How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

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

Bound and unbound books and manuscripts on shelves and a table (Leiden, 1630)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.

When did you last see a movie or TV show that expected you to read something to understand the story? I can answer that. When did you last see a Star Wars movie? Even in 1977, the introductory text seemed quaint. George Lucas wanted to evoke the movies he saw as a kid. If you can think of another movie that requires reading, I suspect it’s black and white, perhaps even silent. Contemporary movies find a way to communicate though dialog and images rather then text, and a game should aspire to more interaction than a movie.

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.

Iceberg adventures

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.

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2 Responses to How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

  1. I have to admit, I’ve really been partial to developing the backstory in writing, but you’ve really made me think about how much I’ve relied on that technique and I am resolved to try and get more of my (way overdeveloped) backstory in through dialogue and NPC – character interaction. I think you are spot on about having to keep the information revealed focused.
    However, I can cite a series on TV, and a remarkably successful one, that does essentially require you to read something else to understand the story. Game of Thrones doesn’t quite “require” you to read the novels (or at least the wiki pages) but I have yet to sit through an episode without having my wife pause it to ask me several questions about what the heck is going on (she hasn’t read the books, but she loves the show).
    Of course, Game of Thrones gets around most of this problem with their famous (or infamous) use of “sexposition”allowing them to give backstory while also entertaining us in other ways. We don’t really have that option in a game (or at least I kinda’ hope we don’t – that’s a whole different sort of role playing!), and so we need to use other devices to transmit all the rich detail our players will otherwise miss.
    I’ve been blessed with compulsive players who not only read the odd tome and journal entries I provide them, but actively seek out even more information. I once had a player uncover a whole Greyhawk campaign plot revolving around and attempt by some elder elemental cultists to free Tharizdun (trapped beneath castle Greyhawk in my version) by using both my materials and some deep canon from books and the web to figure it all out – a year after the campaign sputtered and died due to outside factors!
    That said, even if you aren’t’ so lucky to have crazy compulsive players, I think you can still make good use of written backstory. You are absolutely right that it kills the game if you hand it out in the middle of a session. However, at the end, it can be a great way to keep people involved and invested between sessions. I often have recaps of the last game session that I or the players write up and send out as emails shortly before the next session and into which I insert little tidbits. They know that the information can be valuable, so they keep reading (mostly).
    Still, I think there is much merit in your point about using brief, in context interaction to make the game world come alive, and I am inspired to make that a more regular feature of my games.

    • DM David says:

      Wallace,
      Thanks for the thoughts. Your group sounds awesome, but you deserve credit for making a game compelling enough to invite participation, and deep enough to reward it. Well done!

      Dave

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