Five Ways to Involve Character Backgrounds

Today’s is another guest article by Brandan Landgraff. Brandan is a Canadian roleplayer and has written seven articles for D20 Source so far this year.

Recently I discussed players providing good character backgrounds with plot hooks for their DMs to use. Once you have backgrounds from your players, though, it becomes your responsibility to see to it that their work is put to good use. In some cases the background provided will mesh very well with your intentions for the game, but other times even with guidance the background your players submit may be difficult to work with. This problem can also arise if you are running published material but want to engage your players a little bit more. Here are five ways to incorporate backgrounds into a campaign without needing to derail.

1. Use familiar faces as NPCs

Your players will be far more engaged if the shopkeeper in town is a childhood friend or a friend of the family—someone with some connection to them—than if it is simply a throwaway NPC. A quest hook could come from a cousin or an old mentor just as easily as a peasant or a wizened sage met on the road. Using characters connected to your PCs will grab their attention far more readily than a faceless peasant they’ll never see again, even if the overall effect is the same. If you are using published material consider which NPCs could be replaced without unduly affecting the adventure—in most cases, the list will be broad enough to provide several options.

Use familiar locations

If your adventure calls for the characters to go to “a village” and one of the players has provided you with a background saying he comes from the village of Bridgestone, it doesn’t take much more effort to set it in Bridgestone instead. Simply describe a few features as being “familiar” to that individual, and have the townspeople react appropriately to their home-grown hero. For published material, again, consider whether this can be done without affecting the course of the adventure.

3. Use familiar antagonists

Quite often players will create rivals or old enemies for their characters. It’s a simple matter to substitute the villain of a piece with a significant foe from a character’s past—or even someone who they once trusted. Imagine the shock when they learn that their former mentor is now leading a cult of Orcus, or that their own father has become a dark servant of Kyuss! Be careful not to play this too hard, though—some players may be upset at this kind of betrayal.

This works even in many published adventures, provided the nature of the villain is not unsuitable for the character in question. A fighter’s old weapon master is not a great candidate for an evil wizard type, but an old scholar could believably be played up as having sold his soul for arcane power.

4. Run a subplot.

In television show structure often there will be an “A” plot, which is the main driving storyline of the episode, and a “B” plot, which is a minor but important subplot that runs concurrently, developing characters in different directions. This tactic can easily be borrowed for roleplaying games. For example, during the investigation of a murder in a noble household, a character is approached by an old childhood friend working as a servant in the same household who has fallen in love with one of the maids in the household and would like assistance in romancing her. During the course of the story you can run both storylines at the same time, giving additional dimension to the story and making it more memorable for the players.

You can even use it to bring in extra conflict—what if the maid in question suddenly becomes a prime suspect? What if the timing of a critical stage of the investigation conflicts with an arranged meeting between the servant and the maid, during which the PC had offered to provide eloquent words of love from the bushes for his tongue-tied friend? It’s easy enough to find ways to do this even in many published adventures, though it may involve more work than the previous methods.

5. Seed your backstories.

If you provide your players with a list of questions for their background, it’s easy enough to make one of the questions a plot hook of your own. For example, in one of my current campaigns, I informed the players that one of the most vivid memories from childhood for each of their characters was an encounter with a tall, cloaked man missing three fingers on his left hand who they noticed watching them silently before vanishing mysteriously without a word.

I asked them what they were doing when he was watching them, how they felt about it, and whether they had ever mentioned the event to anyone. Then, at the climax of the first adventure, the seven-fingered man appeared briefly before vanishing just as mysteriously—and now, I know I have the attention of all of my players, who are wondering who this man is and what his game is. Through the course of the campaign, I’ll be able to drop hints about his identity and his goals. This kind of tactic also helps to unify the party by ensuring that everyone has a common background element that remains relevant throughout the course of the campaign, and increases the motivation to stay together as a team.

This list only scratches the surface of ways to involve the characters’ backgrounds more effectively. There are as many methods as there are DMs. The only wrong way to use character backgrounds once you have them is to ignore them completely. Always remember that the player characters are the focus of the game, and should never feel as though they are secondary characters. By involving their backgrounds, you ensure that the story will be about them, as opposed to simply taking place around them.