Adventures should focus on the present, but they can still draw from your game world’s past. Exposing players to a little backstory makes the world feel more connected and vibrant. The imaginary seems more real.
I prefer to reveal backstory through dialog. This lets the players learn as they interact. They can role play their characters’ reactions. Players can ask questions, and feel clever when the answers lead to more insights.
Creating a source of backstory
Backstory can come from more sources than a hoary sage or captured henchman. People hear things, and in fantasy your sources can be something other than people. Your players can get information from a range of sources that add flavor and even launch plotlines.
- a local busybody or snoop.
- a fortune teller whose insights come from a network of gossips rather than anything supernatural.
- servants and slaves, ignored by their masters, but privy to intimate conversations.
- an immortal creature or a ghost bound to a particular location or object.
- a thief who discovered something in the course of a crime.
- a shapeshifter who spies in animal form.
Opening a dialog
The best time to reveal backstory is when players seek it because they have questions to answer. See “When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure.” For example, if a party stops a pig farmer’s shack to ask about a strange light, and they notice that he flies the banners of the lost kingdom, someone will ask about the banners.
If you cannot lead the players to ask the right questions, then you can have a non-player character (NPC) volunteer essential background, but keep the dose small. The players will tolerate a pig farmer who mentions that the last king ascended to the heavens from atop yon hill. They won’t listen to the king’s lineage.
When you make an NPC stand out, or put her in the path of adventure, players may decide to talk. Aim to let curiosity drive the the players. If you lavish too much attention on a bystander, players will metagame and assume that the spotlight obligates them to approach. No one likes to feel steered.
Sometimes NPCs will approach the players. In a world without mass communications, locals will seek wanderers with news from afar, and will bring gossip to share. If the players decide the pig farmer is not worth their time, then perhaps he wants to to know if anyone saw his lost sow. “She likes the berries that grow on yon hill. It’s special, you know.” Remember: small doses.
Revealing backstory in writing
Of course, sometimes no one knows the information the players need. At times, I’ve resorted to letting characters uncover a bunch of backstory written in a letter, or a journal entry, or an old book page. This tactic lets players learn from a dead or missing source. It avoids the risk that players will kill someone who knows something essential. It lets me create a prop.
But this approach suffers from serious drawbacks:
- Reading a page loses the interaction players gain when they speak to a non-player character.
- No one wants to stop participating to read. Often players’ handouts languish on the table
- Only one player can read at once, unless you print copies. You can enlist someone to read aloud, but listening to someone drone never seems compelling.
If you must offer written backstory, make it short. The chance to inform without spending time at the table tempts some DMs to cast pages of backstory as a tome or journal, and then to dump them on the players. This only works if players can study between sessions, and many—perhaps most—players will skip the homework.
Written backstory works best when it supports interaction. First players meet with the sage, then they get a copy of the lecture notes. If you have a journal or tome for the players, put it in the hands of an NPC who has read it. The NPC can tell what it says and contribute extra information to the discussion. When the discussion ends, the players have a text to reference.
Although I dislike trudging through pages of adventure background just to run a published adventure, I hate when authors imagine nuggets of evocative backstory, put them in print, and then fail to offer any way for players to discover them.
Some adventures resemble icebergs, with a background that could make the game world come to life submerged and doomed to stay hidden. Of course, most adventure backgrounds drown the flavorful morsels with cruft the author could not bear to cut. For more, see “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory.”
When I run a published iceberg, I aim to break the ice. After I finish reading, I return to the background and look for all the interesting bits of history and scheming, motive and magic that might enhance play, if only I can bring them to the table.