[RPG] How best to seamlessly incorporate player’s backstories into the game?


The characters in my game have excellent backstories, but bringing them to the forefront, highlighting the skills, abilities/ skills/ feats and NPC connections they made sometimes isn't the easiest.

This is not the players bringing up the connections, but me as the DM doing so, bringing up something relevant from the past into the present, and helping to "connect the dots" between past and present to make a seamless narrative.

Best Answer

The Problem: There's a Lot of Stuff in a Backstory

In my experience, mining ideas from PCs' backgrounds can be a bit tricky. That's because a relationship or event written into a backstory can serve one of several quite distinct purposes. For example:

  • Sometimes, players write backstory elements because they want to see the GM incorporate them into the situation in play.

My character is a poor, pious cleric. I write down that she has an evil bishop brother because I think it would be fun to see her confront corruption close to home. Nothing would make me happier than to see my evil brother evolve into the game's big villain for a while.

  • Sometimes, players write backstory elements intending to keep them firmly in the past. They're there to serve as guide to a character's life experiences and personality, but the player doesn't particularly expect to see them come up in play, except as expressed via the PC's own actions.

We're playing a supernatural investigation game. My character, and FBI agent, has two kids. I didn't make up the kids because I want the GM to threaten them or use them for plot hooks; I just want to show that my character is a family man.

  • Sometimes, something in a backstory is just "connective tissue," never intended to be a full-fledged thing in and of itself.

I'm playing a pirate wizard in our pirate game. We've previously determined that learning to be a wizard in this setting is an arduous and very formal process. I write down that my character was trained as a wizard but then turned to the outlaw life after being falsely accused of a crime. That detail isn't especially meaningful to me, it just explains how the pirate and wizard parts of his background fit together.

At times, trying to divine what exactly a player hopes to do with a particular bit of a backstory can be tricky. In my experience, there are two particular issues to watch out for:

  1. In many games, a PC's background is the main way in which non-GM players create details about the world. Bringing that stuff into play is good, but it's possible a player will feel disempowered when you start putting your own spin on their relationship characters or make their backstory part of a plot twist.

  2. Character backstories are often about defining a personality. Sometimes bringing in an element too directly means some fundamental character-defining conflict is resolved, and a player feels like their PC's arc as a protagonist has concluded prematurely.

Luckily, it's easy to avoid these missteps with a bit of communication.

A Solution: Highlight What You Want to See

How do you know which elements of a character's background their player really wants to bring up in play? Just ask.

Some games use game mechanics to guide these discussion; these kinds of mechanic are called "flags" (most clearly discussed here: practical examples of good flags, some technical details). You can add a basic version of this framework to existing games pretty easily. Here's one example of a quick-and-dirty method.

For backstories specifically, ask players to highlight what they want to see reincorporated in play.

For example, ask everyone to write down, separate from any long-form backstory:

  • Major relationships: characters from your background you'd like to see influence the shared story in a major way — making up some of allies and villains.
  • Minor relationships: characters you know that you'd like to see in "walk-on" roles — essentially walks-on and extras.
  • Characters' personal goals or their personal motivation for being involved in the group goal. (Particularly keep in mind that these will change over time.)
  • Personality traits that would be fun to explore or spotlight.
  • (Might also be good to give players a list of things players don't want to see. E.g. "I wrote an abusive mentor but I really don't want to go through the details of that at the table." See the "lines and veils" for a more general discussion.)

You can look at these sheets during planning or in play to help guide your GMing. Encourage players to modify them over time.

How Do I Make This "Seamless?"

If you're using the method above, look at these notes during planning and play. Make it a part of session planning, encounter design, or scene framing. Incorporate designated major backstory characters into your own relationship maps, side-by-side with the NPCs you've invented yourself.