Posts Tagged ‘backstory’

Session 0 is a term applied to a game session before a long campaign where the game master and characters come together to cocreate the world and character backstories. Having a session 0 is fun for many people, but others prefer to jump right in and start playing. I’m here to tell you there’s a way to get the best of both worlds. Simply put your session 0 in the middle of your campaign.

Why Put Your Origin Stories After Your Pilot Episode

Before I start a long RPG campaign, I usually like to get backstories from my players about their characters and have a world ready to go. That method is not for every game master and it’s not for every player. Some people, when forced to write a backstory or create a world, come up with bland and generic ideas that aren’t nearly as interesting than as if they had jumped right in and started playing. The give and take of improvisational storytelling with others spawns amazing ideas about a character’s background a single mind may have never come up with on its own.

For many players and game masters, the fun is in letting the story grow organically. “Oh are there house-sized spiders in this dungeon? Well that’s going to be interesting because I just decided Martha the PC is an arachnophobe!” is a split second decision made by a player that has just turned a normal dungeon crawl an interesting quest of character development. The player may not have thought to come up with that detail when writing a backstory and may not have wanted to add that detail because in Martha’s prewritten backstory she’s already afraid of caribou, waterfalls, and snakes (and one more fear would just be unseemly for a hero). Meanwhile the GM is using their spider dungeon because it was in the description of the pre-created world and now has to figure out a way to get caribou, waterfalls, or snakes into the dungeon to get the same development for Martha the PC. Letting the story form organically allows for some amazing, on-the-spot character development and story moments.

Yet there’s fun to be had in a session 0. We love to tell origin stories! Some of the most-remembered and loved episodes of television are the flashback episodes where we see how the gang of friends or heroes met. So do exactly that. Flashback. After your group has established characters, a world, and story, then go back and have your session 0. Here’s why.

Jumping Right In Allows The Party To Start As A Team

When you jump right into the game with assumption that you’ll flashback to an origin, the party has a reason to start working together. Maybe they don’t know why that is yet, but that’s fine as long as they work together. The reason for doing so will be discovered by all of you along the way if you have confidence in the storytelling abilities of the group. Sometimes an origin session can feel like wrangling cats as you try to bring together individuals with different backstories and motivations. Now when you play out your flashback origin session after characters and stories have been established, the players will feel more motivation to bring everyone together themselves, since coming together is an inevitability.

Better Incorporation of Backstories

The backstories of your characters become better incorporated into the campaign’s overall story if you wait for one to organically appear. If the GM is building the world as the story demands it instead of arriving with one fully fabricated, the overall story of the world can also adapt to fit choices the character makes. It’s an amazing give and take when you jump right in.

How To Run a Session 0 After Your Campaign Has Already Begun

If you decide to go this route with a longer campaign, here’s my tips.

Use Another System

It can feel strange to go backwards in the same system with the same characters. “Just what spells did Bob the sorcerer have at level 1?” A lot of systems have a level 0 character approach you can try, but these characters are usually very squishy and you want some survivability since, presumably, everyone lives through the flashback.

My advice is to use another system. Go for mechanics you’ve always wanted to try to keep it rules light, since you’ll probably only be using it for a session or two. For example: Dungeon World makes a great flashback sessions for games like D&D and Pathfinder. (Thanks for the hint Griffin McElroy of The Adventure Zone!) FATE is another great system that can be adapted to any genre. Both systems allow for heartier starting characters as well, which is a great thing since again, the characters are probably going to make it through the session alive.

A flashback session is a great time to explore a new rules system, since the players are already comfortable with the characters they’re playing and the GM is already comfortable with the world. That means you’ll have less on your mind as you try to tackle the new rules before you.

Give The Characters A Reason To Come Together

Now that you know the characters well, you can find a great reason to bring them together for their first adventure. You can use the relationships the characters have built within the cannon of your story and have a better idea of what matters to them. Plus the players know the characters come together eventually anyway, so they’ll work with the reasons you provide to build a great origin story.

