GM Advice: How To Use Your Players' Backstories

Character backstories are excellent ways for players to connect and immerse themselves into your campaignworld. They can be straight forward, complicated, and compelling little reads, depending on how much of a writer your player is. But now that you have all this nifty, new information in your hands, how do you intend to use it. You already have a story, or at least the skeleton of one. Do you make the campaign all about them, and leave your narrative out?

"Here's my backstory. It's short because we're only level 1."

Well, before you go getting too excited, know that the backstory is a glimpse into the character's past prior to the beginning of the game, and more so it is a glimpse into the kind of character your player will be running. If there are a lot of spy games and betrayal in the rogue's story, they probably aren't building themselves up as a heavy combat character. If the barbarian's story sounds like something written by Robert E. Howard, then it is safe to assume they don't want to engage in much court intrigue.

"I use diplomacy. I diplom'd the hell out of these guys"

This is the style of play you player is reaching for, and while your campaign may not be set up to specifically suit that all the time, you can throw in elements to tantalize them and draw them further into your story, while challenging other players with these little side treks.

 "He said go North East... but he didn't say at which degree to angle our trajectory..."

You players will often hand you two types of backstories for their characters;

The Detailed Backstory: This one is usually a small novella. A great deal of time and effort was spent detailing the previous exploits and origins of the player character. Traumatic events, important figures, struggles, triumphs and tragedies spill across the pages (because it will be pages). These players give you a wealth of tools to utilize in your campaign world.
How To Use It: The beauty of The Detailed Backstory is the amount of information it provides. People, places, events, enemies. All of these can, and should, be lifted by you, the Game Master. Fleshed out NPCs in the tale can be used to draw in the player and/or antagonize both them and the party. There could even be a compelling villain hiding between the paragraphs, waiting for a chance to be let loose. Helpful NPCs could provide some manner of aid to the party should they have no other place to turn. The locations provided could be used to spice up the world, and show the party a new, unfamiliar and exciting place. There is a wellspring of material to be tapped here. Tap dat tale, Tap it!

The Vague Backstory: Ah, this little gem. This is usually from the player that either has a time crunch and can't commit themselves to the choir of slamming out 34 pages of backstory, or one who struggles creatively. Occasionally you have someone at the table that wants to roll with the mysterious backstory, so secret and well hidden that not even they know much about it. Sometimes, just sometimes, a player will be crafty and make the backstory vague on purpose, just to give the Game Master more room to manipulate it. I am that player, more often than not.
I have seen backstories that are only slightly vague, and some as vague as “He's an orphan with no family. He became a mercenary.” 

I will be honest, I love these kinds of backstories. You may ask why? If there isn't much information to work with, how can you really utilize it?
How To Use It: The beauty of The Vague Backstory isn't the details provided, but the details omitted. Everything a player doesn't provide in the backstory I consider fair game to use. No family history, you say? Guess whose mother is a secret sorceress attempting to call one of The Great Old Ones into our world?!
No mention of siblings? Won't you be shocked when your twin shows up... but which is the evil one?!
Every fact that isn't stated is another facet to be explored, exploited, and used to the benefit/detriment of everyone at the table. They are also usually the best ones to organically tie to the events and people of your campaign.

Don't think for a second that diving into one player character's backstory means having to put the story you are trying to tell on hold. This is where a good background in improvisation works well in your favor. Intertwine the backstory into your own. Make the NPCs connect in some significant way. Turn NPCs provided into the backstory as gatekeepers that stand in the way of the players finishing their next objective. Set the next mission, contract, or quest in a location provided in one character's story. Perhaps events the players wrote upon have far reaching implications that now impede progress, and they either have to deal with it or it will continue to haunt them.

Even dead people included in these backstories can make appearances in a world populated by necromancers and ghosts, and such events are likely to leave a lasting impression on both the character and the player.

You players have, in a way, done a great deal of prep work for you before the game has even started. It is up to you to connect the dots. But be sure that when you hearken back to backstories, and tie up loose ends left in them, the players almost always respond positively, and they will be more involved with your world, because in a way, you have made it their world too.

Count on making them count,
+Ed The Bard 

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