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.
For 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.
- 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