Tie It Into Your Campaign’s Main Story

Now that you know where you’re campaign’s overall story is headed (or at least have an idea), tie your flashback session into that story. Drop hints of what’s to come and let your players bask in their character’s young ignorance. You’ll have a blast!

More Gaming, Less Talk

Many session 0s are chatty, with not a lot of action as people discuss what characters should do and how the world should be. When you do a flashback session, there’s plenty of chatting, but it’s all in character and there’s a lot more gaming action. So get to it!

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One of my Exploration Age campaigns is coming to an end… and a new one is about to start! My friend Andrew Kane is DMing us through a campaign based in Exploration Age’s South Pole. The story deals with a cult he created that’s devoted to The Lingering Havoc. Badass! I finally get to step into the role of player which will give me time to focus on publishing the Exploration Age Campaign Guide and allow me to be engaged with the game in a new way. It’s been more than six years since I was a player in a sustained D&D campaign!

As our current campaign ends, Andrew has asked us to submit character backstories so he can begin working those details into the story of the campaign. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to discuss what makes a great character backstories. Here’s a few tips followed by character’s backstory as an example!

Ask the DM

Before you put any work into creating a character’s backstory, ask the person running the game if there are any parameters. Are the character options (like races and classes) restricted? What sort of world are you playing in? A jolly halfling rogue with a passion for lemon cakes and celebrity gossip isn’t something you’d find in a post-apocalyptic setting. Once you have that information from your DM, give them a quick description of your character. It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence or two. Mine was something like, “My character is a half-elf bard who travels the world searching for ancient troves of lost knowledge. He loves discovering new or forgotten ideas and is particularly interested in necromancy and magic that can extend a person’s life.” This got the approval from Andrew. (Side note: I figured having a knowledgable character would help me roleplay since we’re playing in a campaign setting I created.)

Use What the DM Gave Ya!

Once you know about the world your character inhabits, think about how you can tie your character into the setting. As a DM I find it a lot easier to work a character’s backstory into the game if they already have some connection to the story I’m trying to tell. In my case, I picked a character that has an interest in necromancy because Andrew has told us his campaign is centered around a cult of The Lingering Havoc (which is a massive pile of bodies with one mind). This makes it much easier to draw my PC and other elements of his backstory into the campaign. For instance, if my PC is in The South Pole looking for The Lingering Havoc and an old enemy shows up with an axe to grind, it makes sense that the enemy would know to find him there, since my character has a known interest in necromancy.

Just how did I know The Lingering Havoc and South Pole are playing a big part in this campaign? Why the DM told us of course! In fact he sent us an awesome map and campaign primer. Check out both below!

The South Pole: A Primer

Reminder: All the dark gray spots are unexplored terrain. This map made using Hexographer.

All the dark gray hexes are unexplored terrain. This map made using Hexographer.

Closed Point of View

It’s best to use either first person or limited third person points of view (as opposed to omniscient) when writing a character backstory. This allows for the DM to harvest your story for hooks and adventure ideas more easily than if you provide every detail.

Consider this example. Your PC is fighting their nemesis and mortally wounds the enemy before the baddy gets away. An omniscient narrator might then inform us that the nemesis drank a potion of healing and swore to get vengeance on the PC someday. That’s a good hook, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if you as a player don’t know the outcome and leave it to the DM? Then the possibilities are endless. Maybe the nemesis was healed, or maybe with their dying breath the enemy swore an oath of vengeance to a dark god is now an undead revenant stalking the land! Or maybe the nemesis’ much worse sibling or parent found the body and is coming after the PC. Maybe law enforcement found the body and the PC is wanted for murder and doesn’t know it! Maybe the PC is wanted for murder because the body was found AND the nemesis rose as a vengeful wraith (a double surprise). Heck, the DM could tie this thread into another PC’s backstory or the main story! Maybe your nemesis is now a henchmen of the campaign’s main villain! As you can see, a closed point of view allows for more interest storytelling possibilities.

You might consider getting creative and writing your PC’s backstory from another character’s point of view. Maybe a spouse, lover, best friend, parent, or bard tells the tale. Whatever you do, keep the point of view closed so the DM can have a little fun.

