Monthly Archives: February 2013


NPC Cast Episode 8: Alas Wallis (MP3)

On today’s special episode of NPC Cast, we have the chance to talk to Award-Winning game designer James Wallis about a whole slew of things, including his new role-playing game ALAS VEGAS,  currently being funded on Kickstarter! We are also excited about a couple of other Kickstarter projects: Story War and Machine of Death, and James explains why Del and Aaron are moving to Norway! (77min)

If you can’t get enough of your Wallis fix, check out some of the other places he has been featured this week:

Jennisodes Podcast

G*M*S Podcast

Little Metal Dog Show

RPG Geek

Ogre Cave


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by NPC Chris.

In the post last week, I covered the two main questions a GM must ask when approaching generating backstory in a game. Once these questions have been asked and answered, what is left is the first session and how you plan to extract this information from your players. Yes, extract. Like problem teeth. Tooth often…pardon me. TOO often, a backstory session is like taking a test, and even the most prepared player typically doesn’t enjoy the act of taking a test. In this week’s blog we will discuss some novel ways in which we can incorporate backstory into a campaign. The only test that will be discussed is the testimony from your players attesting to your campaign being the best! (Sorry)

I am a busy guy. Extremely busy. Even busier than I was when I foolhardily agreed to run two simultaneous campaigns. I work (often overtime), record and edit a podcast, conduct meetings regarding future projects, and even write the occasional blog post. As my time is a valuable thing, and I love to enjoy my RPG sessions as a means of social interaction and escape, I find myself incredibly hesitant to waste a session. This means that 90% of the time I would rather not spend an entire session with backstory. In the first half of this article I spoke briefly about how your character doesn’t tend to become fully realized until you have the chance to play it; and what better time to start playing it than the first session! Something that I picked up from my friend and co-host NPC Del, is the concept of performing a backstory generation session in character. I will give you a couple of examples:

In my most recent D&D 4E campaign, Del determined that all of our characters would begin the campaign while locked up in a mental institution. This allowed him to ask us questions about our character backstories from the perspective of our therapist during our group counseling sessions. This novel approach led to some genuinely interesting interactions and play between the player characters, and offered a bit more insight into our characters than a standard questionnaire approach would have. This is in part because we were encouraged to answer the questions in character. Mine was a rogue named Spane Tribald, and he spoke of his time in the military and of his days as a field surgeon with an affinity for anatomy. As it turns out, he in fact was just incredibly handy with sharp blades and really had an affinity for slicing people’s throats. Medical experience? Well, not so much. This led to a more layered backstory that was able to be revealed bit by bit over the course of the first few sessions. It can be argued that an assassin backstory is a bit overused and a field surgeon may be a bit bland, but an assassin who convinces others (and possibly even himself) that he is a surgeon when he in fact isn’t, can be pretty fun to play. This backstory session led directly into the beginning of the campaign, as the mental institution we were in began to be attacked by demonic forces. In a moment of ultimate redemption, we were able to slay our crooked therapist and escape. It was seamless, it was glorious, and I commend Del for giving us the chance to experience it.

Alternatively, my most recent Iron Kingdoms campaigns began with both parties applying for a Mercenary Charter. In doing this, the deputy was asking them questions in order to file all the necessary paperwork (in triplicate, naturally). Most of the questions they were being asked pertained to their work together as a group.*

*I chose to focus on the group more than the individual during the initial backstory generation. I did this because the campaign was initially conceived as an episodic one that would be played occasionally as a reprieve from our D&D sessions. Because of this, I didn’t want to spend much time trying to shoehorn the group together and instead wanted them to establish a camaraderie from the very beginning.

The questions I focused on were straightforward: “How long have you been working with these other men?” “What are your responsibilities within the team?” “What sort of talents do your team possess that would make it in our best interest to charter you instead of somebody else?” In this way, the structure was quite simple but allowed for more depth of information as everybody was answering in first person, and in character. In order to hammer home the unity of the team even further, I then asked for their group to describe the first mission they went on as a team. They immediately answered with a story of being sent to capture a renegade sorcerer, which led to my spin on mid-session backstory generation: The Flashback Encounter. Once the players had described a bit of their first mission, I put the terrain on the table along with some miniatures and we proceed to play it out as though their characters were remembering it. Because the encounter represented a time when the characters were still learning to work together, and because this was the first game session, the players also had to learn their individual strengths and weaknesses. It felt pretty cool, especially with little things like our Alchemist proclaiming to be very good with “controlled explosions” during the interview portion, and then proving it with some pinpoint grenade placement during the flashback.

Ideas like these are what make GM a rewarding experience for me, and hopefully some of this will inspire you to incorporate backstory generation into your game session in unique and awesome ways. As a recap, this is done by asking yourself the questions:

“What do I want out of this backstory session?”

“What information is necessary now, and what can be discovered later?”

and then using some creative and outside-of-the-box thinking that encourages your players to give you the information you desire while in character. Doing this will establish a tone to the campaign while giving most of your players a cool experience that they have most likely never had before!

That is it for this installment, if you have any questions, concerns, or critiques I would love to hear them. You can contact me at or on Twitter as @NPCChris.

Thanks so much for reading, and support your local game store!

NPC Chris is a player and a GM. He has been as far back as he remembers, and will most likely be forever. And ever.

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NPC Cast Episode 7: Monopoly! (MP3)

Its a big one! In this week’s super sized episode the NPC’s take on the task of re-designing Monopoly! Aaron also needs bigger bullet points, Chris recovers from fugue, and Del goes dogcatcher! (72min)

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Background Check – Pt. 1

by NPC Chris.

