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There will always be princesses that need rescuing, legendary treasures to be sought out, and dire threats to be overcome…but really, any hero can do those. Whether Party A or Party B happens to do the quest, it’s all the same. Sometimes, what your players need is a more personal touch.
Roleplaying campaigns can feel like a slog if there is not an interesting story to go along with encounter after encounter. Sometimes, gamemasters can spend weeks (or longer) coming up with a unique world filled with colorful NPCs and locations, but players may lose interest if they don’t feel a real connection to the setting. Those same players typically begin the game invested, to varying degrees, in the characters they just rolled up for the game – and this is where the enterprising gamemaster seizes opportunity. In fact, it can even be better to wait until you know the backstories of your players’ characters before you frame your campaign!
Be involved in these backstories. You want your players to become immersed in your setting, but that immersion is a two-way street in that players want you to be invested in their characters as well. Be sure to know, intimately, the details and all the twists and turns of the character stories in your campaign. Know why the characters are driven to be adventurers in the first place (or why they aren’t!) and begin to find ways to work that into the overall narrative. While you have spent a great deal of time developing a world for them to play in, your players have actually told you what interests and excites them right there in their own characters’ histories. They may or may not realize it, but clever gamemasters will see the story potential and strip mine it like the rare ore it is. If a player asks for advice in coming up with parts of their backstory, that’s even better! You can begin to seed side plots that will keep them engaged in your world and your story.
Meet The Cast, Learn Their Stories
I’ll give some great examples from my current D&D campaign, which started last summer. It’s set in a homebrew world that is relatively young and more or less unspoiled by some of the more menacing elements of D&D lore, but it still has historical depth and recent events that the characters start out knowing. For example, the Illithids and Gith have not encroached into the world as of yet, but the players did start out knowing that the hobgoblins had unified and conquered the ancestral elven lands in the east. I started with five players (now six) and each person entered into character backstory to very different degrees. Some put meat on the ribs, some came up with a quick but satisfactory synopsis, while another’s biography was basically “misanthropic edgelord” and little else – but there were still things to exploit there!
Two players had played together before and decided they wanted to be tiefling twins. In my homebrew setting tieflings come in two flavors: they are either directly descended from a devil or they are humans who made a pact of some sort and were transformed from it. They opted to be descendants of a devil, and decided that their mother had given them up at an early age and that they did not know who their Infernal father was. Right off the bat I had a delicious story hook to mix into the main story and get them fully involved in the game. They had a mother they barely remember and a father they did not know – but I now had the bones of a much wider story! Not only that, I had the opportunity to make the stakes highly personal for them.
Another player rolled a half-elf and used the setting’s lore to create a swashbuckler whose elven mother had been a refugee after the hobgoblins conquered the ancestral high elf lands to the east. His human father had been an adventuring sea captain and he and the elven refugee fell in love, resulting in a half-elf son. After the father died trying to help liberate the elven homelands, the character’s mother taught him how to be an adventurer. When a player embraces the lore of your setting and utilizes it during character creation, it’s a great feeling. It’s also an ample opportunity to come up with ramifications for them in your game. I quickly thought up his mother who, as a high elf, actually looks younger than her half-elf son. But more importantly I knew I would now incorporate hobgoblins into the story to an even larger extent than I had once planned. These creatures drove his people into exile! They killed most of his mother’s family and his own father! The stakes could not be higher for this character right from the start!
A fourth player decided he wanted to play a triton paladin. I’d already told the players that their first series of adventures would put them in an island region beset by pirates, so a triton was a good pick. His backstory was shorter; he’d originally come from a group of tritons in the east but found them too aloof and political for his liking, and he wanted to see more of the world. He became a sailor, and then one night found himself mortally wounded (ostensibly after a bar fight) and bleeding to death on the steps of a cathedral. He was saved by a priest and a paladin, and thereafter took up the calling of a paladin himself. I saw the potential right away. Who had saved him on those cathedral steps? How had he gotten there? Had it really been a bar fight? This player didn’t know it but he was about to get one of the wilder story hooks I could concoct!