Dangle A Few Threads

Leave a few plot threads hanging for your DM to pull on and weave into the story. Your character’s story is just beginning. If all your problems are taken care of at the start of the adventure, then there’s nothing from your backstory to work into the campaign. There’s many possible open threads! Maybe your character agreed to take over the thieves’ guild once an ailing parent/guild leader dies. Maybe someone stole a family heirloom. Maybe your PC wants to learn more about magic so they can return to their farming village to end a years-long drought. Don’t go overboard here. Your DM has other characters and their own story they’re trying to tell. One to three open threads should be enough.

Stick To The Basics And Defining Events

Don’t feel like you need to describe every detail of your character’s life. Answer the basics. Where are they from? Who is close to them? How did they get their talent for fighting, magic, roguing, rangering, etc?

After you answer those questions, you need only describe the defining events in your character’s life. What events made them the person they are today? In fifth edition D&D you might look to your personality traits, bond, ideal, and flaw and ask “When did my character develop these?” Put those moments into words and use those events to leave your dangling threads. That way when your past comes back at you during a game, it’ll be even more meaningful.

Secrets Are Fun

It helps your party members if they know a bit of your backstory, but keep a secret or two for just you and the DM. The secret should be something important that your PC wouldn’t readily share, even with the other party members. Maybe your character is secretly royalty, was once part of a demonic cult, has a secret love child, or accidentally murdered someone. Many of these secrets are shameful to characters, but there’s other reasons a person could keep a secret.

Maybe your PC keeps a public figure’s shameful secret in order to extort them for money. Maybe your PC keeps ties to certain friend or family a secret so enemies don’t exploit loved ones. Maybe they have to keep a relationship a secret because if their father finds out, they’ll lose their inheritance. There’s tons of reasons to keep secrets out there! Give your character a good one… and don’t be surprised when the secret becomes exposed!

Heroes Are Good, Chosen Ones Not So Much

Your character should have some fantastic deeds or moments in their backstory. The first time they cast a spell. The first monster they vanquished. Though remember that this PC is meant to be a part of a group of heroes that is stronger together. You’re character should not be the only person on earth who can slay a world-consuming monster. Not only will it be sad for the world when your PC is killed by a kobold at level 1, it also takes too much importance away from the other characters!

We Knew Each Other Before This

It’s always a good idea to tie your backstory into at least one other PC’s backstory. This makes it easier on the DM to bring people together. Plus it gives you another character you already trust and care about! You might even consider sharing any secrets in your backstory with them.

A Word on Length

When it comes to character backstories, I don’t care much about length as a DM. I’ll read one paragraph (or a list of bullet points) and I’ll read a 30+ page history. Check with your DM before you write a novel. They may not have the time to read it all while they’re worldbuilding and living life, no matter how well it’s written.

Example Backstory: Ramus Verbosa

The link below is the example backstory for my PC, Ramus Verbosa. I’m keeping it in a link since it’s got secrets and I don’t want my fellow players (who sometimes read this blog) to get any spoilers. Happy writing friends!

Ramus Verbosa Backstory

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Note: This article first appeared in the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter.

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At the end of a long campaign, I want my players and I to feel totally satisfied. I mean the sort of satisfaction one gets when a story wraps up with no question unanswered. The kind of story that ends with every major character’s arc finished and accounted for.

This is a challenge when there’s only a single person telling a story – just think of all the novels that have left you hanging in one way or another over the years. But when a group of friends gets into collaborative tale-spinning one chapter at a time with long breaks between, it is almost impossible to wrap up everything with a tidy bow.

All that said, it can be done. With a little prep work at the start of your campaign, and by jotting down just a few notes each session, you can stay organized and tie up all your plot threads. As the finale approaches, you’ll weave those threads into a seamless story that will have your players feeling like they just finished watching all of Breaking Bad.

All you need to do is create two simple documents – a campaign outline and a list of plot threads.

