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Use PC Backgrounds as a Roadmap for Campaign Design

Posted By Martin Ralya On January 18, 2010 @ 2:32 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

I’m a big proponent of using everything my players give me, especially when it comes to PC backgrounds: If you put it in there, I assume it’s because you want to see it in the game, and I’ll do my best to make that happen.

But why assume?

As a player, I design character backgrounds this way. I include NPCs my PC would love to fight, fuck, or otherwise interact with; I build conflict into my characters’ pasts, and leave big, juicy pointers to future conflict. And I assume my GM will make the most of it.

But again, why assume?

The GM in one of my group’s two current games (both 4e D&D, oddly enough), Don, did something really cool with regard to pre-campaign prep: he asked each of us to send him a list of three things we wanted to see in the game.

Here’s my list:

1. The big one, from my background (where it has its own section): return to Damara, stop the Warlock Knights from invading, and reclaim the honor of my clan. That’s more than one thing, I suppose, but it’s Dox’s overriding character goal. The whole hammer thing is part of this, too — if Dox does good, the hammer recovers its magic. This sounds like something for later levels, which I think makes sense in-character — Dox knows he can’t do this yet.

2. Rebuild the Seven Swords. This is Dox’s new family, and honor demands that he clear this family’s name, too. The two real ex-Swords he’s met have been nothing but good to him, and he has a lot to prove. That said, this is likely our main campaign goal, so I’ll give you two more.

3. I’d like to take part in a siege as the besieged. I’ve never done this in D&D, and I love the concept. To get around the time constraints — since a traditional siege would take awhile — it would be fun to be the elite team tasked with sneaking through the cordon and bringing back the siege-breaking macguffin, which sounds much more like one or two adventures.

4. Something more appropriate to the heroic tier: I’d love to play a classic rooftop battle — chasing or being chased across the rooftops of a city, perhaps Waterdeep. (This might be a fun one to work a skill challenge into.) Moonlit night, skidding perilously close to the edges of roofs, coming up on trouble too fast to react to it — the whole nine yards.

And as the game has progressed, he’s worked them into our adventures: we just had our rooftop chase, and my hammer has been slowly improving. Ditto for the other players’ requests. It rocks, and it got me thinking: Why not combine this approach with my fuzzy philosophy about making the most of PC backgrounds?

That should take the assumptions and guesswork out of both sides of the equation, and when you have limited time to game that’s always a good thing.

Make the Background a Roadmap

This is a simple idea:

Systematize the connection between PC backgrounds and actual gameplay by asking your players to focus their backgrounds on what they want to do, not what they did before the start of the campaign.

There’s nothing wrong with having a robust backstory (mine usually run about 10 pages…), but a backstory that has no impact on the game is about as useful as conjugating verb tenses for orcish dialects — if it never hits the table, who gives a flying fuck? Not me — not as a player, and not as a GM.

Get on the same page: For this technique to work, you and your players need to be on the same page about what kind of campaign you’ll be playing. “It’s kind of like Star Wars” isn’t a bad start, but it’s not enough. (Which era? Which movie? Are we all Jedi, or Ewoks? Can we shoot Gungans on sight?)

Create characters as a group: You don’t need to go from zero to a fully fleshed-out party together, but at a minimum you’ll need to have an idea of what everyone else will be playing. (For tips, try this free PDF: More is Better: Group Character Creation.)

Write your character background however you like: Why reinvent the wheel? Just have fun writing your background the way you always do — the key step comes next. One exception: If your backgrounds always say “My guy is named Bob,” you’re going to need to do more than you usually do.

Turn that background into a roadmap: Once you have a background, look for hooks that point to fun encounters, storylines, recurring villains, or other campaign elements. (Having experience as a GM and a player helps a lot here.)