Ahh, the joys of a new campaign’s first session. The heroes were heroes back then: bright-eyed, wide-eyed, other eye-related cliches. They had in front of them the promise of a road less traveled  a world that would be forever changed by their actions, and one that needed their help. In order to get where they would eventually go however, they had to come from somewhere. The first session is always important because it is the chance to set the stage for the events to come, based on the events that have already come to pass.

I began Iron Kingdom campaigns this week. Yes, emphasis on plurality. You see, as I mentioned on the podcast previously, I was very excited to begin running games utilizing this new RPG system by Privateer Press. So excited in fact, that I agreed to run not one, but two separate campaigns. One for the usual suspects of my tabletop gaming group and one for a rag-tag group of coworkers with varying levels of tabletop RPG experience. (“varying” indicating a state of “thoroughly experienced” to “never played one before” and of course the in-betweens) Both of these campaigns would begin with the same first session, which for me, is always used to build a bit of character backstory. The concept of generating a character backstory is not a new one, like, at all. Character backstories have been around since the inception of RPG’s and will always be considered by me to be an incredibly integral part of the experience. In many ways, character backstories and motivations are what set an RPG apart from any other game genre. They allow the “role-playing” part to exist. The way that these backstories are generated and how detailed they can be has fluctuated over the years, but in today’s post I will offer up my thought process in how I tackled them this time around.

Before asking the players about precisely which type of goblinoid murdered their family and left them orphaned, a GM should first ask themselves a couple questions:

“What do I want out of this backstory session?”

I decided that for these campaigns, I wanted something a bit quick, a bit light, and a bit different. I knew going into it that I would be running the session for two groups, and I would be dealing with a wide-range of experience, so those first two are for the new players and the last one would be for the experienced players. I also wanted there to be an established camaraderie between the PC’s from the onset. As this was a new system for all of us, I kept these inaugural campaigns a bit simple, and had already provided both groups with a similar prompt: “You were all members of a very large, recently disbanded, mercenary organization. When it dissolved, you all decided to group together based on your previous experience and apply for your own mercenary charter.” This prompt allowed me to have some semblance of narrative control with which to establish my campaign, but offered enough freedom for the players to make the characters they wanted.*

*To a point. A player may have wanted to make a Ranger/Mage Hunter who always works alone, which is fine concept. By establishing the type of campaign I was running, and where the story started, I was able to make it clear that this particular campaign would not be suited for such a character. It is ok for a GM to do this. Your job is to create the framework for an awesome collaborative story, and sometimes that means telling people no. If you have to say no, do it at the beginning though because nobody wants to be halfway through session 7 before they realize that their character concept doesn’t work with the campaign and they are getting punished for it.

“What information is necessary now, and what can be discovered later?”

I used to ask everything, and used to want to tell everything. I have been in campaigns that began with hour long one-on-one character story sessions and they have been some of the most fun I have ever had role-playing. I have also rolled characters randomly, and then made up that PC’s personality as I went along and those were ALSO some of the characters I was most fond of. As a GM, you need to determine what serves your purpose, per the first question you asked yourself, and act accordingly. Hour long individual character interrogations can be great for experienced players, but can be incredibly daunting for players who are new to the hobby. I am also of the mindset that you don’t really know your character until you play your character, and no amount of backstory you come up beforehand will ever be sufficient to fill in all those holes. Invariably, you will be confronted by something your character has never dealt with, and will have to make a decision in game. Like real life, the character you are portraying will begin to develop quirks as they are faced with challenges, and this is what supplies actual depth.

An example I like to use is “Fear of Spiders.”

You have a character named Philip, and you decide that Philip is afraid of spiders. Not arbitrarily mind you, Philip is afraid of spiders because his father was a scientist who was killed by a spider he genetically modified using advanced fell magics. His father was modifying these spiders because he was trying to extract an anti-venom in order to save Philip’s dying mother, also a victim of a nasty spider bite. Philip’s mother was bitten by this spider while she was en route to a remote island for botanical research, or so she said. Philip’s mother was actually having an affair with a ship captain. Suffice it to say, Philip is afraid of spiders. No matter how much story goes into Philip’s fear of spiders, it will never be more compelling than arachnophobia, and I would also make the argument that arachnophobia isn’t even inherently compelling. Arachnophobia is a relatively boring character trait until the moment Philip overcomes his fear of spiders and leaps onto the web of a giant mutant spider in order to save a fellow party member. Suddenly, Philip’s arachnophobia becomes VERY compelling, because it offers context for his selfless heroism and gives a benchmark for his personal growth.

While backstory provides you with guidelines for what your character does, it is the actions at the table that truly determine who your character is.

TO BE CONTINUED! In Part 2 I will discuss backstory generation a bit further, and also talk about what I did, specifically, in my most recent campaigns.

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NPC Cast Episode 6: Bullet Points (MP3)

In this week’s episode the guys chat about cooperative tabletop games! Also: Del enables Chris, and Aaron definitely doesn’t get a sweet new nickname that we will call him for the rest of his life! (58min)


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NPC Cast Episode 5: Name that Sword! (MP3)

In this week’s episode the guys blab about cliches, spurred by a sad panda post on Reddit! Also: Del does black and blue, Aaron yearns for something new, and Chris is mad Fate Core doesn’t rhyme! (56min)


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