Outline Your Campaign

Before your campaign begins, create a loose outline of your story. This outline can take you from the campaign’s first session to its final, or it could simply be the first story arc or adventure.

Map out where you think the characters will be headed, any major NPCs or villains they might encounter, and the quests they are trying to complete.

You know your gaming group best, so plan in as much detail and as far into your campaign as you feel comfortable while outlining.

If your group plays the kind of game in which the game master dictates a majority of the story, feel free to outline in detail if time allows.

If your players are the kind who surprise you and drive every session off the rails, just keep your outline to the big bullet points of your story and the names of important people. I imagine most groups fall somewhere in the middle.

Here’s an example of what an outline looks like at this stage.

  1. The young dragon Melicharo the White has kidnapped Duke Wellington and ransomed him
    1. Duchess Fiona, Wellington’s wife, is looking for adventurers to save him
      1. Wellington was targeted by Melicharo because the duchess has several magic items the dragon wants
      2. Fiona will give one of her magic items as a reward to the adventurers who save Wellington
    2. The adventurers will go into Melicharo’s lair to save Wellington
      1. The lair is a floating glacier that does not melt
      2. Melicharo is allied with a tribe of kobolds who worship him as a god
  2. Duchess Fiona contracts the adventurers to recover more items for her collection
    1. Duchess Fiona is a member of The Shields, a small secret society that keeps dangerous relics out of the hands of evildoers.
    2. Duchess Fiona warns the adventurers that The Society of Genius, an organization of wizards bent on world domination, might be trying to get the same magic items they’re seeking
    3. The party retrieves several items for the duchess and sometimes has run-ins with the Society of Genius
  3. As part of a massive coordinated attack against The Shields, The Society of Genius kills Duchess Fiona and steals the items the adventurers have gathered for her
  4. The adventurers must seek help from the last remaining members of The Shields who have gone into hiding
  5. The adventurers must take on The Society of Genius

In this case, the further I delved into the outline the less detailed it got. The details and the connective tissue of the campaign can be worked out later as you will see below. The characters’ first adventure is most detailed since I need to be ready to roll for the first session.

If you have a specific idea you don’t want to forget (e.g. Duke Wellington is secretly a member of The Society of Genius), add that in your outline too.

If you’re running a sandbox style adventure, your outline will look a little different. Each Roman numeral might be a different event, adventure site, or influential NPC in the area. It could just be a list of those things in bullet points rather than a formal outline format.

How your outline looks is up to you, as long as you know what it means.

Add PC Backgrounds

If you’re running a longer campaign with a lot of plot threads, odds are your players might create some sort of backstory for their characters. It might be built into the system you’re playing, it could be something you ask the players to write, or you could send them a questionnaire with prompts.

Many players use this as an opportunity to introduce new plot threads into your game. A backstory thread could be a task the PC is trying to complete, such as hunting down a sibling’s murderer or garner enough money to bail a loved one out of jail. Likewise, a character could be running from something in a backstory like a cult or jilted lover.

After you get these backstories it’s time to begin a new document: a list of plot threads. This one is easy to create. Just list all the open plot threads you have at the start of a campaign.

Here’s what the plot thread document for my sample campaign might look like after receiving the PC backstories:

  • Duke Wellington has been captured and ransomed by the dragon Melicharo
  • Duchess Fiona works for The Shields and will ask adventurers who impress her to recover relics
  • The Society of Genius is seeking the same items as The Shields
  • Thog (half-orc barbarian) is searching for the necromancer who killed his brother
  • Rhea (human wizard) needs enough gold for a diamond to raise her old mentor from the dead so she can learn the location of his old spellbook
  • Tippy Shortstockings (halfling rogue) is running from her old thieves’ guild after she stole the thief queen’s crown
  • Grimbeard McShandy (dwarf cleric) lost track of his husband years ago after he disappeared mysteriously in the night

After I gather these threads I incorporate some or all of them into my outline. As the threads are worked in, I cross them off. The first three are already crossed-off, since they are included in the original outline. If I can’t find a place for a new thread in the outline, I let it remain uncrossed. I’m going to revisit the list after each session to see what’s changed (more on that later).

