Exploring Backstories


Backstories are typically written before the game starts, then either not touched again or referenced a few times with plot hooks. Some characters might not have backstories at all, or didn't put much in them when the game was still new and uncertain. Yet as your game progresses these backstories can become more stagnant, outdated, or unused.

Requiring a character's entire history to be set in stone before the game even starts seems unreasonable, and there's nothing that says a character's backstory needs to be some old bit of flavor that sets the character in motion to the real story. In fact, involving a character's backstory is one of the best ways to get them motivated and engaged with your world. A lot of DMs will use it as a hit-list of names to threaten a PC into action, but all that does is teach players to not to write backstories that can be used to emotionally blackmail them.

Revisit these backstories, not just by introducing characters from that PC's past, but by actually visiting those events in the past. Powerful magic can even alter the flow of time, and an artifact or deity could tempt a PC with the opportunity to revisit and change an event they regret in their past. Actually visiting that event and playing it out can make for powerful roleplay opportunities.

Time Travel

Even without changing anything, actually visiting and playing out the events from a PC's personal history allows them to make changes or fill in gaps of their own story. Jump around to different points in their life, ask them what happened, and inject your own little problems or twists to make these events interesting. You may want to do this as private 1-on-1 sections, but I prefer having everyone be present and involved. Having the rest of the party there reacting or asking questions can make these moments in a character's history more powerful.

Be sure to give everyone a fair shot, this magic should affect everyone equally. Some characters are going to have more interesting story-lines than others, and if everyone is enjoying it then there's no rule that you have to cut it short to maintain a perfectly equal airtime. Some players may need your help to guide and shape the events into something interesting and some will just take the reins and run with it. Some players will shy away from the spotlight while others will linger in it, but every player will appreciate the chance to flesh out their character and create a more meaningful connection with your world.

The Far Realm

This could be a one-off event of wild magic, giving everyone a chance to revisit and revise their histories, or you could launch into an entire campaign of time travel and alternate timelines. The Far Realm, where aberrations like beholders and old gods like Cthulhu live, can be a good backdrop for this. People that enter and leave The Far Realm don't just mutate, but can also end up in wildly different times, hundreds of years in the future or past or within entirely new timelines. Getting back to their “home” timeline can be an adventure in itself.

As your campaign goes on and everyone becomes more comfortable with their characters, you can drop in these little visits to the past to act as a sort of “tune-up” for their character to help focus on their motivations or create entirely new ones. Often the best source of inspiration for a DM that doesn't know what to write has already been written for you by the players. When in doubt, a character's past often holds the key to their future.

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