The No-Prep Way to Use Character Backstory In a Campaign

When dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players. Revisiting a backstory shines a spotlight on a character and includes them in a way that highlights a character’s unique importance to the campaign. Through character backstory, players contribute to the campaign world. Using that backstory in the game recognizes the value of the player’s creative contribution. That recognition feels great.

But the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks include no advice for dungeon masters aiming to use these backstories in play. I’m here to help.

The easiest method for pulling a backstory into a D&D game follows the techniques of another type of real-time, collaborative storytelling: improv theater. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

Improv’s “Yes and…” principle enables DMs and players to work together to bring character backstory into scenes. Suppose the party visited Waterdeep and you, as DM, wanted to use something from a character’s backstory to draw them in. If a character’s backstory included a history as a gambler wandering from town to town, fleeing angry marks and gambling debts, then the scene might start like this.

DM: Zand, have you ever gambled in Waterdeep?

Zand’s player: Yes, and I’m keeping my eyes open for… (looks at hands) …Knuckles. I owe him.

DM: As luck would have it, you spot Knuckles going across a crowded market square. He looks your way.

Zand’s player: I walk to Knuckles and say, “Hello friend, I have an irresistible opportunity that will pay you back for what I owe.”

Sometimes players can contribute backstory to suit a scene without much improvisation, because they imagined more of their characters’ histories than the DM knows or remembers.

“Yes and…” builds creatively. The scene and the game moves forward instead of getting stuck finding agreement. Second City explains, “The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way.”

Unlike performers in an improv scene, players don’t need to be up for anything. When a DM elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players invest time and imagination in their characters, so they deserve to keep control of their proxies. Players can always pause the game and explain that a bit of invented backstory doesn’t match their vision.

This sort of spontaneous addition of character backstory resembles another technique where the DM has the players contribute to the world-building during a session. Examples range from asking the players to invent a distinguishing feature for a monster to having players describe the folks in the inn. That practice can become a jarring reminder that the characters live in a made-up world without any truth. Inventing or recalling backstory feels more comfortable because players feel accustomed to imagining that part of the story. The DM asks questions and the characters know the answers, even if the players have to dream up the details.

Of course just a few actors and storytellers understand this sort of in-game collaboration. Sometimes such offers stumble. The DM says, “As you eat your meal, someone you recognize from your battalion walks in. Which one grew up here?” And then the player locks up. I don’t remember anything about that, the player thinks. What do you want from me? You can nudge the scene along by spelling out the offer. “Would you like to expand on your character’s backstory by telling me the name of someone you fought beside in the last war? What do you remember about them?”

When the technique works, it feels like creative magic—the best case for connecting backstory to the game in progress.

Related:

Next: More on bringing backstory into campaigns.

4 thoughts on “The No-Prep Way to Use Character Backstory In a Campaign

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  2. Shelby

    This is sort of the opposite of what I like when I’m a player. I have something of a character background, but that’s pretty much where I want it to stay. I’d like to stay one step removed from it. A GM can say, “A guy walks up to your group. One of you has probably seen him around.” (Rolls a die) “YOU recognize him as a gossipy trader of dubious reputation. What do you do?” Then I can reply “Hey, this guy gets around and has loose lips, mind what you say.” That’s about as far as I’d like that to go. I don’t want a GM trotting in some “good buddy” or “sullen rival” or, worse yet, “bitter ex” that adds unwanted baggage to what was a simple anchor to hang my game token on. I’d prefer more generic interaction that any interested party member can get involved with.

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  3. Don

    So out of your last 8 articles, 5 of them addressed “realism”, i.e. a concept you dismissed several years ago with your article on C&S. Characters have backgrounds – yes they do. You can’t instantly recover from severe damage (body and fatigue points in C&S) and several other issues.. You should deal with morale, but it is hard And of course splitting the party, which is the norm in C&S (mostly because you are not in a dungeon, but in a world.)
    I think it comes down to this, do your players want a more black and white heroic adventure or do they want a more full body story, with struggle, loss, and sacrifice to achieve their goal. D&D for the masses has chosen the former, which not always, but can have the effect of creating a party more interested in killing (heroically) rather than interacting with the world. Nothing wrong with beers and fun, but unnecessary violence worries me a bit.
    It also leaves me wanting more, both as a GM and as a player.

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