The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

When I got my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I first looked at topics that overlap with posts I plan for this blog. If the DMG already said it, I will work on something else. Turns out, as good as the book is, I still have things to add.

In chapter 3, “Creating Adventures,” the book lists “Elements of a Great Adventure.” The list covers familiar ground, but one entry surprised me. Great adventures should put a clear focus of the present. “Instead of dealing with what happened in the past, an adventure should focus on describing the present situation.” The author wisely lists positive elements to aim toward, rather than negatives to avoid, but I see the negative: backstory. Avoid weighing your adventure with history and background that players either cannot see or don’t care about. This surprised me because Dungeon magazine once ranked as the number one perpetrator of excessive backstory.

Dungeon magazine 25For a paragon of superfluous backstory, see this room description from Dungeon 25. “Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.” The description could just list “refuse and rusty, unusable equipment,” but adds 100 words of fluff that cannot possibly come into play.

The quote comes via Bryce Lynch’s crabby, entertaining reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures on tenfootpole.org.

Of course, most backstory appears in the front of adventures under the heading “Adventure Background,” and starting with the words, “A century ago…,” followed by three more pages of background. For anything more complicated than goblin raiders, authors feel obligated to start their background a millennium ago.

Some backstory improves a game. Anyone building a world—or just a dungeon—must imagine the history of the place to make it consistent. Creating a backstory can inspire ideas. When players notice a little history, the game world feels more connected and vibrant.

But adventures never arrive light on backstory. I feel annoyed when an adventure makes me trudge through pages of phony history to run a game session. Judging by Bryce Lynch’s reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures, I feel pretty sure backstory killed his parents.

Why do authors weigh down adventures with superfluous backstory? I count three reasons:

  • Forgetting that adventures exist to be played. Unnecessary backstory seemed to peak in the era of the campaign setting, what James Maliszewski calls D&D’s Bronze Age (1990-1995). During this era, TSR seemed to produce products to be read more than played. They published seven campaign settings supported by mountains of supporting material and novels. Nobody could play a fraction of it all. If an adventure exists more to be read than played, then backstory adds as much as playable content.
    I have the theory that the folks who write role-playing adventures do it because they like to write. I know, crazy. You would think they would do it for the cash and girls. Some writers seem to discover that simply writing RPG products scratches the same creative itch that once led them to play role-playing games. Over time, the writing assignments pile up, their gaming buddies move on, and these writers find themselves writing for role-playing games, but not playing them. During this same bronze age, I seem to recall a lot of designers admitting that they no longer played the games they wrote for.
  • An obligation to justify the elements of the adventure. Dungeons have changed from the original monster hotels peppered with rooms plucked from a lethal funhouse. Even in a fantasy world, players and DMs expect things to make sense. In Backstory and Adventure Design, Gus L writes, “One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.” In this spirit, I offered “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests.”
     
    Remember when your math teacher insisted that you show your work? I’m a DM. I just want answers—just the history that enhances play. I appreciate if you can justify every detail of an adventure with some torturous back story, but you can keep most of it to yourself. I don’t need the history of Krypton to enjoy a Superman tale.
     

     
    When your creative process leads you to create an elaborate history that the players will never learn, the game will still benefit. An unseen backstory will inspire telling details that make the game world more vivid. That history will lend the setting and characters a consistency that they would otherwise lack. 
  • A desire to share the creative work that led to the adventure. Most authors who create a detailed history as part of their creative process cannot bear to leave it untold. So they write thousands of words under “Adventure Background” and force me to sift the nuggets that will enter play. Like every writer, adventure authors must murder their darlings. (Or at least put them in colored insets as I do.)

Next: When and how to introduce backstory

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6 Responses to The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

  1. Zalbar says:

    I’m going to go ahead and agree and disagree with you at the same time. History and background can’t be forgotten. It’s important to some players, and you need to have a general sense of things if you’re going to be able to answer them.

    If you want to go from encounter to encounter then you might as well stick with 4e. There’s nothing wrong with that, some players enjoy that. I prefer highly detailed background and settings (as an aside) giving me the option of expanding should the need arise. It’s all in how you write and structure the module, which I would say is mostly backwards. Background should come after the immediate encounter/room description/ or as an appendix. Sort of a post adventure in-depth writeup.

    That’s always been one of my flaws in writing adventures, they end up as more location settings than single adventures.

    • DM David says:

      Hi Zalbar,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I think the ideal, space permitting, is to separate inessential background in a sidebar. Adventures like “Legacy of the Crystal Shard” put setting material in a separate booklet. I liked that because I didn’t have to sift through all the background to run. After finishing the adventure, I still have a setting book to use for future games.

      Dave

  2. Alphastream says:

    This is why adventures need good developers and editors. Even a moderately talented developer can see the problems posed by unnecessary adventure backstory or a lack of player agency. Playtesting is the next key, where you get people that aren’t just your friends (and ideally seasoned players with a background in playtesting) to play the adventure and tell you when an adventure is filled with useless text.

    Wizards of the Coast pairs writers with some of the absolute best editors and developers in the business. The majority of the time the schedule is well planned out and the devs and editors do a great job of demanding that the adventure contents have high utility and focus on the PCs. Wizards also gives you a word count. Nothing forces a writer to pare down like a maximum word count!

  3. Alphastream says:

    I should add that this seems to have not always been the case. I have seen the professionalism in the industry increase vastly from WotC down to indie RPG companies. There is an understanding that the process matters and that you can’t just let someone own their pet project and spend 20 pages on whatever topic interests them and only them. (As you point out, plenty of older adventures seem to have been pet projects with insufficient development and oversight.)

    • DM David says:

      Hi Alphastream,
      I’m with you. The professionalism and quality of the products coming from RPG companies, including Wizards, rates as better than ever.-
      Dave

    • kosovodad says:

      Hey! Long time no see… I came across this thread and wondered how electronic publishing might have affected this and to what degree? Electrons allow unlimited length, but allow much more competition, which requires even tighter writing. What are your thoughts? – Mike

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