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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.