DM question: how much do you incorporate PC backgrounds into the campaign?

Sacrosanct

Legend
Back in the early 80s, whenever we DMd, we rarely incorporated PC backgrounds into the actual adventure. PCs were pretty generic at level 1, and it was the adventure that created and was the catalyst for the stories. Perhaps it was because the game was more lethal back then, especially at low level, so you really didn’t spend a lot of time creating a background if there was a good chance you’d die. When we DMd, we had a story and adventure in mind. Either from a published adventure or a home brew adventure and world we fleshed out, and we stuck to key NPCs, monsters, and areas as they appeared.

Now I notice I DM much differently. Sure, I have an adventure and plot all in mind, but the players spend a lot more time creating character backgrounds. And I do my best to incorporate them into the game before session one. And in between sessions, I continue to have private conversations with players about their PC specific story arcs. I’ll change NPC names, or add a few NPCs based on the backgrounds I get, and make them core to the adventure. The overall plots stay the same, but what I’ve found by doing this is that it makes no two campaigns the same, even if they are the same adventure I’m DMing. It’s a much more collaborative approach to story telling while still maintaining control of the game world, story, and NPCs

so where do you fall? Do you pretty much run adventures as written, without changing them based on character backstory? Or do you fully let players dictate parts of the game to fit their story? Or somewhere in the middle, like where I’m at currently?
 

gepetto

Explorer
I dont incorporate backstories at all. On the whole I find them generally obnoxious, both as a player and a gm. I tell people that right from the beginning though. Keep it generic, just explain why your character chose to involve themselves in life and death adventures instead of a 9-5 job. You can should use it to guide your characters personality and choices, not to try to co-author the campaign. The campaign develops from choices made during play not before it starts.

But then i hardly ever run a published adventure either. So i dont need to worry about customizing generic content for the characters.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Changing the backstory of the world to account for the PCs runs perilously close to meta-gaming. It's better to just forget about these characters, in order to avoid overstating their importance.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Back in the early 80s, whenever we DMd, we rarely incorporated PC backgrounds into the actual adventure. PCs were pretty generic at level 1, and it was the adventure that created and was the catalyst for the stories. Perhaps it was because the game was more lethal back then, especially at low level, so you really didn’t spend a lot of time creating a background if there was a good chance you’d die. When we DMd, we had a story and adventure in mind. Either from a published adventure or a home brew adventure and world we fleshed out, and we stuck to key NPCs, monsters, and areas as they appeared.
This is more or less how we still do it.

Once a character has stuck around awhile its player and the DM will sort out a background for it - in some cases; not all players are interested. The player is then free to pull elements of that background into play, but I-as-DM rarely if ever will, preferring instead to either use elements of setting history common to all or things that have come up during adventuring.
 

steenan

Adventurer
The way we play, the game focuses strongly on the PCs, no matter how powerful and influential they are within the setting. That means that we don't "incorporate their backgrounds into the campaign", because the whole campaign is about them. It does not and cannot exist in separation from the PCs. If something does not resonate with the past, beliefs, goals and relations of at least one PC (preferably more), then it probably has no place in the game.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
It depends on the game, and sometimes on the system. A one-shot or dungeon-crawl requires less investment and prep-work than a narrative game or plot-driven campaign. For the latter, pregens are great, especially for cons, demos, impromptu, and tutorial sessions.

But when I run something more elaborate that requires some long term buy-in, I want to make sure that the players feel that the story plots revolve around their characters, or at the very least, include them in a significant way. This is especially important if I`m using published adventures or similar materials cobbled together from different sources. The trick is to find ways to make sure the player characters become the protagonists in a script that wasn't already tailor-made for them. But rather than crossing my GM fingers and hoping the players will come up with something magically in line with details that they cannot (or should not) predict, I will often work closely with individual players to help build their character concept or background for a particular campaign.

This is usually an ongoing process that takes more than a single conversation and may require a little bit of compromise on both sides. However, my goal has always been to help produce a character that a) the player will absolutely be excited to play for more than just one session, b) will fit better into a storyline that will affect them directly, and vice versa, and c) allow me as the GM to know more about the goals and motives of the players and the characters they wish to play. In my experience, this has been a very good return on investment for the extra work and the additional requirement of mutual trust. Granted, some people are going to scoff and take offense at this level of involvement by a GM with their character ideas. But I'm very upfront about this when I invite people to play and, for the most part, everyone has been pleased with the results.
 

atanakar

Adventurer
A favour a strong campaign concept instead of detailed PC backgrounds.

For exemple, in my current game, all the PCs are sibblings of a baron. They rolled randomly to determine the eldest. Then I extrapolated their family tree and how they relate to the King. Part of their background is that they stayed in the capital for a year while training at the King's schools for nobles. The rogue is part of the King's spy network, etc.

The players had never done this before, but once I explained it in detail and talked with them individually via Messenger they were on board.
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
I like to incorporate them, but only slightly. This is also because I like a short background. My goal is not to make the character's personal history the source of the adventure, but to make those character feel like a part of the world and not someone removed. Featuring NPCs, Factions or Locations whether prominently or not can make the characters feel like a part of the world.

In my opinion, a Player Character should have at MAX one paragraph of backstory. Maybe a few bullet points to summarize the important proper nouns. I like the details to be vague so its easier to improvise the background connections.