And then there was my egdelord, whose backstory was – really and truly! – “antisocial edgelord.” Not all players are comfortable crafting a complex or even rudimentary backstory. They just want to jump in and start killing all the things. That’s fine, but a gamemaster must realize that this player will ultimately still need something to make them feel immersed in the story. He decided to play a hobgoblin warlock, and kept his race hidden from the party behind a mask (especially the half-elf player who hated hobgoblins!) for the first four levels of play. That in and of itself was another story hook – the hobgoblin exile whose own people in the east wanted him dead and who would be executed in the west if his identity was revealed. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. The player decided that, to be the edgiest of edgelords, he needed to have Cthulhu as a patron. Remember how I mentioned before that the game setting had been largely unspoiled by outside forces? This gave me the perfect story hook to turn that all on its head in real and impacting ways for the party.
Family Ties…Or Bindings
By knowing their backstories I was able to set up a great deal of the overall story and make it revolve deliciously around them. Those tiefling twins eventually found out that their father was a pit fiend who plans on using them as lieutenants on the material plane in the ongoing Blood War between devils and demons. Subsequently, demons are now actively hunting the twins and show up to attack at random times. They did find their mother, who revealed that she gave them up when they were young so they could be free, for as long as they remained with her their father would be able to know exactly where they were at any given time. The male tiefling, a sorcerer, recently bristled when the ‘Father’ contacted him and observed how his son’s ambition and drive mirrored his own. This pit fiend dad was even proud of his son! The character’s backstory had allowed an uncomfortable mirror to be held up and forced him to recognize the dangers his own motivations represent. Characters may dislike that but their players love it!
The half-elf who hates hobgoblins suddenly found himself befriending the edgelord hobgoblin Cthulhu warlock, who once surrendered himself to save the party from other hobgoblins. When the party arrived on the mainland, the half-elf swashbuckler made the mistake of taking the entire party – hobgoblin included – to his mother’s estate. The mother instantly recognized the hobgoblin and angrily cast her half-elf son from their home. A lot of players eat this sort of drama up like it’s strawberry Pez, so really play it up. What’s more dramatic than a falling out with one of your few remaining family members? Brunch with mother and your friends (“Please pass the scones!”) is nowhere near as interesting as “You dare bring this animal into my house? Son, how could you betray your father’s memory this way? Just… just go.”
Sometimes You’re Your Own Best Enemy
The party later learned of the numerous outside threats that an order of mages have been protecting the world against using planar protections. They learned of other worlds – Oerth, Krynn, Toril – and of things such as mind flayers and githyanki that had not yet been able to intrude upon their world. But they also learned that a powerful outside entity called Cthulhu was violently hammering at those protections and weakening them as it sought to gain a foothold into their reality. This made it easier for demons to slip through to hunt our tiefling twins and now their hobgoblin warlock has to deal with the fact that his patron is endangering the planet – a fact that the other player characters are now acutely aware of.
Our paladin is the one who gave me a chance to pull a true whammy on the party. I did check with the player first (please always do this, as comfort levels vary between players!) to make sure that they were okay with me taking some liberties in regard to his character’s past. He agreed since he’d only given a brief backstory to begin with, so I took the ball and ran with it. Why had he wound up near death on the steps of a cathedral that night long ago? It hadn’t been a bar fight; he’d been targeted by a crime family and had his memories erased by a spellcaster. Why had they targeted him? Because he’d married a woman who the head of that crime family had once been enamored with, and he would not allow their happiness. And that’s how my paladin found out he had a wife! It hit the party out of nowhere and made the story that much more engaging for our triton friend, whose sudden and real need for revenge is complicated by his oaths as a paladin.
Take your party’s backstories and run wild with them. Grab those character details and roll around with them in the hay. Even better, make it the central point of the campaign. Not every element has to revolve around or call upon their backstories, but let it steer you in the right direction. Bring in recurring villains and have them start to learn and exploit your party’s history. Have a character who has a troubled past? That must come back around. Have a character actively running from a troubled past and hiding from it? Then it has to come back twice as hard. The characters’ family and friends are all fair game on the plot wheel, and they should absolutely be incorporated. A proper campaign is a maelstrom churning up all sorts of terrible things; at its dangerous center is not your game world, but the player characters themselves. Don’t make them witnesses on rails. Instead, make them culpable participants, for better or worse. Your players will thank you for it!
Next time we’ll talk about consequences and how they must always have real weight.
Brewhammer was a Level 5 Battle Master before sacrificing himself to save the dwarven race in his game’s setting. Now he sits around smugly in the Afterlife, fairly pleased with himself while his player, George Berryman, was forced to roll up a new character. He will always scoff at the eladrin.