See how the outline looks now that I’ve added some of the backstory plot threads? Note I’ve added a side quests section to the outline now, as not every thread applies to the overarching plot of the campaign. I can work those side quests in as I see fit.

For a sandbox campaign, there really is no such thing as a side quest, so the outline would be different as each quest would be its own category with a Roman numeral.

  1. The young dragon Melicharo the White has kidnapped Duke Wellington and ransomed her
    1. Duchess Fiona, Wellington’s wife, is looking for adventurers to save him
      1. Wellington was targeted by Melicharo because the duchess has several magic items the dragon wants
      2. Fiona will give one of her magic items as a reward to the adventurers who save Wellington
    2. The adventurers will go into Melicharo’s lair to save Wellington
      1. The lair is a floating glacier that does not melt
      2. Melicharo is allied with a tribe of kobolds who worship him as a god
      3. Melicharo has a large diamond in his hoard that could be used by Rhea to bring her old mentor back to life
  2. Duchess Fiona contracts the adventurers to recover more items for her collection
    1. Duchess Fiona is a member of The Shields, a small secret society that keeps dangerous relics out of the hands of evildoers
    2. Duchess Fiona warns the adventurers that The Society of Genius, an organization of wizards bent on world domination, might be trying to get the same magic items they’re seeking
    3. The party retrieves several items for the duchess and sometimes has run-ins with the Society of Genius
    4. During the course of these adventures, Tippy’s old thieves’ guild strikes while the characters are away and steals one of the recovered magic items
      1. The guild threatens to sell the item to The Society of Genius unless the thief queen’s crown is returned
      2. The party must find the thieves’ guild and decide how to deal with them
  3. As part of a massive coordinated attack against The Shields, The Society of Genius kills Duchess Fiona and steals the items the adventurers have gathered for her
  4. The adventurers must seek help from the last remaining members of The Shields who have gone into hiding
  5. The adventurers must take on The Society of Genius
  6. Side Quests
    1. At night Grimbeard McShandy keeps receiving prophetic dreams of his missing husband screaming in pain

As you can see, there’s still room for more detail and side quests. Thog’s thread has yet to be incorporated into the outline. After this it’s a quick cross-off of the Rhea, Tippy, and Grimbeard bullet points on the thread list. Thog’s bullet point remains uncrossed as it has yet to be worked into the plot.

It helps if you keep both these documents in some sort of digital form, preferably in a cloud-based storage system like Google Drive. If your campaign takes years and you change devices or move, it helps these all-important campaign tracking documents remain intact.

Once you’ve worked all the backstory threads you want into your outline, you’re ready to start playing. When the campaign gets underway, a few notes each session will go a long way.

Take Notes

Whether it’s during the session or right after, take note of any new threads that have opened up during your game. If you want to bring back the goblin who managed to run away as a magically enhanced megavillain seeking revenge on the party for the death of her friends, you should write that down before you forget. A quick note will do, just something to jog your memory.

Sometimes you’ll get an idea for a new plot thread totally outside the realm of gaming. You might be grabbing a cup of coffee in the break room, watching a child’s soccer game, or playing a video game and think, “I should bring that into my game.” Take note of these ideas too. Gone are the days of needing to have a piece of paper and something to write with in order to remember a great idea. If you’ve got a phone, you’ve got a note-taking application.

When you sit down to plan your next session, take a minute and add your new ideas into the open plot thread document. Our updated sample looks like this after the first session.

