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Thread: Backstory Twist Help
- Join Date
- Aug 2020
Backstory Twist Help
The other day I was thinking about Critical Role (you know, like you do) and why exactly it is that I enjoy it.
One of my favorite aspects of Matt Mercer's style of game is the various character backstories, the way that they each tie into the world, and the various repercussions of them that are felt throughout the campaign. I often come away from an episode thinking, "wow, I did not see that coming!"
My subject today is the fact that I want to do this for my players. I want to create twisty ways their backstories influence the world and the campaign.
As I was thinking about how to do this, I came to another realization. I am not all that bright.
See, most of my campaigns aren't even really my campaigns anyway, as I basically just take one published long term module (like a Pathfinder AP or old D&D campaign) and several shorter ones (think like a published 1-2 level adventure) and just stitch them all together into a vaguely sandboxish chimera of a campaign. The reason for this is, of course, that I don't have a creative bone in my body and just steal like mad from anything vaguely obscure enough to escape the notice of my players. This extends to backstories, as I simply don't have the kind of brilliantly unexpected twists and secrets to give to the players.
Anyway, my first question is a general advice one: do you have any tips for making these backstories more interesting? My players typically follow a "here's what I have for my backstory, I left a lot of blanks for you to fill in at your leisure" kind of model for their backstories, which I appreciate, and feel kind of bad for not being able to do a ton with.
Also, if I posted some of their backstories here, could I just sort of crowdsource ideas from the masses? I mean, surely a large number of people would have better ideas than me all on my lonesome? Would that be allowed? Would that be a **** move? I really don't know, I'm new here.
- Join Date
- Mar 2013
Re: Backstory Twist Help
First, don't sell yourself short. I guarantee that if you are successfully running a campaign, then you are not 'not all that bright'. You also definitely have creativity in you, because you have to have some to be able to stitch those disparate pieces into a satisfying whole.
Beyond that, my first tip is that cribbing from other things is not a weakness. Look at Stephen King - he's one of the most prolific, well loved, and IMO best writers of our time. And his magnum opus is the Dark Tower series. The idea for the Dark Tower series came from the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. That poem at the very least got its name from Shakespeare's King Lear, and likely is talking about the same character as in a medieval French collection of stories. If you look at the number of people who used Browning's poem as inspiration, you'll find a lot of greats are cribbing from that idea, such as Harper Lee in the Mockingbird sequel Go Set a Watchman, the 'Five Doctors' Doctor Who special, Neil Gaiman, and others. So you are definitely in good company by taking bits from other places and using them in your own.
A practical tip may be to look at the modules you plan to use, scouring for anything that would be more interesting if you could tie it in to a back story. Maybe you are adapting White Plume Mountain (I'm going way back and showing my age here), but you won't be getting to it for a while. In that one, former owners of some magical items that had been gone for hundreds of years are sent a taunting message about where they are. Maybe one of your players is part of a noble family fallen on hard times - if so, they could be on hard times because they used to be the keepers of one of the weapons, and lost everything when they lost it. When the party goes after it, it becomes not just an adventure, but a way for that character to redeem their family. The farther out you plan the campaign, the easier it is to find opportunities to put stuff in players backgrounds, make sure they know it and are OK with it, then time for them to forget until it becomes a crucial part of the game and they are wowed by your creativity.
As to whether you can post backstories and get help from the crowd, I have no idea if anyone would get upset by that, but I can't think of a reason it is against the forum rules. Check there, and if you can make sure it is within the rules, post it. There's no guarantee anyone will answer, but if it strikes the fancy of a number of the very creative people on the board, it may end up being just what you need.
- Join Date
- Feb 2010
Re: Backstory Twist Help
Second step is to look for parallels. Is one of your PCs kinda like Naruto? Or maybe Frodo, or Ladislaus IV the Cuiman? Go to their stories and take things you like from them, adapt them a bit, job done. Well, first phase.
Second phase is weaving these backstories together. It looks like magic, but it really isn't. Does one backstory have a knight, rich aunt? If so, make that identical with another character in another backstory, or in your adventure. Have NPCs pop up who just know that person. "Oh, you're niece of that old bastard? How's he doing we met during the goblin wars."That which does not kill you made a tactical error.
- Join Date
- Sep 2013
Re: Backstory Twist Help
stolenadapted from other material, for instance.
With that stated, obviously not every DM excels at every aspect of DMing - it's a big role. And that's all right.
One useful thing to think about backstories is that Critical Role games tend to run a bit differently from yours. There's an overarching campaign arc (or two), but often long arcs which are actually driven by the characters' backstories (or in at least one case, by out-of-game considerations).
Spoiler: Light Campaign 2 SpoilersFor instance, some party members were kidnapped and out of play for several sessions because their players were unavailable, on account of two of them being brand-new parents and one of them having prolonged work scheduling conflicts. For backstory impact on the game, a lot of the game has been spent dwelling on the half-orc warlock's effort to understand his patron better, a case where the character's backstory drove the plot. Meanwhile, the overarching campaign arc, at least early on, was a war between the human-dominated empire and the drow, which I haven't got far enough into the campaign to say much about; nor do I know whether it has been resolved.
Actually, one of the games I'm running right now ended up with something rather similar, except that I stitched together a larger campaign arc from the character's backstories. Two of the characters had backstories involving people they cared for going missing, one had a backstory about fending off a kidnapping attempt, and one had a backstory about searching for a stolen enchanted gem of dangerous power. By asking myself questions such as "was this person kidnapped or left of their own accord?" and "who is behind the kidnappings and thefts, and what is their motivation?", I've now got it so their early-game antagonist is behind some of the disappearances and thefts, with a later-game antagonist who wants to collect the gem and others like it for nefarious purposes.
If your games are a mash-up of published material, there's obviously less opportunity for character backstories to either be central to determining the campaign plotline (such as it is) or to impact it in the way that the CR PCs' backstories do. And that's fine. Instead, you could do some stuff like the following:
- Have NPCs important to the characters' backstories take the place of important allies or antagonists in the modules, where plausible.
- Have ways for the backstories to make a difference in the outcome of the adventure - some way that a PC can leverage their backstory to gain an advantage or ease some difficulty, or some way that obstacles can be set before them.
- Even just flavourful or cosmetic adjustments that embed the backstories and the PCs in the setting and in the unfolding narrative.
If you're really concerned about the etiquette of sharing a backstory or two, ask your players for permission to do so. If they're all right with it, it's all good.