Here is an example from LMoP

Player, a Fighter, was leader of a mercenary band. The lieutenant betrayed him and left him for dead on the battlefield to usurp control. I told him they were called the Redbrands and gave the leader a name. Later when he encounters the Redbrands he is upset to see they have become simple bandits. I made a couple of "old hands" sympathetic to him while the majority were new blood who were just bandits. (Hell, it reminds me a lot of the Van der Linde gang now that I think of it.) He struck down the usurper boss, chased off or converted the new recruits and then reformed the Redbrands to become the City Watch of Phandalin. He eventually became Lord of Phandalin to boot. It was a great story, thoroughly focused on the here and now and consisted of a brief paragraph about the mercenary company and 4-5 names for NPCs within it.

Another player in the same group was a Dwarf brewer with a disgraced father who was actually innocent. I had him be framed by the Black Spider so it was very satisfying for that player. Another player was a refugee from Thundertree from the Hotenow eruption. He eventually became a vassal of Player 1 (Who became the Lord of Phandalin) and rebuilt Cragmaw Castle and Thundertree.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Changing the backstory of the world to account for the PCs runs perilously close to meta-gaming. It's better to just forget about these characters, in order to avoid overstating their importance.
Perhaps it would help if I gave an example.

A few years ago, I was rerunning a group through ToEE. One of the PCs backgrounds was that he worked in a circus, and he and an orc rival both wanted to be with this one person The orc was evil, violent, and overall not good news, but convinced everyone else he was not a problem. In a fit of jealously, the PC ended up getting into a fight with the orc and killing him (albeit accidentally). He was forced to pay for the Resurrection costs and be exiled from the circus.

In the temple, there's this bandit leader general. So I changed the bandit leader to be this half orc (who left the circus to fulfill his desires of crime and violence). The orc ended up running into the PCs a few times throughout the adventure but didn't reveal himself until later in a typical "big reveal" trope.

In another example:

The PC's background was that their mother will killed by a rival warlock cultist and are hunting him. The adventure main plot is around a bunch of cultists rising a lost god (very Lovecraftian feel). So it was very easy for me to make those cultists responsible for his mother's death and hunt for him, and change some of the NPCs around to fit his background more closely.
 
The way we play, the game focuses strongly on the PCs, no matter how powerful and influential they are within the setting. That means that we don't "incorporate their backgrounds into the campaign", because the whole campaign is about them. It does not and cannot exist in separation from the PCs. If something does not resonate with the past, beliefs, goals and relations of at least one PC (preferably more), then it probably has no place in the game.
Yeah, that's pretty much how we play. The story is the story OF the PCs. Our next campaign will be about other characters.

I have only a very loose idea of what I'd like to include in the game prior to character creation. It's only once the players have made their PCs that I commit to the setting and incorporate as much of what they've offered as I possibly can.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
I pretty much base all of my campaigns around the PC's initial choices. (Replacement characters, I try, but there's only so much I can change mid-stream.)

Like, in my current Ravnica campaign, I let the players make their PCs, and then decided to focus on the first major plot line around guilds that would be antagonistic to the bulk of the PCs. It helps that my games are primarily improved, and I don't run pre-published adventures. The setting constraints help in that I can improv material without having to explain everything via exposition.
 
Do you pretty much run adventures as written, without changing them based on character backstory? Or do you fully let players dictate parts of the game to fit their story? Or somewhere in the middle, like where I’m at currently?
Dictate, no. But I do pick stuff from character sheets to "connect" the PC to the fantasy world sometimes. I actually think I should do it more often...
 
For the longest time, I loathed extensive backstory as a DM. A first level character showing up with pages of history guaranteed I'd ignore it.

These days, sure, if a player feels that passionately about their PC that they're going to craft some awesome story, I'll totally draw from that into the campaign.

The one thing that old me and current me still agree on is that the backstory needs to keep in mind that your PC is only first level - there's only so much you can justify based on that.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
This is not for DnD, as I don't play it much, even though when I do, I usually try to create some sort of back story as character development. I'm fine with character back story as it can help craft the setting, on the gripping hand it also has to get woven into the bread of the game with everyone else's back story. A game with a life path style chargen, you need some sort of back story as to why this person is going on an adventure vs some kid.
 

Ulfgeir

Explorer
I haven't GM'd that much, but when I ran Daring Comics, I did use the background enemies from the players. One caused extensive damage to a shopping-mall (Spatial distortion + illusions = messy stuff)..

As a player, I do like if hooks from the background is included.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Depends on the group and the game. For the tables with newer players they don't really want to create much in the way of backgrounds because they're learning how to play. So we mostly they pick some backgrounds, use those traits to figure out "why are you all together and why are you in this adventure" and move forward.

My long-term table (where we're currently playing 13th Age but have previously played 3e, 4e and a few other games) we'll have a session zero where folks will decide what kind of character they want to have and we'll figure out what the world is like based on that. Most of them won't come up with extensive backgrounds, but just enough to motivate "why is your character involved in this group and going on 'adventures'". And then I'll make some improvised changes to the starting scenario I've picked (something generic enough that any set of motives can be made to work with it - low level site-based adventures without much plot around them are perfect for this).

Typically though they'll come up with NPCs and ideas that I will mine for plot hooks for later adventures as well as for the immediate motivation of why they're in that first adventure. NPCs that they come up with become important motivators for exploring various areas or interacting with other NPCs, or the personal goals that they have for their characters will become major plot threads instead of just one-offs. I've been able to improvise whole adventures based on bits of character backstory, for example, which is nice when you've got designer's block. ...
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I suppose I should have put this caveat at the beginning. I'm imagining that for one-offs, short campaigns, and AL, backgrounds are probably not incorporated as much. But long running campaigns, they might be a lot more, and we as GMs may be more apt to adjust NPCs, areas, and subplots to fit those backgrounds.
 

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