  • Duke Wellington has been captured and ransomed by the dragon Melicharo.
  • Duchess Fiona works for The Shields and will ask adventurers who impress her to recover relics.
  • The Society of Genius is seeking the same items as The Shields.
  • Thog (half-orc barbarian) is searching for the necromancer who killed his brother.
  • Rhea (human wizard) needs enough gold for a diamond to raise her old mentor from the dead so she can learn the location of his old spellbook.
  • Tippy Shortstockings (halfling rogue) is running from her old thieves’ guild after she stole the thief queen’s crown.
  • Grimbeard McShandy (dwarf cleric) lost track of his husband years ago after he disappeared mysteriously in the night.
  • The kobold shaman Skull-Skull in Melicharo's lair escaped after watching his friends die at the hands of the adventurers and promised revenge.
  • In Grimbeard McShandy's dreams, his husband is being tortured by an otherworldly creature called a feldyra, a monster that slowly steals the life force of others and lives in a literal nightmare realm.
  • Rhea has the diamond to bring back her mentor.
  • Tippy is trying to seduce Duke Wellington and he seems into it...
  • Duke Wellington is tired of playing second fiddle to his wife and is secretly a member of The Society of Genius.
  • Melicharo's mother, Brindratharix, is out there and coming for the adventurers. When she learns The Society of Genius is searching for them, she joins forces.

After that, take a few minutes and update your outline just like you did with the character backstories. Check the old uncrossed threads too. You might be able to incorporate those. Just like last time, it’s fine to leave off any threads you can’t work into the outline. Leave them uncrossed. Here’s our sample with the new information.

  1. The young dragon Melicharo the White has kidnapped Duke Wellington and ransomed her
    1. Duchess Fiona, Wellington’s wife, is looking for adventurers to save him
      1. Wellington was targeted by Melicharo because the duchess has several magic items the dragon wants
      2. Fiona will give one of her magic items as a reward to the adventurers who save Wellington
    2. The adventurers will go into Melicharo’s lair to save Wellington
      1. The lair is a floating glacier which does not melt
      2. Melicharo is allied with a tribe of kobolds who worship him as a god
      3. Melicharo has a large diamond in his hoard which could be used by Rhea to bring her old mentor back to life
  2. Duchess Fiona contracts the adventurers to recover more items for her collection
    1. Duchess Fiona is a member of The Shields, a small secret society that keeps dangerous relics out of the hands of evildoers
    2. Duchess Fiona warns the adventurers that The Society of Genius, an organization of wizards bent on world domination, might be trying to get the same magic items they’re seeking
    3. The party retrieves several items for the duchess and sometimes has run-ins with the Society of Genius
    4. During the course of these adventures, Tippy’s old thieves’ guild strikes while the characters are away and steals one of the recovered magic items
      1. The guild threatens to sell the item to The Society of Genius unless the thief queen’s crown is returned
      2. The party must find the thieve’s guild and decide how to deal with them
  3. As part of a massive coordinated attack against The Shields, The Society of Genius kills Duchess Fiona and steals the items the adventurers have gathered for her
    1. Duke Wellington is gone. As a secret member of The Society of Genius, he got the inside information from his wife and helped plan the attacks.
  4. The adventurers must seek help from the last remaining members of The Shields who have gone into hiding
  5. The adventurers must take out the allies of The Society of Genius to weaken them
    1. Brindratharix is supporting them and in her son's old lair
    2. Tippy's old thieves' guild may align themselves with The Society of Genius after interacting with them
  6. The adventurers must take on The Society of Genius
    1. At some point Thog will face his brother's killer
  7. Side Quests
    1. At night Grimbeard McShandy keeps receiving prophetic dreams of his missing husband screaming in pain
      1. Grimbeard McShandy must find a way to enter the nightmare realm to save his husband from a feldyra
      2. If he does not rescue his husband in 90 days, his husband will die from the feldyra's constant feeding
    2. Rhea brings her mentor back from death
      1. His old spellbook was rigged to teleport into a secret underground prison for vampires in the event of his death
        1. The prison used to be run by lycanthropes friendly to the mentor, but since his death the vampires broke free and control the place
        2. The head vampire found the spellbook and is currently using it to keep his leadership position
      2. The mentor is familiar with the necromancer who killed Thog's brother
        1. Necromancer is a member of The Society of Genius
        2. Was a former student of the mentor
    3. Skull-Skull will return with his Ettin friend to stomp the party

Once you start playing, a single plot thread can spawn a lot of ideas. Some are side quests and others take place further down the road. But now you’ve got an idea of how the story can be connected and how to work it into your game. You won’t leave anything hanging unless you want to.