Then, transform those hooks into action items for your GM — things you want to see in the game — and ask for them explicitly. Don’t beat around the bush: just say “I want to do/see X.” Here are four examples based on the PC featured above:

  • I betrayed the king, my family, and my clan, and stole my people’s ancestral hammer — I want that to come back and bite me in the ass. The king’s lackeys should be on my heels as soon as it fits the campaign, and I want to be forced to face what I did through some intense roleplaying. Sure, I did it for the right reasons (the king is a scoundrel), but what will I do when the dwarf-shit hits the fan? I want to find out!
  • My character is fiercely loyal to his new “family,” the other PCs and their mutual adventuring guild. As in, he will die for any of them without hesitation. That sounds cool, but will I actually do it? Put me in a situation where I have to choose between my life and one of theirs.
  • As a runaway from an isolated dwarfhold hundreds of miles from where the campaign starts, I’m a fish out of water. I’d like to see that brought out in-game in fun and interesting ways (positive and negative).
  • The story behind the ancestral hammer is that it lost its magic because the king is betraying his own subjects, and I stole it so that I could restore the clan to greatness. I’d like to see this represented — assuming I hew to my clan’s values, and my own — by the hammer “regaining” its powers over the course of the campaign.

Avoid writing the campaign: Take a look at my examples: none of them dictate the course of the campaign — though they all point to elements that could become major features of the campaign, if my GM wants them to be. The goal isn’t to hog the spotlight, it’s to contribute elements that will be fun for you, for your fellow players, and for the GM.

As a GM, I’d love to see this kind of roadmap from each of my players. There might be things I couldn’t work in, but even those would be great inspiration — and it’s entirely possible that I’d be able to craft an entire campaign just around the conjunction of the PCs’ roadmaps.

What do you think of the background roadmap technique? Have you used something similar? Will you be trying it in your next campaign (or even your current one)?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Use PC Backgrounds as a Roadmap for Campaign Design"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On January 18, 2010 @ 11:26 am

I like the idea– I’ve gone partway toward it with writeups in the past, but never to extent above with the completely GM friendly “here’s some cool stuff, ready to use”.

The 3x3x3 was a great way to shovel lots of ready to use NPCs at my GM– combine that with your explicit action items above and you have a very collaborative world, with lots of tools easy in the GM’s hand, but plenty for the GM still to do.

#2 Comment By outrider11 On January 18, 2010 @ 11:33 am

Player backgrounds are part and parcel of my game. The players give me the basics of what they want in their background and I fill in the actual details and give it back to them.

This works well for integrating stories and future plothooks. I usually start campaigns with no specific plans in mind, just a general idea but allow the players to pick their way.

#3 Comment By sage On January 18, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

Hot War has this pretty much built into the system: at the beginning of play, everyone describes a photo of some event that they’d like to see happen. The interesting element there is that since you convey it as a photo, you can make that exact scene happen in an entirely different context.

#4 Comment By orklord On January 19, 2010 @ 10:39 am

Great post, Martin. I am going to ask my players to give me goals next week.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 19, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

@Scott Martin – I like 3x3x3, and I agree it’s more about implicit stuff that action items. The combination would be fun.

@outrider11 – I wish I was better at pulling off stuff like this!

@sage – I’d never heard of Hot War before — thanks! It sounds nifty.

@orklord – If you get a chance, drop back by and let me know how it went!

#6 Comment By Nojo On January 19, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

I’m going to write mine up for my 4E psion and send to my DM.
AND I’m going to use this + 3×3 for my Rogue Trader campaign that I’ll start in a few months.
Thanks. It’s topics like this that keep me a devoted Gnome-Head.

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On January 20, 2010 @ 7:25 am

@Nojo – Nice! I’d love to hear how both tools work out for you. :-)

#8 Comment By Qi Chin On February 5, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

I’m actually very excited to use something like this in our upcoming D&D 4 campaign. I’ve already told them that they have a relatively large playing room concerning setting details, so I’m hoping that they’ll chow down and go crazy. I’ve never actually done something like this before, so I’m hoping that the players will give me loads of awesome plot ideas I can’t think of myself.

#9 Comment By elder_warlord On January 28, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

I am planning on doing this for the third time with my next group…the last two times, only one player (both times different) gave me anything at all…needless to say, the others played a lot of these PC’s story over the course of the campaigns. I’ve done it as a player for every game, always sure to include enemies and friends/family for the DM to include at will…
It would be nice if there was a way to get players to get behind an idea like this, but…they are a fickle bunch, at times…aren’t we?


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