Making backstories canon: creating stories with your players

May 24, 2021

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If you want to read after-action reports of this method, click below!

The Vampire of Varmand Campaign (Lukasz, Azura, Bolgeirr, Jaënie and Melodia stay out! ) >:(

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Creating backstories for players characters in roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons is often a task entirely relegated to the players. This is fine, of course. In my experience, however, I feel that working like that can lead to the backstory being underutilized in-game.

One of the examples I lived through was a player who made a very complex backstory with interwoven plot hooks and character motivations. It was a good backstory, but I never really found opportunities to have encounters related to it.

Making your player's backstories "canon" and usable

So, I took the initiative to “canonize” my players’ backstories. We met on Discord and we decided built their backstory together. I would share my screen, put up a map of my world, and we would talk about their character. Players get to ask questions; you get to come up with answers. The result is a much richer backstory and world. Usually, this conversation will last an hour or two, depending on the player.

What does the player want to happen in their backstories? Where did the events happen in the world? Did they meet cool NPCs along the way?

During the session, you question your player, and you make their answers fit in the world. When they say that their cousin was a noble, you can tell them how nobles exist in your world and decide what kind of power their noble cousin have. The player came up with the idea. You made it work.

The goal, in so many words, was to turn those backstories into elements I could easily use at the table.

This type of session nothing new, of course, but I never really found tips on how to do it. So, I am writing it down, now that I’ve done it with over ten players in two games.

Here are the basic steps I follow.

Establish the basic character.

This comes with making the character sheet.

  • What is their race, their class, and what background did they pick?
  • Did the player have a basic idea of their backstory already? If so, have them tell you.

The player probably has answers to these questions before the backstory session.

Decide on the basic progression of events and the worldbuilding

Next, we start establishing what the previous decisions mean in your world. If your world is already well thought out, you can suggest areas, locations, and societies from where the player character might have come from. It is my opinion that you should always prioritize making your player’s ideas work, rather than making their ideas bend to your world. If your player says they come from a magical forest, but you don’t have one, invent one!

You should always prioritize making your player’s ideas work, rather than making their ideas bend to your world.

Players often have ideas for their backstory. Work with these ideas. The player should feel like they can modify your world and leave their mark on it. Then, I usually divide the backstory into periods of the character’s life. Something like this:

  • “Growing up in the Lavender forest.”
  • “Life on the road”
  • “Meeting the guild”

Add details (but not too many!)

These general periods can then be slowly filled chronologically with the player. The goal is not to be thorough: being overly detailed will take way too much time and end up stifling creativity down the line.

Rather, the goal here is to provide yourself with narrative tools with the player’s help. Create NPCs you can use. Create interesting locations, cities or landmarks. Develop NPC factions that the player knows and would recognize.

Rather, the goal here is to provide yourself with narrative tools with the player’s help. Create NPCs you can use. Create interesting locations, cities or landmarks. Develop NPC factions that the player knows and would recognize.

In the previous example, you could ask the player what growing up in that forest was like, what kind of relationship they had with their parents or friend and why they felt the need to leave. The player might come up with very complex answers or very simple ones. Just with these questions, we can decide on a few named NPCs. Did that PC have a friend in the forest? A rival? What about their parent? Are they still alive? Where are they now?

Once done, you end up with a few locations that the player helped build and a handful of NPCs that you can have show up in play.

That’s it?

It all seems a bit underwhelming, doesn’t it?

Your players will ask questions, you will provide or invent answers and discover more details about how your world works.

If anything, this is simply a post to say, “this is something you can do!”.

I don’t recommend this for every game. In some games, the player’s backstories are not the point, while in others, the backstories are thoroughly mined for plot hooks.

This is a very time-consuming process. Honestly, I would recommend doing this process after a few sessions of play. Doing it before the first session might lead to you overworking yourself unnecessarily and might lead to disappointment if a character ends up dying during the first levels of the game.

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