Fleshing Out a Backstory...with Cards

GMs and players share a common problem – getting a group started. No matter the RPG or the genre, turning individual characters into an adventuring party, superhero team, supernatural coven or pack, etc. is hard, and yet it's essential for a good game. Group connections help to raise the stakes when something goes wrong and provides incentive for them to act.

For GMs, the cliché of everyone meeting in a fantasy tavern for D&D/Pathfinder scenarios or being hired by a shady figure for cyberpunk game like Shadowrun or an urban fantasy RPG is just as overdone and worn out. Both sides need story hooks.

One way around this is to drop them all into a difficult scenario, like having the game start with the players in jail. D&D 5th Edition did a version of this with Rage of Demons by having the player characters wake up in a cell in the Underdark after having been kidnapped elsewhere by Drow slavers. That definitely provides motivation and in general a group will work together to survive and escape together but there's always the possible of a difficult player trying to go their own way.

Finding a way to connect the characters with each other makes things much easier and potentially provides story hooks for the GM. Some RPGs, like the Dresden Files game, build in a way to connect PCs, but that's the exception instead of the rule.

Ryan Macklin solved the problem – or at least gave GMs and players a tool to address it – with Backstory Cards. The original set is genre neutral but subsequent expansions address things like space opera, crime noir, “wicked shadows” (think supernatural/urban fantasy), etc.

The original set of Backstory Cards features 47 prompts that players can use to connect their characters to either each other or NPCs in the game. Each card comes with at least one tag – and some have more – that indicates the sort of prompt or connection it makes. Co-op and adversarial prompts connect PCs. Solo cards don't.

“Everyone” cards require every player to answer that prompt instead of just the person who drew it, so while they're all reacting to whatever, each could have had a different relationship to whatever the event or situation was.. “Everyone together” cards mean that all of the players work out a single story, like maybe they were all in band camp together and something happened during a performance.

The arrow diagram card decodes what the symbols on the cards mean based on the number of players so creating connections isn't necessarily has simple interacting with the person on your left or right. Additionally there is a card of player tips and GM tips.

Cards refer to the person who drew the card (you) or another player character (PC) or someone else (individual, usually an NPC) or group. The broadness of the phrasing simplifies the process. For example, “Whenever someone mentions EVENT, you and PC get quiet. What happened that you two don't want to others to know about? Why do you keep it secret?” Or “Which INDIVIDUAL recently betrayed your trust? Have you forgiven them, or are you plotting your revenge?”

This article was contributed by Beth Rimmels (brimmels) as part of ENWorld's User-Generated Content (UGC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
Beth Rimmels



In a Wicked Age is a fantasy RPG by Vincent Baker that uses cards (playing cards plus a list of backstory elements that they correlate to) to set up the whole game - PCs, NPCs, and the situation they find themselves in.

(A write-up of a session, which talks about the scenario-and-character generation process, is here.)

Ralif Redhammer

These are neat! While I think some bonds are better built in play, forging strong ones at the outset will take a lot of pressure off of everyone when it comes to keeping the party together as a cohesive whole.

Agon is another RPG that does a good job at building PC connections into character generation (unfortunately, the actual play was a major let-down for me). I did like how The Dresden Files RPG tied character, setting, an campaign design into one great big planning session.


I've used this system with Magic cards. It works fantastic. You simply have to choose something - the art, the text, anything, from the card and incorporate that into your ties and backstory and whatnot. Really did work well.


Latest threads