No matter the setting, genre, or how familiar/unfamiliar the group is with each other, having a world each player can understand, react to, and influence is invaluable to fostering a story players will enjoy. Making the world- past and present- truly interactive is one of the elements that draws people into RPGs.
I try to draw people into the story in the first session, that means each player created their character without understanding the world they reside within or understanding their fellow players as well as they could.
Since a backstory dump isn’t fun or interactive, start your first game with the Interactive Backstory Session. This method gets everyone familiar with each other, the world, what they have already done in it, and what they want out of it.
You can start either after character concepts have been established and fill out sheets in stages during the session, or you can start once each player has filled out their character sheet. You choose which one.
First, get 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 folk, etc. Even if you’re playing in an established world, like Pathfinder or Star Trek, get everyone on the same page.
After your brief intro, have the player to your left describe their 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; they only get to introduce a situation. It is up to the player who was telling their backstory to explain 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: Sonya finishes telling her backstory. Bernie gives Sonya one of his tokens and tells about the time a dragon swooped down from the heavens and attacked her family’s livestock, killing half of their herd. Sonya explains how she handled the situation by using her natural charisma to inspire the local farmers to attack the dragon as one. The mob of farmers wounded the dragon, forcing it to flee. Locals often refer to her as “Dragonbane,” whether they meant it as a jest or admiration.
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 the gods do not interact with mortals in the setting.
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 more 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.
Once finished, everyone has a better understanding of their character, the other characters, and how they all view and interact with the world.
Honestly, doing this is always a lot of fun on top of building a good foundation for the game. Listening to the players interact with each other and me, gives me a better understanding of what they want 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 (players: 1 + 1/2 (rounded up) per player, GM: 2 per player)
- GM shares a brief description of the world
- A player shares their backstory
- Once that player finishes, you and other players spend tokens to present scenarios that happened in that character’s 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.
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