Lukasz, Mélodia, Jaënie, Bolgeirr and Azura, STAY OUT! You'll only ruin your own fun if you read this.
This is an after-action report about my backstory canonization method, which I describe here.
The “Vampires of Varmand” campaign started as a one shot, probably, like two years ago? I did not expect my players, at the time, to have backstories for their characters. Well, the one shot ended up lasting two sessions and then we were all available to play every two weeks for a while, so what was supposed to be a one-shot ended up lasting 15 sessions. We then took an extended break, mostly because I left to go start work as an intern in another city.
This year, we decided that we wanted to reboot the campaign. We did a time skip and my players told me that they wanted to go to another country: the island “nation” (it’s complicated) of Dobrovnia: a region mostly inhabited by Not-Polish™ halflings and goliaths.
When we started back up, I realized just how vague the PC’s backstories still were. This is not a problem, really: DnD is what happens at the table, not what happened in the mysterious past of the player characters. However, I wanted to flesh the stories out, because there was some stuff in there that I wanted to use in the game, but, with no specific details to use, I would end up basically having to reinvent my player's backstory to create NPCs and events, which, I feel, would have been a bit impolite.
It’s not that my players had no backstories, it’s that these backstories were vague and unusable. One of my players had written great pages-long short stories. Another player had invented a nomadic desert culture and created words to use from her mother tongue. Another had attracted the ire of an imperial guild, but what she had done was unclear. Another had no backstory, but we were going to spend the next 6 sessions in the kingdom he grew up in.
I wanted to transform these disparate pieces of information into something I could easily reuse in the upcoming sessions, so I summoned my players one by one, over the course of two weeks, to have a chat about their backstory and, well, make them canon.
Lukasz had basically no backstory when we started, except for a single incident. The player had created the character because he retired his old one, an elvish bard named Théodore Isaa and had given little thought on the life of Lukasz.
Lukasz, we knew, was a sailor, whose father died during a storm while he was on board. He ended up washing ashore in the Kingdom of Bélor (where our campaign was taking place at the time) and took up adventuring to pay for a trip back to Dobrovnia. Lukasz’s player had mentioned off-handedly that his character had been a soldier as well. That’s what I wanted to flesh out.
We started the "canonization" session with me explaining to him the political situation in Dobrovnia (long story short: Viking invasion of Polish-England). I explained to him that the current war was driven to a stalemate, but that, if he still wanted to have been a soldier in the past he could have participated in that war. He was still interested. We decided that his home city had raised an army to face one of the warring kingdoms and that he was conscripted. Lukasz took part in a disastrous battle and basically “deserted” by going back to his family fishing job and getting stuck in a storm.
From this, we derived many NPCs that were a part of Lukasz’s squad. He will probably/most definitely run into them in the coming sessions.
Mélodia was the character that had wronged a guild in the past, but like, the details were confusing. When I met with her, my goal was to figure out exactly what happened and what the consequences of those actions were.
Now, this character plays as a Genasi, but she's actually a shapeshifter under an assumed identity (we decided not to name the character, only her identities). From this, we talked about how shapeshifters were treated in the Empire of Sollais, where she came from. We talked about how, while living in poverty, she attracted the attention of an NPC, who saw her potential and allowed her to join the Imperial Guild of Engineers of Sollais. At the time, she had another identity, which we built. The Guild proved really useful to inspire NPCs: we invented a rival, a mentor figure and a friend that she had.
Things, of course, went wrong. I asked my player why her character had betrayed the guild and how she had done so. She said that one of her inventions (the Thundercannon, from the Unearthed Arcana Artificer) was going to be tested by a particularly cruel officer. Mélodia rebelled, destroyed all the copies of the schematics she made for the Guild and ran away. After this, she explained how she would have hidden from the Guild. We invented how she almost got caught by Imperial Spies (and the NPCs that almost caught her!). This session ended up providing me with very interesting future plot hooks and some very interesting world building to implement in future games.
This is the character of a player who had written a very deep backstory for her character. My goal, with this meeting, was to decide where these events took place and make sure that the details in my head lined up with the details in her head.
I added details to her tragic story about her home village being sacked. I mentionned some symbols she could recognize in game, modified some of the events she had written about to better fit with what I had planned, stuff like that. This event was a big deal in her backstory. My goal was to make her creation work better with the bad guys I had decided were responsible for these awful events. This, let's be clear, wasn't about removing her ideas from her backstory, but rather about making sure that everything lined up, so that we wouldn't end up in an awkward situation where I would have had to tell her the details of her backstory at the table, y'know?
Then, we detailed what happened in between this event and the start of the campaign. She explained that her character would have been obsessed with finding out more about the people who destroyed her old life. We created events to explain how she found additional clues about what happened to her village during her voyages and created NPCs she met during her journey. Again, this ended up being very productive, and I hope I will get to use this stuff soon.
The player who created Bolgeirr was a new addition to the group, and his character came in at the same time as the reboot of the campaign. My goals with my meeting with him was to figure out how the character became friends with an NPC that I used to introduce him in the game, but we ended up creating more.
First, we invented how monasteries in his Viking-like culture worked. We invented the god they worshiped, their philosophy and how they practiced rituals to celebrate their goddess of the hunt. We talked about the character's education. We created NPCs from the monastery, such as a teacher, a friend and a rival. We decided that he met Martiin (the NPC from the campaign) when he was washed ashore their island. Martiin, a monster hunter by trade, inspired adolescent Bolgeirr to travel the world, which he eventually ended up doing, leaving his monastery to find his own glory in the thrill of the hunt.
During this new part of his backstory, we solved another issue we had with the character. Bolgeirr was underpowered compared to the other characters in play, because of his lack of magical items. We decided that he had created (as in built and had someone else enchant) some +1 tridents with unique abilities, based on the numerous monsters he had hunted in the past. During this phase of his life, he met Martiin again (yay!) and was recruited to join the campaign, as a “professional” monster hunter. Some very interesting world building happened, and we managed to patch up his character, that felt a bit lackluster in his current form, in comparison with the other veterans of the campaign.
At time of writing, I haven’t had the opportunity to play many sessions of this campaign since doing this process. However, I find it much easier to use the player’s backstories for the campaign. Plus, I find the collaborative world building we did to be interesting, and they really helped to flesh out my world.
I will flesh this part out more as I gather more examples of how this helped me in the game! Thanks for reading! I hope you got something out of it.