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

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Like many of the others here, I sometimes use the backstories, and I sometimes do not. I like having the option, though. I'm running a homebrew setting, and there are blank spaces in the map where it's easy to put things if a character's backstory calls for it. I'm willing to fit events in, if needed, too. I do not, however, allow players to "dictate" what goes into my world. I'll work with them, but I have the final say.
 

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Maestrino

Explorer
Wait, some people don't?

Current campaign:

One PC was involved in a business deal that went bad with a cousin. Killed his cousin, ran away, became a pirate for a bit. This is definitely going to come up later on. Cousin was saved through a pact with some strange entity and is now going to be a warlock big bad for later in the campaign. They'll start getting hints about it next time they pass through that city.

Another PC was squire to a paladin who got banished to another plane while fighting minions of Yan-C-Bin. They're secretly looking for a means of planar travel to try to find their former lord while not letting on to the rest of the party that they're just pretending to be a paladin. This is going to get fun when the PC winds up taking a seemingly meaningless oath that powers up a bunch of paladin abilities for them...

Yet another PC is a stowaway from a distant continent who became basically a retired Dread Pirate Roberts type. There's going to be some surprise connections with PC 1's pirate background and - of course - a surprise twin. (There's already a tabaxi rogue NPC coming in the story. Now the NPC is going to be identical to the PC, but with their "eyepatch" fur marking across the opposite eye so it's like looking into a mirror...)
 

Talltomwright

Explorer
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?
Exactly like you are describing, my favourite part of DMing at the moment is taking a published adventure and the backstories my players come up with and meshing them together till it feels like the adventure was written for them. It doesn't take a lot of work (well, not true, I spend ages thinking about it, but only because I enjoy it, I'm sure I could blast through it if I was pushed for time) and the players seem to appreciate it. I recently replaced a boss in Descent Into Avernus with a nemesis from one PC's backstory and the look on their face at the surprise reveal made my week.

And yes, I did that less in 2e when they were dying more often! Feels like in 5e they'll be around for a while (as discussed on other threads) so it's worth investing some time in those characters.

It was really interesting listening to Dice, Camera, Action in the early days, having read Curse of Strahd, and seeing how Chris Perkins adapted it to his players and their backstories so they felt part of the world and connected to the action. He did everything from bringing in characters from their backstories to tailoring encounters to appeal to their ideals and fears and it was pretty great.
 

Saelorn

Hero
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.
That's the sort of twist which is much more common in a novel, and inserting those elements can make the world feel more like mere fiction rather than a believable place.

While coincidences do happen in real life, that's rarely a satisfying explanation, and it's as important to avoid the appearance of meta-gaming as it is to avoid the actuality of meta-gaming.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
That's the sort of twist which is much more common in a novel, and inserting those elements can make the world feel more like mere fiction rather than a believable place.

While coincidences do happen in real life, that's rarely a satisfying explanation, and it's as important to avoid the appearance of meta-gaming as it is to avoid the actuality of meta-gaming.
They players enjoyed it , and were much more engaged than if it was still just random bandit captain Bob #13*. So while I agree metagaming can lead to issues, it doesn't have to and can be a good thing, leading to greater player enjoyment. It is a game after all.

* Doesn't matter how much I flesh out Bob behind the scenes, the players don't care because they have no connection to Bob. Make a connection, suddenly the players take more notice
 

Talltomwright

Explorer
They players enjoyed it , and were much more engaged than if it was still just random bandit captain Bob #13*. So while I agree metagaming can lead to issues, it doesn't have to and can be a good thing, leading to greater player enjoyment. It is a game after all.

* Doesn't matter how much I flesh out Bob behind the scenes, the players don't care because they have no connection to Bob. Make a connection, suddenly the players take more notice
Yup 100% this. Believable or otherwise, if not over-used, players, or at least my players, seem to enjoy these connections.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Yup 100% this. Believable or otherwise, if not over-used, players, or at least my players, seem to enjoy these connections.
I think a really good example of what this looks like in practice is how Matt Mercer DMs. For those who have seen even a dozen episodes, you can see how PC backgrounds pop up at certain times during the campaign. I think it's pretty clear he inserts NPCs and areas at certain times into the game that are related to a particular players' backstory.

But as you say, and as @Saelorn warns, too much metagaming can ruin a campaign because it strips immersion. Going back to CR, look at how frustrated the rest of players and Matt became with Orion and his constant meta gaming.
 

ccs

40th lv DM
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.
So what would happen if I made choices during play based off my background? Let's say it's something as simple as "My character became an adventurer because he wants to visit the island of _____.
 


Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
In my current game I am running a modified XP system. 10 XP gets you to the next level. XP is gained by achieving something noteworthy (not just random combats or traps).

One of the primary ways I am trying to get the players to use to get XP is by creating personal goals tied to their backstory and making bite sized increments towards those goals, which earn them an XP.

So, the answer is "More than normal for this campaign."
 


Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Can you please elaborate on that?
Background can encompass a lot of things. It includes a lot of what you might call character concept, the mechanical rules background (incl flaw, bonds etc), plus NPCs the character might know, plus things like drives, motivations and whatnot. Some of that might be present in a back story, or it might not. Some of those things are also present regardless if a backstory is written or not, which is a solid pice of evidence that they aren't the same thing.

More generally, I would characterize background as the whole set of things that make the character who they are, both in the fiction and in the rules, whereas backstory is a story of things that happened to the character. There are a huge range of variations on this from table to table so it can be tough to really separate the two, and I've taken the liberty of some pretty broad generalizations to do so.
 

Talltomwright

Explorer
I think a really good example of what this looks like in practice is how Matt Mercer DMs. For those who have seen even a dozen episodes, you can see how PC backgrounds pop up at certain times during the campaign. I think it's pretty clear he inserts NPCs and areas at certain times into the game that are related to a particular players' backstory.

But as you say, and as @Saelorn warns, too much metagaming can ruin a campaign because it strips immersion. Going back to CR, look at how frustrated the rest of players and Matt became with Orion and his constant meta gaming.
I haven’t watched much of season 1 but season 2 of CR really feels like Matt Mercer had a loose over-arching plot and then built everything else around the offers the players made him in their (evidently very detailed) backstories. As ever, whatever is fun at someone’s table is great for them, but I do really like this sense that they are making a story together and I try to incorporate it into my games.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
That's the sort of twist which is much more common in a novel, and inserting those elements can make the world feel more like mere fiction rather than a believable place.

While coincidences do happen in real life, that's rarely a satisfying explanation, and it's as important to avoid the appearance of meta-gaming as it is to avoid the actuality of meta-gaming.
As with many things, moderation is the key.

Doing this once or twice in a long campaign is fine, and done right it could really be cool.

Doing it all the time would ruin the effect.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So what would happen if I made choices during play based off my background? Let's say it's something as simple as "My character became an adventurer because he wants to visit the island of _____.
That'd be cool for roleplay as your next challenge would be to talk the rest of the party into going with you, if your intent was to continue running with them.

And here's a place where player input and DM intention could handily meet in the middle, whether intentionally or not:

You-as-PC: "Hey guys, we're between missions now and you know, I've always wanted to head on over to Paradox Island and check it out. When I was a kid I heard people talk about a tower there, full of gold!"
Other PCs: "Gold?!" "Sounds cool, when do we leave?" [etc.]
DM: <caught off guard, starts quietly rummaging through modules looking for something involving a tower on an island> "It's a six-day walk to the south coast..."

The italicized bit is something you just made up off the cuff which may well be total BS, just like your PC might make stuff up in order to convince the party to join you. The DM might decide (or already know) that no such tower exists, in which case it'll be on you to explain this to your party once you get there and can't find it; or the DM might find or dream up an adventure that to some extent reflects what your PC heard as a kid.
 


I let my players know the basic gist of what the campaign will be about and help them come up with a background that ties into our campaign in some way shape or form. The part that I find us using less and less is the ideals/flaws. I think next time somebody has to re-roll, we will ignore that and let it emerge naturally.
 

It really depend on how much effort the player takes into incorporating the background into the campaign. My current campaign, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, has 6 players. One of them is from Saltmarsh, so his background (smuggler) has become a major aspect of the campaign so far. One player's second character needed to be introduced, and she took the knight background, as the party had just found the body of a Knight of the Watch (she was looking for him). One player who played a triton in exile needed to be introduced in the second session (Haunted House), so I had him living with the sea elves that sent him near Saltmarsh looking for Oceanus. One player basically has no real background, while two others have backgrounds that are basically impossible for me to incorporate without drastically changing my campaign concept, so likely none of these will really impact the game at all.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
The part that I find us using less and less is the ideals/flaws. I think next time somebody has to re-roll, we will ignore that and let it emerge naturally.
Oh yeah. This should have been a fantastic new mechanic for the game but it's ... just meh. It's not awful, it just doesn't matter. People forget to use it, they forget to use the dice, it just isn't tied into the basic mechanics of the game in any kind of interesting way. I want very badly to replace it for my games with something similar but, you know, cool and useful. I think I'm leaning in the direction of something PtbA flavored. There's a bunch of ideas in The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power that look like they could be very cool if I can figure out how to port them over properly.
 

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