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Johnny’s Five – Five Tips For Getting Players Involved In The Backstory Of The Game

Posted By John Arcadian On September 1, 2011 @ 12:02 am In Johnny's Five | 8 Comments

image As Game Masters, I think we’ve all been in the place where we get wrapped up in creating a world or game with an intricate backstory or lots of details. (When I refer to backstory throughout the rest of this article, I mean the intricate details that surround a world or campaign. ) Whether it is the detailed story of the intricate social-politcal relationships at court, the involved history of how the alien races came to be involved in the millenium long war, or just the intricately detailed NPCs that populate a city, even the most improv heavy GMs can get down with creating reams of backstory. The problem is that players often give these intricate and lovingly crafted details the shrug off in favor of more character centric things. So how do you come to a nice medium that gets the players engaged with the backstory? Here are five things that I’ve done or seen done that work pretty well.

Use Broad Strokes – Detail is the death of interactivity. This might sound harsh, but if your players wanted to read a book instead of playing a game, that is what they would do. If you present your players with a 300 page world history, most of them are going to start zoning out. Think about what happens when players start making characters from a published  sourcebook. The majority of them pick and pry at the elements they find cool and figure out how to make use of those. That’s about the only thing they really read in-depth. “Sweet picture of an airship, how do I get to pilot one of those!” “That class gets to use Jedi mind powers without being a Jedi? Hell yeah, let’s read more!” They go through the book in this way and grab the bits of the backstory that are important to them. Your homegrown world or story has to function in this way as well, and too many details that aren’t relevant will turn the players off.

imageWhen you sit down to write up the war of a thousand years, start and stick to the broad important ideas. Don’t get too bogged down with the way the elven prince was snubbed and why he sent an assassin to kill the human lord, focus only on the fact that he did. When you paint with broad strokes, you leave room to add the details in later. This idea leads right into the next one…

Chronicle In A Way The Players Can Connect To – When you come to the table you come to game, and your attention isn’t on the backstory of why and what caused the current event, but on the event going on in the game itself. Backstory should be in the background but accessible. That way it can sprout up in your game when it is important. No matter the medium, your backstory has to be accessible to the players when they read it. There are a few ways to tweak the presentation of these elements.

  • Keep it neat and organized - Make sure it is neat and organized. Keep separate sections for NPCs, Places, Stories, Relationships, Gossip, etc. Keep them neat and organized and don’t put any GM only information there. Keep that separate so that the players can feel free to browse through the notebooks or online wiki site. This way they can rifle through it in their free time.
  • Make it available all the time, but don’t shove it down their throats – There is an old chinese saying that “A person mistrusts the money thrust on him, but loves the money he finds on his own.”, and the idea behind it applies here. The more you actively try to make the backstory of  the world or setting a requirement, the less interested the players are.  If it is available to them whenever they want it, then they have more engagement when they read it. If you can provide multiple copies of the backstory or world details, excellent. Let them keep them it and read it when they want to.
  • Make it visually dynamic – Reading through reams of words in order to play a game isn’t that fun. Break the source up with pictures. Find cc licensed pictures on the net, use the reference pictures from campaign books, or find great images on deviant art (It is always nice to shoot an artist a thanks email or ask permission to use it personally) that illustrate elements in your backstory.
  • Outline, don’t overburden – From a player perspective, the only necessary details in backstory are the ones relevant to what they need. Four or five paragraphs on the way Ser Madena rose to power in the inner-planetary corporation aren’t really necessary. One will probably do. Even then a bullet list of people she stepped on and how she pissed them off will provide the information the player needs and wants. This kind of information wouldn’t cut it for backstory if you were writing a book, but you are writing for an interactive game and can fill in the details if asked. The negative space will give the players area to fill with their imaginations and that makes it more relevant to them.

Build The Backstory, But Build The Characters Into It – Ok, so you’ve built your image backstory in a way that the players can connect to and you haven’t overburdened them with details, but you still aren’t seeing the investment you’d hoped for. Maybe they need a reason to be connected. You don’t want to force them into the backstory, but you can help them incorporate themselves. After describing the basics of the world or the story, ask the players to write up their own backstories, but ask them to use generic descriptors instead of names. You can then take that backstory and weave it into your overarching backstory with details that act like sutures holding two pieces of skin together until they heal. Have your players give you a backstory that looks like this:

“So, Sajeren used to be a pilot for a rebel army’s pilot squad. He came from a small farm planet and always wanted to go off and join the big army, until they went and caused a big massacre and killed his brother, Marcus, at a prominent battle. He saw how bad they were and decided to join the rebel army. However, he got kicked out for being unable to follow orders. He really just had an issue with his commanding officer.”

