Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

When I write these posts, I occasionally offer advice aimed a folks creating adventures and game materials for print. I realize that this represents a minuscule number of readers, so I fret about writing to an audience of no one. On the other hand, I post for kicks, so here I go again. If you lack interest, this won’t appear on the test. My next post will move to a different topic. You may be excused.

In “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory,” I complained about written adventures loaded with backstory that cannot possibly enter play. When I prepare to run a published adventure, I want only as much information as I need, when I need it. I know that this is an unreachable goal. Adventure authors must prepare me for actions my players won’t choose. Nonetheless, the goal stands.

Edmund Leighton - Tristan and Isolde - 1902

“Let me tell you about my campaign.”

When writing an adventure, save the “Adventure Background” section for last. Instead, write descriptions of backstory in the locations and scenes where players can discover it. An adventure may offer several ways to learn some essential backstory. You can repeat that background wherever it surfaces. I want information when and where I need it.

If backstory never comes up in a location or scene, that either means it’s not important or that you must find a way to communicate it to the players during play. For more, see “How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.”

Some authors feel tempted to stuff backstory into descriptions of non-player characters, but appending backstory to an NPC fails to do enough to put it into play. This approach tempts authors to pair NPCs with backstories that die with the NPC in 3 rounds. You can pair backstory with a character description, but only if you offer a way for players to learn the story.

As a dungeon master, I do appreciate a big picture look, so that “Adventure Background” does help me. When you finish writing your locations and scenes, go back and look at the history that gets revealed. You can then compile the subset that will enable the DM to understand the adventure. The telling details and sense of wonder can stay in the scenes and locations. If you finish your compilation and realize that some essential piece of background doesn’t appear in your compilation, then you know you failed to offer a way to communicate that background to the players. Dream up a few ways that the players can learn the background, then drop the element into the adventure.

2 thoughts on “Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

  1. Clay

    In this series you didn’t mention the other side of backstory: player characters’ backstories. The problem with backstory in published adventures is that it never ties into the PCs’ backstories. When writing for your own campaign, the adventure comes alive through backstory that the PCs (and thereby the players) deeply care about. In a published adventure, the dragon Amarathkalyx destroyed the keep a century ago. In a home brew adventure Amarathkalyx roasted your grandpappy on the turret of the keep, and that half-molten sword over there is your birthright, that can only be reforged in the fiery bile of Amarathkalyx’s gut.

    When I read the backstories in published adventures, I am looking for the seeds of something that I can tie into one of the PC’s backstories. I’ll even rewrite the adventure’s backstory to hook the PCs into it somehow.

    I agree with your points about revealing backstory through dialog and interaction, but players will listen with rapt attention if you are telling a backstory about THEM.

    1. sapphirecrook

      Agreed. Giving space for characters to have histories tied into the state of affairs is always cool. Often overlooked by players too. Starting at level 6, and yet no old friends or ex-helped people in their wake… felt weird.


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