View Full Version : Roleplaying Collaborative Backstory Creation is my favorite.

2019-03-14, 08:49 AM
I had the chance to run some one-on-one sessions with the players in one campaign of mine. We decided to do narrative backstory creation--figuring out exactly why they ended up as adventurers. As it turns out, the two ended up being from the same village and their backstories meshed tremendously. As a result, there's a new place on the map, and some added history. Note: they've been playing the characters for quite a while (they're level 8).

For me, this is the best way to do backstories. Start a character with a seed (maybe a few sentences), and then collaborate with the DM and other players to build the actual story. That way it guarantees that it fits into the world and allows new ways for the backstories to intersect and be meaningful. It was way more fun than trying to read a few pages of turgid prose and having to translate that into the world and setting. Themes of memory, of history, of time have been throughout the campaign already, and this solidifies them.

My writeup is below, if anyone cares. I ran this by the players and they've agreed. So now it's an actual in-universe thing that happened. Setting note: puun ihmisia = wood elf, gwerin = high elf

While the puun ihmisia and the gwerin have been at odds for ages and traditionally distrust and hate each other, some have made efforts to reach out to the other side. About 100 years after the chaos of the Cataclysm and the Retreat, two groups did just this and founded the commune of Usko Ffydd (named by joining the words for “faith” or “trust” in the two languages). 4 years ago, this experiment came to a tragic end—not by act of betrayal but by outside meddling.

The founders of Usko Ffydd, wanting to put distance between them and the dominant culture of the nascent Council Lands, chose to take their families and move nearly 100 miles into the uninhabited, rough lands between the Ringwall Mountains of Moon’s Vengeance. In this folded land, carpeted with forested mountains and hills, they founded a central village and took up residence. Their nearest neighbors were the dwarves of the Chuuluu clan, with their clan hold in the mountains to the north east (about 60 miles), although not much commerce was to be had with these arch-traditionalists.

This area had not been inhabited by more than wandering tribes since the 1st Interregnum started more than 4,000 years before; it was totally wild. Deciding to live in harmony with the world and the spirits, the founders established a mixed pattern of life—three seasons spent wandering in small family-like bands, living in huts and gathering food, with the winters spent in the village itself. Late fall was a time of gathering, both of people and of supplies for the winters which were frequently full of heavy snowfall. Each year, one band would stay back in the village to maintain and repair it after the ravages of the winter.

These bands were not exactly families—the people did not think of themselves that way. All the children were raised in common by the band, and older children would find a band with which they were comfortable. Interbreeding between the gwerin and ihmisia occurred—in what follows, the labels “gwerin” and “ihmisia” refer to the more dominant features of an individual, as well as their magical tendencies. Most of the second and subsequent generations were of mixed blood.

All the founding families were talented in the arts magical—the two gwerin families were headed by accomplished wizards, while the 6 ihmisia families included rangers and druidic and shamanistic practitioners of note. They agreed to learn from one another, blending the arcane and the primal. The only rule was that all power must be used for the good of the people and of the land.

The Fyddans, as they called themselves, prided themselves on living in harmony. Both with each other and with the world around them. “Do not be a rock in the stream,” they taught. Instead, “bend like the willow while keeping your roots firmly planted.” “Do good to all around you—give up your own ego for the good of community and the world.” “Be the change you want to see in the world.” These were among their teachings.

This extended to their magical efforts. For the druidic practitioners, this meant carefully weighing the effect of each spell and trying to touch as lightly as possible, while trying to guide the world into a more peaceful coexistence. For the arcanists, this involved mostly ritual work and trying to measure how their spells affected the kami around them. In essence, they tried to merge the two disciplines of magic, a feat long thought impossible.

In the late summer of 206 AC [editor's note: about 4 years before present], as the Ffydans started to gather in supplies for the oncoming winter, the outriders and scouts started reporting a strange pattern of behavior among the local wildlife. It started with the rabbits and other small rodents—listlessness punctuated by extreme and uncharacteristic violence. Animals that were confined would writhe and scratch at themselves, often biting themselves to death. Being kindly people, the Ffydans organized teams to try to aid the poor creatures. Their efforts were unsuccessful, and as the weeks progressed into fall, the situation became more dire.

By the beginning of High Harvest of that year, the trees and plant-life in the vicinity of the village were starting to mutate and even the large animals were showing growths and tumors. No resident had taken sick, but tensions were growing. Hunting (to cull the weak and sick) provided a lot of the wintertime food supply, and no one could trust the land. The kami were no longer responding to the druids, merely screaming or lying unresponsive. Scouts sent out found that the effect stopped about 30 miles (a day and a half journey) from the village. This news led to arguments. Some counseled to flee outside the toxic effect and create as best of shelter as they could. Others, worried about the signs of a harsh, early winter that year, wanted to stay and try to find a cure. “This was surely magical”, they cried. “We can cure this.” This dispute cost them precious time. By the time the majority decided to flee, it was already getting quite cold.