Take elements from your backstory (or create them) and weave them in to the character’s story. Take elements from the character’s story and modify your backstory to fit the character hooks that the player provided. Rework the generic elements that you asked the player to use and give them back something like this:

“So, Sajeren used to be a pilot for the Anterian Army’s Barking Bee’s bomber squad. He came from Anterios, a small farm planet in the quadrain sector, and always wanted to go off and join the Dranzer Empire’s Universal Navy, until the Battle of Reimos, which many call a massacre because of the use of germ warfare and mercenary soldiers.  It was at this battle that his brother Marcus was killed. He saw how bad the navy was and decided to join the Anterian Army. However, he got kicked out by Major Allison, for being unable to follow orders. He really just had an issue with his commanding officer, Major Allison who later turned out to be a traitor and spy for the Dranzer Empire. She now holds the title of Sector Admiral, Second Class and runs things from her flagship, the Matronia. There is a small resistance group working out of an asteroid base in the system. Sajeren might have friends who are now transferred there and are looking out for Admiral Allison.

image Ask the player if the changes are okay, let him revise them and you’ve now got a player who is engaged in the backstory with a few plot hooks they can follow and not a lot of work that they had to do. Give them links to the detailed entries in your wiki (or the hardcopy of the backstory) and they’ll start building the backstory into their character’s mind. This strategy will require willing players who have some idea of their characters, but if they are up for it you can turn the framework into a well fleshed world-integrated character. BE CAREFUL not to step on toes or try to control characters, use what they give you and only change the names. With a tactic like this, the player should always have final say.

Provide Mechanical Benefits To The Backstory – One way to get the players engaged is to provide mechanical benefits that are backstory specific. You might make thematic changes to powers and abilities, create your own versions of new classes or jobs, and provide these to the players. Perhaps you can provide some free powers or traits that tie in to and help the players engage in the world setting. The players might not use the world or story specific powers, but if they are something extra that the player didn’t have to give up other options for, then they will find more value in them. If you don’t like the idea of reskinning already existing abilities or creating your own, provide XP bonuses for backstory integration or use. Some players are there for the mechanical side of things, and if you provide them a mechanical element that is tied to the backstory, they’ll have a reason to engage the backstory within their own particular play style.

Build The Backstory Together – One thing that I particularly like to see is when the players and the Game Master build the backstory together. This won’t work well for a Game Master who already has a big backstory in mind, but it will create something that all of the players can engage with. It will also eliminate a feeling of control on the Game Master’s part, which is good. Without that feeling of someone else change the paradigm of your story, you can feel more at ease with the epic and unexpected changes that are going on at the table. You can make use of world building games like Dawn of Worlds  or Microscope. Games like this turn the art of world or history creation into a collaborative game. They can make for a very interesting trifecta -  Group World Creation, Group Character Creation, and then the actual game where the players are incredibly involved and connected. Building the backstory together definitely changes the paradigm, but I think it’s worth it for a trial game.

When you sit down to run a game with a world setting with lots of backstory or detail,  you can have some incredibly deep and fun games. The more backstory or detail there is though, the harder it is to keep players engaged with it. That’s just the nature of the beast. At the table things move at a different speed and in a different way that isn’t often  friendly to detail heavy settings and worlds. So how do you get your players engaged in the backstory or details of your game? Do you find it hard or easy? When you are a player, how do you feel about backstory heavy games?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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8 Comments To "Johnny’s Five – Five Tips For Getting Players Involved In The Backstory Of The Game"

#1 Comment By Psygnnosed On September 1, 2011 @ 4:20 am

Very interesting article, John.
I have used one other experience that draws the players more into the backstory of the game, which may be interesting to share with other fellow gnomes.
From time to time I allow the players to assume temporarily the role of several key-NPC which have some important decision to make “as a council”.
The first time I tried this the PCs had just arrived on Silverymoon and heard rumors of squirmishes between the neighbour city of Everlund and the treants from the High Forest (not that it is important, but for references we played in Forgotten Realms). While the PCs followed the trail of some other hook I left the session “in hang” and assigned each one of them the role of an important character from the Council of Everlund (Master of the Temple; Captain of the Guard; Archmage, etc.). I took the role of First Councilor, and basically ran us through a “shared role experience” where we discussed what would the Council of Everlund do regarding the treants. Each character had “hidden interests”. Some would profit with the war, others wanted peace and to protect the city’s population, and so on. This scenes become much more interesting if the NPCs have conflicting interests or different points of view.
All in all, it was a very rewarding experience, which I’ve done in other moments, and the players where very enthusiasmed, because not only they had their PCs working in their regular activities, but now they were taking active part in decision-making regarding the campaign. They loved it and asked me to do it more often.
So, if you have a group of good “story/roleplay-driven players”, give it a shot!

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 1, 2011 @ 8:21 am

Great Article!

A few years back I ran a D&D 3.5 Freeport campaign. I told the players that they could create any 1st level PC they wanted, from any established game world (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, etc). I then ran a quick scene with each of them in there homeworld circumstances.

The game began with all of them waking up aboard a ship heading to Freeport. None of them could remember why they were there; the scene I ran with each of them was the last thing they remembered. When they asked the Captain, he was dumbfounded and noted they’d all paid their way at the last port (on a continent none of them remembered). They checked their gear and found that they had unfamiliar currency and some additional items (the cleric even had holy symbols for an unfamiliar god).

