Steal My Ideas: Interactive Backstory Session

backstory pic
Picture courtesy of (dialog added by me)

In my time GMing and playing RPGs, I’ve learned that no matter the setting or genres, having a world each player can understand, react to, and influence is invaluable to making a good, enjoyable game. Making the world truly interactive is one of the elements that draw people into RPGs.

The task of drawing people into the world usually starts during the first session. However, that means each player is creating their character without understanding the world or their fellow players as well as they could. Since a backstory dump isn’t fun or interactive, here’s a method to get everyone to get familiar with each other, the world, and what they have already done in it.

You’ll want to start either after character concepts have been established or after each player has filled out their character sheet. You choose which one.

Get the players around the table. Give each player tokens equal to 1+ ½ (rounded up) the number of players. If there were four players, each player would get 3 tokens. Tokens can be pennies, minis, popcorn kernels, whatever.

You (the GM) gets 2 tokens for every player.

Start the session by giving everyone an outline of the world. The setting, the time period, the technology, the races, etc. Even if you’re playing in an established world, like Pathfinder or Star Trek, get everyone on the same page.

After the brief intro, have the player to your left describe his/her character and their backstory to the group. If necessary, put a time limit on how long they can talk.

Once they finish, the floor opens. The GM and each player can spend a token and introduce an event that happened in that character’s life. The player who spent the token cannot explain how the affected character feels or how they reacted. The token allows that player to introduce a situation, then the player who was telling their backstory explains how they would react and the outcome.

When a player or the GM uses a token, they give it to the player they are using it on. This rewards interesting backstories by giving the player more tokens to influence other players and other parts of the world.

Example: Hillary finishes telling her backstory. Bernie gives Hillary one of his tokens and tells about the time a dragon swooped down from the heavens and attacked her family’s livestock, killing nearly half of it. Hillary explains how she handled the situation by using her natural charisma to inspire the local farmers to attack the dragon as one, wounding it, and sending it on its way. From that day forth, people in her village called her Dragon Bane.

The GM and players can vote to veto a situation that doesn’t fit the story or if it is too outside of what the GM and the players want for the game. For example: if a player says that the god of lightning descended to the earth and gave the player his powerful, magical hammer, the GM could veto that because having a god tier magic item is too powerful.

The GM is encouraged to spend at least one token per player, but players have no need to spend tokens if they have nothing to contribute.

After each player has their turn telling their backstory and having tokens used on them, go around one last time to see if anyone wants to add something to someone else’s story now that more about the players and the world has been revealed. If necessary, you can put a limit on how many times a player can spend a token.

After that, everyone has a better understanding of the other characters, their own characters, and how they all view and interact with the world.

Honestly, doing this is was a lot of fun as well. Listening to the players interact with each other and me, I gained a better understanding of what they wanted from the game and how to make it more engaging to them.

Now that you’ve read it in detail, here’s a quick checklist so you can do it for your own game:

  • Give players and yourself the proper amount of tokens.
  • Share a brief description of the world.
  •  Have a player share their backstory.
  •  Once that player finishes, you and other players spend tokens to present elements and scenarios that happened in their past.
  •  Once every player has shared, take some time to let everyone spend more tokens if they want.
  •  Start the game (or start filling out character sheets depending on when you started the sharing.)

That’s it. It’s pretty simple, a lot of fun, and it helps create the cohesion necessary for a good game at the start rather than after a few possibly rocky sessions.

So go out, have fun, and feel free to steal my ideas.

Jesse Galena

Twitter: @RexiconJesse


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