Burst of Insight—Background Hooks


Welcome back to Burst of Insight. For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about things GMs can do to center the player characters in an adventure path’s narrative. This week we’re talking about something players can do to help in this process as well.

Now, we often talk about the player facing adventure hooks but what about GM facing background hooks? If an adventure hook is the plot element that encourages a group of PCs to brave the dragon’s lair then the background hook is the plot element that encourages the GM to dig into your character’s backstory for future story ideas.

It need not even be a big plot laden hook it can be a small detail such as a missing (or deceased) relative or troubled childhood friend who may resurface as a villain or trapped in the villain’s clutches. In our recent Council of Thieves game, I think our GM nearly used this tactic after an off-hand remark from one of the players. One player joked that a particular undead NPC could be our character’s mother (that player and I portray brothers). I think our GM shied away from the opportunity to preserve the encounter’s narrative and because it was suddenly too expected. But I really wish that maybe he had. While our local knowledge told us a pretty cool story about a cannibal witch who’d died and rose as a devourer how utterly horrible would it have been for the devourer to have been our PCs dead mother. We’re well known to our enemies who are undoubtedly behind all the undead rising in the north quarter of the city. Why couldn’t they have raised her to hurt us specifically? That personalized bit of mayhem would have been crushing. And could have made for great roleplaying, unfortunately, we went another way. Now, the encounter was challenging enough (devourer’s who have had a few moments to prepare are no joke) but ultimately it was a cut and dry combat in a very tight space.

That said I’m not really complaining just offering a recent example. Our GM is a clever guy, he may already have plans in place for our famous and dearly departed mother that would have been ruined by adding her in now. Or the devourer’s identity may be important for other continuity reasons. The same should go for your table, just because your hooks aren’t used exactly when you’d expect or like doesn’t mean your GM is doing it wrong

Finding NPCs

If your GM hosts a session zero consider just asking your GM directly if there are any NPCs you can create connections to. Tell her your general idea and ask her if there are any NPCs who show up in the campaign who might be able to be tied into your character’s background.

Consider The Empire Strikes Back. Lando could have very easily been a minor character with no direct ties to Han and Chewie but the story would have been flatter without the betrayal. As a player, you don’t know what otherwise insignificant NPCs might show up in an adventure path that you and the GM can define a previous relationship (good or bad) with.

Another example comes from a Giantslayer campaign I was running. One of the PCs was a new arrival I knew there was a significant boat trip out of the region in book two. I had her bargain with the same crew to ride into the region. This meant she could introduce the other PCs to the crew and take center stage for a moment. The player and characters were talkers so I knew this would be a fun opportunity for the player but I came up with it because she asked. We were still in the earliest moments of book one and the characters are getting to know one another and the player asks me if she had any adventures she could tell about coming into town. So I took a moment and filled her in on the crew and told her she could tell any story she liked and we’d work out how much of it was accurate and how much of it was embellished together later. Knowing full well that embellishments could lead to fun roleplaying opportunities in the second book when the rest of the PCs boarded the boat.

Burst of Insight

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.