Using the PC’s backstory:
In my last article, I wrote about creating effective backgrounds for player characters. This included advice on how to write background that are not bogged down with too many details as well as a discussion about how to allow GMs to effectively use this background information in the story.
Today I want to talk about how GMs should use the backgrounds written by their players to develop their investment in the game world and story.
There are two basic ways I use character backgrounds: Details and Themes.
Did your player include the name of an important person in their background? Perhaps they included a mentor, friend, lover, or rival. If so, use that person as an NPC in the game. It can be as simple as bringing up their name in conversation with an established NPC. For example, the NPC could say, “I sought you out because Belandra said you would help.”
It could be that when the party needs something, you can let them contact this person for help or advice. Or when you need to roadblock the PCs for a bit, their old enemy or rival shows up confront them directly, or maybe have them arrested or seize their supplies through the bureaucracy.
As the game grows, you may create and introduce NPCs that fill these roles. But if the players already did some of the leg work for you, why not take advantage of it? It’s less work for you and it allows the players to feel like they have contributed to the world. It’s an easy way to build a player’s emotional investment in the story.
And of course, details are not limited to NPCs. Names of locations, artifacts, or heirloom items (mundane or magical) can all be sprinkled in to help further develop the campaign world and create connections between PCs and the world.
Themes are a bit different and rely more on the emotion of the backstory. Do you have a PC whose background includes growing up very poor, perhaps also in an orphanage? If so, you should include NPCs and scenes that allow this player to interact with this thematically. Perhaps they confront the corrupt orphanage nanny who’s not caring for the children properly and using the money for gambling or drugs. Maybe you meet the kids first and they are clearly underfed and neglected. The PC could (perhaps should) connect to this NPC quickly because of their background.
Here are a few examples:
If a player creates a background where their family taken from them as they watched helplessly, include scenes later in the game where there are families in danger.
A player whose PC is driven by wanderlust and sense of adventure should be given (or perhaps denied) the opportunity to explore new lands.
A player whose PC grew up in a rigid military household and escaped to become a free spirit needs to be given the chance to interact with a young NPC who’s considering joining the military, or maybe deserting.
A player whose backstory includes wide and exotic travel should have the opportunity for their knowledge of a foreign culture (like language or customs) to be important. Perhaps that’s why their group is hired to guard the visiting dignitary of that country.
A player whose backstory includes them being abandoned by their family, their last adventuring group, their military commander, or their their Kingdom needs to have a chance to interact with themes of abandonment in the game.
The most important thing to remember is that you as GM need to review the backgrounds that your players give you. If you have an idea for a recurring villain, see if there is already an NPC created that you can use rather than make your own. If you need a town far away that is in danger, choose one from a PC’s background. If you need an enemy to fight, choose a creature or race that a PC lost their family to as a child.
Then, try to use the themes present as you design encounters. Let’s say that themes of family are important to your players as defined in their backgrounds and you want the PCs to fight a band of orcs. To make this encounter mean something, maybe this band has recently captured a wagon of pilgrims and there is a family in danger. Or perhaps the PCs are hired to track down an orc band only to discover that it’s a band of mostly un-combatant children and elders. Whatever the case, the theme becomes more important than the encounter because it matters to both the PCs and the players. Now there is more to the fight than simply swinging weapons and gaining XP.
Lastly, I want to talk for just a moment to that type of GM who thinks that a very detailed background is better, locks players into their backgrounds, and prevents the players from expanding those backgrounds during play. Related to this is the falsehood that incorporating background elements makes story progression too easy.
If a GM is going to lock a player into a box of not knowing anyone not specifically mentioned in their written background, they are forcing an unrealistic character on the player as well as removing their agency in the game. There is no way in two or three or even a dozen pages that you can detail all the NPCs that a fleshed out PC is going to have met or every significant moment they’ve lived. The Monk from the Monastery is one exception. There may be others, but for the sake of my argument, let’s ignore them.
A very well-used trope in TV is when a character will say “I know a guy” when the scenario requires them to do something they have no experience with. If the main characters need a computer hacked, a wound stitched, or a bet placed place on a gladiatorial event, a response of “I know a guy” always works and is always entertaining. So if I am going to be locked into my character’s background when I write it before the game starts, I will have to either include every possible “I know a guy’ scenario or be out of luck when the time comes.
If a player says “I know a guy,” and you don’t want to let them because they didn’t mention said “guy” in their background, you’re forcing the player to play a PC who does not model a real person with real experiences.
Give the players the same wiggle room for their background as they give you. At the end of the day, the GM plays all the NPCs. You get to choose how they act and react to the PCs. The players might invent an NPC, but you decide how they operate in the game world.
Consider the Lando example. Let’s say your player wants to pull out the “I know a guy” card when they are running from the Empire. Their ship is damaged and they need help. A player who is playing Han Solo says, “I know a guy who might be able to help.” Let me ask you as a GM, did Han’s friendship with Lando solve all his problems or did it create new drama and add to the story? I say it’s the later.
If a player wants to say “I know a guy,” 99% of the time I’m going to roll with this. Simply introducing the NPC does not give the PC a free ticket to make anything happen. Instead, it gives me as GM more details to work with. Maybe that guy died and the PCs instead find his widow and their child. They were told of the friendship and are now asking for help. Instead of instantly solving the challenge you had given the players, you’ve now added a new one with an emotional connection.
Maybe when the PCs arrive, this friend is in their own trouble and can’t help until their own problem is taken care of. Now the choice is between ignoring the friend or helping them and risking a delay in the primary plot resolution. Since the player invented this friend, there is already a vested interest in this new plot line. This adds tension and drama.
In conclusion, there are any number of ways that you can use the solution of letting a PC “know a guy” to make the story better. It’s not a free solution to the challenge you as GM created. It’s an opportunity to add details to the story, make the plot more interesting, and strengthen player investment in the game world. With this in mind, I encourage you to allow your players to write backgrounds that have room for development and growth during the game. Do not force them to dictate every detail of their background prior to playing. And make sure you are familiar with the details and themes that they do establish so that you can incorporate them into the game. Doing this will reward their creativity and create a stronger connection to the story you are all telling together.
I hope this has been helpful and remember; “if you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!”
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