When I start a campaign I know the story I want to tell. I generally know how I’d like to see things begin, how they might end, and a few good plot twists in between. It takes a lot of hard work to craft my tale and come up with something that isn’t too cliché or totally and completely stolen from somewhere else. Then my players come along with six separate, bizarre, interesting back stories full of NPCs, plot hooks, and villains THEY created and they want me to work them into MY story?!? What’s a DM to do so he doesn’t end his game with more hanging plot threads than a Game of Thrones season finale?

Give Them An End Point

As I’m working out the main arch of a campaign before it begins, my players are building their characters and backstories. In general I don’t usually have time to weave the backstories into our first session, especially when I’m being emailed the information 15 minutes after the game is already underway. Those players who do give me ample time with a backstory are the same players who give me 30 pages to read. Because I may not have time to read a lengthy backstory and can’t read one I’m handed right before the game starts, I always give my characters an end point for their backstory. In other words I tell them, “Hey make sure your character winds up in Oliath, capital of Aeranore.” Doing this and having the characters tie their backgrounds together makes for a very smooth first session. The PCs already know one another and I don’t have to spend half the first session convincing the paladin and the rogue to play nice with one another to move the story along. As a bonus if you tie PC backgrounds together some backstory stuff comes out in that first session as the players interact with one another and I don’t have to prepare for any of it.

Tracking the Stories

Once the campaign is underway, I sit down and read the PC backstories. As I read, I have a Google Doc open upon which I bullet point all threads the PCs leave dangling for me. Some are intentional (e.g. A PC never saw the gnolls that destroyed my village again) and others are details I could use to create a thread. (e.g. A PC receives a locket from a former lover… and unbeknownst to player and PC alike the former lover can track the PC’s every move through the locket.)

I keep them simple and quick. After all these bullet points are only for me. My Google Doc of PC backstory hooks looks like this. This example is taken from a fourth edition D&D game I ran about six years ago.

Fizzlebottom Cloisternook, gnome warlock

  • His immediate family was mysteriously murdered the same night he made his warlock star pact. He has no memory of what happened that night.
  • His daughter, Stella Cloisternook, was her father’s favorite and thought the world of him. Unbeknownst to Fizzlebottom, she walks the world as a revenant, searching for her family’s killer.
  • A mysterious star appeared burning red in the sky the same night he made his pact and has remained since.
  • In his early days of adventuring, Fizzlebottom learned how to survive in the wilderness from a tutor named Douvan Stahl. Douvan has gone missing.

Once I’ve made my list of threads, I go back to each thread and add a few details about how these hanging threads might get resolved. Sometimes a PC will have only two or three threads and sometimes a PC will have ten. See which threads are related and if you can tie the resolution into all of these threads together, the backstory of the PC will feel cohesive. If many threads are related, the player will have more of a mystery to unravel about the character’s past. There may be a thread or two which can’t be tied to others which is fine. I add these resolutions as sub-bullet points beneath each thread point. Here’s the same example, now with the thread resolutions.

Fizzlebottom Cloisternook, gnome warlock

  • His immediate family was mysteriously murdered the same night he made his warlock star pact. He has no memory of what happened that night.
    • Vecna, god of secrets, has granted Fizzlebottom his warlock powers. The making of the pact drove Fizzlebottom mad and he murdered his family. Fizzlebottom can uncover this mystery by destroying one of Vecna’s elite undead secret holders.
  • His daughter, StellaCloisternook, was her father’s favorite and thought the world of him. Unbeknownst toFizzlebottom, she walks the world as arevenant, searching for her family’s killer.
    • Stella seeks the death of her father. Upon meeting him she will reveal he killed his family, but Fizzlebottom will not know why until he kills the secret holder.
  • A mysterious star appeared burning red in the sky the same night he made hispact and has remained since.
    • This star appears in the sky once a millennia when Vecna chooses an unwilling champion. It unknown to many what this star means, but Vecna’s cult leaders know the secret. These leaders will seek out Fizzlebottom. Some will try to worship him and bring him sacrifices, others will try to murder him out of jealousy.
  • In his early days of adventuring,Fizzlebottom learned how to survive in the wilderness from a ranger and scholar namedDouvan Stahl.Douvan has gone missing.
    • Douvan has been captured by servants of Orcus because they wish to obtain some of his scholarly secrets about the demon lord.

As threads are resolved I’ll make them red or strike them out to indicate they’ve been taken care of. If new complications or ideas arise (e.g. Fizzlebottom’s daughter fought him to a stalemate, revealed herself, and ran away), I simply add to the bullet points.

Random Encounters, Interludes, and Partnerships

How do I actually use this information? Well one thing I do is incorporate backstories into my random encounter charts. Rather than having all encounters be run-ins with roving beasts and bandits, plug-in at least one option per PC which could help resolve a backstory thread on your random tables. In the example above Fizzlebottom could have a random encounter with a cultist of Vecna trying to kill or worship him, his revenant daughter, or a passerby who has word of Douvan. I aim for at least one of these encounters to happen during an extended journey (even if I’m using a random table and I don’t roll for a backstory thread encounter, I’ll throw one in).

Interludes occur when the PCs take a break from the main story to pursue a backstory thread. This often happens organically, after the PCs have had enough random encounters with a thread they want chase down its conclusion. If the PCs don’t decide to go after a thread, but you feel it’s time for an interlude because you want to change-up the monsters they’ve been fighting, need to give your villain some time to plot and recover from a defeat, or just want a change of pace, go ahead and drop a smoking gun into the PCs’ laps. In the example above, Fizzlebottom and his party might decide to seek out an elite undead secret holder of Vecna after meeting some cultists and his daughter. Alternatively they might seek out the secret holder because Fizzlebottom receives a magic dream from an enemy of Vecna telling the gnome that he can find the identity of his family’s killer if he kills the elite undead holed up in some underground cave.

The final way to work backgrounds into your story is with what I call partnerships. Partnerships are when your main campaign story overlaps directly with a PC’sbackstory. Theevil necromancer the PCs have been fighting turns out to be the fighter’s long-lost father. The mysterious paladin who saved the rogue’s town from marauding orcs is also the party’s patron. This can make your life easier and is a great reveal for the players but use partnerships sparingly and varyingly, otherwise the PCs will suspect that every masked villain is a lost relative. Partnerships make one PC the star of the show, so be sure to give everyone a turn in the backstory spotlight! In the example above, Douvan Stahl was not just Fizzlebottom’s old mentor, but actually everyone in the party’s mentor. Their first task was teaming up to find him, which is the suggested hook of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure we were playing.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

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Comments
  1. PrimeLoki says:

    This is a great post, and something I love to do myself. I don’t have much to add, because you’re thorough here. One thing I’ve taken to doing recently, is using the Dungeon World principle of “Draw Maps, Leave Blanks.” I try to create a hearty skeleton for the setting when world building. Then I let it flesh out during the campaign based on my own ideas and what the players have brought to the table. It’s fun to see the surprise and excitement in the players’ eyes when I use elements of the backstory in the game.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey draw maps, leave blanks is what my world is based on! It’s always cool to see where little nuggets of story can take you. My outlines at the beginning always look different than the actual story turns out, but it’s good to have a guide to refer to.

      Liked by 1 person

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