Tie Up Threads As You Go

Weave threads together over the course of the story. Do not save every thread for the final session. In the early days of running games, I kept all threads, major and minor, open until the very end of a campaign. It made for an almost comical finale.

Until the last session, every recurring villain got away, the characters never fully confronted their shady pasts, every missing person important to the party stayed missing… you get the idea. It felt like the final episode of a television series canceled mid-season. There was a hasty wrap-up.

If you close threads along the way throughout the campaign, you’ll be surprised at how much richer your story becomes.

Tying up many threads earlier will create new ones for you. As you can see in the example above, the party’s wizard raises her mentor and it leads to new revelations and quests. This gives the story extra layers of plot and creates a deeper tale that’s more satisfying when all is done.

It may seem overwhelming at first, but if you take a few notes each session and a few minutes to update your outline between games, you’re going to accomplish telling a spectacular, complete story.

End the Campaign

When it comes time to start bringing your story to a conclusion, you’ll need to start tying up plot threads. I know my game master brain can’t stop introducing new ideas, which is totally fine, but at some point you need make sure you’re closing down more plot threads then you’re adding to have everything wrapped up by the story’s conclusion.

It’s cliche, but true – all good things must come to an end. Some campaigns continue on until the gaming group breaks up and the story just fizzles out, but to get the most out of this method, you need to bring it home. If you outline at the start, take notes, update, and tie up threads throughout, your gaming group will want the campaign to end. The satisfaction of completing an epic story together will propel you into your next adventure together.

Roll20CON Wrap-Up!

I also just wanted to thank everyone who made the Roll20CON livestream awesome. Your support, views, and encouragement mean more than you know!

You can checkout both our games in the links below. The first Dungeons and Dragons game with Rudy Basso, Nadja Otikor, James D’Amato, Richard Zayas, and Greg Bilsland starts in the first video around the 03:09:10 mark. The second game with Anna Prosser Robinson, Holly Conrad, Jared Knabenbaur, and Chris Perkins starts in the first video around the 12:20:25 mark and continues into the second.

https://player.twitch.tv/?video=v70242239

https://player.twitch.tv/?video=v70365584

Thanks to everyone involved. All players were amazing. Roll20 folks were amazing. The audience and community were amazing. The other games and panels were amazing. I was amazed.

Two announcements to come out of this…

  1. Roll20 will be putting out a FREE starter adventure designed by yours truly with maps from Russ Hapke and Gabriel Pickard, puzzle tiles from Stephen Shomo, and tokens from Phillip Wright. If you’ve never played on Roll20 or if you’ve never played fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons or if both of those statements apply to you, this is the adventure that will teach you how. If you’re an expert with both it’s still a fun time. We played through the adventure in the first game I DMed.
  2. During the second game we played Merric Blackman‘s adventure Death in the Cornfields (with a little Tarokka Expansion mixed in). It is an awesome mystery that can be played in one session. Do it.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Pacing is important to every story and the collaborative tale of your tabletop RPG is no different. The ebb and flow of your narrative keeps players engaged and on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. While pacing is bound to change over one-shots and long campaigns alike, the last thing you want at the table is your game’s story coming to a screeching halt.

Yet our games come to sudden stops every session. Did you just build up a big boss fight with an amazing villain monologue and terrifying description only to have a ten-minute pause right before the battle so you could read stat blocks and/or draw terrain on a battle mat? Have your players ever thrown you a curve ball that destroyed your plans so thoroughly you needed a few minutes to figure out where your now rail-less story train is headed? Have you shown up to a game without doing any prep for your players and simply struggled as you tried to figure out what happens next? Fear not! There’s a simple way to keep the narrative going while you prepare for the next steps of your campaign – asking questions.

Whenever I find myself needing a few minutes to prepare the next phase of my story, I ask my players specific questions that keep the game going. The answer to these questions require a player tell stories or have a discussion with each other. This keeps players immersed in the game, gives the world context, helps the PCs learn more about one another, and reveals new plot threads. The best part about these questions is that all you need to do is ask one and the players are off and running with a new scene while you take your time to set things up.

