Sunday, November 26, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the DM

This is more of those advanced DM challenges that are almost certainly not for beginners. The challenge itself is pretty simple to explain: make the PC’s background more important than the PC’s class.

If you’re playing 5e RAW, your players are picking a background. They get the proficiency pips for the skills that come with that background and then, all too likely, are completely forgetting about it. Don’t let them!

There’s a ton of cool stuff you can do with the PCs backgrounds. Some practically hand you adventure hooks, like the sage’s “letter from a dead colleague posing a question you have not yet been able to answer.” Others imply connections, both good and bad, like the noble, acolyte, criminal, and guild artisan who are members of larger communities. The urchin might be an orphan, but they probably know everybody in the seedy part of town, and the sailor and soldier were part teams whose members are probably still out there somewhere.

Adventure hooks, especially at the opening of the campaign, are wonderfully nice to have, but we’re looking for deeper engagement. Time to put on your Mephistopheles hat. Get the players to start thinking about their backgrounds by making it clear that backgrounds are a good way to solve problems. You might need to prod a bit at the beginning; mention to a player that they might be able to get reliable information by asking this person they know. Need to find the Thieves’ Guild? The urchin knows a fence who used to work for them and probably still does. Need to find out more about the ruin they’re planning to loot? The sage knows a local specialist on the historic period when the ruin was built. Need a guide through the swamp? The locals might open up to a folk hero and divulge which smugglers and poachers are trustworthy.

Keep a list of the PCs’ background handy and consult it often. Whenever a player asks, “Do I know anyone in this town/tavern/jail/etc.?” check the backgrounds first and look for an excuse to say, “Yes!”

The goal is to get the players to bring up their backgrounds whenever they’re faced with a conundrum. If you allow the players to go to that well often and profitably, with solutions, good hints, and timely warnings, they’ll start to rely on it. The goal here is to have one player say to another, “Hey, surely your guild merchant knows somebody who…”

And then you can start to rope them more tightly with conflicts. The local entertainers support the Queen’s faction over the Cardinal’s. The sailors want a more aggressive foreign policy that will sweep the pirates from the Inner Isles. The local community of the learned is riven with internal politics and back-stabbing. Let the PCs get involved and make a difference, especially as success leads to greater prestige.

But if you really want to hook them, give them a big, juicy mystery. The secret leader of the warlock-bandits is really an old chum from the university; the urchin’s childhood buddies from the street are being murdered; a ship the sailor crewed sails in with all hands missing and a hold full of barrels of salt water; the soldier’s old unit is disgraced and cashiered for an offense they couldn’t possibly have committed. Of course tie that in with the larger plots of your campaign. Weave the backgrounds of the PCs into the ongoing conflicts of the setting and the larger mysteries they’ve expressed an interest in.

Old School DMs, you’re not off the hook here, though I suspect most of you already do this to some extent. You just wait later to get started. Building relationships, callbacks to earlier adventures, enemies made and allies won, start to dominate the campaign. It’s a natural progression when the first three or four levels is the PCs’ backstory. Since they build it together, it’s less about this character or that character and more about all of them together. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends on you and your group.

Art by Rembrandt.


Black Vulmea said...

Speaking as one of those 'old school' referees, it's not about ME building relationships for the players' characters. but rather the adventurers building those relationships through actual play.

To the extent that I facilitate this, it's mostly a function of creating a setting in which tugging on a (non-player character) string pulls at everything else, through professional and organization affiliations and personal and familial relationships.

Your point that this manifests itself over time, rather than from the giddyup, is spot-on. More importantly, relationships may continue even as characters change: in our Boot Hill campaign, we're playing troupe-style characters. so as characters are introduced to the troupe, they may become acquainted with non-player characters by connection to, frex, deceased character - 'This is (character name), an old friend of Bloody Bill's.'

trollsmyth said...

Black Vulmea: the trick in an Old School game, for me anyway, is to keep good enough notes and refer back to those notes often enough that I seize the opportunities when they present themselves. I think the point about not just using relationships as a club to beat the players with is still valid; you have so many other clubs to use, after all.