As the campaign went on, the PCs occasionally bumped into NPCs that remembered them (with different names), even though the PCs had no recollection.

As it turned out, since Freeport had many “Cthulhu” elements, I used a variant of the Great Race of Yith. They’d swapped minds with the PCs’ bodies and used them for about a year on the Freeport world before an emergency forced them to leave without putting the PCs back where they belonged. They left the PCs with the ability to speak analogous languages so that they could at least communicate in their new surroundings.

#3 Comment By fkewl On September 1, 2011 @ 8:36 am

Wow, great article (now in my DM Aid bookmarks!)

#4 Comment By CalebTGordan On September 1, 2011 @ 11:36 am

I am doing two things with a game I just started to try and involve my players in the back story. The game’s story has always been somewhat of a community project, as I have involved so many people in creating characters and elements from the start of writing it.

Because of that, I have a site over at Obsidian Portal that I constantly post articles, stories, and NPCs on that do not really have a great deal to do with the current story line. Almost all of it is to allow those players who want to learn more about the game world a place to explore. On top of that, I actually allow the players free reign to post their own content. I award any posting activity with action points, which are useful but not game breaking.

The other thing that I did was sit down with each player a couple months ahead of time to create the characters. Because of the nature of the game, I custom created each class, and I needed to know exactly what the players wanted to play. As a result, everyone detailed their character’s back story really well, and I was able to glean from the players elements to place in my game.

I then tailored the game’s story to be all about the PCs, and as the game progresses things will become more personal.

So far, the game is success. I am very excited to see how it ends.

#5 Comment By Idran On September 1, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

This completely goes against what I want as a player, though. I _love_ reading detailed backstories, setting sourcebooks, and the like, they don’t bore me at all and I’m always wanting more information and more details on the setting, both in and outside the context of the game. What would you suggest for GMs that have a player like me mixed in with the others?

#6 Comment By BryanB On September 2, 2011 @ 10:13 am

This is an excellent article. One thing I’ve really enjoyed in recent years is a collaborative character creation discussion (in person or in e-mail) that helps weave elements of my campaign prep into player created character back story. Even keeping PC back stories to a reasonable level, as I like to do, it helps create depth and shared creativity.

For example, in my Star Wars Saga Edition campaign, two of the characters decided that they had worked on a light freighter together – it was how their PCs met. The two had developed a friendly rivalry pursuing the romantic interests in their life.

The two players had agreed that they had made friends with the daughter of a Republic noble (a senator) and that it had caused them no end of troubles. The noble woman had been unable to decide which of the two PCs she liked more, so she had remained good friends with both of the two PCs, parting on good terms once their freighter left her world for the last time.

This remained in the back story until the second series of our campaign. The PCs found themselves on the planet Onderon conducting a secret mission for the Republic. Imagine the pleasant surprise on the two player’s faces when their PC’s former romantic interest came across their path while shopping in the Iziz Starport Marketplace – now being the target of assassins from a fanatical separatist faction. The PCs heroically saved the day and an NPC created by players and fleshed out by me now entered the campaign.

By the end of that second series, the NPC had married one of the PCs – The joining of two noble houses in full royal splendor in Queen Talia’s court. The banter created between the two PCs during actual play was priceless. It was engaging. The effort of having the players involved in providing some of the back story for the campaign proved to be very fruitful. I’m really glad that we did it that way.

#7 Comment By Tsenn On September 5, 2011 @ 7:39 am

Idran: first, talk with your GM. Explain your wants and needs clearly. Perhaps ask them if you can help fill the empty spaces on the map. Your character could be an explorer, full of stories about the uncharted regions, or a scholar who has finally left the library. You could contribute suggestions based on observations for the GM to work with. However, your in-game contributions would not always be 100% accurate, just what you’ve seen, heard or read. In this way, you would add to the game, but the GM still decides what’s really going on. As a GM, I’m happy to take player ideas, but I reserve the right to bend them as needed to fit the story. Players must understand their characters’ limits of knowledge.

#8 Comment By Techieninja On September 8, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

I’ve always loved backstory. It’s something that I’ve studied and developed, even before GMing. My backstories never had a tolkienian level of detail, and are really rather general. But it gave a flavor to the world than if I just ran them through a standard adventure.
I like the idea of world creation. I’ve always thought that more minds are better, especially with mental projects, and I think that would hold true with building a world for an adventure, or series of adventures. The next game I run, I’m going to try getting the players in on creating the world.
Two things that I learned from my Obi-Wan of GMing (the guy who taught me the basics) is rewards for character backstory, and incorporation of character backstory into world backstory and also into gameplay. If a player’s father is a noble, and they’re in a taver and overhear something about their father and court intrigue (general, of course)and later find out, through more specific means, that he’s being targeted for assassination. I think that would be a passable hook into an adventure.


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