[RPG] Good techniques for getting player-character backgrounds integrated into the game


So I'm starting a new campaign for an existing gaming group soon, and I'd like to actually incorporate character backgrounds that the players will be creating (eventually). These aren't epic-novels or anything, usually just a paragraph or two of fairly basic background information.

Obviously, I can read through them all and try to write a plotline that incorporates everything, but is there a better way to handle that? I'd rather avoid having creating one adventure for each character, but at the same time I'd like to make the backgrounds actually part of an integrated story.

Best Answer

What I have done when I running games that don't have this built in is to introduce the concept of tags. In other games, they're called different things, and it's a fairly common technique, though perhaps presented in a different manner.

Each PC when writing his background, tags it with the most important parts of the background from his perspective. These tags are short (less than 5 words) descriptions of what makes that part important. In some cases, I've given each PC a limit of tags; in more open ended (especially diceless) games, I've not really placed a hard limit. But either way, you end up with an open-ended precis of the character background.

Tags are whatever you want to make them. A bit like aspects in Fate Core, i.e. An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to.

So if the wizard used his abilities on the streets for pay, he might tag that part of his background with Wizard for Hire and perhaps I learned on the streets and Friends in low places.

Once I have these, I use them in a few ways:

  1. Each tag can be used once by the PC in game to expand the background around some action that he is doing.
  2. I can use tags when writing up the campaign to make sure that I hit on those areas that are most important.
  3. I can use tags in game to expand the background or fill in blank areas related to the person's background.

When writing up the adventure, the GM might see the Wizard for Hire, and get the idea that Cortana is the Wizard's rival in the academy and looked down on him for selling his skills and is trying to get him thrown out by framing him. He's just a mercenary after all, so anyone would believe that he killed the councilman for pay.

When running down hints on the charges leveled against him and their origins, the wizard might say "I have friends in low places- Gerard used to run with me and stayed around when I changed circumstances. If anyone knows how I might have been framed, he would."

You can also use them to infer things just by their presence. For example, when playing, the GM might look at the "I learned on the streets," and since that's a major part of the background- the streets know him also, and a gutter snipe that recognized him from when he lived there might approach him because of that with a key piece of information.

By using them in this way, I focus on what's most important to the PCs, and make it relevant to them as protagonists.

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