Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Guest Lecturer: Group Backstories

Today we have our second guest lecturer in the form of 1D12. 1d12 has been a regular on the blog for a while, and generally provides a lot of good and insightful comments, so I'm really happy that he's decided to step up and write a full on guest post. You can find 1d12's personal blog here, and you can find them on facebook here. Be sure to click the links. All that said, let's see what 1d12 has to say on how to formulate a group backstory.

Creating characters as a group before the game begins can be a great opportunity to get a feel for how everybody plays and what everyone's focus will be on during sessions. It can also be a great opportunity for everybody to get to know each other's characters so they have a mutual reason to be together. Those links can be one of many different things, and usually link two or three of the characters, but not all of them.

What if everybody decided to create a shared backstory that linked all of the characters? This could be done in many different ways.

In this case, all of the PCs are part of the same family. They could be cousins, siblings, or even in a parent/child relationship. This one is easy, since blood is a very good reason for all of the characters to care about one another. This can also be a good way to bring in things like sibling rivalries or a child who wants to impress his or her parents or make them proud.

Grew Up Together
In this case, the PCs all grew up together. They may not have hung out or have even known each other well, but they did know each other. Maybe they grew up in the same town and slowly moved away only to meet each other again. Maybe they grew up in the same orphanage (90% of PC parents are dead anyway), or perhaps they went to the same school. This can be a good way to bring in rivalries or shared contacts.

Shared a Traumatic Experience
In this case, the PCs all shared one experience that drastically affected their lives. This could be the introduction to the campaign, or it could be something that happened years ago and the PCs are meeting up again. Maybe they were prisoners of war in the same prison. Maybe they were all survivors of that plane crash or were on that bridge when it collapsed. This connection could be something that happened on a long term basis or something that just happened in an instant and was over.

Using These Backstories
The point of these is not only to give the PCs a good reason to travel together, but to give substance to a campaign. These connections need to be deep, emotional connections that mean a lot to each of the PCs, no 'We're in the same Guild' or 'We met at a bar once.'

Drawing from backstories to add to a campaign is not a new idea and should certainly be used here. It's a great idea because you will be using the efforts of all of the players. Maybe that one close family friend is the bad guy or what happened years ago was part of a deeper conspiracy that is coming back to bite the PCs once more.

Hopefully, you'll be able to use this idea in your own campaign and will be able to add a new and dynamic element to your games.


  1. Years ago I got sick and tired of having to introduce the PCs to each other, so I started making a shared background for them pretty much all the time if they didn't provide one themselves. I have usually made them all grow up in the same town and decide to become adventurers together in D&D. Once I had them all be conscripted members of a baron's army; then the army was destroyed before they arrived at the battle. I've had them be the survivors of a raid on their village. I think my favorite is that they are all low ranking retainers of the same lord. Retainers have a patron that can send them on missions, and they can move up in his service. They can ultimately leave his service as they become more powerful and strike out on their own (or choose to supplant him if he is an unworthy lord).

  2. I don't remember where I saw the original concept, but I've long wanted to use a meta mechanic of granting bonuses players can add to their characters for each tie to another character they can reasonably make at time of creation.

    The bonuses would be small enough to prevent gaming the concept, but would encourage players to decide how they know each other without having to take on the burden myself.

    Though I've never gotten around to using the idea, I contend it has merit.

  3. I've always said that the sign of a good idea is that someone else thought of it as well.

    I just recently used this in a campaign I'm running where the PCs all grew up in the same town and joined the militia and were always assigned together. I think it helps create a sense of familiarity between the characters.

    My personal favorite of these, when I was writing it, was the shared a traumatic experience. As a GM I just get so many different ideas for how I could use that, depending on the experience, and I'd love to run a game where that was in the PCs' backgrounds.

    I seem to remember hearing about a concept like that at one point too, but I couldn't say where, when, or how it was implemented. I think it's a good idea and with a good enough incentive, can get the players really caring about each others' characters.