Incorporating Player Backstories into Your Game
There is nothing more rewarding for a player than to having your character highlighted as part of the game. Maybe, because of where your grew up, you know some key piece of information, or you're able to make a crucial contact with a guild member because of something you did in the past. This simple link is massively impactful for the engagement and motivation of the player, and also it's just cool when it happens.
So how do you, as the DM, start to weave into your campaign the mish-mash of napkin based scribbles and occasional novel worthy tomes that your players give you? And why, you ask, would you want to take on this daunting task? This, dear readers, is our topic for today's article.
If you want your players to engage with the world you are presenting to them, they need motivation, a reason to go and do 'the thing'. There is no better source than using the backstory they have already written. Why are they willing to risk their lives to go on these adventures? Is it purely for the loot? They're just bored? There is very likely something tragic in their backstory that you can use to create a compelling reason for them to go out into the world. The backstory is gold and you should use every part of it that you can.
I just want to play D&D, not write a novel...
If your players are not interested in writing a detailed autobiography of their character's life and why they've become an adventurer, that's fine! You really only need a few details and you can make the rest up from there. In fact, I would even go so far as to say, the more vague it is, the easier it is for you. If they give you detailed descriptions with dates and names an timelines and family trees, it can be too rigid for you as the DM to weave into the campaign. For example, imagine you get a backstory about how they're from a certain area of your world with lots of relationships and history and intrigue in that local area, but your campaign takes place out on the ocean or deep in the underdark. It might be a real challenge to try and plausibly mesh those things together. So instead, have them come up with a few point form notes, rather than paragraphs worth of description.
If they have given you their backstory already, try and tease the following details out of it, and if necessary you can always go back to them to clarify, or add additional details.
The basic things you need in a backstory are as follows:
Parent's names, professions, general attitudes and any affiliations. Brothers and Sisters are good as well, and maybe any prominent Aunts or Uncles. Going further than this is probably more than is necessary.
Outside of the family, are there any notable relationships? Former employers, friends, romantic interests? Husbands or wives, teachers or even travelers they've taken in over the years all make for great links into the story.
Where you grew up and where you are 'from'. This is best if you just ask for the broad strokes, rather than a specific city. Something like, "I grew up in a large city, surrounded by magic" or "I grew up in a small farming town, near the mountains". This lets you situate the place in your world or adventure, while still giving the player the freedom to define who their character is.
Some details about how you became your class, or how you discovered that you were that class.
Plot Holes / Secrets
This one is the most fun. Have you players give you something that they aren't sure about, or something they are keeping secret from everyone. Some ideas here could be that they are on the run after stealing something from a prominent noble, or that they woke up alone in the forest one day with no memory of the previous 2 years. This gives the DM some strings to start pulling together and can make for some really fun reveals at the table.
Ok, now what...
The next steps here are going to be highly dependent on your campaign, your world and the collection of backstories that you have to work with. Here are a few ideas to help you get started though:
Look for similarities
These are things that your adventure plot line have in common with the backstories. Keep in mind that these can be advantageous for the group, or disadvantageous as well. Having a thieves guild after you (bad...) might put you in another thieves guild's good books (good!). The enemy of my enemy is my friend type of thing. If two of your players both come from a small fishing village, do they know each other? You can take opportunities like these to work with your players and start to build in some additional detail.
Look for connections
These could be things that the players have mentioned that are linked to the plot line somehow, or also connected to an NPC or town as well.
Add new elements
If you can't find any links or similarities and you are running a module, you can always add in something new. New NPCs, Groups, items, it's all fair game. If you are running a homebrew adventure or world, you are of course already doing this.
That sounds like a lot of work. Pass!
I get it, DMs already have a lot of stuff to track and build and remember and crafting bespoke plots just to give your players a little "oh, that's cool" moment might not seem like it's worth it. I can assure you though that, done right, these moments are some of the coolest things that can happen at your table and they will be the seeds of the moments that your players talk about for years. If you put a small amount of work into making plausible connections between the story and the players, you will not only make running your game easier, but you will add a new dimension to your story that your players are going to love.
If you are just starting out as a DM, this can be a little overwhelming for sure. My advice to you is to start small, and go from there. Start with a small link to an important NPC. They are from the same town maybe, or attended the same magic school years apart. It's also okay not to have the whole thing mapped out from day one. Don't feel bad about making stuff up on the fly - we just call that 'improvising'. Obviously try to have a framework in mind or a rough idea of how things are connected, but you really can't prepare for every possible situation your players will put themselves into.
Tying your players backstory into your campaign will be tons of fun for the players, make your life as the DM easier and can lead to some of the most memorable moments of your game. I hope that these ideas have inspired you to try this out at your table, and that your games are better for it!
That's all for this week, and don't forget, there are 20 sides to every story!
-The Intrepid Adventurer