They decided to flee toward the Chuuluu clan-hold. Each family moved together; hopes mounted as they made the slow journey toward the edge of the affected region. “Surely today will be the day,” they told themselves. But by the middle of the third day, about 40 miles away from the village, the truth became apparent. The toxin was following them, like a cloud. Mocking voices were heard, telling them that it was all their neighbor’s fault. This news broke the village’s bonds, made fragile under the stress. Each family fled in separate directions, hoping that it was following someone else. As it turns out, it was following the gwerin, specifically. The gwerin, realizing this, turned around and headed back home, hoping to find a cure before they succumbed and hoping to draw it away from their brethren and friends. The ihmisia escaped the cloud; a few stayed at the edge, hoping to lend aid. They soon found themselves struggling to survive the unusually harsh winter—after but a week or two they lost contact with the gwerin remnant.

Meanwhile, the gwerin families worked feverishly to find a cure as the terrain around them went mad. Fungal-like growths grew from the ground, the buildings, and from everything around them. Soon the people took sick—going slowly mad as they found themselves changing. It seemed that the malady was adapting to their attempts to cure it. Each treatment would work, for a time, and then make things worse. Lack of food and the cold winter only hastened the decline. As each died, the survivors would burn the body to attempt to contain the plague. By the time the weather started to clear, a few months later, only two survived. Rinne, a newly-adult gwerin woman, and her mother, Aada. Knowing that further efforts were futile, they burned the last of the bodies and shouldering their last few supplies, headed north-west toward civilization. Behind them they left the twisted, corrupted remains of their home. The corruption seemed even more concentrated, as if Melara’s icy mercy had killed off all the surrounding malady, leaving only the village itself as a source of vile taint. After several days of miserable travel in the late-winter ice, they approached the village of Fulford, at the edge of the Sea of Grass. Aada, knowing that she herself was succumbing to the plague, refused to risk the village’s safety. She remained outside until she died a day later and was buried in a shallow grave carved by the daughter’s newly-mastered magic. Hardened by the loss of her parents, her village, and her innocence, Rinne renounced that name and took the name of Saeth Saran. Why was Rinne spared the plague, when all else succumbed? Who brought it upon them? No one knows for sure, although some suspect the involvement of the Imperial Sons, a shadowy magical research group.

A few days after they left, Deilen Werdd and three other young ihmisia, only survivors of their band, approached the edge of the twisted village. They found the cold remains of a funeral pyre, a village consumed by twisted monstrosities, and two sets of tracks leading north-west. Deilen chose to follow the tracks, sending the others off to find a place to live. A few days of hard travel later, he came upon a grave at the edge of the forest overlooking civilization. On the crude head-stone was engraved the word “Mother”. Praying to the kami, he begged their protection for the site. Moved by his earnest feelings, the kami of the meadow responded, wrapping their protection around the crude grave-site. He returned periodically throughout the following years, tending to the grave and leaving offerings for the dead. Turning to the thieves’ life, he joined the Mockers, leaving his parents’ ideals in the past…or did he? One thing he did leave in the past was his name, taking the name Quickleaf in its place.

Years later, both Quickleaf and Saeth, as they were now known, joined the newly-formed Adventurer's Guild. Both graduated at the same time, but joined different adventuring groups. The rigors of their path after the death of Usko Ffydd and the new names made them strangers to each other--it wasn't until much later, once fate had brought them together again in an adventuring party in the ruins and intrigue of Godsfall, that they recognized each other and discovered the truth about the fate of their parents and friends.

2019-03-18, 02:17 PM
I agree with you. Generally I like to have a session 0 where we all sit and discuss character creation and ideas for backgrounds. I usually generally explain what idea I have for the campaign, like where they are starting and whether it's a heroic adventure/city politicking/evil campaign, and any major differences between "generic d&d worlds."

Then I listen to everyone as they create characters. I try to keep everyone down to a few simple sentences for the background and then elaborate further as we play. Stuff like, "I am from the sparsely populated northern parts of the kingdom and a veteran of the recent goblin war. I am returning home for the first time in a long time as the war is now finished"

Then as the campaign goes on I may ask further questions and have them develop the backstory more. Questions like "do you have family back home expecting you? Do you have a hometown or associates? Ok cool seems you and the gnome come from the same area, do you know each other? Do you have a rival at home?"

I have found these type of inquiries help the player sometimes flesh out a character and gives the PC feeling more rooted to the world. And gives me a bunch of juicy plot hooks to dangle in front of them

Jay R
2019-03-19, 10:12 AM
Agreed. I wrote the following for a Flashing Blades character.

Secret Origins

Jean-Louis was a foundling, left at Notre Dame in a basket. Nothing is known about him except that he was left with a satin blanket with the monogram "JL". Is it a clue to his parentage? Is he the bastard son of a noble with those initials? Or was he born to a servant girl who stole the blanket? Is he the inconveniently legal heir that somebody wants dead? He does not know, although he still has the blanket.

Note to GM: Neither the character nor the player has any idea what this means. If you choose to clear up the mystery, the secret could easily develop into a Secret Identity, Sworn Vengeance, or Blackmailed, depending on the details. Feel free to use it any way you choose. A monogram cannot be traced (how many JLs are there?), but it might be recognized by a family member, washerwoman, or the original embroiderer. It could also be a blind to the child's identity.

The GM went with it, and it eventually led to religious, political, and noble complications. Jean-Louis eventually discovered that he was Jacob Laisne, the bastard son of a Count's niece and a Huguenot lawyer. He has been recognized (but not legitimized) by his uncle the Count de Montpazat, and started styling himself "Jean-Louis Laisne de Montpazat". When the game ended, he had not yet tracked down what happened to his parents.