When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure

In my last post, I groused about authors who write thousands of words under an “Adventure Background” heading, without bothering to limit the history lesson to the elements that enter play. This leads to a question: What adventure background should enter play?

Some players will happily devour any background and history you share at the game table. These folks read the appendixes at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and then finished The Silmarillion. I love these folks, but they’re unusual. Every public library has copies of The Silmarillion with 100 well-read pages and 100 never-read pages.

Anyone can reach the DM’s pet. What backstory do the other players want to know?

Shadow on the Moonsea shipsIn some adventures, players need to know some background to make sense of what would otherwise seem like an assortment of random events. At Gen Con 2014, I ran the Adventurers League scenario Shadow on the Moonsea five times. This adventure comes packed with flavorful elements: infernal pirates, ghost ships, creepy and incestuous villagers, and a secret that ties everything together. I enjoyed running this one. At the start of the con, I told Community Manager Robert Adducci that I would be running Shadow. He advised me to look for ways to expose the adventure’s backstory to the players. As I ran Shadow for the first time, the players strove to make sense of the adventure’s moving pieces—a good sign that the game engaged them. However, as written, Shadow on the Moonsea only offers players one route to learning the secret that links everything. My players would not take that route. If I stuck to the script, then the session would end in a bewildering clash of apparently unrelated elements. I wanted to finish with the satisfaction of a mystery solved, so I adjusted. As the adventure neared its climax, a village girl the PCs had befriended relayed a conversion she had overheard. The secret became clear. The adventure’s threads tied into a satisfying end.

Even when a piece of information makes sense of an adventure, the players may not care. Sometimes I find myself relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.” Some players do not come to the game table for a consistent work of story or worldbuilding. They will never care.

More often, when you relate backstory and the players lack interest, you are providing answers before the players know the questions. Most players care little for backstory unless it solves a problem or explains some mystery that raised their curiosity.

In order solve a problem, we must understand it.

If all the obstacles in your game invite obvious solutions, then your players will never have a reason to learn anything. But if they need to learn who committed the murder, where the treasure lies, or just what to kill, they become curious. Shadow on the Moonsea begins with the characters seeking to stop a series of raids by phantoms on a ghost ship borne by storms. As players work to identify the source of the raiders, the task becomes a mystery. During this adventure, players take an interest in such dry lore as the nature of some old bones and weather patterns on the Moonsea.

When players work as investigators, their appetite for information lets you serve backstory that would otherwise bore them, even if it does not lead anywhere. Some of the fun of investigation comes from sorting clues from unimportant details. But avoid feeding information that leads in the wrong direction. Red herrings create confusing and frustrating role-playing adventures. Players have enough difficulty pursuing clues that lead through an adventure without having to sort through clues that mislead.

If you run an investigation and players still don’t care about the facts, then you are running the wrong sort of adventure for the table.

Something doesn’t add up.

Even if the players do not need answers to solve a problem, an unexplained situation may fire their curiosity.

During the course of their quest, players in Shadow on the Moonsea find themselves in a creepy, isolated village that may be the target of the raiders’ imminent attack. But lots of things in the village seem odd. The village may be a target, but it seems to have no other links to the raiders. Nonetheless, the place’s secrets will raise the players’ curiosity. The players wind up meddling in search of the village’s secret—in search of backstory.

This sort of curiosity has sustained television shows such as Twin Peaks and Lost. Both kept viewers tuning in by spawning unexplained events that teased curiosity. The puzzles propelled the shows for years, even though neither shows’ writers proved interested in delivering satisfying answers.

The nature of a fantasy world makes creating the unexplained difficult. We have the Twilight Zone; Faerûn has Tuesday—second-day. Magic explains much. But if you manage to create a game world that seems consistent and interconnected, then players will spot the things that defy explanation, and they may dig for answers.

We want to know more.

Sometimes, players immersed in the game world will take an interest in backstory that neither helps solve a problem, nor explains something puzzling. Some favorite moments as a dungeon master have come at these moments see imagination come alive. These times, as a dungeon master, I win D&D.

Next: Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

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4 Responses to When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure

  1. Cynidician says:

    This is an unbelievably helpful article! You have clearly articulated some complex ideas. Thank you, as always.

  2. Michael says:

    So how did the players divert? What happened during that adventure?

    • DM David says:

      Hi Micheal,
      As written, Shadow on the Moonsea only offers one path to uncover the secret of the village. Players must elect to explore a forest on the village’s island. For whatever reason, players at my tables often chose to skip the forest. Perhaps the author expected players to almost always enter the forest, and the playtesters mostly behaved as he expected. Perhaps other DMs worked harder to lure the players into the forest, and I made it seem too dangerous. Perhaps the way I ran the adventure, the village seemed more mysterious. I thought the Lovecraftian village ranked as the adventure’s most interesting aspect, so I played it up. One of the joys of running an adventure more than once come from seeing how small changes in presentation lead to big changes in the players’ approach.

      Anyway, when I realized that my players would find the adventure baffling, I adjusted.

      Dave

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