Monday, October 16, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the Players

So I recently got to play the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other game, only this time with two girls and one guy. The guy actually gave me a pretty cool, if brief, backstory. It lacked details like names, but definitely left the door open to some neat play.

And that, after all, is the point: encouraging neat play. You want to pack your game sessions with as much cool and excitement as possible. Your background is just another way to do that. But how?

Work with Your DM
Your DM probably has a few themes and ideas in mind for things they want to bring to the table. Ask them about those. See how they might be worked into your background. If you know ahead of time that the campaign is going to be about hunting down a secretive cult worshipping Tharizdun, it’s easy enough to say that cultists killed your family. But you can turn it up a notch to say the cultists are your family! If so, how did you escape? Did anyone else escape?

Feel free to use the Ten Ideas trick. It’s a pretty simple tool for coming up with great ideas. When you need an idea, force yourself to write down ten. The first two or three are clich├ęs everyone would think of. You were probably really stretching through the last two or three, and those ideas, while potential the most creative, are probably too “out there” to be useful. The ideas in the middle are where you’re most likely to find gold.

Ask if there are any institutions that are important to the campaign. Perhaps there’s a temple, a secret society, or a race that figures importantly in your DM’s plans. Find ways to connect your PC to them. This way, not only do you have powerful motivations to get involved in the world, but the DM is going to turn to you to provide exposition and important details.

Don’t be afraid to go big here. My latest campaign takes place in a world ravaged by a war between wizards. The landscape still bears the scars and huge swaths are only habitable thanks to powerful elemental magic supplied by genies. Knowing this, one of my players made her character the daughter of a powerful djinni. We worked together to create a situation where there is a useful link but also insure that her character was independent enough to go out on her own and couldn’t always just fall back on Mom’s influence and power. In spite of that, her ties to the movers-and-shakers of this world have been incredibly useful to both the player and myself in deepening the world and propelling the game.

Work with the Other Players
One of the hardest parts of getting a game rolling is finding a reason for the (inevitably diverse) PCs to join together and stick together. You can not only improve group coherency but also piggy-back on the cool ideas of your friends by linking your characters together before play even starts.

The methods for doing this are countless: family, childhood friendships, old loves and rivalries. You’ve seen all the old tropes in movies and novels for years now. Mine ‘em for their best stuff.

But don’t fall in love with something until you’ve talked it over with the other person. This is all about working with others, and will require some give-and-take. If the two of you can’t settle on something, just drop it; better to play what you want than a character you only kinda like linked to others by bonds you find annoying.

Don’t Stop Working!

It doesn’t do you any good to build all this background if you let it lay fallow on your character sheet. Keep in mind that your DM has a lot of balls in the air between monsters and NPCs and a whole world to manage. If you wait for the DM to bring up your character’s background, it might not happen.

Which isn’t to say you should be pushy and force your character’s background into center stage. The best way to bring your background into play is to ask your DM open-ended questions about what’s currently going on in relation to that background. “Which side of that conflict was my family on?” or, “What sources did my mentor at the Collegia Arcanum use to acquire black lotus?” or, “How did people prevent necromancers from animating their dead back where my character is from?” These are good questions that can deepen the world-building. Understand if the DM can’t address those in the moment; some might best be addressed via email or over coffee between games. And don’t be surprised if the DM throws the question back on you: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Look for opportunities to bring your background into the game, the same way you’d look for ways to use the special abilities of your class or race. Re-read your background regularly to keep the details fresh in your mind. Towards that end, don’t write thousands of words of background. Keep it short and focused on the details. Create a bullet-point version for use at the table. Be gentle; it’s a shared world, after all, and you don’t want to step on the toes of others. But by weaving your character’s background into the story, you’ll be strengthening everyone’s investment into your character and the world you’ve all created.

Don’t be a Passive-aggressive Jerk

This is not an excuse to create traps or subtly influence where the game goes. That sort of nonsense never works. If you want something from the game, be up-front about it with your DM and the other players. Don’t use your character’s background as a club to whack the other players and DM into doing what you want, either. It’s a tool to deepen the experience of play, not a handle for you to drive the game.

Interactive backgrounds that tie the PCs together and to their setting is advanced-level play. It’s not the sort of thing to undertake unless you’re comfortable with your game and you have a good rapport with your DM and the other players. That said, it can also be used to build that rapport, but if that’s your aim, don’t ask it to do any more heavy-lifting until you’ve got buy-in from those players and DM.

2 comments:

Warclam said...

What's going on in that second picture? It looks like the woman on the left is going in for a hug, but the one on the right is afraid of her for some reason?

trollsmyth said...

It's Gudrun and Brynhild, whose jealousy (born of the dishonesty of their husbands) leads to all sorts of drama, death, and mayhem.