Behind the Screens – How Much is a Backstory Worth?

When starting a campaign, player backstories can provide GMs a wealth of creative fodder for to weave their narratives unfolding. A character’s trusted mentor can show up to provide a helpful clue when the party is stuck with a conundrum. Or a childhood rival might arrive on the scene to stir up trouble just when the PCs are least prepared to deal with it. A long lost legacy can resurface and give the PCs another plot point to explore.

Usually, players jump at the chance to get more involved in the narrative. After all, it’s a chance to revel in the spotlight. But what do you do if you’ve got a party full of Wandering Wallflowers? Players content to contribute in the moment but, for whatever reason, loath to offer up any more information about their characters. One or two mysterious strangers is a bit of a tired trope, but no more so than the half-orc barbarian or the halfling rogue. But a party full of enigmatic wanderers gets old really fast.

One of the ways I tend to incentivize my players into getting involved in the initial narrative is to offer mechanical rewards. Of course, this being the start of the campaign, it’s not usually very much. 500gp starting wealth for any player who gives me 500 words of backstory. Nothing outrageous or restrictive. But it’s enough to encourage some extra detail in their backstories that maybe would not have come out otherwise.

I’ll read over these submissions (usually through a private email thread) and use them as a starting point for a discussion with that player about their character and what directions they want their own personal narrative to develop. Later on, I’ll often refer to these archived threads for a plot hook to pique a particular player’s interest. Or to potentially seed or foreshadow an upcoming event using hints from my players’ pasts. I’ve come to value these records as a trove of ideas that my players helped curate.

Furthermore, as the narrative continues, groups will often reach what I’ve come to think of as “bookends” or “season finales”. These would be natural conclusions within an overarching narrative where the PCs might pause and reflect on all the heroic things they’ve done. These events tend to happen after a climactic encounter or boss battle. If you’re running an Adventure Path, these are most often occur at the end of a book.

These points provide a natural opportunity for players to step back and assess where their characters are in their own personal narrative arcs. If I find that I’ve run through the most interesting tidbits from my players’ initial mini-essays, this is a great time to let them help me replenish that well. Again, I’m looking for some more prose that describes their characters transitioning from where they were to where they are now. If they give me another 500 words, they get a bonus trait. For 1000 words, they can have a feat. Mechanically, these are fairly insignificant bonus in the long run. But ask someone like Alex what he might do with a couple of extra feats on his way from levels 1 to 20 and he’ll positively salivate at the prospect.

 

How have you incentivized your players for more backstory? Do you find that helping your players along with crafting the collective narrative is helpful to your own storytelling? Let me know in the comments section below!

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

1 Comment

  1. One idea I’ve been thinking about is giving everyone a free Story feat from Ultimate Campaign (I don’t hear of many people using those, and I would be interest in hearing people’s experiences with them.) In exchange, the player would have to provide me with a DNPC (Dependent Non-Player Character). This is a concept I got from Hero System: Champions. Who is the character’s Lois Lane or Aunt May? (I.e., who is a character they care about that has a tendency to get into trouble or make additional demands on the character.) Of course, this would only work in a campaign where the characters are more or less staying in one place or frequently returning to a home base. I think I may try it out in one of the new longer modules.

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