RPG Advice for Game Masters #2: PC Backstories Play the Forward Story

A lot of players and GMs like the player backstories, but in a lot of cases, too often these stories are canned “resolve the past” or lead to writing an entire campaign around it. In some cases this can work, but it’s not required.

PC Backstories don’t need to be resolved, they just need to lead somewhere interesting.

Ideally when a player creates background information for a character, it poses interesting quirks and challenges with plenty of space for you and the player to develop the character moving forward.

Open ended goals a malleable, and easy to weave into adventures and other plots, while close ended goals tend to write into a corner.

Here’s an example of more interesting background:

The paladin Tuvos has an ornate long sword that he always carries with him, and every night during the rest, he painstakingly cleans and polishes it. However, he never uses it in battle, its blade never knowing battle.

One night, another PC asks Tuvos what’s the deal with the sword that he shows so much care about, to which he explains that he was tasked to deliver this blade to the Lord Grias d’Hulmar.

(Side note, our DM in this example was cleaver, and made sure another PC is aware of the this lord and that he is dead.)

Another fellow in the group brings up that he heard Lord d’Hulmar was slain in battle months ago, to which the paladin confirms. His mission now is to hold onto this blade until he can deliver it unto the lord in death.

So our paladin has an interesting story with the blade. In a closed goal, the DM would simply make an arc where the paladin finds the lord and gives him the blade. But this isn’t interesting and doesn’t impose any challenges to the story.

Instead, we look at the elements of the background facet (and ideally, there is more to this paladin than just the blade).

  1. The blade is never to be drawn
  2. The blade’s condition must be maintained
  3. The blade belongs to the dead lord
  4. The blade is valuable
  5. The paladin is tasked with delivering the blade

This combination creates many interesting options in weaving the forward story for the paladin and his group.

The blade is never to be drawn

We can concoct scenarios (which can occur organically through play) where the blade might drawn for combat. Perhaps the paladin has no other weapon at hand and needs to fight to uphold his Oath. Maybe the sword has been knocked from the paladin’s possession and a party member may be in need of it for protection in that moment or an enemy sees it and takes it to use against the party. All of these have implications for the paladin’s quest, and some pit competing interests against each other. Does an ally risk her life to maintain the sanctity of the blade or use it so she might survive an enemy? What will happen if the blade has been used in battle, and thus scratched or dinged? And if the paladin himself was the one? This creates a forward arc on its own.

The blade’s condition must be maintained

Similar to the first one, but with a variation. What happens if our paladin is knocked unconscious for a day or separated from the blade? Will another party member take on the task, or will the blade lose its loving touch for a time? How will the paladin react (and the lord, should this quest ever be fulfilled)?

The blade belongs to the dead lord

There are interesting stories from this aspect such as what happens if the blade is stolen (or the paladin decides to claim it). We can also look at other possibilities. What if a member of the lord’s family claims it? What if hereditary rights are on their side, but the paladin’s mission is specific for the lord’s hand only? What if an imposter tries to claim the blade? Maybe the lord faked his death (or was brought back an undead) and is opposed to the paladin and his allies, what will the group do?

The blade is valuable

Another ethical dilemma. What if the party needs funds (or maybe there is a worthy cause), but the blade is the only wealth at hand? Will the paladin risk his quest for the benefit of others? If that furthers his Oath? What if the party is in a bad spot, but the blade could be offered in exchange for their lives? Is there a point will the paladin decide the quest to deliver the blade has too high a cost?

The paladin is tasked with delivering the blade

One other dilemma. What if the paladin dies before giving the blade? Maybe that fulfills the quest, but what if the spirit of the lord and the paladin can’t meet in the afterlife, will someone else carry on the task? What if the paladin’s player has to drop out of the game, but the party is invested in the quest, does it fall to someone else? And of course, there is all the stolen blade possibilities too. What if a rival steals the blade to attempt its delivery to gain honor at the cost of the paladin? What if only he could succeed?

From all these possibilities, we can see a lot of forward story in this quest that can affect not just the paladin, but his companions, and even the campaign (and the above overview only covers one layer of how the story could proceed).

So when working with a player backstory, try and fashion it into one which creates ample possibilities and conflict for the forward story with a resolution not carved in stone, or even required. It could be a failed backstory quest is just the starting point for a new story.

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