says:

        She apparently wasn’t new to DMing, or so I was told. She was new to DMing 4E, though she had played 4E for at least two years (but the basic rules had eluded her then so I’m not sure why she was made DM). As far as pandering to players… groups should be fulfilling for everyone, not just the power tripping DM. I would also think that someone who won’t adjust for the players is probably a railroader and possibly a cheater as well (to ensure their story goes according to plan). I just wouldn’t want to play something like that.

    • Scott Martin
      Scott Martin says:

      I’ve had trouble with “Do what you want and I’ll include it” in the past. Guidance, group character generation, or limiting the number of weirdo cards handed around often saves the GM heartburn.

      I’ve played in campaigns where the GM ignores (or seems to ignore) my background completely. It makes me feel like the time was wasted, but sometimes there’s enough personal benefit (*I* know about the character, even if the GM doesn’t) that it’s still a good exercise. If frustrating.

  7. Roxysteve
    Roxysteve says:

    For a stable group (i.e. one that is not made up of a cast that varies widely each session) I rather like the Dresden Files character generation which incorporates each of the players into other players’ backstories.

    However, if you do this, be aware that the death toll must be kept artificially low, which in turn can lower the payoff for survivor-types.

    Also, new characters are harder to integrate into the party.

  8. Khyboris
    Khyboris says:

    I am not a veteran GM. I have had a handful of GMing experiences. Often my interest in incorporating my PC’s backstory into the fabric of my setting FAR FAR exceeds their interest.

    I built a setting with a massive cannon of (generic to me) story elements. I did this to create numerous elements to put into characters’ backgrounds and allow the PLAYERS themselves to be the lens through which the elements of the setting are discovered. That didn’t end so well. As always, there were 2 players who took EXTREME interest, about 4 who had MODERATE interest (Oh, look at that) and 3 who just saw any NPC or opposition as placeholders for bullets – and conversely had no interest in having friendly, contemporary or friendly-rival NPC’s.

    I created an online (Obsidian Portal) presence for that particular campaign and in-it I have a page dedicated to asking questions similar to the one’s you’ve posted. That said, I’ve seen players GROAN at the ‘homework’ and I’ve also seen more than a few make the ‘wuzzat’ face. Only one player actually had PALPABLE enthusiasm when he saw it.

    Sometimes as a GM and as a player I’ve observed GM’s idea of their campaign their enthusiasm for their idea – to have their friends enjoy their idea – drive BACK player interest, especially when the world elements, mysteries and secrets begin to (from the PLAYER perception) bog down the game.

    I don’t have a dissenting opinion about this article, I just have a friendly word of … awareness… when it comes to lifepath-like questions BEFORE playing the game.

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