Sometimes the PCs spend days, weeks, and even months traveling together without so much as a few random encounters crossing their path. They hang out together in taverns, at feasts, and at parties. They spend the night in dungeons. In the real world the PCs would tell each other many stories and have many discussions, but because it’s not monster fighting, NPC interacting, or cave diving, we often gloss over or skip these conversations. Asking them to have these conversations during real-world downtime might mean the conversations aren’t always happening in chronological order with other events, but it does mean the players stay immersed in the story of your game while you prep. Besides flashbacks are a storytelling convention. Once you establish that the conversations inspired by these questions are just that, the pace of your game won’t suffer.

Don’t forget to award great stories, role-playing moments, and quick thinking with Inspiration. That extra reward always encourages players to give it their all.

How Do You Know…?

One of my favorite questions to ask a PC before a battle, “How do you know the villain you’re about to battle?” While I draw out lines on a battle mat or drag jpegs into Roll20, one player tells the others how his or her character once interacted with the villain. Maybe the dwarf fighter once crossed blades with the orc lord in the caves of his far away mountain home. Maybe the halfling rogue stole a diamond from the hoard of the dragon circling above. If the villain already has a place in the PC’s backstory, that’s perfect, but if not, it’s ok to put players on the spot and ask them to make something up. They do it to you all the time. The player will entertain the others and answer their questions while you do your thing and prepare the battle. The best part is that this new story will make the encounter you’re about to play out even more significant to the narrative.

What’s Your Backstory?

Almost every PC has a backstory and in Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition every character comes with a built-in background. If you need some time to prep, why not pick a detail out of a character’s backstory and ask them to tell the others about it? Be sure to keep these questions on the vague side so players can give as much or as little detail in their answers. Rather than, “Tell us about Rathebone’s secret affair with the king’s wife,” you might say, “Tell us about Rathebone’s lover.” The latter allows Rathebone to talk about his ladyfriend without revealing her identity. If the player chooses to drop a bomb, all the better. That’s going to make your game way more interesting. The player’s answer might buy you some prep time and give you some great new ideas to help move the plot forward.

What Were You Doing When…?

Sometimes us DMs speed through travel or downtime with a quick montage because we have a lot of story and action to cover in a session. If you find yourself needing time to prep something and want to keep your players engaged, simply ask them, “What was your character doing on the way here?” or, “Hey back in town you had ten days of downtime. What did you do during that time?” You can have the players go around the table and describe their PCs’ recent actions. Even the most mundane of descriptions (“I hung out at the local tavern and hit on all the half-orc dudes”) can inspire and interesting conversation amongst players or a new story thread (“Now an over-protective orc mama is after you.”) When you ask players to flashback and describe actions during travel or downtime, keep it their most recent experiences. Asking them what they did during a montage 10 sessions ago is going to defeat the purpose as they try to remember where there story was.

What About When THIS Happened…?

Of course not every question you ask needs to lead to story. One question in particular can lead characters into great discussions amongst themselves, thus buying you time to prepare. Some groups, like my own, can have something they want to discuss, but they forget to follow up on the issue because the rest of the game gets in the way. For instance, an NPC from a particular character’s background says something cryptic to that PC about their shared past. The other PCs might want to follow-up with some questions, but then a new interaction or encounter begins that distracts them from asking. Those questions would probably come up later at the tavern or on the road of adventure during the scenes we speed through or skip entirely. This isn’t just true for cryptic NPCs. PCs could have a moral debate about an issue like killing goblin children or looting an active temple. One character may need some kind of intervention from the other PCs (“Thog, you really need to bathe!”) The party can use this time to debrief and review a particularly important quest or battle that went awry. Odds are there’s a conversation that would be pressing to the characters in the game world the players aren’t having because they’re distracted by the need to keep pushing forward. When your game comes to a stop, go ahead and prompt them to have those conversations and buy you some time.

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!

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!